The Pursuit of Happiness

Have you ever thought about what it must have felt like to be born?  We all know how we come in to form in this world.  But I mean the actual feelings you must have had when you arrived.  You were probably crying out of fear because everything you were exposed to was completely unknown.  Imagine the many chemical reactions occurring in your brain while your thoughts are raging with insecurity because everything around you is so alien.  It has always amazed me to think about the way our brain works in accordance to the way we think.  On the other hand, what did it take for you to eventually be calm?  Shortly after you were born you were probably comforted with love from your parents, and calmed down because you now felt secure.  Imagine how relaxed and safe you must have felt in this fearless mentality.  This was the mindset I was supposed to strive for, without ever realizing it.

After experiencing my accident, everything felt so new because I was now in a situation that was very unknown to me.  I was not prepared for it, and didn’t even know how to think to live life like this.  I feared everything about it because I was not sure if I would be able to live in this situation.  However, from the beginning I had so many family and friends treating me with so much love and encouragement.  When I was in the hospital, I had a ridiculous amount of visitors everyday, which composed of family, friends, and others, who came by just to see how I was doing.  I was so happy to receive so many emails, “get well soon” cards, and gifts from people who just wanted to make me feel better.  And in those moments I forgot about my fears because I was comforted with all the love around me.  But I was soon going to be leaving the hospital and moving back home, where I had to face my new reality.  All the love I had received had been in the form of sympathy, and it got old pretty quickly once I was home. This then led to the development of my greatest fear.

My greatest fear of being a wheelchair user was people not treating me as they used to.  I felt that my identity had changed in other people’s perspective from “Vik” to “Vik in a wheelchair.”  I did not want people to treat me differently than who I was and I felt like it was happening all the time.  Every time I met a new person I would get anxious because I was afraid they would ask me questions pertaining to why I am a wheelchair user.  And if they didn’t ask me, I was sure they were thinking it.  Additionally, I have grown up in a very judgmental and traditional Indian society and I knew what everybody was thinking of me.  Heck, I was thinking it myself: “Am I a burden to my family now?” “Will somebody ever want to marry me like this?” And my favorite, “What are the chances of me getting better so I don’t have to deal with any of this?”  These were the thoughts that bounced around in my head all the time.  I did not want people to pity me and that’s how I felt people treated me.  So I would think, “If this is the way people see me, how could I ever be happy?”  This would lead me to feeling sad about my situation and wishing that I didn’t drink or did something differently that day to have avoided this from happening to me.  Consequently, this increased my anxiety of not getting better in the future and thinking that I would always be sad because of what I thought other people thought of me.  And for 3 years, I would always revert to “I’m going to get better so this doesn’t have to be my reality anymore.”  I was too stubborn to accept, and too lazy to motivate myself differently.  Living paralyzed looked like a lot of hard work, so I was trying to find the loophole, the easy way out.   But after those 3 years, I finally reached rock bottom and at that moment I knew that I had to conquer this fear to reach the point of acceptance, and ultimately move on with my life.

After analyzing my thoughts over and over again I came to an incredible epiphany about eliminating my fears.  I thought, “Fear is a limitation that I put on myself about what I think can be possible in times of disappointment and struggle.  It is comprised of two elements: regret and worry.  To regret means to fear something that has already happened.  And to worry means to fear something that may or may not happen in the future.”  It was then it became clear to me that if I did not have any regret from the past or worry for the future then I would be living in the moment.  So to be free of fear I must always live in the moment.  Then I started thinking about what it meant to live in the moment.  And I thought, “To live in the moment means to be free of fear.  I do not have fear when I am having fun because I am only thinking about the moment.  To have fun then means that you are doing something that you love.  When you are doing things that you love, you are happy.  Hence, when you live in the moment, you are happy.”  I thought this idea was brilliant and decided that this was going to be my way of life.  I was just going to do what I loved to do all the time, and that way I would never be fearful again.  I wasn’t out to please anybody else but myself, and I thought because people pitied me they didn’t have expectations for me, which meant I had no pressure to live my life a different way.  It now made sense for me to accept my situation today and live my life fearlessly day-by-day, moment-by-moment, and let the future unfold, as it should.

As time went on, however, I realized that there would always be circumstances in your life that will continue to create fear in you.  My mentality was strong and I understood the concept of being fearless and living every moment, but it was easier said than done.  I thought about the many fears I have had in the past.  And many of my fears created obstacles in my mind that I overcame just by trying.  Once I overcame a certain obstacle I was not fearful anymore because I knew I could do it.  For example, I was always afraid to attempt to transfer into an SUV from my wheelchair because I felt it was too high, compared to a car that I was used to.  One day I developed enough courage to just attempt it and I was unsuccessful the first couple times, but eventually I was determined enough to figure out that by pulling on the handlebars (aka the oh shit bars) I could get enough leverage and contort my body to land in the seat.  It made me very happy to know that this was now possible.  It probably wasn’t the smoothest process, but in time I was able to perfect it.  However, the point was that I was able to do something that I wasn’t sure I would be able to do.  All I had to do was try and be persistent and I would be able to accomplish the goal, which I had felt insecure about accomplishing previously.  This led me to start thinking about why I was afraid in the first place.  There were so many unknowns to my situation and all I had to do was try to see if I could do them.  The worst-case scenario in any obstacle I attempted was that I would fail.  This understanding led me to think that as long as I didn’t worry about the worst possible outcome, believed that the desired outcome was possible, and my will was strong, I could achieve anything.  This made so much sense to me, but I needed to think this way when I identified feelings of fear and change them.  It wasn’t until I was pondering one day, wheeling my ass up and down a sidewalk, where I came up with an analogy that I reverted to every time I was afraid about something.

