No series on spinal cord injury would be complete without an article on depression. But there are many articles on depression, pick one, any one, and you can learn the signs and symptoms of depression. But I was more interested in researching the effects of spinal cord injury on the family members affected by it……spouses, children, extended family, friends…….all touched by this life-changing, horrific split second event. What occurs to the family dynamics when the matriarch of the family is suddenly stricken with a disability?
I remember the occurrences on the day my husband told me my back was broken, my spinal cord completely severed, and I would be permanently in a wheelchair. Being a nurse, I knew I was a paraplegic prior to him telling me. Being in a drug-induced coma, I couldn’t understand why I was unable to stop the nurse from calling my name and sticking me with needle-like pricks. Finally emerging out of the coma, as a good RN, I started my head to toe assessment skills in the ICU, alone, in the middle of the night. I could move my head, my arms worked, my fingers stirred, I could sense my legs when I physically palpated them but I was unable to move my toes ….nope, nothing. OK, so I may be a paraplegic. My mind-set then was, “There are worse things in life than not being able to walk.” It was at that exact moment I had to choose my reaction to my disability. I could see the hurt and the anger on my husband’s face. All of our future plans were now dissolving at that exact moment. I was a nurse with many years of experience, we had just purchased a new home with the combined income of two of us working individuals, and now I was hospitalized with a devastating injury. An injury that occurred by us being in the wrong place at the wrong time. We were T-boned by a 17 year old driver who ran a stop sign.
Signs of depression (2016):
- Changes in sleep (too much or too little)
- Feeling down or hopeless
- Loss of interest or pleasure in activities
- Changes in appetite
- Diminished energy or activity
- Difficulty concentrating or making decisions
- Feelings of worthlessness or self-blame
- Thoughts of death or suicide
These are your basic symptoms of depression. Yes, I suppose I went through some depression but I think I personally experienced more the signs of grief following a loss (2016):
- Sleep difficulties
- Poor appetite or overeating
- Shakiness or trembling
- Migraines or headaches
- Dry mouth
- Shortness of breath
Yes, I experienced most of these but I believe my primary symptom was ANGER……and I cried….ALOT. I remember being in rehab and all of a sudden the tears started, I wouldn’t know why, they JUST did. And every time I started to weep, my physical therapist asked me if I needed to visit Eileen, the rehab psychologist. “No, I don’t need to see Eileen” would be my reply. The equation was blubbering resulting in visible water droplets of tears = Eileen. “Eileen” was beginning to feel like a punishment to my emotional state. I wasn’t a person who needed to discuss her emotions or feelings with a total stranger. I wasn’t. It may be the best solution for many but Eileen wasn’t working for me. Rehab was difficult, yes it was a necessary evil, but I was lonely, my life had turned upside down, I was in some physical pain, and I wanted to roar……..”WHAT-THE-HECK-JUST-HAPPENED!!!!!!” and I couldn’t. I had to squelch my frustration and attend rehab appointments as scheduled, like a good little girl. I felt as if I was floating through the emotional state of rehab alone. I wasn’t alone but this was MY injury. No one else was experiencing the emotions I was going through or so I thought.
So this article is not written to discuss depression nor grief but the effects on our family members following a final diagnosis such as a spinal cord injury, you will never walk again, you will never experience life as you once did, and your total life will be consumed by this new normal. I asked my husband, “What was your number one emotion following my diagnosis?” He responded with the comment, “There was no one word to describe my feelings. I felt overwhelmed with DESPAIR.” Despair is defined as the complete loss or absence of hope. COMPLETE loss or ABSENCE of hope.
Asking several close friends the same question….”what is the one word to describe your emotions following my diagnosis?” Lots of answers…..”What The F***”, fear, disbelief, panic, frustration describes a few responses. One said she didn’t want to believe it. She thought they (docs) were wrong, she thought she saw my leg move and chances are it did but not voluntarily. One more….I thought this was good, “There were lots of them (emotions), from sadness and sympathy, to nervousness and hope…from the time I heard about the accident to the diagnosis – but the strongest emotion I felt for you, after I knew you would survive was grateful and happy because I knew you were in the perfect house, in the perfect neighborhood, surrounded by awesome people, who would help you and you’d fight!!!!!”
So how do friends move through the many faces of emotions following a devastating diagnosis as spinal cord injury? This is a difficult question. Friends want to help but they may feel they are only in the way of recovery. I remember a friend stopping by my rehab room. She was blubbering and an emotional mess. I was lying in the bed consoling her about MY spinal cord injury, definitely a turn of emotions. But sometimes I believe our strength comes from within with the aid of strong family and friends. And friends and family feed upon our own strength in the light of diversity and we move through one day at a time. My husband prided himself as being the gatekeeper to my ICU room. He only allowed positive energy to enter. And it was that positive energy that I prospered from. I honestly believe our friends and family members move through the same set of emotions we do as the patient. Who or what is available to aid friends and family members to move through the stages of grief?
After I came home, a friend created a neighborhood sign-up calendar for “sitting” time with me. Each had a 2 hour slot and this was twice a day. This allowed my husband time to work for 4 hours at his job. I felt like a hindrance. But it was explained to me by a dear friend, “It was their honor to spend time with me.” They did it out of their OWN need also. Our friends felt as if they were a service to us and it made them feel good. So it turned out to be a win/win situation for all of us. Some rehab was thrown in also by good meaning friends. Let’s bake cookies; I had to stir the batter to assist in rebuilding muscle strength. Let’s perform some exercise; many pulled this one. I knew it was for the best. Let’s play cards. Let me teach you to crochet. Let me teach you to sew. They all meant well and it was an avenue to distract my thoughts from the grief of a spinal cord injury. I knew I was fortunate and I still am. I have a very active support group of family and neighbors. On Facebook, I belong to a group of other women in wheelchairs, all with various levels of spinal cord injuries. They have all become my ROCK when I need them.
If any signs of depression occur, find a licensed physician to assist through symptoms.
Almost seven years later surviving a diagnosis of spinal cord injury……TOGETHER.
This article has just skimmed the surface of discussion. Part 2 to follow, “How do family members cope with the devastation of a permanent, life-changing diagnosis?” Stay tuned.
For questions, you can “Ask Patty”
Depression and Spinal Cord Injury. Obtained March 14, 2016 from http://www.msktc.org/sci/factsheets/depression.
The Physical and Emotional Effects of Grief. Obtained on March 14, 2016 from http://www.funeralplan.com/griefsupport/griefsteps.html.
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