Putting on a Brave Face

Depression is a real illness with real symptoms that can cause very real problems—in your health, at home, and at work.

I was injured in a car accident in 1993, and I sometimes look back at my journey to see what has shaped me into the person I am now: a woman who has a spinal-cord injury (SCI).

You never know what the future holds for you at such a young age—17. I and many others who share my experience had to plan our new futures with SCI and sometimes give up the dreams we had for ourselves. Mine was to become a nurse.

While I have met other people with SCI who have amazing jobs I would have never thought were possible, like being a nurse, I had a long road ahead of me to figure it all out. But I was first focused on my goal of graduating with my senior-high class.

Goal one accomplished! My accident was in July before my senior year, and I returned to high school in mid-October after I got out of the rehabilitation hospital.

Next goal: drive. I started driving after the winter, and it was so nice to have a new form of freedom. Who at 17 wants his/her mom to drive them around? So, since I already had my license before my injury, I just had to get a car and have it adapted. Ironically, the day of my graduation I got into another car accident; luckily, everyone turned out okay, except for me.

I thought the universe was trying to tell me something. I didn’t know what it was, but it was enough to make me take a break from driving, and I went through my first bout of slight depression. It was a moment of “Why me?” and “Why did this happen?” because I had worked so hard that first year to get to that point, and it just tore me up inside. This was the first time I learned how to put on a brave face.

Years followed, and I had my ups and downs. I sought counseling but never truly let people know how I felt. If I wasn’t being the “inspiration” everyone labeled me as, I could not show I had a bad day. So, instead of letting out my feelings, I just tried to stay up with the crowd and live my life as normally as possible.

I went to college, still saw my high-school friends, and was very motivated to play wheelchair sports; I was always on the go. Again, I stayed busy so no one would see I was hurting inside.

Tammy Wilber has had her ups and downs since her injury.

I also believe I was in denial. People go through different stages of grief when they lose someone, but I didn’t think that applied to me because I was alive. I thought, I am lucky to be alive so I shouldn’t feel sorry for myself. I am just living a different way of life.

When July 18 rolled around, we would do something to celebrate life, because that was the anniversary date of my accident and I wanted to celebrate my accomplishments. Then the five-year mark hit, and I lost it.

I found myself crying the first few weeks of July leading up to my anniversary date and could not figure out why. I had everything going for myself: I was living in an apartment with my college boyfriend, it was summer, I was taking college summer classes, and I was away from home but close enough that I could return there whenever I wanted to. But something inside me was going on, and I couldn’t figure out what.

Later I realized I was experiencing the “angry stage” of grief—but why? What did I have to be angry about? I had so much going for me, and then I hit rock bottom.

It has been 12 years since this happened, and I have wanted to share my story because I believe it is important for others in this situation to realize they are not alone! I didn’t have many people to turn to who could really understand.

So, for quite a few weeks leading up to the five-year mark of my injury date, I found myself lying in bed all day, skipping my summer classes, lying to my boyfriend and getting dressed before he came home from his summer job—and, again, putting on my brave face. I could easily have reached out to my family and talked to them, but I didn’t want to burden them with my problems, and I didn’t want them to know about it, either.

It got to the point where I believed I had to be so strong for everyone else that I forgot to be strong for myself. I was everyone’s inspiration, and I didn’t want to let them down.

One night I came home to my apartment and found my boyfriend had a small group of friends over. I told him I was not in the mood to socialize. We got into a small argument, and he and his friends took off. I was left in the apartment, and I cried like I had never cried before. It wasn’t the argument, it was something inside me that took over in my “angry” stage, and I started throwing things around.

Then I went straight for the medicine cabinet. It was like an out-of-body experience. I took a bunch of aspirins and thought maybe that was the answer.

That was the scariest night of my life. When my boyfriend returned, I was lying on the bed shivering. My heart was racing, and I tried to make myself throw up—but nothing was working. It was so scary because I knew what I had done but was too embarrassed to tell him, so I blamed it on food poisoning.

I waited it out a little longer, thinking the aspirin would wear off and the next day I would be fine, but my body was cold and I knew I had to go to the hospital. On the drive there, I told my boyfriend what I had done. The worst thing I ever said to anyone was that I had overdosed on aspirin. I couldn’t believe those words were coming out of my mouth.

Then once I got to the emergency room, I had to tell the nurse everything, and again I was devastated and embarrassed. But I knew I was going to have to get through that night and hope I was okay. My boyfriend asked if he should call my mom. I knew she had to come because I needed her, but I had no idea how hard it was going to be to face her.

When she arrived, I started crying. No matter what your age, you always need a hug from your mom when things are really bad. Again I was just silent, and I let the nurse tell her most of what had happened because I had to go through a series of tests to see if I had done any damage to my body.

I knew the word was going to get out about what happened, so I didn’t want any visitors except family. I was hospitalized for about five days, and the worst damage was that the aspirin had bruised my liver, but everything was going to be fine. While I was happy to hear that, I knew I needed to make some changes in my life and also seek counseling.

I moved back home for support and dropped out of my summer classes. I had kept to myself for a while and tried to reflect on why I had done what I did. After a few counseling sessions, my therapist said, “Tammy, you never really mourned the loss of the use of your legs.”

It was like a light bulb went off. The therapist was right. I was experiencing grief from a traumatic event that happened in my life at 17, and I was not mentally capable of knowing how to deal with it. So, for those first five years, I learned how to put on a brave face. Now I just do so when needed, but I will never get to a point like that again.

If I ever start to have feelings of depression or of frustration about living with a disability, I seek counseling, reach out to certain people in my life, and do what I need to do to stay strong because I am only human! I don’t mind being an “inspiration” to others, but I do so in a more realistic way, such as mentoring someone who is newly injured and being honest in saying they may experience bad days, but there will always be more good ones than bad.

I have had some bouts of depression in the past 12 years, or “bad days,” but I now know how to cope. I don’t hide the fact that every few years I go to counseling and talk to people in my life who truly understand. I also learn from others that I am not alone. I don’t have to put on a “brave face” any more; I am just myself. When I need to be brave and get through a day, like anyone else I will let it out later.

Family and friends are the ones who truly know me and know I am not perfect, but I am a normal person who happens to have more daily challenges than the next person, and sometimes it can be draining and catch up with you.

So, to anyone who can relate to my experience, just remember you are not alone! You are here, so live life to the fullest, and please seek help if needed. Today I like myself and will smile because I know I will never again reach the point of no return.

I will continue to encourage others to remember that life is like a roller coaster—we will have our ups and downs. But when the roller coaster comes to a stop, I will get off and just keep on rolling.


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