One of my favorite things to do in a wheelchair is to go downhill.  When I go downhill I completely let go of the wheels, and let momentum just take me to the end.  Contrarily, when I go uphill I have to keep pushing the wheels to keep moving forward because if I let go I will roll backwards.  This led me to create one of my favorite sayings, “When I go downhill I let go, and when I go uphill I keep pushing.”  To go downhill, figuratively, means when life isn’t going your way let go of all the fears of the unknown possibilities that can happen and go with the momentum to see where it takes you.  To go uphill, also figuratively, means that when you want to do something and you have obstacles in your way, rather than getting discouraged, keep pushing, be persistent, and believe you’re going to get there.  It took practice, but eventually after identifying feelings of fear over and over again I thought of this analogy, which changed my thinking and allowed me to move forward fearlessly.

Today I fear nothing because I keep practicing this mentality.  I choose not to have fear, so when I catch myself being fearful about something I change my mindset.  By doing this I have been able to truly live my life everyday to the moment and feel positive about the future.  And now it has been evident that the fears I had in the past were only limitations I put on myself.  For example, I used to work at these apartments at the University of Houston where I was a leasing agent and gave tours to potential residents.  One day speaking with one of my coworkers we were discussing the routes that we take when we do our tours.  I explained that I take a different route than she does.   And her response was, “oh, do you take the stairs?”  I then proceeded to laugh hysterically, because in that moment she didn’t see “Vik in a wheelchair”, she only saw “Vik”.  Being perceived as “Vik in a wheelchair” was my greatest fear.  By living fearlessly and just being ME this instance proved there was no need to fear it from the start.  I began to see life as an adventure.  What was in store for me next?  I was ready to overcome any obstacle that was thrown my way.  I enjoyed living life like this and was truly excited to see what will happen next in my life.  And then one day, while having dinner with a good friend of mine, she said, “you know it sucks what has happened to you, but at the same time its amazing that you can be happy in your situation.”  And I thought to myself, “I’m happy?.”  I always thought I would be happy when I walked again.  Could it be possible that I reached happiness as a cripple?  Then it dawned on me; I am happy because I choose to not give in to fear.  I now know that happiness is a choice, not an expectation.

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Blessing in Disguise

Have you ever thought to yourself how amazing it is the way you control your body?  We all know biologically how we function.  But I mean the actual processes of your mind sending neurological signals to your arms and legs.  It takes almost no time at all for you to take a step or raise your hand.  You don’t even have to think about it, you just do it.  Imagine the sparks of energy that start from your brain and then travels through your neurological pathways to all of your extremities in a matter of milliseconds to create the result of you running or the intricacies involved in playing a sport.  It has always astonished me to imagine the complexities of how we function with our bodies.  On the other hand, what if things were different?  What if those sparks of energy could not make it to your extremities?  Imagine not being able to take a step, let alone stand.  In almost an instant, this became my new reality.

At around 2:30 am on July 29, 2006, after a night of partying, I was home standing on my 3rd floor apartment balcony.  I just got off the phone with my cousins, who were in a cab on their way over, and leaned over the railing on my balcony to check if I could see any headlights projecting to indicate that they had arrived.  Next thing I know it I’m being awoken by my cousins laying on the ground and I couldn’t get up.  I had just fallen off of my balcony and was lying on a patch of grass right next to a sidewalk and 6 inches from a sprinkler head.  I had fractured my T10 and T11 vertebrae, which compressed my spinal cord and left me completely paralyzed from the waist down.  Now I’ve been asked this question numerous times, and I’m sure many of y’all are thinking the same thing reading this, “But how did you fall off your balcony?”  To be completely honest, I’m really not sure exactly how it happened.  I have a few theories but truthfully I totally blacked out when it transpired.

I was only 22 years old at the time and was just finishing up my last few classes at the University of Houston before I could complete my undergraduate degree.  The idea of being paralyzed didn’t resonate with any vision or plan I had for my life.  The doctor’s only gave me a 5% chance to ever walk again and I was now in a rehabilitation hospital learning how to live my life in a wheelchair.  I kept hoping it was all a dream.  Every morning when I woke up I would think “Shit! I’m still paralyzed.”  All I could ever think about was what I referred to as “getting better”.  “Getting better” to me meant returning to a fully functional human being once again.  And I wanted it to happen really soon because I felt the longer I was in this situation, the more chance there was that I would accept it.  I was angry, confused, and petrified all at the same time.  And then came my next step in facing my new reality, after living on my own for the past few years attending college, I was moving back home with my parents in McAllen, TX.

