This blog was originally dedicated to updating my friends and family of my recovery, and was created only days after my spinal cord injury on December 30, 2013, hence the domain "prayforcarsontueller". Shortly after my injury, I began writing not only about my physical recovery but my emotional and spiritual recovery as well, and have become the main author of this blog. Any further questions regarding my recovery may be asked through I'm immensely grateful for the outreach since my injury, and humbly ask for your continued prayers on behalf of me and my family.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The Grief Train

How much can one heart take?

This is a question that has entered my mind often as I've experienced loss in my life. How much more of this can I endure? How can I possibly keep going in this circumstance? These questions float around my head frequently. 

Grief as a runaway train and I am a passenger on that train. I am only along for the ride, wondering when it will slow down, wondering when it will come to a stop so I can finally step off and direct my life in a productive direction. In the past I believed that I could control the train, that I was the conductor. I tried to reason myself through the grief, attempting to control which days were good and which were bad, trying to predict when the train would nearly fall off the tracks or when it would take a sharp turn. I wanted control.

I realized many months ago, to my dismay, that I was actually a passenger, and that the only thing that was within my power to do was to submit myself to the process. This understanding has allowed me to be patient and kind with myself. It has allowed me to forgive myself for going over the okay. Today I am going over it, recounting it, and repeating it all over again. I'm a passenger and that's okay.

Today is a day where the train feels out of control, twisting and turning, inducing vertigo in every aspect of my life. I asked myself through tears to my family today, "How much can one heart take?" When I was injured, my dear family in mourning wept together on the floor of my living room and slept side by side all night long. They came together in their collective loss, they comforted each other. Today, slumped in my chair, I scooted to the edge, transferred onto that same living room floor, and cried. All my sibling in tears, again grieving our collective loss, came to my side and cried with me. Heaped all over me, I was reminded that within the deepest grief is born the deepest love.

My family is altered by my accident. We are not the same as we used to be, for better or for worse... but one thing I feel is deeper connection, stronger commitment, and unbreakable loyalty to each other's wellbeing. As I felt their warm tears wet the shirt over my chest and arms, I felt guilt that I was the source of this tragedy, this sorrow. But I was again reminded, that this is the price of love. When we love in a way that puts another's happiness above our own, we take a great risk. We no longer face our trials alone, but take upon ourselves the sorrow of the loved one. This is a Christlike place to be. This is what God asks us to do. This is how we will survive whatever comes our way. The love of others has seemed to give me a literal strength, knowing another is also carrying my burden. Does that change the fact that I remain paralyzed? No. Does that fix the immediate problem, obviously not. But it does something immensely important. It provides healing to my broken soul.

Yesterday I sat in the presence of a family whose mother is fighting a brutal cancer. As I have followed the progress of this incredible woman who has been in and out of hospitals for years, the question arose. How much can her heart take? How much can the hearts of her dear husband and children take? As she stood up yesterday to address an audience to support a fundraiser for her, I saw unbelievable strength. A strength that confuses me, a strength I do not know, but certainly envy. She spoke, and as she spoke I watched her husband and felt his undying love for her. I realized at that moment that perhaps one heart really cannot take all that life can offer in it's hellish ways. But many hearts linked in sacrificial love can form a bond that is simply impervious to life's challenges. It astounds me. This is how we survive and (hopefully) come to thrive through our setbacks and losses.

I have had hundreds and thousands take my burden and place it on their own backs. This woman is one of them who told me that she continues to pray for me with her family. That gave me strength. We value independence so much in our society, but I don't believe that is God's way. I believe that interdependence is the quality he wants us to develop through life. That was Christ's mission and life, and that is how I want to be. 

The grief has definitely eased as I have adapted, and I'm confident that one day (I pray soon), I'll step off and move on. It's only been a year and a half after all... but as I continue to bounce around the bumpy ride of this train, may I humbly thank every prayer, every thought, and every act of kindness. I hope that beautiful horizons await us after all is said and done, and that maybe this crazy runaway will have taken us farther in life than some smooth riding, little choo-choo train. 

Monday, May 25, 2015

The Power Of Pain

When we go through difficulties, we often hear some inspiring ideas like these: "What doesn't kill you makes you stronger", "God never gives you something you can't handle","Storms make trees take deeper roots", etc. In tough situations and especially in the case of my SCI, these quotes initially brought hope into my dark world. However, as I continued to struggle without much change in my condition, these ideas became harder and harder to believe. In fact, I began to actually believe the opposite. When someone would say, "Things will get better, you won't always feel this way", I often thought, "You can't promise that, things may very well get worse and worse". Of course, I appreciated the well-intentioned words of these people, but their words brought me no hope. Contrary to what these quotes promised, I felt as though my trials were destroying me. I felt hardened, bitter, and hopeless more than I felt any positive transformation of character. I felt anxiety that I might be ruined, that the Carson I knew would never return.

Because I did not improve emotionally or otherwise for a very long time, I felt little hope for the future, which was exactly what I needed to get me through. During all this time, my pain taught me a lot and this blog is a record of the lessons I was learning. Some of these lessons were about grief and loss, some about human value, and many were about love. Yet, all that time I was learning I still felt like I was slowly being corrupted by that same pain.

As a senior in high school, I went with a leadership class on a trip to Washington D.C.. We visited many of the memorials and also spent a day in the Holocaust Museum, which had a great impact on me. I remember feeling sad and wondered how humans could perform such atrocities. Last week I visited that museum again, this time with six more years of life under my belt, three of which have been lived in deep grief and suffering. My experience at the museum was a very different one. This time as I went to the museum I felt deeper pain, my heart was heavy, and in more than one moment my eyes were filled with tears. I have not suffered to the extent that the victims of the Holocaust did, but I have suffered many times in a way that his driven me to sincerely wish to die. I have become acquainted with grief at a level that my eighteen year old self could not have fathomed.

The most important part of this visit to the Holocaust Museum was what has lasted since. Instead of feeling only sadness, I feel responsibility. I feel responsible to become a person that fights the evils that begin wars and holocausts. That feeling of duty has remained with me ever since that day. As I toured the museum and realized the depth of feeling I was experiencing, I asked myself what the difference was between the two visits. The answer I found was in depth of empathy that was absent before, an empathy that only comes from living through your own hell.

Later during my trip to D.C. I visited the Lincoln Memorial. As I sat at the feet of the giant statue of the man that brought America through it's most fatal war, I wondered how someone becomes like that. I wondered how certain individuals are brought to a place of such potential to influence the world for good, and wondered how I can become that way. I've always thought in extremes and in world-scale ideas. If there is a problem in the world, I often feel a deep responsibility to fix it. I don't wonder who will fix it or how it will be done, I wonder what I will do to solve it. I had these thoughts at the Holocaust Museum. How will I live so that this never happens again? Always trailing these thoughts of passion and responsibility are the thoughts that challenge the power of one person. I tell myself, "You are unrealistic" or "You are one little person who has no grasp on the world, what could you do?" However, regardless of the doubt that follows, the feeling of duty remains.

