2012 was the year that my life changed. It took just a few seconds. My car was on black ice when I was driving to work after a week of being with my family. A larger truck then hit me. At first, I thought it would be a terrible day to die. However, I quickly changed my mind after thinking about my 16-month old boy.
Although the accident didn’t kill me, it rendered me paraplegic below my armpits and to my toes. I would no longer feel any sensations or be capable of moving any muscle in more that three-quarters my body. This left me with the daunting task of learning more about this foreign mind and raising a child who was rambunctious in a completely different way.
Although the first few years were difficult, I was unable to stop in this constant motion without doubts and debilitating thoughts. I should have let myself die—everyone would have been better off. I kept going, as stopping would mean being engulfed in the biggest tsunami I had ever faced. I thought I was doing a great job keeping my mental illness under control, but a massive reorganization at work made me feel like I had lost everything. I couldn’t cope. Five years later, everything was falling apart, the dam had burst and the tsunami was heading our way, causing complete destruction.
More than Granola
Following were a series diagnosis and years of weekly therapy. YEARS. Some improvement was made, but not enough to allow me to take on all roles in my daily life. I felt like a clown who juggles. I felt the pressure to keep all the balls in the air, and failed severely. I realized that my life was meant to be lived in constant sadness, dissatisfaction and despair.
Until then, I didn’t know anything about positive psychology or character strengths.
Positive psychology hadn’t yet been widely studied when I did my doctoral work in psychology. And to be fair, when I first heard about it, I wondered whether it wasn’t that far off from eating granola and wearing flowers in your hair. It’s amazing how scientific it could be. However, I was intrigued by the topic and, because I have a strong ability research and learn new things, I was able complete the work.
What I discovered literally changed my life.
Tools in Our Toolbox
Character strengths are like our tools in our toolbox. They are always available to us when we need them. It doesn’t matter if you use it daily or if you only use it occasionally. Some tools might be more familiar than others, but you can learn how to use other tools if you want. Sometimes you can use one tool to make the other more efficient. For instance, a screwdriver and an hammer can be used to open a gallon worth of paint.
The more I learned about character strengths, the more the narration of my life’s recording changed. I first learned that Love is more than an emotion. It is also a character strength—my top signature strength, as a matter of fact. I learned that the Love of Learning exists and is a signature strength.
It was my realization that I was more than just a passive victim in a dramatic incident that liberated me from the suffering. I actually had some control over the events of that fateful day.
First, Love had saved me, as I thought of my beautiful, blond, curly-haired baby boy waiting for me at my parents’ cottage. I had wanted to live to be there for him, so he wouldn’t be an orphan. Upon awakening in the car after the accident, and realizing something had gone really wrong, I had shown Curiosity by thoroughly examining what senses and limbs were responsive or not. This had helped me determine that I couldn’t feel or move either my legs or my arms. I had used my less often activated strength Spirituality to summon the strength to ask for my arms again instead of panicking. My strength of Prudence stopped me from moving around which could have caused more permanent damage. I was grateful for the first responders, and hopeful that I would be okay to raise my son.
The character strengths vocabulary helped me to focus on something else than my diagnoses. My focus shifted to what I can do and what makes my strong. This was exactly what I needed. It reminded of my ability to be resilient in the face of adversity, as I had done in the past.
Recognizing my strengths as a person gave me a new perspective and a focus. I didn’t have to reinvent myself, which was a relief. I was able to use my strengths to make purposeful decisions, even though my goals were modest at first.
I was able to keep my head up and take small steps towards greater heights.
When doubts, fears, and despair would start to creep in, I knew that I could close my eyes and remind my mind to be mindful and practice appreciation of the wind on the face and the warmth from the sun on the skin. Those moments gave me calm and enabled me to face my fears head-on.
Marjorie speaks on how character strengths helped change her narrative in facing adversity on Tuesday, June 28, 12:00–1:00 pm ET, as part of the online WBI/JCC Positive Psychology Hour series. Register here.