A spinal cord injury is an extremely traumatic event. It completely changes the life of the survivor, and requires them to relearn how to approach living. Adapting to paralysis is not easy. People who were formerly extremely independent find themselves needing the help of others for the simplest everyday activities that they used to take for granted.
These realizations come as the survivor begins to accept what has happened. Initially, however, acceptance may be hard to come by.
When you are the victim of a spinal cord injury, your life completely changes in the blink of an eye. Survivors who wake up in the hospital to learn that they have a spinal cord injury are often disbelieving and overwhelmed at first. Sometimes it feels like a bad dream. Frequently, the survivor really does have a hard time wrapping his or her brain around the fact that this has actually happened.
There are a range of feelings that survivors go through following an SCI. While all survivors don’t respond the same to a spinal cord injury, the most common emotions during this time are denial, anger, and depression.
Denial is a defense mechanism. A survivor who denies what has happened to him or her will often change the subject when the injury is brought up, and refuse help that is needed. He or she will not participate in conversations regarding current treatment or the future.
Loved ones of survivors who are struggling with denial can help the survivor move forward by continuing to talk about and deal with the injury as it needs to be dealt with. While it may seem kinder to shield the survivor from the reality of his or her situation, in the long run this will just make acceptance harder to come by.
Survivors who begin to absorb what has happened to them and how it will affect their life often exhibit anger and depression. Feelings of helplessness and lack of control lead to feelings of frustration, and those feelings cause the survivor to lash out at his or her doctors, medical team, and family and friends. Friends and loved ones shouldn’t take anger personally. Instead, they should be good listeners and should also find a qualified mental health professional for the survivor to talk to, so he or she can express feelings in a productive way. In most cases, counseling is provided as part of the early phase of treatment. If it isn’t, loved ones should request it from the survivor’s doctors and medical team.
Early treatment should also include a screening for signs of depression. Symptoms include extreme sadness, irrational thoughts, feelings of hopelessness and dejection, feelings of worthlessness, and thoughts of suicide. Because depression is so common immediately following spinal cord injury, loved ones should be on the lookout, and should get the survivor help as soon as possible. In most cases the medical team takes a proactive approach to depression by providing counseling to the survivor, as well as an introduction to support groups, online message boards, and blogs. In some case, medication is prescribed.
Don’t let depression go unchecked. Remember that depression is a medical condition that must be treated. As soon as even the slightest signs or symptoms appear, the patient should seek care.
I’m a family member of a survivor, and while I’m not the one who is injured I’m feeling an incredible array of very strong emotions. Is this normal?
Yes, it is. After all, you love the person who has been injured. While you may not be physically injured, you are certainly entitled to feel a wide range of emotions. Like the survivor, expect varying degrees of denial, anger, and depression. You may also feel worried, anxious, and uncertain about what the future holds.
Many loved ones feel guilty for experiencing these emotions, because they feel like they need to be strong. So they suppress their feelings or deny having them. Actually, in order to cope, friends and family must also recognize their feelings, be willing to talk about them, and seek support. Think of it this way: recognizing and dealing with your emotions is a way of taking care of yourself. While you may feel like the last person who needs taking care of at this point, that’s just not the case: you’ll need lots of emotional energy to help the spinal cord injury survivor deal with his or her situation. As a matter of fact, there’s a good chance that you’ll need more emotional energy for this than you’ve needed for anything else in your life. If your emotional energy is depleted, you won’t be able to properly care for and support the survivor. In other words, the better you take care of yourself, the better you will be able to care for your loved one.
It’s very common for the loved ones of survivors to need support and help during the overwhelming and trying time following a spinal cord injury. The survivor’s doctor and medical team should be able to give you the names of professional counselors and support groups who can help you.