There was an interesting mix of emotions running through me the majority of the time touring the National Mall and other sights. There was this constant passion to change myself and the world around me, mixed with a grief at what I am still facing in life. The trip was a physically painful one for me. Perpetual fatigue, bladder and bowel issues, ever-burning nerve pain...  I just wanted to enjoy the trip like everyone else, I wanted to enjoy the feeling of wearing shorts. I didn't want to worry about how/if I could get in the building or where the nearest elevator was.

The trip was overall a success, and the flight home in the cramped airplane brought opportunity to think about what I'd learned and felt. I plugged in my headphones and listened to some TED talks. I listened to the mother of the man who started the ALS ice bucket challenge. The mother spoke passionately of her son who is now so paralyzed that he can't speak. And her message? The power of the individual. The influence of the one.

As I heard the voice of that mother echoing through my head, a moving part of a song I was listening to came up and I almost felt chills. Side note: A strange side effect of my SCI is that I don't feel chills when I listen to music, which is actually a great loss to me. I feel my body try, but it ends up being a strange shudder. This was the last straw. I broke into tears as this seemed like the harshest moment to remind me of my reality. With tears streaming down my face, I struggled to relieve the ever present neck and nerve pain through my body. I worked in my cramped airplane space to push my body up with one arm (I had a sprained left wrist from transferring). At this moment I experienced an epiphany and a clarity of thought.

I realized something very significant. The words I heard were, "My suffering fuels my passion". With increased emotion I realized that because I continually suffer, I am continually impassioned about life, love, and the plight of the human race. For perhaps the first time, I saw utility in my pain, both emotional and physical. My suffering never lets me sit in complacency, which means I am filled with deep feelings, for better or for worse. This does not mean that I am grateful for my situation. In fact, I despise it. I constantly long for and weep for an easier life. However, I write best, learn the most, and feel deepest when I am suffering. I have a constant source of fuel for passion; it's pain. Perhaps that will drive my love and embolden me most in my quest to change the world.

This changed my perception of pain from being something totally destructive to something terrible, yes, but possibly useful. I'm still not convinced that what I'm going through will make me stronger, but I do see the power of my pain. Though I don't have a choice regarding this pain, if I were given the choice to either live a pain free life without a depth of passion, or live with greater passion and vision, but with a painful grimace on my face, I would think twice before choosing a pain free life. I have wondered in (ridiculous) hypotheticals, "What if it were up to me to save the world, but had to be in this condition to do it. How could I possibly justify choosing my own comfort in place of alleviating many others of their own agony?

I am reconsidering my approach to the ideas at the beginning of this post. Maybe we are stronger through suffering, but maybe stronger doesn't mean "fixed" or "better". Maybe stronger doesn't even mean we don't feel pain still.  Maybe we are stronger not after our tears, but in our tears and as we weep... and maybe we aren't stronger after the suffering, but during the suffering.

Perhaps all this suffering is really an art. The art of conversion, converting the pain of tragedy into a power source of passion, healing, and deep, deep love.

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

A Miracle In Toronto

Two weeks ago I stepped off an airplane after a week-long trip to Toronto, Canada, where I went to compete in the CanAm Swimming Championships. This was my first international swim meet and I had no idea what to expect from an athletic perspective as well as an emotional one. The meet was held at the new Toronto PanAm Sports Centre, which has recently been built in preparation for the PanAms later this year. This swim meet turned out to be a fantastic experience, but I did't think it would turn out that way. I have a confession to make. I was quite positive that this would be the last swimming event that I ever participated in. I was ready to quit.

Many of you already know from past posts that swimming has been difficult since having an SCI. While it would be a lie to say that I've had no good swimming experiences over the last year, the truth is that most of them have turned me toward the idea that swimming is something I will no longer enjoy... which made me very sad. So, I came to the CanAms sincerely believing that I would be done, and to be honest, I was relieved at the thought. I have other interests (primarily music) that I am heavily involved in and thought I would find most of my emotional fulfillment through that aspect of life. I didn't feel like a "quitter" at the prospect of not swimming any longer, but thought that while life is already so hard for me all by itself, I should be careful to do things that edify my emotionally. Just recently I was the keynote speaker at a music festival, and was asked to spend some of my time on my journey with swimming after an SCI. I told the audience that no matter how long it took, I was going to keep trying to swim until it was something that I liked, that I wasn't going to give up. As I looked back (before the meet) I thought, "Carson, you idiot, you've made a promise you might not be able to keep!" I'm glad it all worked out differently than I had anticipated.

I took off to the airport on a Wednesday with my mom, who was my travel buddy, and prepared for our exciting adventure. We had a quick layover in O'Hare, Chicago that caught us off guard since our flight was delayed about 30 minutes. When we got off the plane they informed us that the shuttles were not wheelchair accessible, which meant that we were about to take a long jog around a HUGE airport, with the help of an escort. Fortunately for me, I got a nice push the whole way while I had a carry-on on my lap. My poor mother had to run the whole way with luggage, but we at least got a good laugh out of it after we barely made our flight... well, at least I got a good laugh. We refer to the experience as the "O'Hare hustle".

Anyway, we had no issues once aboard the Toronto-bound aircraft. We made it to Canada and through customs without any problems and made it to our hotel. We were happy to arrive at the right destination, all in one piece, and with my wheelchair still intact. We rented a car, and took off to the hotel, which was only a nice 7 minutes from the Toronto PanAm Sports Centre. We got into our room we positively crashed, I'm not sure we even had the chance to eat before going to bed. We were exhausted and my neck was destroyed. You know, even before I had a SCI, I never had enough leg room on the plane and my butt always went numb. Now that I can't shift around as easily, I'm  paranoid that I'm getting a numb butt and that I'm going to develop a pressure sore (my worst fear, Google it and you'll find out why). I also don't have the core to support my already overused neck, so it's very painful after the flights. Anyway, I was happy to lay down.

The next day, Thursday, was the day to check in, register, attend a technical meeting for coaches and staff, and explore the amazing venue. Since I didn't have a coach that came with me, my mom and I both planned on attending the meeting and hoped we might gain some insight as to how we could successfully navigate an international swim meet. I think we were both a little bit apprehensive about what was to come the next few days, since neither of us had any experience with this kind of meet. We went to Subway for lunch and there met a few other swimmers and their coaches. We quickly became friends and I realized that I would be dealing with some very kind, helpful people. One coach in particular went out of his way to help me the rest of the time I spent in Toronto. He was truly a God-send and helped us to steer ourselves through this new Paralympic world.

