Words for Robert

By Mark E. Smith

Words.

People too often underestimate the power of words – the absurd, the reverbs. Words really can define the direction of one’s life, changing it from dark to light, from day to night, from blind to sight.

Words.

A few words can inspire, liberate, desire to be one’s best. However, to the contrary, words can also defeat, destroy, debilitate, make one’s life a mess. I mean, what we’re told by others, we often believe – heart on a sleeve – sometimes we’re left to flourish, sometimes we’re left to bleed. And, it’s for these reasons why we must choose every word carefully, deliberately, thoughtfully, where our words positively impact, not negatively detract.

Words.

I recently read a charitable letter – words striving for the better – about someone we’ll call “Robert,” and it sang a tune straight to the heart, that wasn’t an end, but a kick-start:

Though the doctors said there was little chance that he would walk again, our family refused to accept this devastating prognosis. We began doing research, determined to move Heaven and Earth to make Robert whole again.

Words.

In those two sentences are words that made me realize something that I’d never had the courage to admit to myself before: I’m not a whole person, just a partial equip. See, the fact that I’ve never walked makes me incomplete, a lesser person, someone not whole, my existence a burden. And, after fully realizing those few words in that eloquent, poignant charity letter, I understood how worthless I am, how meaningless of life I live – I am useless, a never-do-better. And, it’s devastating to my core, a struggle to live with myself like this – a fragment of a man, deserving dismiss. I mean, can you imagine the pain that my daughter has endured, being raised by me, an incomplete father, a lesser person, someone not whole, to be abhorred? How could I let my disability do this to her? And, how much suffering have I caused my family, friends, colleagues, and community? And, as for the women in my life who have come and gone, who can blame them – they deserve better than half of a man, me.

As one who cannot walk, who’s not whole – whose incompleteness has let everyone down – I have one thing to say from the depths of my heart, to write down: I am sorry for who I am, I regret who I am, and forgive me, Father, for what I’m not, not living to what life expects. Words can never express all of my regrets.

Words.

And, yet, those words, you see, aren’t me – I am whole, complete, and worthy, regardless of disability. However, here’s the question that truly terrifies me: If Robert is hearing such words from his family – Unless you walk, you’re not whole, you are not worthy – does he believe them?

The Ladybug Effect

By Mark E. Smith

For quite some time now, I’ve been trying to convince a dear friend of mine to get a Ladybug tattoo. It all started when, over cheesecake and coffee one night, I asked her what she’s always wanted to do but has never done, and she brought up her wish to get a Ladybug tattoo. See, as a little girl, her father nicknamed her “Ladybug,” and even though their relationship has been rocky over the years, her safe place remains reminding herself of who she will always be: Ladybug, cuddled up as a content little girl next to her father.

Of course, I was full-throttle toward the idea – Let’s go right now and get that tattoo! And, in the moment, I think she would have done it. However, we were in Small Town, U.S.A., and there were no tattoo shops open that late. Still, getting a small Ladybug tattoo on her foot or ankle has remained a topic of conversation between us. Her husband and mother are against it, and I understand respecting their opinions. But, I believe whole heartedly in the positivity of daily reminders of how special we are, and I know that, in even the toughest of times, she could glance at that little Ladybug tattoo, and it would immediately reminded her not just of how special and loved she is, but that she, too, has wings with which she can soar on her own. If there’s a tattoo to get, hers is among the most poignant.

Fortunately, we all have Ladybugs in our own lives, daily reminders that can lift our spirits when we think of them. Yet, if they aren’t right in front of us, we can often forget that they’re there. It’s so easy to get caught up in all of the negativity that surrounds us and forget who we really are, how much potential we have in our lives, how special we are. Bad days and tough times can be like wearing blinders: we see all of the negativity in front of us, and don’t realize all of the good that still surrounds us, that’s still within us.

I recently had one of my worst days in a long time. I’d been going nonstop for three weeks with work, various projects, my daughter’s extracurricular activities, and on and on – so by that Friday morning, I was exhausted. And, by 10:00am, I’d gotten word that two friends were having very serious crises in their lives, and by 11:00am, I had to address a difficult situation at work – and it was just going on and on, bad news after bad news, where I was thinking, Please make this tidal wave of a bad day stop! You know, those days when you think, There’s no way things can get any worse, but then they do!

Yet, I reminded myself that temporary negativity is just that – temporary – that while I had to address the bad stuff in front of me, I could still see the good that surrounded me. If nothing else, I would eventually go home to my own Ladybug – my daughter – and our two silly dogs, where their presence alone would remind me that all was fine, that there’s so much to be thankful for.

There’s a simple truth, that what we look for in life is ultimately what we see. And, sometimes the positives in our lives aren’t as easy to see as the negatives, especially in the heat of a moment. But, the positives are always there if we just look for them – and when we stop to truly look, they’re as clear as a Ladybug tattoo that reminds us every day of how fortunate and loved we really are.

Breakdown or Breakthrough?

By Mark E. Smith

Is your life a train or a boat? It’s an important question because the answer makes a huge difference. A train takes you exactly where you wish to go – it’s on rails, it’s smooth, it’s steady, it’s totally predictable. A boat, on the other hand, heads out on a meandering course, where its voyage is uncertain – it can get off of its bearing, it can encounter rough water, it can be unpredictable. I’ll ask again, is your life a train or a boat?

