By: Valerie Piro
Prior to sustaining a spinal cord injury (SCI), I would punish my body on a regular basis. As a teenager at a competitive high school, I would deprive my body of sleep if it meant finishing all my homework on time, push my body through track practices if it meant I would set a personal best, and subsist for much of the day on caffeine and protein bars if it meant having more time to overachieve. Meeting deadlines and appearing to have it together meant more than my actual well being.
I finally broke down during my sophomore year, after one too many stressful days in a row. I met with my guidance counselor and, without warning to either of us, I began to sob and blurted out that I hated myself. She saw a highly organized and driven individual with a competitive GPA; I saw someone who needed to try harder.
One day, on my way to an out-of-state track meet I sustained a SCI in a car accident. My priorities suddenly changed. I remember being in the ICU at Dartmouth-Hitchcock hospital and placing my hand on my stomach for the first time post-injury. I could feel the skin of my stomach beneath my hand, but it didn’t register that I was touching my own body. So this is what paralysis is, I thought.
Over the past eleven years, my body and I have been reconnecting. In college, I tried to push myself the way I did in high school. I would stay up late to work on a project and squeeze in three hours of sleep, but then my body would respond in the morning by making me feel ill until I went back to bed. I would work while hungry or thirsty, and then begin to feel lightheaded and dizzy as my blood pressure plummeted. I would overwhelm myself with work and find myself at University Health Services a day later with stomach pains and nausea. It became clear that if I did not take care of myself, I would be incapable of accomplishing anything.
Although still a work-in-progress, my body and I do our best to communicate and compromise. When I feel tired at night, I stop working and go to bed. I do not power through hunger and thirst unless absolutely necessary. A few years ago even, I began to incorporate skincare and makeup into my daily routines. I find calm in blending my eyeshadow and dabbing on concealer. Some nights, I treat myself to a face mask, just because. I sometimes feel as relaxed as I look.Now in graduate school, where the amount of work becomes essentially a full-time job, it can be tempting to work incessantly and think of health as an afterthought. I do not have that luxury. My health comes first. The work will always be there. And sure, sometimes I imagine how much more I could get done if I was able-bodied, but then I picture the high school sophomore who hated herself despite all of her capabilities. Being in a position where I have to listen to my body has made me appreciate all that it can accomplish, which is still quite a lot. Of course there are days when I am frustrated and resentful of my injury, but the past cannot be changed. How I treat myself, however, can. And my body is grateful for it.