Toronto PanAm Sports Centre
Throughout that first day and the next, I slowly became acquainted with some incredible individuals who generously reached out to me. That next morning when I would swim the 50 m backstroke, I got the first full taste of the crowd I belonged to. No one fit a mold, and no one's disability seemed identical to another's. There were several in wheelchairs (for various reasons), many amputees, many who were born with their disability, and others were blind. As I sat in my tank-top and suit, perhaps for the first time, I wasn't concerned about my atrophied legs, or lack of abs. It was a good feeling. I got into the pool for warm-ups and prepared for prelims. But before I actually get into the how-I-did-swimming part, I have another confession to make. Because swimming has been so hard up until this point, I prepared very little for this meet. I swam only a handful of times before going and was riding off of old swimming abilities that existed before my SCI. So that being the case, I didn't have high expectations for getting faster times and such.

Day one at the pool
I swam relatively well in the prelims for what I usually swim, and went about a second faster. That evening I swam again in finals. I realized (with the help of a coach) that I lose much of my technique when I get into a race, and end up dying hard on the second half. I tried to maintain my stroke better in finals, and swam far more efficiently with more to give in the end, though I swam a second slower. It will take time for me to learn to pace myself better. I watched the other swimmers and felt awe at the incredible adaptability of human-beings, as well as admiration for the evident resilience these individuals demonstrated.

On Saturday, I didn't end up having a race, so my mom and I looked for some places to visit in Toronto. We found ourselves at Scarborough Bluffs for the afternoon. We drove down around some massive cliffs that stood on the edge of a beautiful, blue Lake Ontario. It was blustery, cold, and very muddy, but nevertheless very beautiful. Every so often, in small, serene moments like that one, I realize that what I am experiencing is a result of my SCI. This happened more than once in Toronto. It's a strange bitter-sweet feeling where I wonder what other positive opportunities I might be afforded thanks to a traumatic injury. Regardless of what lay in the future, I was happy to be there enjoying the clear blue skies with my mother.

While we definitely took more flattering pictures than this one,
this on is my favorite. It was windy.
The last day of the competition arrived and I prepared to swim the 50 m breaststroke. Breaststroke kind of scares me because in the past, I have struggled to make it to the other side of the pool. My wee little forearms start locking up, I lose my horizontal position in the water and I begin to go from swimming across the pool to bobbing up and down towards the wall. It kind of feels like a survival mechanism to keep myself from drowning. At one meet I was struck with fear when I realized I had half a pool to swim and thought, "What if I actually need to be rescued because I completely freeze up?"  So, I was a little worried of locking up...

I'm happy to report that I did not bob too badly, and that I made it safely to the opposite end of the pool with a fastest time by a second. My breaststroke time is much slower than my backstroke time, relatively speaking, but I'm trying to see if I can get it up to something more reasonable than what it currently is (which is unacceptable). I sat around for a while while I waited for finals to begin and went over to the table where some of the US Paralympic coaches, staff, and team members were. I was introduced to some new friends and talked with the coach of the US Paralympic team. He was very personable and let me ask him my many, many questions. As I met more and more swimmers and coaches, the more I started becoming interested in being a part of this group, and a part of the US team.
Conversations with USA Paralympic team coach
Finals for breaststroke came and I went in to the warm-up pool. Someone had mentioned having a more efficient pull in breaststroke, so I thought that I would try to engage my lats and the whole scapular-protraction thing to see if I could get it better. It's probably not a wise thing to try something new in finals, but since I didn't feel like I knew what I was doing to begin with, I had nothing to lose. I could always go back to bobbing in a worst-case scenario. So, I tried it and while I still locked up and swam like a jellyfish, I did so five seconds faster. It was a great way to end the meet and I was actually pleased.
The PanAm mascot and myself
The meet came to a close and I started feeling a bit sad that it was time to say goodbye to so many fantastic people. To this point, I haven't written about how throughout this entire experience, I felt some subtle but significant changes within me. Since my injury, I have spent a lot of time and energy trying to convince myself that I am still whole and valuable as a man with a disability. But despite my best efforts to tell myself that I am not a compromised human, and despite all of the previous posts I have written about self-worth, I have seemed incapable of internalizing those feelings, still feeling broken to one degree or another. As time has moved forward since my injury, I've been concerned that I may never feel whole again, and wondered if I would ever cross that bridge into a place of inner peace.

As I sat on the pool deck and looked around at the other athletes, something happened within me. I saw humanity. I saw beauty. I don't know exactly when it occurred, but everything that I have been trying to tell myself about my own worth finally sank in. I felt the value of the individuals at this meet, and felt my own value not only as an athlete, but as a human being. I was amazed at certain moments at the courage and strength I saw in these swimmers. I thought that for many of us, we work through all sorts of other challenges that can seem overwhelming. For example, even working through social stigma alone can be exhausting. Yet, in the face of all other challenges many of these athletes face, they make it to the pool everyday to have a rigorous workout, and then travel internationally to race. I observed with deep respect what these people were accomplishing. I began to feel honored that I belonged to a group that exemplified such admirable characteristics. Characteristics that many work for a lifetime to acquire.

Previous to this event, I have been embarrassed that I belonged to a group of people with"disabilities" and have wanted to distance myself in an effort to feel normal or something. At this meet, I felt proud and am proud to be a part of a group that consistently demonstrates courage in the face of terrible odds, and consistently defies those odds in a literal way. These individuals seek to redefine the perspective that society has on the"disabled".

These positive feelings slowly dissolved the internal stigma that I'd developed within myself and replaced it with some love of self. I developed a different measuring stick for determining value than the one I used previously. I can't express my gratitude for that experience... it was truly a healing one. Our society values perfect beauty, talent, intellect, achievement, etc... but often neglects the value of the quality of the soul and character. Of the many lesson my spinal cord injury has taught me, learning that nothing is as valuable as the development of the heart has been among the most important.

So, I came away from that meet with a renewed perspective on myself and turned a corner that I've been longing to turn. I've been to the pool many times since this meet and I am no longer embarrassed, or as self-conscious. Before, I had a hard time going to the gym and letting everyone watch my obvious struggle as I fall over, drop weights, or constantly lean over to catch my blood pressure as I do a workout. I have a greater vision now, and more meaningful goals help me maintain a healthy perspective, despite all the stares and comments (though usually well-intentioned). As I go about working toward my goals, I now have a greater context within which I can find support and commonality.

On that last night after I had left the pool, I went out into the freezing cold and found it had began to snow. As I approached my car, I heard someone call my name and turned around to see who it was. I could see two cute girls I had met at the meet (both have competed in past Paralympic games) coming toward me through the snow and wind. With smiles on their faces, one of the girls pulled out her gold CanAm medal she had won at the meet and said, "I want you to have this!". Laughing and a bit confused, I refused, telling her that I wasn't about to go home with her medal. She continued to explain that this was a tradition for her, that when she found someone that she believed needed to keep swimming and had something to give, she would give that swimmer her medal to say, "Keep swimming!". I didn't know what to say... I thanked her as genuinely as I could, and put the medal around me neck, grinning. There could have been no ending more touching than that to end an already marvelous weekend.