Of course, it’s a trick question, as no one’s life is an ever-steady course on rails. At points in our lives – it happens to all of us! – we can feel genuinely dissatisfied with the direction of our lives, where all hasn’t headed where we wish. Maybe our dream job didn’t prove as rewarding as we thought, or hasn’t materialized at all. Maybe the all-fulfilling relationship that we wanted never panned out. Or, maybe our financial goals were never achieved. The list goes on and on, but it all leads to a universal truth: When our lives haven’t met our expectations, we find ourselves discontent and dissatisfied at best, and depressed and feeling hopeless at worst.

Yet, when we find ourselves at such discouraging crossroads in life, all is not lost. Rather, we have three distinct ways to address discouraging periods, and the tact that we chose makes the difference between merely surviving and truly thriving, between feeling adrift and being on course. Therefore, when we feel like our life’s not going in the directions we wish, what approaches can we take, and what are their typical results?

I’ve been fascinated with this subject since I was 17. It’s a time I’ve spoken a lot about, where my family was a mess; a girl whom I adored went as my date to the prom, then refused to dance with me based on my disability (how could I ever find a woman to love me if one wouldn’t even dance with me?); my grades in school were mediocre at best; and, I was still in the throes of learning to physically care for myself, where every day was physically draining. With everything around me seeming so bleak – that is, life not living up to my expectations – I fell into a deep depression that summer, just thinking, If this is life, is it really worth living?

It was a heavy question for a 17-year-old, just as it is for adults who struggle with questioning the direction of their life at any age. However, as I pondered the question for days, weeks, then months, I had a realization that ultimately changed my life, a simple question that popped into my head: What could I do about any of it?

Although I couldn’t have verbally articulated it so well at 17, I realized that I had three distinct solutions to my dissatisfaction with my life:

Firstly, I could do nothing. It was that simple – do nothing, stay unsatisfied, depressed, distraught, whatever, and nothing would change. How’s that for an easy out? Do nothing, and just keep feeling as bad as you’re feeling! The problem with this approach – or, lack thereof – is that we’re merely allowing ourselves to drift in the sea of life, where without our fight or struggle, the next wave has every ability to push us under. Complacency is emotionally the most risky way to live, usually escalating dissatisfaction with our lives in the long run to destructive levels.

The second choice I had was to lower my expectations. If we feel life isn’t meeting our expectations, we can always lower them, and rationalize ourselves into a more comfortable place (clinically tying into the dreaded D-word, “denial”). I could just accept that I was a loser destined to lose, and be OK with all of the dysfunction in my life, lucky to just be alive, as my mother often told me. We see people take this approach all of the time – that is, if life’s not meeting their expectations, they simply lower their expectations. I’m not finding reward in my career, but at least I have a job. My relationship isn’t totally fulfilling, but at least I found companionship on some level. And, this approach of addressing life’s dissatisfaction by lowering expectations – as in finding ways to justify accepting less than you truly wish! – actually works. After all, if we lower our expectations, even bad aspects of our lives seem justifiably acceptable at some point. He’s a good man when he’s not drinking (how many times have we heard that one, where we just want to scream, No, you’re married to an abusive alcoholic – cut the denial!). However, here’s the problem: When we lower our expectations, we not only accept less than we deserve, but we compromise our core values within ourselves, we give away parts of who we really are and who we’re capable of being. And, of course, this lesser sense of self is hard to live with, usually catching up with us, crushing our spirit.

But, then, I realized that I had a third option to address life not meeting my expectations: I could change my life by taking responsibility for it. If no one cared about me, I at least had to care about myself. It didn’t matter what my parents did or didn’t do. It didn’t matter whether a girl would ever accept me. It didn’t matter that I had cerebral palsy. The only aspect that mattered was that I took full control over whatever I could control, and if that only made my life 50% better in the immediate, that would be a huge improvement in my life.

A few months later, I was called into the Principal’s office the first quarter of my senior year. He explained that in going through the honor roll, he saw that I was on it for the first time in my high school years, that he was wondering how I went from Cs to As over one summer? I wasn’t sure how to articulate what to say, and was intimidated by the situation, preferring to keep my challenges to myself, and simply replied, “It’s a long story….”

I had the good fortune of figuring out the life lesson at 17 that if we don’t like the direction of our life, change it. But, it’s not rocket science, and successful people practice it every day, where if you’re dissatisfied with your life, don’t just keep going down that road, or lower your expectations and accept it – but actually pursue paths to improve it. Is it easy? No. Is it scary at times? Yes. Does it take time and dedication? Sure. But, does it work every time? Absolutely.

See, life is a convoluted synergy of factors that drive our lives, but we’re ultimately the ones behind the steering wheel. There’s a lot that we can’t change, especially our pasts. But, there’s a lot that we can change, and most of it is based on decisions that we make today. Don’t settle or lower your expectations based on dissatisfaction; rather, raise the bar in pursuit of a satisfying, purpose-filled life.

