When you fall out of a tree and break your back at 34, at an age where you have had the opportunity to have evolved spiritually, academically, professionally, and romantically as a woman, your chances of succeeding in overcoming paralysis and disability become that much more stacked in your favor. (SCI primarily affects young adults with over 80% reported to be male.)
You have a man who loves you for the woman you have become and decides to stay and travel this new journey by your side, with no idea what it will bring or how it will look, feel, or limit him. You have developed a strong network of family and friends who have earned a place in your life and who respect and value you. You have a spiritual backbone and worldliness from exploring, soul searching, and viewing the world through both experience and time. You have an education and the discipline and determination it took you to achieve one. With all these things in place, a broken back and a life lived from a seated perspective is not only surmountable, but can indeed be divine.
When you have all these tools in your proverbial “tool box” to cope, lean on, and muster the strength from, plus the confidence and a sense of self-worth that, while shaken, cannot be crushed in the budding stage of youthful adolescence, you can step into this new journey with both a sense of purpose and determination. You don’t need to find out who you are, who you are going to be, AFTER losing half of your physical ability. You already have a strong sense of identity to overcome and surpass.
Now, however, it takes you two or more hours just to get ready for your day; to get dressed, go to the bathroom, and every activity requires more planning, time, and thought. While getting your chair into a car, planning where you can actually go that is accessible and has a bathroom you can use, your energy is drained far earlier and the strength you need to manage your day now has its limits on what you can accomplish with only your arms and hands.
So you decide with all the wisdom and sureness that is the sum product of who you have become, that you will simply not waste a day, a year, or a lifetime doing any work that is not meaningful and worthy of this precious time that is now your life. You do not want to spend the little time you now have being able to be productive on an activity or vocation that does not value your life and answer the clear call of your soul.
This is the story of Lyena Strelkoff, who had the belief in herself, along with the creativity, talent, and support, to stand at this crossroad and make such a bold and decisive statement. Lyena Strelkoff said, “Life felt more precious after the fall, and time is more valuable. I had neither the desire nor the time to waste 40 hours a week on work that did not serve my purpose.”
With a master’s degree in human development, years as a teacher, nonprofit service, and the mastery of theatre performance, (she co-founded a successful theatre company with her now-husband Dean), she reached deep within and listened carefully to her inner voice. What she heard was the catalyst for an autobiographical and life-transforming play, “Caterpillar Soup” that she wrote, and starred in that became a national touring success…”greater than she could have ever imagined.” Soon this led to speaking on the college circuit. But while that was and continues to be a valuable experience, she knew that what she was creating, the transformative change she was starting to see take place, could be further served one-on-one.
She wanted to work with clients, to help others step into their own transformation–the “caterpillar to butterfly“ coaching that would offer a new world of possibilities for change-makers, entrepreneurs, and all those seeking to share their own story…to create a oneness with others..to make the world feel more connected and shared, to bring about lasting, positive change.
You see, when others speak and it is compelling, profound, and it touches you and helps you to recognize and view the world in a different way, we all win, the speaker and the audience. She wanted to share the ability to craft such signature talks with others, to help them develop personally, professionally, and spiritually, and to empower them to change the world with their unique wisdom and gifts.
While she did use her accident and disability as a catalyst in her new journey…what she didn’t do is make it her full identity. “My injury and experience with disability gave me an incredible story…and I choose to share that story as a service to others. I do not, however, want to reduce my life to my accident and my disability. It is a part of my life, and part of my identity… and there is nothing wrong with that, but let’s go further, let’s not stop there.”
“It is very easy to look at someone who has a disability and feel, “I could never live like that.” I was a dancer and outdoors woman my whole life, so I couldn’t imagine it myself. Then it happened and I was like, “now what am I gonna do?,” and I made a choice. When we are looking at someone who is more challenged than us, we are often projecting onto them…what we feel we could not do. That they must have some deep miracle inside them…that they can overcome what we could not, i.e. “I could never do/live like that” and “we are underestimating ourselves.”