(If you look closely, you can see the medal around my neck)
My fire has been relit and I'm moving forward to keep getting faster and stronger in the pool. I'm still not sure what to expect for future meets, but I'm going to go for it. If nothing else I look forward to continued contact with such wonderful people. The next meet I hope to get to is coming up in June, and I've got to really whip myself into shape! Had you told me one month ago that this is how I would feel about swimming and myself today, I wouldn't have believed you. It all seems a bit miraculous to me.

Saturday, February 7, 2015

Inspiration In Florida

At this point in my recovery, my firsts are becoming less frequent but two weeks ago I accomplished another. I completed my first long distance trip without a family member. As with mosts firsts, it was a difficult experience, but an overall rewarding one. I traveled down to Fort Myers, Florida to speak at an Affirmation conference, a group for LGBT Mormons. As I have explained before, I save most of what I deals with LGBT issues for my other blog, but since this was a great milestone for my SCI, I wanted to keep it here.

When I was asked late last year if I would be the keynote speaker for this conference, I thought, "I have little credibility, I have no academic specialty, and I am only 24 years old! What do I really have to offer?!" I was told that the theme of the conference and my keynote address would be "Be Inspired, Be Inspiring", and began to formulate ideas for material that would help me cover forty-five minutes of speaking. I ran into some walls and found myself feeling frustrated that I had accepted with so little experience. I have given talks in church, speeches in high school, and had spoken to some youth groups, etc... but I hadn't traveled across the country to give those addresses, and the longest any of those other experiences had lasted was thirty minutes. What I'm saying is, I was a bit concerned.

I began to think about inspiration in general and put out a request for some help on Facebook and basically asked, "What inspires you?" I got a range of descriptions of what inspires people, ranging from mountains, to the universe, to influential individuals. I realized quickly as I talked with others that I needed to narrow down what kind of inspiring I would be talking on. I looked up a few definitions and found one that I liked the most.


verb (used with object)inspired, inspiring.

to fill with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence:
His courage inspired his followers.

So even though people are inspired by many difference things,  I chose to focus on people, since that was what seemed most practical. Be Inspiring. I made a list of influential individuals who have had an impact on the world, or who have accomplished magnificent things. Here's a small list. 

Mother Teresa: A catholic woman who dedicated her life to serving the poor and sick. Won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1979 and lived most of her life in India. Founded "Missionaries of Charity".

Martin Luther King: Won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964, leader of the African-American Civil Rights Movement. Assassinated for his efforts. 

Michael Phelps: Olympic swimmer and most decorated athlete in olympic history. World record holder.

Abraham Lincoln: Led the United States through the Civil War, abolished slavery and was a great moral leader. Assassinated for his efforts during the Civil War.

Helen Keller: A blinddeaf woman who overcame her disabilities and became the first blinddeaf woman to receive a bachelor of arts degree. An author and activist. 

Wilma Rudolf: Contracted polio at age four, and suffered partial paralysis as a result. Recovered, but suffered from a twisted foot and leg for years later as a result. Received frequent treatment and later became a two-time olympic athlete, and was considered the fastest woman in the world during her time.

I got to this point and hit another wall, not knowing how to take my remarks into a practical arena. I obviously couldn't just tell everyone, "Okay, go out and do your best to make the most-inspirational list. Ready... go!" There was a practical application that I was searching for. It was then that I made a realization that altered the trajectory of my comments and vision. I realized that anyone could be giving a talk about inspirational people, but asked, "What do I have to give? I don't have official credentials, but I do have experience. What does Carson know personally?" I continued to consider the ways I have been inspired since having a SCI.

I have been inspired time after time by small and seemingly insignificant gestures of kindness and especially love. I realized that on the days when I really need to be "filled with an animating, quickening, or exalting influence", as the definition says, I don't usually look to the world-level inspirers. The individuals on the list above have proven that people can do and overcome great things, and inspire within me a vision of what I can become, should I demonstrate the same qualities. Though I am grateful for their influence, it is not to them that I look for support and inspiration when it really counts. I go to the inspirers of my everyday life. I look to my parents, siblings, and friends for that kind of day-to-day inspiration.

An experience that I have recounted a few times on this blog gave me insight, and was something that I felt that I could share that was unique to me. Humor me as I describe some of the experience again. From the minute I felt my neck break and realized that I couldn't get myself out of that foam pit, I had a million thoughts and images fly through my head; realizations of what an SCI could mean for my life. For the first thirty seconds I felt some despair, some angst over what I was experiencing, then I felt something that, to this day, I cannot describe adequately, nor can I decide where it came from... but there was a voice in my head that told me that I had love and because of that I was going to be okay. That idea did not only provide momentary comfort to me, but also served as foresight as to where I would derive my hope and happiness from during a hellish time. It would be from people. Every-day people. 

I have often said/thought that I wanted to make an imprint on the world in some constructive way. I want to be a world-changer, for the better. I used to believe that I needed to change every person in the world to change it, but now realize that I change it by changing just one person... by serving just one person. That was the message that I ended up giving to this group. We don't need to be world-level inspirers to do our part. We can do great things in our own circles of influence.

I'm not sure where this quote comes from, but it reads something like, "No single raindrop thinks itself responsible for the flood". It is more a quote about blame, but I think it can be read in the light of responsibility. We sometimes don't think our efforts can contribute greatly if we are not doing incredible things. I believe that each drop is indeed responsible for the flood, whatever the nature of that flood may be. We cannot go through our lives without affecting the life of another.

From my own life, I have many examples of humble supporters that have done great things for me, but one seems to stand out in the context of being an inspirational raindrop. When I was first injured, I experienced an outpouring of support and love which lasted for many many months and even continues today. This got me through hard moments. Hellish moments. There was one individual who told me in the hospital that she would send me an inspirational quote everyday. So, I began receiving texts while I was in the hospital. A message came almost every day, and if I didn't get a quote one day, I always got a makeup quote the next day. I have been amazed that, to the current date, I receive a thoughtful text from this person every day. There was one message that stood out to me in particular, because this young lady explained to me that she experienced some intense learning disabilities. I got the impression that she thought that these were somewhat limiting to her. I thought of the days where I have been angry and upset, and had suddenly received a messages a day that has been not only thoughtful but even relevant. Her learning disability certainly didn't change how effective her kindness was to me. This young lady is a great example to me of what simple acts of love can do. By reaching out to me she's not exhibiting any outstanding gifts or abilities (though I'm sure she has them), but is exhibiting great thoughtfulness. I greatly admire her consistency. She inspires me as a powerful raindrop in my life.

The above ideas on inspiration were the ones that I shared with this group. I am grateful that it went smoothly and that I felt passionate about the topic I was speaking on. I especially revere the demographic I was speaking to in particular for their desire to be authentic in every aspect of their lives. They inspire me to do the same. 

I continue to struggle, and I always pray that the day will come when I feel a bit more comfortable in my "new" skin. I'm not sure what the future holds and I'm not certain that will ever happen... My experience in Florida will be one I can draw from in the future, seeing as it was both very rewarding and very difficult. Boy, did I want to get in the water at the beach! But what I did enjoy was the presence of some incredible people, and felt the love of friends.  And at the end of the day, that's usually what makes me happy...