Step Back From That Ledge, My Friend

By Mark E. Smith

In 1995, I opened a book preface with the line, “There’s no challenge more or less significant than another; merely different.” And, in the many years since, that line has remained with me, with my understanding that empathy and compassion are two of the most sincere traits that we can possess. See, what I’ve learned through my own challenges and struggles is that while no two people or struggles are the same, challenges and struggles effect most individuals at some point in life – often at several points in life – and although the origins of challenges and struggles vary greatly, their impact is universal, requiring all of us in moments of desperation to find an inner-strength to step back from the ledges we find ourselves on. And, when we’ve stood on the ledges of life – on the verge of slipping off, falling off, jumping off – we know how tough it is for others in those situations, where we naturally reach out to them in their moments of harrowing need. Through our own vying, we recognize first-hand that no one should have to climb the mountains of life alone, but that everyone deserves a patient guide to support them along the way, to reassuringly say, Step back from that ledge, my friend – you’ll get through this.

When you live successfully with disability – and, dare I say, honestly, where you don’t portray life as perfect, but as simply survivable, regardless of challenge or struggle – it is inevitably clear to others that you’ve been to the ledge and back, gaining wisdom along to way. After all, if one is struggling, one can relate with someone who’s obviously struggled, too – and there’s a sort of reassurance in seeing that another has somehow made it through the tougher times in life, mountains climbed, scars earned, wisdom gained, and ledges safely passed.

When you put these perspectives together – those who are facing life’s challenges and struggles, with those who have struggled and survived – an amazing bond can occur, where it’s two people communicating and sharing on the most genuine levels, climbing the mountains of life together. And, such shared emotional ascents are among life’s most magical interpersonal experiences, the best of friendships.

The fact is, many are too often alone in facing their challenges and struggles – and it is scary, isolating, and debilitating. What’s even worse is when one discusses one’s challenges and struggles with someone who hasn’t “been there,” and ends up being judged, lectured, and ridiculed – harmful feedback that can only make one feel more defeated, pushing one farther out on the ledge. But, when there’s a true mutual understanding between two people – I’ve been through the ringer of life, and know what it’s like, so let me be here for you now in your time of need – real support and solutions occur. We share, we listen, and we build trust – that is, we create the foundations of truly the most meaningful, supportive, healing relationships in our lifetimes.

And, when we’re in need, with such an empathetic, compassionate friend in our midst, the outcomes are life-changing: We can exhale our true feelings, we can open ourselves up in a safe place, we can explore our emotions, we can express true wishes, and we can just be – yes, at last, just be. When it all comes together, it’s not just a friendship that’s life-sustaining, but can actually be life-saving – conversations that allow us to restart living.

Providing such genuine support to another should be a given by any of us who have faced challenges and struggles, knowing how others could – or did – make a difference when we were standing on the ledge, about to slip off, to fall off, to jump off. However, both friends must realize that these times are intensely interpersonal. And, when such friendships are in true effect, there’s a mutual exchange of gratitude, where both individuals truly embrace each other, hands stretched out to each other, clinging. Of course, one of the individuals may obviously be in far more emotional need in the moment than the other – standing on the ledge looking down – but this doesn’t preclude a demonstrated deep appreciation and mutual respect for the supporting member, as well. If someone’s truly there for us – when one extends one’s hand at those moments in life and says, Step back from that ledge, my friend – that’s such an amazing gesture, and let us be faithful enough to directly acknowledge the remarkable value in that type of genuine friendship.

As those who have faced life’s challenges and struggles, we know how tough they can be to overcome, especially alone. Yet, when we overcome them, we have an evolved empathy and compassion for others of such kindred spirits. Let us be there for others – without judgment, as unconditionally as possible. And, if we’re fortunate enough to have someone who’s there for us unconditionally – offering an open hand, drawing us back when we’re standing on a ledge – let us cherish that friendship and reciprocate. See, the goal in the best friendships is to not just top the mountains of life, but to top the mountains of life together, hand-in-hand.

Being Broken

By Mark E. Smith

A friend of mine introduced me to the music of British musician, Marcus Foster, whose song, “I Was Broken,” is hauntingly beautiful. It’s about recovering from being “broken,” whatever that may mean to any one individual.

In the disability realm, the medical model defines us as physically “broken.” However, I’ve never seen that truly to be the case on an individual level. We know of people with extraordinarily physically severe disabilities living vastly successful lives – some far more successful than able-bodied counterparts. So, then, where does broken enter the lives of those with disabilities?

Interestingly, broken enters the lives of those with disabilities in the same way as it effects everyone else: Emotionally. See, broken isn’t an exterior condition; it’s an inner one.

If you think about our physical states as individuals, they’re so diverse and so easily compensated for – I simply use a wheelchair because I can’t walk – that it becomes all but impossible to define a physical condition as broken. Yet, where broken enters our lives – for everyone – is when we don’t feel worthy enough, when we don’t like who we are, when we feel like our lives aren’t heading where we’ve dreamt, when we feel haunted by the past, when we feel like we can’t meet others’ expectations, when we don’t feel deserving of others’ love, when we feel incomplete. These feelings – these excruciating emotional struggles – are when we’re truly broken.

