My resilience was revealed in loss, and in order to tell my story completely, I have to include the bad as well as the good. When I was 18 years old, I was shot and paralyzed by a stray bullet randomly shot into the air. Many people who tell my story like to sensationalize this. After all, I was a young girl just starting out at the University of South Carolina, waiting for a cab after a night out with friends. It happened so fast, I didn’t even know what was wrong until I tried to move but couldn’t. It seems so weirdly ordinary and so tragic at the same time – I was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. I understand why people like to focus on it; it makes for an interesting story. But it’s necessary to understand that, while it is a crucial part of my story, it is not my entire story. The real story of who I am is found in the after; it is found in resilience.
I was raised to make the best of bad situations, and I had a pretty good outlook on life. But, then again, I didn’t have much reason not to: I was young, I came from a supportive family, I was attending a wonderful school, and I had my whole life in front of me.
But in the days following my shooting, it felt like my life was over. I truly thought I would never see another good day in my life. My life had changed, and it was not by my choosing. A horrible thing had happened to me, and there were many days filled with tears and agony and rage. At times, it was just too much to process.
But there is a moment when those understandable and very justifiable feelings can turn into self-pity; and if left unexamined, they can spiral into helplessness and despair. I had felt that helplessness and I had experienced that despair, but I didn’t want to stay there. I knew I had a decision to make: I could choose to deny all hope and let life happen to me and around me, or I could choose to pursue hope and really live my life again.
I admit that choosing hope sounds easy when you write it down or when you read it, but it isn’t. It was hard. It is still hard. But it’s getting easier.
For me, part of choosing hope is surrendering the things I can’t control. As a lifelong planner, I naturally want to control things and know exactly where I’m going and how I’m getting there. But you can get stuck in that fight for control and in the fear of the unknown. Once I learned to embrace the unknown and let life take me on the course it had for me, I started to feel a sense of freedom, which allowed me to start tapping into my potential.
I had to learn to be okay with my emotions and my grief. There are going to be bad days, and that’s okay. I am going to be mad and sad and any number of emotions from day to day, and that’s okay. It’s okay to feel what I feel. But I also know that I can’t stay in those emotions.
I learned that I had to be honest with myself, which meant that I had to deal with some personal issues that were getting in the way of my healing: things like my pride or my stubborn self-sufficiency, or my unhealthy way of bottling up my feelings. If I was truly going to get on the path of healing, I had to learn that it was okay to ask for help, and I had to be honest with myself and accept the reality of my situation. That didn’t mean I had to be happy about it all the time, but it did mean that I needed to accept what was so I could be free to step into what could be.
For me, that step included going back to school and investing in the lives of others, whether it was at school, in a service organization, or with a charity. Serving others helped take my focus off my circumstance and allowed me to see things – and people – with a broader perspective. We all go through difficult times, it just looks different on the outside. My struggles may be more visible, but that doesn’t make me different from anyone else. We all feel pain, and that connects us as humans; and when we acknowledge that connection and take the time to invest in each other, we can learn from each other, we can help each other.
I had to choose to pursue hope, then, and I still choose hope, today.
And day by day, little by little, I have found joy again. It really is a series of choices, and it can be found in the little things: learning to drive again, being around someone who makes you laugh, someone who makes you smile. People wait around for some big moment to make them happy or to change their life, but joy is found in all the small moments that add up to make a good day, a good life.
There are things I lost in the shooting, but if I’m honest, there are things I gained. I discovered that I am stronger than I ever thought.
If you had asked me soon after the shooting if I would graduate – and graduate on time – I would have laughed in your face. I would have told you that I could never do that – I’m a year behind in school! I’m paralyzed! I’m in a wheelchair! But I learned that I underestimate myself and my abilities. I’m a lot stronger than I think I am. I’m a lot more tenacious than I think I am. I’m a lot smarter than I think I am. I am resilient. And I am worthy of doing great things, whether I’m in a wheelchair or not.
Yes, the shooting was a defining point in my life, but it doesn’t get to define me. While my circumstance has changed, my perspective doesn’t have to, because all those things I mentioned above are still true: I am still young, I still have a supportive family, I graduated from a school that is still wonderful, and I still have my whole life in front of me – and I get to choose how to live it.
This is Living Hope.