Friday, January 9, 2015

When Worlds Collide


This blog, "Carson's Road Home", is a blog that is used solely for describing my experiences with paralysis. There is another part of my life that I have decided to write about, and that is the one regarding the intersection of my faith and sexual orientation. Many of you are already aware that I am both Mormon and gay. In order to remain true to the nature of this blog, I will continue to make posts on this blog that are only relevant to SCI.

If you are interested, you can visit my new blog with the link below.

When Worlds Collide


Monday, December 29, 2014

One Year Ago...

I have watched the days crawl closer to the 30th of December and I haven’t known how to feel. This last year has been so overwhelmingly full of every kind of feeling, it’s impossible to sum up everything that has happened in one measly blog post, or journal entry. I’m quite certain that there are no words to represent what I have experienced over the last year.

One year ago today, from this moment, I was in perfect health. I was mobile, I was strong, and everyday tasks weren’t even a thought. I remember going into the gym and seeing a man walking who obviously had a spinal cord injury and thinking how grateful I was for what I had. I thanked God very frequently for my physical strength and blessings. It was a blessing I didn’t believe I could live happily without. I remember lying in bed and realizing that I was perfectly comfortable and wondering what it would be like to have chronic pain as some people I knew had. Little did I know that I was moments away from gaining all the problems I had thanked God I didn’t have, and losing all that I had so often thanked him for.

I can’t believe that it’s been a full year. It feels like only a few months have passed… if the date didn’t say Dec 30, 2014, I would never believe that it has already been this long. At 3:09 PM one year from tomorrow I would not walk again. I wouldn’t ever breathe or play the flute the same way. What I enjoyed so dearly for 23 years would be suddenly taken from me in the blink of an eye.

This is an anniversary, and while it was a truly terrible event for me and my family, it causes me to reflect on everything that has happened as a result. The initial flood of thoughts are all negative and painful, but I also realize that I’ve learned life lessons that are meaningful to me.

(Some of) What I Have Learned From Being Paralyzed
  • Happiness is a complex thing. There are things that make us happy that we don’t realize make us happy. I didn’t know how happy it made me to be in shorts in the summer and walk around in the grass. I didn’t know how happy simple things made me.
  • I have learned that grief is a train. There is nothing, I mean nothing, that can stop the train of grief. You are a passenger, and regardless of your intellect, understanding of grief’s patterns, mental capabilities or anything else, there is little that can alter the course that a grieving individual will take. I have learned that I have to ride the wave and try and wait it out. I can’t problem-solve my self through this one. It takes patience and everyone grieves differently, each individual’s grief train as uncontrollable as the next.
  • True human value is found in character. Nothing else, not prestige, power, good looks, wealth, or even education determine the value a person has. We are defined by the characteristics we posses. Many things can be stripped from a person in the blink of an eye, but no one can take away your goodness, your benevolence, your kindness, your determination to succeed. Conversely, no one can strip you of your arrogance, your hatred, your selfishness, your laziness. Under the façade that we all put up is the core of a human being. It’s worth ensuring that that core is something you like, because one day you might not have whatever is covering for what lies at the center of who you are.
  • People are generous. I have been astounded, simply astounded by the generosity that others have demonstrated to my family and me. Whether it has been through financial donation or sacrifice of time, people have been there to help me through every step of this journey to ensure my success. Financially speaking, I can’t describe the expenses that follow someone with an SCI for the rest of their life. That being said, I have been beyond grateful for the generosity of others that have helped me to get back on my feet. Pun intended. 
  • There are many who suffer. Though their losses may be invisible to the eye, many people around us experience legitimate losses all the time. I have learned that there are few of us, if any, who have a life that goes as planned.
  • Faith is a choice. Over the last year, my faith in God has been tested to its core in a way that has made me nervous. This has given me insight and empathy towards those to leave their faith and why. I get why they leave. I have learned that the nature of faith requires an element of doubt, and that to doubt is okay. To say, “I don’t know” is also okay. 
  • People change the world with their hearts. Although being paralyzed presents to me an unbelievable amount of loss, one thing it does not change is my ability to influence the lives of others. I desperately long to feel the ground under my feet again, but Carson will go on all the same in his plans to change the world around him. Whether that happens on his own two feet or on four wheels doesn’t make a difference. 
  • Ups and downs are to be expected. If I am up I can absolutely count on having a hellish day some time soon. If I am having a hellish day, I can count of coming out of it and feeling like I can live on.
  • Family relationships are complex and require great effort. I have never had the intensity of conflict between my family members and me like I have had this year. I have also never felt greater love for them and from them. I have learned that conflict and communication are essential for resolution. These conflicts end in greater understanding and appreciation, though they are uncomfortable at the time. I have seen that our love and dedication to each other always easily outweighs any differences we might have. Love always wins at my house.
  • Loss usually comes not with a ripple effect, but a tidal wave effect. Family members and friends also suffer great loss with the individual directly affected. When we love others and their happiness is connected to our own, their suffering is also connected to ours. 
  • I cannot will myself through everything. There are some things I simply can’t do. I have felt with nearly everything else I have done in life that I could achieve it if I put my mind to it, but not this one. I cannot will my spinal cord to be healed. I cannot will my legs to move. This is not only a physical defeat, but an emotional one as well. I have had to accept that I cannot will myself through or past the grief I will experience, and that’s okay… 
  • Small acts of kindness make a tremendous difference, even something like a smile. I was at Sports Authority before Christmas doing some shopping and I was having a rough time. I wasn’t really in line, but a woman with a kind, big smile insisted that I get in line in front of her. The feeling of kindness surrounding her was so genuine that it took me off guard. It did something to me inside. I recognized the change of mood that took place within me was thanks to that woman. Other thoughtful notes, gifts, and messages of encouragement have made a horrible day a bearable one.
  • I can’t live without the power of music in my life. There is a power in music that has healed me many times. It lifts me, elevates me and changes me in a way that nothing else can.
  • Social media has an incredible potential for good. I thought about this the other day when I made a simple post about making my bed. I truly wasn’t fishing for support by making the post, but received an unexpected amount of encouragement that made me feel accomplished. I thanked God for the blessing of social media because of the support I’ve received through it. 
  • If you have love, if you have family, if you have friends… you have what matters most. The first moments I realized I broke my neck were scary ones. I felt initial worry about all that I would be unable to do. For some reason, right after that I suddenly thought about all the people in my life that I loved, and believed that I would be okay if I had love. I’ve always believed in the power of love, and though it’s cliché, I have always truly, deeply believed that love saves. In the past, I have thought myself foolish for believing in such a way, but that belief has been confirmed over the last year as I have watched what it can do for a person. There is no greater attribute that will benefit mankind than that of true, selfless love. I don’t just believe that anymore. I know that. I wasn’t a fool for feeling that during those first moments of paralysis. I was right to feel it. 
This list is a miniscule representation of what I have learned and experienced. There are other good things I have learned, and other not-so-pleasant things. If I were to choose one word to describe this year, I would choose “hellish”, but closely following that would come the word “educational”. As I attempt to look back on the year to see what I’ve come through, it’s hard to do because I still feel like I’m in the depths of it. It doesn’t feel like I’ve come anywhere, or achieved anything. Yes, I am better at transfers, but I don’t feel better. I would be a fraud if I tried to end this post with a nice coat of sugar, so I won’t. I’m nervous about the upcoming year, though I hope it yields better, happier things than the last.