I’m very fortunate to often find myself genuinely connecting with those around me, even in casual settings, and as one of my best friends warned an acquaintance as we were socializing, “Mark’s not exactly known for light conversations – they tend to go deep.” And, he’s right – because I know that there’s a common humanity among us, where no matter who we are, or where we’re from, we all share common experience – including having been broken. What’s poignant to me is that when I share with others our common struggles with identity, self-worth, longing, and so on – all of the emotions that cause us to be broken at points in our lives – it’s universally human.

Surely, when we’re broken, it’s telling us that something is wrong, that our lives aren’t heading in the directions we wish. Sometimes being broken is based initially on uncontrollable circumstances; other times, it’s based on our own actions and poor decisions; and, yet other times it’s based on a compounding of all of the above. But, regardless of the causes, here’s what’s striking about being broken: It’s the gateway toward moving our lives in the right directions, it’s the opportunity to realign the paths of our lives to what we wish and deserve. Objects can be shattered to the point of beyond repair; but, not so the human spirit – there’s always the ability to restore and rebuild it, often to greater capacities than previously known.

I know, moving through that gateway from being broken toward wholeness is the toughest challenge we’ll ever face in life. I’ve been broken, and collecting the shattered pieces, trying to figure out how to make myself whole again at points in my life has never been quick or easy – sometimes it’s been like trying to put together a 1,000 piece puzzle with not even a picture of it to help chart the task. And, while there’s no universal answer to rebuilding ourselves from being broken – for some, time heals all; for others, personal space helps regain perspective; and, for yet others, formal processes like counseling help – we know that honesty is the first step toward repairing what’s broken, where despite our fears, shame, and hurt, we must maintain gut-wrenching honesty with ourselves and everyone around us about what we’re going through. If we avoid the candor of being broken, we can’t address it. It’s like ignoring anything that’s broken – it can’t fix itself. However, in merely our admission of being broken, we begin healing. See, when we allow others in, to truly know us – broken, as we may be – we begin to liberate ourselves in that process.

And, what I’ve learned most about being broken is that it ultimately plays an empowering role in our lives: Being broken allows us to clearly see the individual pieces of our truest essence, ones that we can eventually put back together however needed in order to achieve our hopes and dreams – finding ourselves whole, fulfilled, and content in the end.

When the Drinking was Done

By Mark E. Smith

“Alcohol and I had many, many marvelous times together. We laughed, we talked, we danced at the party together; then one day I woke up and the band had gone home….” –Harry Crews

I wrote one of my all-time favorite pieces, a short-short story on my quitting sporadic drinking, about a year ago, and never published it. Why? The answer was because I didn’t think that I could live up to it – quitting drinking for good, that is:

When the Drinking was Done (Original)
I asked the hotel concierge – a woman in her 60s, no less – where I could drink in complete anonymity, and she told me to go up to Peachtree Street, hang a right, and look for the shamrock sign over the sidewalk. No, it wasn’t my normal mode of operation by any stretch, but we just have to be honest about these things – especially with ourselves. I didn’t want a party or dressed-up chicks like usual; I just wanted a night of quiet, having been on the road for days, speaking at a conference on one side of the country, then working a trade show on the other. The noise builds up in me – the retention of events and all of the introspection, where I just want quietness, the type I only get from writing in solitude. But, that night, there was to be no writing – just a drink alone, then bed. So, I headed up to Peachtree, hung a right, found the shamrock sign, and a homeless guy opened the door for me. The place was empty – just two guys and a “barman,” as the “bartender” is called in these types of pubs. With my power wheelchair’s seat elevated, I rolled up to the bar, picked up a stool, and set it aside. The barman and two guys just watched. My knees tucked perfectly under the bar – an ideal. “I’ll have a double shot of Southern Comfort, warm, please,” I said to the barman. He set a tumbler glass in front of me, grabbed the bottle, poured the drink to maybe three or four shots, and without thinking twice, grabbed a straw, placing it in my glass. He stepped back as if to see what I was going to do, and I could see via my peripheral vision the two guys just staring at me. I placed my lips on the straw, and downed the glass full, in a single, drawn sip. The barman grabbed the bottle of Southern Comfort, refilled my glass, and said in a strong Irish accent, “This one’s on me.” It was a fine night – they all are on such terms – and when I awoke the following morning, glancing out my hotel window, the quiet was gone, and I knew so had to be gone the drinking – for good this time.

I wrote that literal, biographical short-short story with the intention that my drinking days were done. However, in my public position, if you’re going to tell the world that you’ve stopped drinking – you’d better darn well give up drinking entirely, forever – or everyone will see you as the ultimate hypocrite. If you’re a closet drinker – even an alcoholic – and you vow to yourself that you’re giving up drinking, there’s no real consequence if you don’t live up to it (other than the consequences on your own life). However, if you’re a social drinker like me, and write an essay to thousands of readers that you’ve given up drinking altogether, you’d better do it – as people are watching when you’re out on the town or on the road. Based on this reality, where my written words are in blood, so to speak, I could never get away with publishing an essay on quitting drinking unless I really did.

For the reason of integrity, I never published a piece on quitting drinking because… well… I never quit drinking! That is, despite my truly wanting to give up drinking entirely a year ago, and writing the original piece, I knew that I wasn’t ready — good times on the road, and the occasional flirtatious woman at a party or bar were so linked to a drink or two that I wasn’t prepared to give up those fleeting good feelings that came with booze. But, I also knew that at some point I’d be ready, that I’d have to give up the booze entirely. I felt so much personal guilt about even rarely drinking, that it lingered with me for days, weeks, and months after even one drink – and that wasn’t healthy. I had to just give up drinking entirely at some point.