Moving back home was tough to accept because I felt like my life was regressing.  My plans were to graduate and then get a job like everybody else.  Instead, I was back in McAllen researching potential avenues to get me walking again.  I refused to live my life like this.  I hated everything about it.  My family wanted to make modifications to my bathroom to make it more accessible, I resisted.  I didn’t even want to learn how to drive with hand controls.  I felt that by doing these things I would only be giving in to my paralysis.  However, eventually I had to give in because I was only making life harder for my family and myself.  I was pissing off my cousins because they had to pick me up and drop me off every time we hung out at THEIR house.  So there were a few battles I let my paralysis win on, but I was not going to let it win the war.  I was doing all sorts of therapies, remedies, and exercises to help heal me.  I travelled to different parts of the world to explore alternative treatments including homeopathic medicine, cold laser therapy, and even stem cells.  Paralysis is a ridiculous situation to attempt to come out of because there is no cure or protocol on how to get better.  Failed treatment after failed treatment I kept persisting as I felt the more I tried God would eventually reward me for my efforts.  I spent 3 years trying to find a solution to my problem, and my efforts were getting exhausted.  I was sick of waiting for a miracle to happen.  I couldn’t emotionally take any more disappointments in my life.  Three years had already passed by and what did I have to show for it?  I felt defeated, and I contemplated if life was even worth living anymore.  I had now reached rock bottom.

When you reach rock bottom you have 2 choices; to live or to die.  I had to contemplate every aspect of my life and figure out how I could move forward.  To live meant to accept my situation and to not let it hinder me living life.  To die meant to do nothing and drown in my sorrows.  I chose to live.  I was so attached to my life before my accident and now I had to reach acceptance and let it go.  However, I realized that I only had to accept today, not forever.  By accepting today I could live my life day by day, moment by moment.  I have no idea what is to come in my future so I will never limit my possibilities.  I also decided that if I were going to live my life in a wheelchair it would be on my terms.  My terms were that I was going to do what I want, when I want, and how I wanted to.  I felt that because of what I had gone through, I was deserving of doing things I wanted to do all the time and making myself happy.  Additionally, I was free of societal pressure and judgment because I wasn’t held to the same standards as everybody else.  And if I was judged, I didn’t give a fuck.  This new mindset made me excited to move forward.

I thought about all the things that I wanted to do now.  One of the biggest things was that I wanted to play wheelchair basketball and other sports and activities.  However, McAllen did not offer such activities.  It became clear to me that I needed to move back to Houston to completely fulfill myself.  This was going to be the biggest step of my life because I had never lived alone in this situation, but I was ready.  I started applying for jobs, but we were in a recession and I had no work experience so nobody was going to hire me.  Then came a conversation with one of my good friends about a post baccalaureate program he was enrolled in at the University of Houston to become CPA eligible.  I didn’t want to go back to school for a long time, and this was only going to be 9 classes.  So I thought this was going to be my ticket back to Houston and it was starting in 2 weeks!  I talked to my family about it and they were tentatively supportive, but nobody was trying to stop me.  And just like that in August 2010, I moved back to Houston, a city that I love so much.  I was a little nervous in the beginning, but I knew that if I was accepting my situation this was the next step.  During my first week in Houston I saw a billboard while I was driving that said “ABILITIES EXPO”.  It was the largest disabilities show that covered everything from sports to wheelchair manufacturers to medical issues, and it just so happened to be going on in Houston for the first time ever the weekend after I moved back.  I felt like everything was just falling into place.

Today I am on the verge of completing my CPA program this December 2011 and I am currently a Houston apartment locator.  Life has been amazing ever since I took this plunge.  I feel like I just know how to live life now.  Because of what I have gone through, I am fearless.  I have already been through the worst, there is nothing that could affect me nearly the same way; hence, I have nothing to hold me back.  My mentality is all about going with the flow, not worrying about the future, forgetting about the past and just living every moment of every day.  Since I’ve moved and been following my mentality I have got so much positive feedback from so many people.  I cannot tell you how many people have expressed to me how much of an inspiration I am to them.  Really?  Me?  It’s shocking to me because everything that I do, I do it for myself.  I am not living my life for anybody else, but for myself.  And it’s really an amazing feeling that I can affect others positively because of who I am today.  This past July 2011 I celebrated my 5th year cripple anniversary.  I fell off a balcony 5 years ago, so to celebrate I fell off a plane.  I went skydiving for the first time in my life and I highly recommend it to anybody who is interested.  That’s what I’m all about, just living life.  My life has taught me so much and led me to where I am today.  I love my life and everything that comes with it.  I now know that everything I have gone through has been a blessing in disguise.