I’m ending this post in a way that makes me a bit uncomfortable for several reasons, but here I go. A few weeks ago I realized something. I realized that any significant future recovery probably wouldn’t be a natural course that my body would take. It would take a miracle at this point, either a medical miracle from future advancements and discoveries, or a miracle from God. While I don’t necessarily wait for either of these things to happen, I believe that both are possible. While I was in the hospital, I received a priesthood blessing from an apostle of God, who said that even a full recovery was possible. This has been the cause of much thinking and pondering. While I have learned that I need to accept the here and now of my recovery, I have also thought about miracles and the power of faith. Though my faith has wavered, I choose to maintain it and seek to strengthen it.

The good friend that started this blog chose “prayforcarsontueller” as the domain… I believe that I have been the benefactor of those many prayers, and believe from my own experiences that God hears and answers them. I thank those of you who continue to pray for me and now I ask more. I ask all those who exercise faith in God to continue to pray for me and for a full recovery. On days when I feel I cannot go on, knowing that people are still praying for me has strengthened me. I have hesitated at making this request because it appears to be the height of denial of my injury. Perhaps it is, but this is what I believe will be a strength to me this upcoming year, even as I come to accept the natural timing of everything.

This moment occurred last Christmas. This picture would have more
significance that I knew at the time

So, here’s to another year and probably another very difficult one. I hope to be more resilient to the difficult changes that life may present me, but I do find confidence in one great truth. I know that regardless of what I may experience, if I have love, if I have my friends, and if I have my family, I can make it through alright.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Me and Edgar the Mole

A few weeks ago I had another first. I swam in a USA swim meet for able-bodied swimmers as the only disabled athlete. I thought it would be a small meet with a small audience where I could just race against myself for a faster time to further qualify for more Paralympic events. I had no idea what I was getting myself into, nor do I think there is anything that could have prepared me for what I experienced.

The swim meet took place at the University of Utah swimming pool (which should have been my first clue that this would not be a dinky meet). When I passed the building on my way to the elevators I could see through the windows that there were tons of people both in the audience and in the pool. It was crowded and busy, and there were close to no lanes available to even warm-up in.

In the other meet I went to in California, I was one of many disabled swimmers. Some were in wheelchairs, others had birth defects or lost limbs, but all were different than your average swimmer. Even at this event where I was among other athletes who understood what I was going through, it was hard for me to see myself as a disabled athlete. So you can imagine how much more I felt that way being among fully capable athletes

I should preface this whole story by explaining that the couple of days leading up to this meet were tough. October 30th was my ten month mark and Halloween was the day after. These days were a harsh reminder of what has happened, and as the year mark draws closer each 30th grows more painful. Above anything else, the pervading feeling that I inevitably feel is hopelessness. No matter what I try to do to feel lasting hope, it always seems to elude me. This feeling of hopelessness waxes and wanes of course, but it is almost always present. I recognize that I have improved in some areas, but in terms of real spinal cord recovery, I am simply dissatisfied (that's an understatement).

These experiences and feelings all rolled over into the day of the swim meet. I was feeling discouraged and very, very sad. I got to the meet and slowly made my way over to the least occupied area of the swimming pool. I watched the swimmers warming up, observing the starts, flip turns, and drills that I am so well acquainted with. I looked for a lane that had few enough swimmers for me to warm up, since I knew I would slow down anyone else in the lane with me. My mom was on deck at this point and helped encourage me to get in the water and get moving. I said over and over, "I don't want to be here. This is the last place I want to be."

I took off my shirt and shorts and rolled over to the edge of the pool, goggles on, aware that everyone around me was staring and probably wondering what I thought I was doing at the meet. I let myself down into the cold pool water. After a few moments of muscle spasticity, I began to try and warm up but only after a lap or two, my emotions got the best of me and I had to let out a few sobs under the water before trying to continue.

After warming up sufficiently, I got out of the pool, dried off, and began the wait until my first event, 50 m butterfly. While I was looking over the meet schedule, my coach walked over with her arm around a young girl wearing a swim cap and goggles with very red eyes. She was introduced to me, and it was explained that it was her very first meet and she was very nervous about it. I explained to her that it was my first meet too, and that I had been crying just like her only a second ago ( My coach looked up and asked, "You were!?") I told her that the first one was the worst, and that it would be easier the next time. I said, "I bet you every other kid in the pool is nervous too." It was good to know I wasn't the only one worried about swimming.

When I was signing up for this swim meet, I thought that a 50 m butterfly would be a good challenge for me. I hadn't actually finished a full 50 m butterfly before without stopping, but thought that it would work out... it didn't turn out the way I had hoped. The 50 m butterfly is only swam amongst the younger swimmers so I had to swim against the 10 year olds. The time arrived and I went over to lane 8, got in the water and took off at the start buzzer. I swam the first 25 m relatively well, but started dying near the end at the wall. I turned around, got slightly caught on my legs in the shallow water and tried to take off again to get some momentum. In normal butterfly I can breathe every stroke if I get tired, but now that I can't keep the rest of my body up, if I lift my head to breathe the rest of me sinks. That being the case, I really have to breathe every other stroke if I want to get anywhere in the water, but at this point I was depleted of oxygen and was forced to take a breath every stroke. It was a long, grueling remaining 25 m to the end, consisting of me trying to get my arms out of the water, sometimes very unsuccessfully. I had to modify my stroke to breathe, just so I could finish the race.

As I finished, the crowd was cheering and screaming and I was absolutely humiliated... I have never been so embarrassed. I work hard to not only be and feel capable and in control, but to appear capable and in control. Swimming makes me feel more exposed than normal, but swimming that event was another thing entirely. I felt like I left the last bit of dignity I was trying to hold on to in the pool. I made my way back to the family and kept my head down to avoid making eye contact with anyone. I had about forty-five minutes between the next two event, and I seriously asked myself if I could or even should finish this meet. It was one of the first times in my life that I felt defeated by something.There was something about that race that I felt destroyed by... I felt like I had been beaten emotionally by that event (which I was actually disqualified in because I had to modify the stroke... to breathe) and wondered if I could possibly do that two more times. I decided that I would stay and finish. I'm happy to say that while the other events were hard still, they were at least better than the first.

