The 11 Secrets to Overcoming Disability
While we don’t want to think about it, most of us, if we live long enough, are preparing to become disabled. That’s a pretty scary thought, but, after all, the human body begins to go out of warranty at about age forty. After that, we can’t count on hips, back, vision, etc. being what they were when we were twenty. As a society, we devote a great deal of time and money to try to make the warranty last as long as possible but almost no thought on helping people adjust when the warranty is no longer any good.
The things that help someone adjust to vision loss are equally applicable to dealing with most other forms of personal trauma – death of a family member, loss of a job, divorce, chronic illness, it doesn’t matter.
Personal losses are especially damaging because not only are you experiencing the loss, such as deteriorating vision, but the loss is likely also causing you to question your belief that life is fair. Of course, life isn’t fair, but we tend to forget that when everything is going well. Years ago, I remember reading a Peanuts cartoon strip in which Lucy was telling Charlie Brown that “The only thing adversity is good for is to prepare you for more adversity.” This can seem particularly true when we are going through the adversity, although it doesn’t have to be the case.
However, experts have learned in recent years that there are some tried and true ways to adjust to trauma, whether it be disability, death, sexual assault, etc.
What’s shared by all forms of personal trauma is the belief that something important about your approach to life isn’t working. The neurologist Lisa Shulman writes, “Loss isn’t a single event; it’s a series of unspeakable events.” Deteriorating vision as you age may cost you your job, ability to drive, and a great many of the things you enjoy. You are reminded over and over how catastrophic the crisis is. As hard as it may be to understand at the moment, you can find a new and better way of coping and actually emerge from the trauma stronger and better than before. In saying this, I’m not being a Pollyanna.
These are some of the most important factors that crisis therapists have identified as making it more or less likely that an individual will succeed in resolving a personal trauma such as deteriorating vision.
1. Acknowledging that you are in crisis. As I’ve written here before, as strange as it may seem, a large majority of people who are clearly losing their vision are in denial. I’ve lost track of the number of people I’ve known who dismiss their inability to read street signs or the text in books as “just a little problem” with their vision. In the beginning, avoiding the problem may serve to help someone cope with the emotional stress, and that’s fine; but, in time, it’s necessary to come to terms with the loss.
2. Acceptance of personal responsibility. Does someone who has lost their vision think, “Now I just have to accept what life has given me” Or do they say, “Sure, life is going to be more challenging, but that just means I’ll have to be more creative and work harder.” Does the solution to the problem reside with them or someone or something else?
If you want outside conditions to change, you need to change what you can control. Victor Frankel, holocaust survivor, has said, “When we are no longer able to change a situation, we are challenged to change ourselves.” Put another way, consider the prayer, “Let me not die while I am still alive.”
3. What is there of yourself that is already functioning well and that doesn’t need changing and that you can hold on to? What can and should you discard to replace with new ways? It’s tempting to allow all of your thinking to concentrate on the crisis when there is still a lot about how you interact with the world that is still perfectly fine.
4. Consider help from others. This may come either from other individuals or institutions. It can be helpful to realize that you are not uniquely flawed. This is really what Club VIBES is all about.
Will you be devalued by the crisis or will it make you stronger? Psychologists at the University of North Carolina have studied severe traumas – reaction to deaths of children, sexual assault and abuse, refugees and prisoners of war, and survivors of natural disasters, and illness. More than half the people who experience a traumatic event report at least one positive change compared to the less than 15% who respond in the way you might expect and develop PTSD.
5. Other people as models. Simple as it may sound, VIBES members report that this is one of the major advantages of their membership. It’s tremendously reassuring to know that there are other people going through the same things you are and that you can benefit from their experiences.
But, it’s not necessary that the models be someone you know personally. Countless Americans buy self-help books every year so they can benefit from the advice being modeled by someone they will never meet.
6. Honest self-appraisal. This is fundamental to deciding how you’re going to adjust to any personal crisis. In doing this, there are three things of special importance. You can think of them as the three Ps.
- Personalizing. This is the belief that we are at fault. In the case of vision loss, this is not so much an issue with the person who has lost the vision as it may be for parents who have unknowingly passed along a gene for the visual condition.
- Pervasiveness. This is the belief that the traumatic event will affect all areas of our life. While it’s not unreasonable to think, for example, that losing vision will impact everything we do, the truth is that, while some previous activities will be impossible, a surprising percentage are still doable. You may need to do them differently, but many fewer things need to be sacrificed than you would think.
- Permanence. This is the belief that the aftershocks of the crisis will last forever. This may be a natural way to confront the crisis when we are first experiencing the trauma. However, whether the consequences of the trauma really are permanent is largely up to us. As someone ages, for example, their ability to control their vision loss may be limited, but they have complete control over how they will respond to the loss.
7. Experience of previous crises. Lucy was on to something when she told Charlie Brown that adversity helped you prepare for more adversity. If you’ve successfully mastered previous crises, it’s more likely that you’ll cope successfully with the current trauma. Conversely, previous crises that have not been dealt with successfully contribute to the feeling that the current crisis may be unsurmountable. This is why traumas tend to be more overwhelming for adolescents.
8. Patience. Coping with a crisis is aided by an ability to tolerate ambiguity, uncertainty, or failure as you attempt to change. It’s unlikely that you’ll be successful in making alterations on the first try. It’s important to be willing to grant yourself forgiveness as you struggle with a new way of dealing with the world.
9. Flexibility. A flexible personality is more likely to be able to respond appropriately to a crisis than someone who is rigid.
An extraordinarily large number of successful entrepreneurs are dyslexic. A recent study puts the number around one-third. Richard Branson, the British billionaire, Charles Schwab, founder of the discount brokerage, and John Chambers, the CEO of Cisco Systems are only a few. They succeeded, in part, because of their disorder. They learned something in their struggle that proved to be of enormous advantage but they had to be extremely flexible in developing alternative ways to cope with their disability.
10. Core values. These are the beliefs that you consider central to your identity and underlie your outlook on life. Which core values would you refuse to change because you consider them nonnegotiable? At what point do you say, “I’d rather die than change that.”
Core values may point the way to strategies to deal with a crisis. Alternatively, and this is important, they may also restrict options. For example, there is a point as someone is losing their vision that using what vision remains may be appropriate in certain situations. However, there is a tipping point when, while they still retain a very limited ability to see, it makes more sense to acknowledge that the limited vision gets them in more trouble than it’s worth. Think here of the thousands of Americans who have no business still driving but refuse to surrender their license because of a misplaced sense of personal independence.
11. Freedom from constraints. Generally speaking, the larger the number of other demands on your time and attention, the harder it is to act on the first ten suggestions. Responsibility for children or a demanding job distract from your ability to address a personal crisis.
Of course, all of this is easier said than done, but this is a pretty good roadmap to confront any personal crisis.
Over the years, I’ve written on this topic before. Below are various posts that address different aspects of successfully adjusting to vision loss.