While my own history with alcohol is one of moderation – I’ve never drank at home, my daughter never saw me drunk, and so on – the history of substance abuse around me has always been present: My great-grandparents were alcoholics, my grandparents were alcoholics and addicts, my parents were alcoholics, my ex-wife was an addict, many of my friends have been alcoholics – and I’ve seen all of their lives harmed or destroyed. And, the question I’ve wrestled with is, How can I see so many lives destroyed by alcohol and addiction, and still touch a drop myself? It’s like playing with fire when you know it burns.

With that said, I’ve had a lot of mixed feelings about my best times drinking, where I look at them with both guilt and fondness. It’s a juxtaposition that I suppose most drinkers face when they stop. I grew up with parents who were Skid Row drunks, so I’ve always known the realities of alcoholism, right down to my family’s demise and my parents’ deaths. In fact, I didn’t drink until I was 33 – that’s how freaked out I was by alcohol. However, once I started drinking, my association with alcohol literally went from the horrific to the glamorous. In my mid 30s, drinking was no longer about Mom neglecting me as a child because she was drunk, or Dad drinking himself to death; rather, drinking was now about high society, where I was at lavish social events, with beautiful people – and drinking just made it all the better. A few shots of Southern Comfort added a glossy sheen to my vision, where I felt relaxed, suave – everything more engaging, like going from watching a movie to actually being in the scene.

But, then, there was always the next morning, then week, then month where I didn’t drink, but the guilt and hypocrisy of such nights stuck with me – too much so. There was always a haunting issue in my mind, where I always knew that I have to be either assuming entire sobriety, or be unrepentant about drinking – and to try to justify living in-between was hypocritical. Sure, I realize that lots of people drink socially, and it’s not an issue. But, for me, I could never roll that line: I was either stone sober or drinking – and I couldn’t be both. Again, if I wanted to keep drinking, then I’d have to learn to be unrepentant in it, not feel guilt, not relive pains of my past, not look in the mirror and see my father staring at me, not see the hurt of a child in my own eyes looking back. But, I’ve witnessed too many around me destroyed by alcoholism and addiction, and for me to glamourize drinking in my own life, knowing all of the hurt washed down with it, seemed not just hypocritical, but morbid.

Cartoonist, John Callahan’s, later years and death have also had a profound effect on my journey toward sobriety. John was a hardcore alcoholic – it’s what led to the car crash that caused his paralysis – and he sobered up some years later, not touching a drop for decades. Despite his in-your-face antics and work, he noted that sobriety added a peace and strength to his life, not the guilt and angst he felt when he drank. If John maintained sobriety – turning off the guilt and angst – so could I.

The catalyst for me to publish this piece – that is, to sign on the page in blood that I’m done drinking for good – is really just where I’m at in life. I’m a 40-year-old, full-time single dad, focused on my career and simply trying to do right by everyone, including myself – and I have to get it all right. I’ve seen too many lives around me destroyed by alcohol, felt too much guilt and pain in myself for too long in even having an occasional drink – and I’ve deemed, Enough is enough with the booze at any level – don’t want it, don’t need it, the drinking is done. Is it a bold declaration? Maybe. Will it remove all of my unsettling feeling surrounding alcohol in my past, dating as far back as I can remember as a child? Certainly not. But, is it a move in the right direction for me to make? Absolutely. It’s one of those situations where if something isn’t working – if it’s inducing guilt, pain, shame, and hurt – stop doing it! Sometimes we just have to man-up and take accountability in ways others may not fully understand, where we say, F- it, I’m going above and beyond simply because it’s the right move to make, and I don’t care what the world thinks. And, I’ve finally said in my own life, F- it, the drinking is done, and I’ve done it for me. …All alone – after all.

At this writing, I have a speaking engagement this week in Fargo, North Dakota. I asked someone from Fargo what’s there to do in town?

“Drink,” he jokingly said. “We have more bars than anything else.”

“Perfect,” I replied. “I’ll have time to read in my hotel room, then.”

The Glory of Vulnerability

By Mark E. Smith

I wasn’t the least bit uncomfortable about it, nor was she. See, there I was, all dressed up to give a talk in front of a corporate group, but I was presented with a pre-talk lunch served by our gracious host, consisting of sushi rolls. I knew from the very sight of the rice-covered sushi rolls that, due to my poor coordination, there was no way that I could get them from the table to my mouth without rice and who knows what else ending up on my neatly-pressed pants….

So, I had two choices: One, I could simply not eat; or, two, I could have the courage to ask for help.

With little hesitation, I asked for help because it’s just as important to me to acknowledge my vulnerabilities as it is my strengths – that is, I want those around me to know my entirety, not just selected parts. I wouldn’t be true to myself or those around me if I only showed my strengths, and didn’t admit any limitations of my disability, my vulnerabilities.