I enjoyed watching the other swimmers compete at first, but realized that it slowly made me feel very sad and realized where much of my emotional turmoil was coming from. Not only was I having a hard time looking so disabled in front of tons of people, I was simply longing to feel the glide and the speed through the water again. Here I had to watch people do so well, the very thing I was missing so much. I watched the finals to the mens 100 butterfly and while fly was not my most competitive stroke, I would have competed in the final heat and been in the top three. The contrast of what I was experiencing was nearly overwhelming to me. I was fighting tears most of the meet because of the deep sorrow for what has happened. It still seems unbelievable to me at times.

Leaving the meet
After finishing my events, I sincerely thanked my coach who was an indispensable support to me through the whole deal and I felt for home. As I left I thought, "I have to take a picture of me here. This is the hardest thing I have ever done", so Paul snapped a quick one of me in front of the pool.

In retrospect I asked why the whole event was so difficult for me, and why I felt defeated when in reality, I had improved on all of my times. It was physically very hard to finish that first race of course, but it was by far more difficult mentally. I kept thinking of dignity and feeling like I had lost it. A lot has happened since my injury, and at this point I've been naked in front of most of my friends, been catheterized by nurses (also in front of my family and friends), I've pooped my pants, peed my pants and thrown up on other people. That's a lot to feel embarrassed about, but for some reason none of it compared to what I felt at that meet. I felt like Edgar from Once Upon a Forest when he is caught by the humans. I'm assuming there will be few who know what I'm talking about so I'll briefly relate the story to you. 

The context of the story is really unimportant, but Edgar is a little mole that is trying to stay alive with his friends and avoid human contact. At one point as he is running away from the humans, he trips and his glasses are knocked off and then a branch catches his coat and rips it off. He runs around naked, blind, and bumping into everything around him as he tries desperately to make an escape. I remember watching as a little kid and thinking that he looked so exposed and vulnerable.

Edgar with his clothes and glasses on
It's funny that twenty years later, that is the story that comes to mind as I try to find a way to describe how I felt at a swim meet! Exposed and vulnerable... and embarrassed. The fact that I swam before definitely makes this all trickier since I can easily compare everything I'm experiencing.

So, I took a small break from swimming to recalibrate and I believe it's time to get back on the horse. It was all definitely a learning experience, and I while I'm still not convinced that swimming at this meet was a good thing for me to do at this stage, it did provide me with an experience to draw from in the future, if nothing else. I will also know to make sure that any other "normal" meets I go to in the future are at least much smaller!

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Returning To The Stage

Only days after my accident I found myself laying in my bed in the ICU with my dad. I only have memory of a few things that happened that day, but I clearly remember two doctors coming in through the door of my room and sitting down at the foot of my bed. They came to look at how I was doing and to look at how my injury was presenting itself. As they looked me over, they stopped and asked me what my goals were. I told them that I wanted to play the flute and piano again. They looked at each other, nodded and one of them said, "I think that's going to be a real possibility." Something about their visit seemed especially angelic to us, as though two messengers had just come in to give us news. As my father and I look back on that day, we agree that there was something extraordinary about their visit. My mom was not present for that moment, but upon hearing my dad recount the experience, she said it was the first true ray of hope she witnessed in him.

Not long after my injury, I was given a plastic flute from my flute playing colleagues, and began to attempt playing again. Hot cross buns was a stretch at first! While I was in the hospital, I picked up my silver flute to try and play, but was unable to even hold it up to my face. I was a discouraged, but I stuck with my new plastic flute. Over these last many months I have worked on playing and started with simple tone production, and then moved on to playing music that had slow moving notes. Now I find myself being able to play music that is almost satisfying for me to hear. Every so often I get a glimpse of the feelings I had before as I played the flute.

The day I received my plastic flute
On October 10, I returned to the stage for the first time. Mercedes Smith and I performed the well-known Flower Duet. Mercedes is the principal flutist of the Utah Symphony and was my teacher prior to my accident. Every year the Utah Flute Association has a guest artist come and perform at a recital and teach a masterclass the next morning. Mercedes requested of the UFA that there be a place where donations could be made to help with the expenses of my Paralympic swimming competitions. The UFA was kind enough to allow this and allow me to play the duet at the recital. Over $1,000 were raised to help fund my journey towards the Paralympics! I don't know quite how to feel at such gestures of generosity from both the donors, as well as Mercedes and the Utah Flute Association. It's a humbling experience. The flute community has been incredibly generous to me and has provided me with all the opportunities to succeed since the beginning. So thank you. 

There are few events since my injury that have been so impacting and positive for me. I felt more capable than normal, and I felt so loved by those in attendance. There are few things in this life that mean more to me than music does, so it was fulfilling to share it once again. I'm grateful that I can play. In many ways I am unhappy with how my spinal cord has healed over the last nine months, but I am beyond grateful for my hands. That is one place where I am pleased with the progress that has returned, and I would be ungrateful and a fool if I didn't recognize that progress. 

While I was able to play the Flower Duet at this recital, I still have a lot to work on! That piece was the perfect length and difficulty for me. I was worried toward the end that I wasn't going to make it because my fingers were slipping off of the keys, but it all worked out and I was pleased with the performance. 

Here is a link to a video of the duet. My younger brother Dallas is holding my shoulders up because I fall forward without some support. I am working on getting a chair and some kind of strap that will allow me to play upright without assistance. That will allow me to bring the flute to me, rather than having to lean so far forward to play. I'm thankful to have music in my life, it does something to me that nothing else can. I believe I was inspired as a little 10 year old to choose the instrument that has brought me so much enjoyment throughout my life. I am grateful to be able to continue to both play and teach (I still have room for more students!) and I look forward to more of these opportunities in the future.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

From California To Canada

Yucaipa, California is home to the 2004 Olympic Trials swimming pool where Michael Phelps began his Olympic career. It also happens to be the pool I swam in last week at my first IPC (International Paralympic Committee) sanctioned swim meet.

Before my SCI, I enjoyed swimming competitively both in high school and in USA swimming clubs. Many of you know that I have used swimming over the last many months as a part of recovery. Initially, swimming was a way to strengthen my upper body and core, but over the last few months it has slowly changed from being just another form of therapy to being somewhat of a competitive outlet.

During the summer I had my first meeting with a swim coach at the University of Utah who said she was willing to assist me by way of private instruction in my efforts to swim. When she first saw me swim, I was swimming with hand paddles and a float belt on in the pool at physical therapy. Shortly after that, I began swimming without any flotation assistance and worked at swimming one length of the pool at a time, swimming more backstroke than anything else. At first, I could barely stay afloat and stayed well hydrated from all the pool water that went up my nose as I swam! As time progressed, I began to manipulate my body slightly better and was able to swim a full 50 m without any assistance. Just me, a speedo, and goggles.

