According to Merriam-Webster, identity is defined as “who someone is; the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” Is it possible to lose your identity? I believe it is.
I began tumbling and dance class at age 3. By first grade, I had joined the competitive gymnastics team and was at the gym five nights a week. Gymnastics was my life. It was who I was. Even after quitting competitive gymnastics at 14, I continued coaching gymnastics and began cheering - since I suddenly had 20+ hours a week in my schedule that were free. (Side note: Please do not ever call me a cheerleader; I will make it very clear that I was first and foremost a gymnast who just happened to cheer.)
But at the age of 16, in a flash, gymnastics was gone. I was tumbling outside and the grass was wet. I wasn’t doing anything difficult (a round off - back handspring - layout), but the grass was wet with dew that morning. My feet slipped out from underneath me causing me to not have enough height or rotation. I sustained a C6-7 spinal cord injury that left me without the use of my hands and paralyzed from the chest down.
I had to adapt to my injury physically, but in less visible ways, as well. A gaping hole existed. Who was I? I was no longer a gymnast; no longer a coach. I certainly didn’t want my disability to define me. Life continued on after my injury. I was able to keep a positive outlook on life by clinging to my faith - despite the loss of independence and the mortifying need for help with personal care.
Six months after my injury, I accompanied my former teammates to a national cheerleading competition. Just a year prior, we had won best tumbling at that national competition. Now I was being pushed by my mom, or my friends, in a wheelchair. People were staring. And not because I was the best at what I did. I wanted to scream, “But you don’t know who I am!” That’s when I broke down for the first time. I certainly didn’t expect it. Neither did my friends, who had always seen the happy, everything-will-be-okay Jenny.
The identity I had established over 13 years was completely gone. I was no longer a gymnast.
So who was I? I was still a very good student. So for the next eight years I focused on studying. I graduated from high school a year early (only 10 months after my injury), then went on to college and graduated with my Master’s in Counseling Psychology at age 25. I was a student. Until I wasn’t.
At college, I met another girl who used a wheelchair. Up until that point, I was fully convinced that I wasn’t “one of them.” You know, someone with a disability. I thought I was different. Then I met Terri.She was “normal” like me. She was confident and not ashamed of her disability. I didn’t know what to think. But I was beginning to want whatever Terri had.
Terri represented the state of Kentucky and won the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant. She talked me into participating the following year. I won the state pageant and was able to meet 26 incredible women with disabilities, at the national pageant. It was the first time I could talk with other women about the parts of a spinal cord injury I couldn’t discuss with friends: bladder and bowel maintenance, getting dressed, personal care, etc. The best way I can describe it was that I was no longer ashamed of who I was. No longer ashamed of having a disability. I was starting to see that having a disability did not have to define who I was.
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The opinions and experiences presented herein are for informational use only. Individual results may vary depending on your condition. Always consult with your health care professional. This individual has been compensated by Bard Medical for the time and effort in preparing this article for BARD’s further use and distribution. BMD/BMDA/0116/0137