Fortunately, my asking for help was easy in that instance based on the fact that a dear colleague of mine was with me, who’s traveled with me quite a bit, so asking her for a helping hand was natural. What’s interesting, though, is that getting to that comfort level – where I could turn to my colleague and say, “Would you mind feeding me my sushi, so I don’t get it on my clothes?” – took time and candor to evolve. On her part, my colleague’s sincere, genuine nature has been touching, and she’s proved truly intuitive in getting to know me as a person, disability and beyond – all of which speaks to the exceptional qualities of her character. However, I’ve likewise have had the openness not to hide any of my vulnerabilities – the realities of my disability – from her. She knows that I drink through a straw, I squirm in airplane seats to shift weight off of my rear, and can be a bit messy when I eat, and on and on. I am who I am, and I trust that my comfort in living with my vulnerabilities – where I don’t display only the so-called best of me, but the true me, flaws, spasms, and all! – has likewise made her more comfortable. None of us are perfect; we all need help at some point in our lives. And, allowing others to see our vulnerabilities is a positive trait, one that unifies, where asking for help and helping others is an inspiring exchange. We don’t get through life alone, and sharing our vulnerabilities is a key that we all need in living a life that allows us to truly connect with others in the most genuine ways.

Interestingly, researchers scoured the globe for the one aspect that most connects us with others – that is, what forms the deepest, most meaningful relationships on all levels? – and allowing ourselves to express our vulnerabilities topped the list. Vulnerabilities, it proves, are only weaknesses when we won’t admit them. However, when we admit our vulnerabilities, they become strengths because we’re showing ourselves to others in the most genuine ways – and that forms the most open connections with others, the sincerest relationships.

Of course, it’s easy to know why many people hide their vulnerabilities: They’re scared that others won’t accept them in their entirety, that others will judge them. But, this rarely proves the case. The basis of sharing vulnerabilities is formed within honesty and results in our fully opening ourselves up to others – and those are the foundations of healthy relationships. When we live freely with our vulnerabilities, we allow others to accept us wholly, and we accept others wholly, as well (if I expect you to accept my vulnerabilities, I likewise must accept yours, and we’re two perfectly imperfect people connecting on the sincerest level). But, here’s what’s really important: When we express vulnerabilities with others, we’re acknowledging our vulnerabilities within ourselves, and it’s the self-acknowledgment of our vulnerabilities – not denial! – that allows us to live healthier lives.

Addiction and recovery proves an enlightening study in how vulnerability can kill us or liberate us – sometimes literally – all based on whether we admit vulnerabilities. For example, an addict in the clinches of use, will never admit vulnerabilities. An addict won’t admit to causation, won’t express genuine feelings, will try to justify even the worst decisions, and will lie about everything under the sun, including lying to his or herself. That is, addicts run and hide from vulnerabilities via substance abuse – and, at best, it disconnects them from meaningful relationships, and, at worst, it literally kills them.

However, recovering addicts do just the opposite – they admit and address vulnerabilities. Think about the first words spoken by everyone at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting: I’m Joe, and I’m an alcoholic. Admitting the vulnerability of addiction – that is, being honest and candid – liberates and connects. There’s remarkable empowerment in it. And, when getting into deep models of recovery, acknowledging the vulnerabilities that lead to the addiction – past traumas and such – is yet another way of profound recovery. That is, the only way addicts stop using is by acknowledging and addressing the underlying vulnerabilities that cause the addictive behavior in the first place.

In our personal lives, hiding behind our vulnerabilities – or, denying them through self-justification – is extremely dangerous, defeating so many potentials in our life: I’ve been hurt in a past relationship, so I’m not going to trust anyone again…. I don’t want to be seen as weak, so I’m not going to apologize…. I’m not going to show all of me because others will judge me…. Really, what such a closed emotional state says is, Overall, I’m going to self-sabotage meaningful relationships because I’m so scared to reveal my vulnerabilities – my complete self – to others.

It is astounding how painful and self-defeating it can be in not allowing ourselves to be vulnerable. At the very least, most of us can relate with the inner-conflict that occurs when we want to reach out to someone, but don’t out of the fear of feeling vulnerable – maybe it’s asking someone on a date, maybe it’s calling an estranged family member or loved-one to try to patch things up, or maybe it’s sharing one’s true feelings with a good friend. I’ve struggled with all of these – and continue to at times! – but what I’ve learned is that while there’s always the risk of the other person not being receptive, there’s also the more likely possibility that the other person will be receptive. And, the real reward in this process of overcoming our fears of vulnerability is that we’ve at least had the integrity to act on our true feelings, with sincere intent, living openly in every way – and that’s liberating, regardless of the final outcome.

The fact is, there’s a universal bond in the truth that none of us are perfect, that we all have vulnerabilities – and some are scary to admit to ourselves and others. Yet, when we live freely with our vulnerabilities, acknowledged by ourselves and shared with those close to us, we not only allow others to know us completely, but we’re far more open and accepting of others – and that builds connections of lasting trust and meaning. I have vulnerabilities, you have vulnerabilities, and it’s all OK. Let us live fully as perfectly imperfect people – with our glorious vulnerabilities exposed! – and our self-acceptance and relationships will flourish.

Will It Kill Me?

By Mark E. Smith

Is it literally going to kill me – and, if not, then I’m going through with it for my own betterment and growth. This is the code I strive to live by.