In many Paralympic sports, athletes are separated into groups or classifications based off of their disability to ensure that competition is fair among the athletes, and this happens to be the case for swimming. Getting classified in your sport is the first step before you can even begin competing. In swimming, classification is done at an IPC swim meet the day prior to the competition. As I began to be more and more comfortable in the water, my therapists, coaches and I began looking for the next opportunity to be classified. When I saw that the next meet was in Yucaipa, California in September, I admit that I wondered if I was up to the challenge! This would mean a lot of firsts for me; it would be my first time competing, but even more daunting was the idea of flying an airplane for the first time. This would be uncharted territory for me which I would normally invite, but being in a wheelchair tends to make me feel slightly more vulnerable than I normally would be. Go figure...

After some discussion between my parents, support team and I, I decided that I would go for it! While deciding this, we found out that swimmers had to be one year post-injury in order to classify and I had been injured only slightly more than eight months at the time. A call was made to the director of Paralympic swimming who then acquired medical clearance from my spinal cord doctor and I was good to go. My dad was out of town the weekend of the meet, so it would be a mother-son weekend in California, which I was very happy about. We made plans, bought the tickets a few weeks out, and I even bought a travel shower chair. Early in my injury, I knew that I wanted to do some Paralympic swimming competition, but did not foresee it coming so quickly!

Between my swimming with my coach and swimming on my own, I was swimming a few times a week. I thought that maybe I should swim a bit more often since I was going to a meet where others would watch me swim. At this point I had been in open water about ten times. This was strong motivation since I was worried about simply finishing my events more than actually competing in them. I'm apparently quite concerned about how I look when I swim. My coach suggested that I swim 3 events: 50 m free, 100 m back, and 50 free. A few nights before she suggested this, I had a dream that I was swimming my modified breaststroke in a lane next to normal breaststrokers and that I was keeping up quite well (I was so impressed with myself in the dream). I interpreted this as a sign that I was to swim breaststroke, so I added that as the fourth event. As I mentioned earlier, I was concerned about my ability to actually finish my races, and as I worked at this I realized that breaststroke would be the most difficult to finish. I would start off swimming somewhat normally, and basically end up treading water with my hands in a panicked effort to get to the opposite wall. I sometimes joke that we paralyzed individuals only swim fast because we slowly drown throughout the race, and the one most motivated by the will to live ends up being the winner.

We made our preparations to leave and took off early Friday morning to make it to the SLC airport. My mom said the first thing that came to her mind were the words of Kevin McCallister in Home Alone. It's the scene where he says, "This is it. Don't get scared now", as he cocks his gun at the top of the staircase. You can bet I was not the only one nervous about traveling and making this trek a success! We took off while it was still dark, and arrived at the airport with plenty of time to make it through. We didn't know quite what to expect with security, but were pleasantly surprised that being in a wheelchair can have a few perks, including cutting huge lines. Silver linings, people, silver linings.

Needless to say, we arrived with time to spare. The stewardess at check-in was very kind and allowed me to be bumped up to comfort economy, which gave me much more leg room. This made flying so much easier! I had a great time drinking my OJ and eating Biscoff cookies while enjoying conversation with my mom. We disembarked the plane, took a shuttle ride and got our rental vehicle. After a thirty minute drive or so, we checked into our hotel (after a stop at Trader Joe's), I changed into my swimwear, and we headed to the pool. My classification appointed started at 3:15 so we arrived around 3:00 to check in and get warmed up in the water.

Classification is a process of determining the level of disability of an athlete. The athlete is tested muscularly on every level, each muscle receiving a ranking of one to five.. Five being the strongest and one being the weakest. They took my back into a room and asked if I had any movement below my injury, to which I replied "no". They continued to test my biceps, triceps, shoulders, pecs, wrists, fingers, etc. I was a five on all of these except for my finger strength in my right hand which was a four. I also received a zero in finger adduction on both hands. Those are the muscles used to bring my fingers together. After these tests, they added up my score and we headed back to the pool where they asked me to demonstrate my ability to swim each of the strokes. There were two present during this process, one of which was the "Director of Payalympics High Performance Swimming" and the other being the classifier as well as a physical therapist. As I was swimming they were vocal about how symmetrical my injury is, meaning I have equal strength on both sides of my body. I was told that this is rare, but very helpful.

In swimming there are ten classifications, S1 is the most disabled and S10 is the least disabled. These disabilities can vary greatly, but many of those I saw competing were amputees, or had birth defects that resulted in missing limbs. I was classified at S4. With every classification the qualifying times change. In looking at qualification times previous to my classification, I had seen a big jump in time between S3 and S4, so I was hoping I would be S3! I tried to convince them that I should be in S3 but they wouldn't have it. They said I was "a classic S4", so S4 it is.

Saturday morning I woke up bright and early and made it over to the pool to begin warming up. My first swim would be a 50 m freestyle, followed by a 100 m backstroke. I usually have a good amount of muscle spasticity when I initially get into the water. Perhaps because of all the sensory input from the water, my muscles become rigid throughout my legs and stomach until I get used to it. Before my injury, getting into the water was by far the worst part of the sport because it was usually very cold for the competition. I no longer have that problem since I don't have sensation where the cold would be most shocking, if you know what I mean. This includes my underarms. I sometimes forget that this is the case and I am pleasantly surprised when I get in the water, since I am so used to bracing myself for the plunge.
During morning warm-ups
I chose this one because I thought I looked pretty normal...
 I swam my 50 m freestyle but instead of swimming front crawl, I swam backstroke. In the freestyle events it is legal to swim any stroke... the crawl is most common by far because it is the fastest stroke but since that is currently not my case, I chose to swim back. I swam the 100 m back shortly after. I finished the races and admittedly felt pretty upset. I got out of the water and just felt unhappy about the everything. I didn't feel like I swam well, and I was just down about the whole situation (being at a Paralympic meet alone meant I was disabled, which I'm still really working through emotionally). Swimming is hard for me now. Before, I would get in the water, push off the wall, and glide in streamline and enjoy the water before surfacing for breath. Now, I fight the drag and weight of my paralyzed torso and legs (which happens to be a lot of body). It's hard for me to ever feel like I've had a good swim because I compare how swimming felt to how swimming now feels, and there's a big difference. I don't ever feel fast, and I'm rarely satisfied with a swim. I was thinking all of these things, and went over to talk to the directors who greeted me with many congratulations. They seemed so pleased and I was so surprised! They informed me that I had made the Can/Am meet cut in the 50 m backstroke for the upcoming meet in Canada, which is the next step up the Paralympic swimming ladder. I was shocked (but pleased), and I realized that I needed to reset my standard of performance to an appropriate level. This will be hard for me, but I hope that one day I will feel pleased again at my own performance in the water

My mom and I with my aunt and cousin at the mall between events
I came back later that evening for the second half of the meet where I got some great tips in breaststroke and starts and then swam the other two events. I am grateful to say that I successfully finished my events, even breaststroke... which was not pretty. I wondered myself if I was going to make it, but it all turned out in the end. And that was it, I finished my first meet! It was a major learning experience, but it was an overall success. I have A LOT of work to do before the next meet in Canada, and I hope I'm up to the challenge. Thank you to all who have been such a powerful support to me over the last many months. I couldn't do it without you!