Her personal story just now happened to include a “fall out of a tree,” but she wants to show others that we are all “carriers of inspiration.” We may just not be able to recognize it as easily as we seem to in one who rolls into a room. She helps others find their own stories and shows them that their life experience, their resiliency, and all the challenges that they have come from makes a story worthy of recognition and “inspiration”.
When I asked Lyena how she feels when she is called “inspirational,” she answered with wisdom and a centeredness that we can all learn from: “it is none of my business, really, how people respond to me. I am simply representing myself in my wholeness, and I can’t control what they see. Often we with disabilities try very hard to prove we can still do anything, live life fully, but that is only part of my truth…Sometimes I need help and sometimes I don’t want to get out of bed….When we don’t show the whole picture (so others won’t feel pity) we can’t then get mad that people view us as inspirational.….we are not representing our true reality.”
“If someone finds my life inspirational, good for them. We all need to be inspired. But calling me “an inspiration” while not seeing that in yourself, your own life experience, all that you have done and overcome, is neither seeing me nor yourself correctly. “
So from a resounding seven-year success touring on stages across the country, where people came back three and four times and she received stacks of mail on how the show had such a impact, to becoming a popular speaker and speaking coach, a wife, and now a mother, what is Lyena’s “purpose” now in her own heart and mind?
“I want to be on big stages, in front of thousands, sharing the stories that truly change people’s lives. I want to help us all live bigger and shine brighter. If the chair makes people pay attention, fine. I can’t get rid of it anyway.” But it is not THE reason she is on stage.
One letter she received was three pages long, and the audience member told Lyena “I get the feeling you were always this wise and we just couldn’t see you. You are going through this disability experience not for yourself, but because it allows us to receive what you have.”
It is not about who you can be as a ”person with a disability,” but who you can be as a person. It is a choice as to what you choose to focus on. She chooses to make the focus about who she is…not her disability. The disability…the chair…just makes her stand out more…and gives her the attention of the listener. What she says and does with that attention is all far more about what is inside than what happened to her or her disability.
So, is she an inspiration as a mother, wife, playwright, an expert in transformational speaking, a mentor, a storyteller, and a coach? Absolutely. She is an inspiration because of all these things. She is not the “disabled woman” or the “paralyzed woman” tragedy story that so often captures the attention of the media or the inspiration of the public which is derived from pity that is so often the case. She doesn’t lead with the chair, the accident, or the disability. She shows up and tells her story – her many stories – and if you are changed, if you have stepped a little closer to the greatness inside you, then she has served her purpose.
She is a powerful, beautiful, gift to the Universe that just so happens to now present in a chair.
I asked, “Can you revel right where you are now in your life and be content?” “I am here to be of service,” she said. “My job is to make myself available. If I hide and I settle …then I am not doing that.” She believes what she has to say and to offer to her clients and her audience “has a place in the world, and that matters.”
We discussed Push Living’s project, PhotoAbility.net, a stock image library featuring imagery of people with disabilities, with a goal of inclusion in mainstream media and advertising. Her thoughts on being a part of this effort were telling and solidified how much work we had yet to do, “As an actress now using a wheelchair, I only get called out on auditions for a disabled character. There is still so much resistance. So many roles could be played by a chair user, even though disability is not part of the story line. We are just not ready culturally, or as a society…It is a slow progression… They seem afraid that if they use a model or actor in a wheelchair, it will be all about the wheelchair. They are afraid because when they see a chair, that is all that they can see. We are moving in the right direction…It’s just slow.”
“The orientation of PhotoAbility is right on…to show them how it is done in images. That is where we are in the development; they are not capable of coming up with it on their own for the most part. We need to show them.”
As women on wheels who are both entrepreneurs, Lyena and I ended our talk discussing “wealth consciousness”, and she agreed that the “reality is, individuals with disabilities are not earning at their potential.“ Keep posted, as soon we will be co-authoring a feature on this very important topic.
Just getting to know that wonderful, remarkable women like Lyena who are living IN inspiration rather than through it IS an inspiration to me…as a woman with a disability myself. In this world of pity, division, bitterness, and anger…it feels good to be in the presence of her spiritual and peaceful positivity.
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