17 is a good age, isn’t it? I don’t mean it’s always a happy or carefree age, but it’s the age when we start thinking about the future, about college and the type of career we want to pursue. Maybe it’s even the age when we’re falling in love or experiencing heartbreak for the first time. It’s the age where possibilities are everywhere, and our choices and decisions take on new weight.
When I was 17, I was narrowing down my list of perspective colleges and had long since settled on becoming a teacher. I’d had my first taste of love and the sorrow that accompanied its end, but I was looking at the future I saw unfurling for myself and I couldn’t wait to start it. The summer before my senior year, I went camping with a group of friends. It was a last hoorah before school started. We had a blast—until the last day of the trip, when a short drive to a nearby lake ended with our car rolling.
I remember the first time I heard the word "quadriplegic" applied to me. I’d been in the hospital for a few weeks when a doctor I had never seen before came into my room with a gaggle of medical students. Without looking at me, he said to them, “And here we have your standard quadriplegic.”
I don’t know that I can express what hearing that word meant to me. I knew I was hurt, badly. I knew I couldn’t move and that I needed a machine to breath for me. I knew that my baby sister had screamed the first time she saw me, but I didn’t understand the permanence of my situation. I thought I’d get better. Every time I’d gotten hurt in the past, I’d gotten better.
That’s the thing about breaking your neck. Most people die when it happens. And the ones who survive go through this period of uncertainty. How much damage was done to the spinal cord? How much function would be recovered? In my case, a lot, and a little.
After my car accident, I didn’t think about the future for a long time. I didn’t want to. At 17, my life derailed in ways I could never have imagined. I spent three months in the hospital relearning how to live with and in a body that was paralyzed from the chest down. I stopped worrying about which college to go to; instead, I worried about whether or not I’d be able to breathe again without a machine or communicate without blinking at an alphabet board.
It was a long and hard recovery, and because of my spinal cord injury, I’ll always be in a wheelchair. That’s never going to be an easy reality. Every day there are new challenges, but there are also new opportunities and new perspectives. I get to see the world in ways that few people ever will. I think back to that alphabet board and how carefully I had to plan out what I wanted to say, find the exact right word instead of half a dozen empty ones. At the time, I didn’t know I was honing a skill I’d need as an author.
Thankfully, I no longer need to blink out what I want to say. My voice isn’t as strong as it used to be, but only people who knew me before my accident notice. And while my hands are paralyzed, I’m constantly coming up with creative ways to make them do what I want, from driving with tripod hand controls, to typing with my knuckles, to threading a makeup brush through my fingers when I want to rock winged eyeliner (which, if I’m being honest, is most of the time). I’ve yet to encounter something I want to do that I can’t, with a little ingenuity, figure out a way to make work.
I more than survived breaking my neck, which isn’t usually the case. I finished high school, went to college, and even got to teach. I discovered that I wanted to be an author, regardless of whether I was sitting or standing, and nothing else.
And she made it happen. Abigail Johnson just published her debut novel, If I Fix You.