I’ve most recently been tested on this mindset, where I’ve admittedly become obsessed with riding my 6-wheel-drive, amphibious ATV on the 110 acres adjacent to my home. After my obligations for the day are done, I go out to my garage, put on full moto gear, fire up the ATV, and roar up the “Mountain Trail,” as I’ve nicknamed it. I’ve been getting faster and faster on the wooded trail sections, seeing how quickly I can slalom around the oaks without nailing a tree; and, I climb and descend hills too steep and tall to walk up or down.

At times, maybe I’m pushing myself and my vehicle to the very limits, where I drive up to the edge of embankments so high and steep that I can’t see the Earth past my ATV’s hood – just the sky straight ahead – and I summon the courage to simply drive off, where I trust that my driving skills, my vehicle, and the terrain will allow me to make it down unscathed. And, no matter how risky or uncertain a circumstance has seemed, overcoming my fear and tackling terrain I never imagined that I could, has never let me down, proving enormously liberating, where I’m pushing my mind and body far past previous barriers, to great personal growth, where if I can overcome fear and obstacles in my ATV, it carries over into my everyday life. If it’s literally not going to kill me – flying cross country alone for business, giving a talk in front of hundreds of people, being as open and honest as possible with those around me, tackling a seemingly impossible independent living skill, driving my ATV off of a several-hundred-foot-tall embankment, or any other anxiety-filled life experience – I’m going to do it, period. After all, if it won’t literally kill me, then there’s no valid excuse not to push myself forward.

Interestingly, I’ve observed that the process of moving forward once in motion is easy – it’s summonsing the courage to make the decision to initiate momentum in life that’s hard. Trust me, I’ve sat atop embankments – both in my ATV and in life, wanting to twist the throttle and just go for it – where fear had a grip on me, daring me to overcome it. Yet, once I’ve said to heck with fear, and just gunned it, my life in any circumstance has flourished. So, it’s the “saying to heck with fear” aspect that really proves the hardest part of change and growth. Life is really just one, big twelve-step program, where committing to the process of change is the hardest – and most crucial – part.

A lot of times we know what we should do – or must do – but committing to doing it, where we know there’s no turning back, can prove the hardest moves we ever make. It’s among the scariest questions in life – that is, should I or shouldn’t I? – in committing to decisions. I recently had the amazing opportunity to participate as a volunteer at an adaptive water sports clinic by Champions Made From Adversity in Georgia – a fantastic organization. Our crew was one of around six boats pulling those of all types of disabilities on tubes and sit-skis. What astounded me was that, as a seasoned boater myself, I know lots of “able-bodied” people who won’t tube or water ski out of fear. Yet, there I was in Georgia, with peers of all ages and disabilities, who were overcoming all fear to simply tackle what in many cases they never imagined doing – that is, with limited use over one’s body, putting one’s trust in a situation that was literally dragging them into the unknown: Heading out into a gigantic, deep lake at speed, bucking and bouncing, not knowing if they would drown (lifeguards on jetskis did parallel every run, so when someone fell out, rescue was immediate).

What I witnessed was that not only wasn’t anyone harmed – even when they fell out! – but the participants were actually empowered by the experience of overcoming their fear. Make no mistake, some were terrified getting in the tube – it was the hardest part of the process for them – but they still did it. And, we had the privilege of watching their lives change at 20 mph behind a boat, where they realized the liberation of, If it won’t kill me, I’m going to attempt it in an effort to better myself, even if I’m initially terrified.

Just like those with great trepidation to get into the tube at the adaptive water sports clinic, I’ve sat atop harrowing embankments in my ATV, hand on throttle, for minutes at a time, where it’s taken all of my courage to simply gun it, dropping into the unknown – but, I’ve always done it, landing tougher and more confident at the bottom. Yet, what I’ve grown to know is that overcoming short-term fear and stress is the catalyst for long-term growth and success, that getting past fear leads to liberation, no matter in the physical, emotional, or interpersonal. Much like I’ve learned that I can survive descending and climbing through the steepest ravines in my ATV, I can do the same in life, where overcoming initial fear will bring me to amazing vistas.

I wonder, what are you not tackling in your own life simply out of fear of the unknown? If you attempt it, will it literally kill you? If not, then there’s truly nothing stopping you from pursuing what you’ve thought too impractical, scary, or impossible – you, too, can summons the courage, no matter what you’re facing, to not just tackle the unknown, but to actually thrive in the attempt. Once we push beyond anxiety toward change – albeit, physical, emotional, interpersonal, or all in one – and propel ourselves forward in positive directions, the personal rewards are astounding: Vistas in our life appear that we never knew existed.

Telling Our Daughters

By Mark E. Smith

As the father of a 14-year-old, I often find myself in an odd predicament. Whenever I show someone her picture, or she’s with me at an event, people graciously note how beautiful she is. And, while I sincerely appreciate such comments, thanking them, I never really say what I’m thinking: You really have no idea how beautiful she is.

See, as with all 14-year-old girls, my daughter’s beauty isn’t based on her exterior facade that conforms to a symmetrical face, slim stature, and flowing hair that pop-culture idolizes, but a beauty that’s within – that which is inherent within all young ladies. My daughter exhibits remarkable loyalty to her friends, where her sense of popularity at school isn’t about who wears what, or who knows whom, but that everyone is her friend, where she reaches out to others based on the quality of their characters, not so-called “status.” And, she exhibits a remarkable sense of empathy, where if one of her friend’s family is going through personal struggles – divorce, job loss, abuse – she finds ways that she can help comfort that friend in times of need.

My job, of course, as her father is not just to support my daughter, but to have very direct conversations with her about how proud I am of her, that she’s inherently beautiful, that I want to support her growth into a strong, independent, emotionally healthy young woman. Researchers have proven that a woman’s most formative years toward her lifelong self-esteem and identity are in her teens – and it’s a make-or-break time for fathers who will shape, for better or for worse, their daughters’ identities.

Yet, our obligation toward building life-inspiring self-esteem in young ladies in their teens can’t stop with our own daughters, but must be extended to others we meet. The fact is, when women enter their 20s with low self-esteem, it’s often too late for any of us to have an impact. We know that low self-esteem established in the teen years often manifests itself in a woman’s adult life through destructive relationships with men – from as subtle as being controlled and having little voice in a relationship, to as blatant as abuse – and through alarming forms of “self-medication” ranging from drugs and alcohol to promiscuity. The fact is, when women need outside stimuli to feel validated, as opposed to simply knowing their intrinsic strength and beauty from within, so much of their potential is lost, where no matter how much we strive to help such an adult woman recognize her inherent beauty, the emotional scars are usually so thick that it’s among life’s toughest hurdles to overcome.

It’s for these reasons why we should all reach out to young ladies in their formative teen years, where they’re still open to seeing their intrinsic beauty, where as mothers and fathers, aunts and uncles, teachers and coaches, we should never pass on showing a teen her intrinsic beauty while we still have the opportunity to truly make a difference with strikingly simple but vital words of encouragement.

As a father himself, Rene Szalay of Ki Mobility, recently presented me with a remarkable opportunity to hopefully make a difference in a young lady’s life. I first met Rene 22 years ago at an adaptive sports camp in Chico, California. I graduated high school a few weeks before the camp, so it was my first real foray into the “wheelchair world.” Rene, however, was four years older than me, and a literal star in the wheelchair tennis world. At the camp, I witnessed how the teens looked up to Rene, and I realized the impact that we can each have on the young people around us – it was a powerful lesson in inspiration. For the following 22 years, I never crossed paths with Rene again; yet, his presence at that camp stuck with me.

Recently, while working an Abilities Expo, I joined fellow mobility industry colleagues after hours – everyone usually hangs out together regardless of our companies and roles – and Rene was among this particular group, gracious enough to note that he is a bit of a fan of my work. As I’m typically wound a bit over-the-top, I ended up horsing around with the group, and didn’t get a chance to see if Rene remembered Chico, 22 years earlier? However, the following day, true to Rene’s character that I recalled, he showed up at my booth with a 14-year-old young lady and her mother, noting that they really should speak with me. I had no idea what it was about, but I know that guys like Rene and I put people before products, and if he left his booth to bring the daughter and mother to my booth, it probably wasn’t product-related.

The young lady had cerebral palsy, and used a manual wheelchair. In typical 40-year-old-dad fashion, I asked her what her favorite subjects in school were and such – the cliché questions we use to build some rapport. However, eventually what came out was that she was struggling socially in school, that she didn’t feel like she fit in as the only one with a disability among her classmates. I told her a bit about my being the lone student with a disability when I was her age, and how my own daughter and her peers likewise struggle with questions of identity, that other young ladies feel just as insecure, but some just hide it better than others (adults are no exception at that, either!). Yet, what I mostly discussed with her was who she really was, loving Shakespeare and classical music – amazing for a 14-year-old. And, as I told her, I was in awe of her intellect and wisdom, that beyond her adorable appearance – complete with pink highlighted bangs on her blond hair – her inherent beauty shined, that there was no doubt that she would go on to do great things. “Concentrate on developing who you truly are, avoiding the no-win game of trying to fit a made-up social mold,” I shared. “Being exactly like everyone else in life gets us no where – we just blend into a crowd, or live to other people’s bland standards. But, being yourself, where your unique gifts and beauty shines, is where you thrive in the world. You are beautiful, just as everyone is in their unique ways, and your intellect and wisdom are going to propel you to an amazing, impacting life. …It only gets better from here.”

I’m known for pulling people aside and having extremely candid conversations, where I’m not bashful about laying the cards on the table if I see someone struggling in emotional pain or going down destructive paths, where I’ll share that there are healthy ways to get one’s life back on track. Again, though, with adults, such talks usually have little effect beyond the moment because one person’s caring can’t overcome the other person’s lifetime of pain – serious work must be done, and few adults have the capacity, tools, and will to shift their lives (and when it is done to a meaningful level – ridding dysfunctional behaviors – formal counseling is typically involved).

However, we know that the door is still wide open on teenagers, where adult mentors can show a 14-year-old young lady her inherent beauty and it truly registers. If you have a young lady in your life, don’t pass on those moments that emphasize her inherent beauty, where you help polish the strengths that she’ll use to live a healthy, happy, impacting life.