A few days ago I was sitting on the bus, scrolling through my Facebook feed when I see an eye-catching headline posted by People magazine: Flesh-Eating Bacteria Survivor on Finding a New Life.
Flesh-eating bacteria survivor?? How could I resist that?
One click took me to the story of Aimee Copeland, a 28-year-old aspiring non-profit entrepreneur who lost all four limbs in a freak accident four years ago. Aimee had been zip-lining across a river running through her small Georgia hometown when the line snapped and she fell 6 feet, landing on the rocks below. Sporting a deep gash in her left leg, Aimee’s friends took her to a nearby hospital where the doctors stitched her up and sent her home.
Three days later, Aimee was re-admitted to the hospital when she woke up with a left leg rotted through to her thigh and blood blisters on her face. The young college student had contracted necrotizing fasciitis – a flesh-eating disease caused by bacteria attacking the deep layers of skin and subcutaneous tissue. The disease spreads rapidly, and by the time doctors got to Aimee, the only way to save her life was to amputate all four limbs. Her arms end a few inches below the elbows; her right leg ends below the knee, and her left leg was amputated at the hip.
That was in 2012. In 2016, Aimee is living a happy life in Georgia. She has finished a master’s degree in social work and plans to open her own community center for people with disabilities. She is dating a new boyfriend (she ended her relationship with the man she had been dating at the time of her accident in 2014), and she spends her downtime cooking, kayaking, and cruising around in a custom-built van.
As Aimee herself says, “I’ve let go of the girl I was before. I’ve completely embraced who I am now.”
I clicked off the story and spent the rest of the bus ride – and the days since – in some sense of contemplation. As many of us are undoubtedly aware, there is knowing something, and then there is knowing something.
I have known for a long time that happiness is a conscious choice. I even tried to coin a bumper sticker phrase once: Happiness is a choice, not a circumstance. But do I really know it? Meaning, do I fully and wholeheartedly believe it? That is a tougher question to answer.
Made even more so by a mental exercise I forced myself to undertake on the bus after reading Aimee’s story: if that horrible accident had happened to me, how would I have handled it? I’m sure everyone has tried this a time or two before – we read or see something about another person’s situation, and we ask ourselves that question: what would I have done if it were me? And I’m sure, pretty much every time we ask ourselves that question, we have brushed it aside with a flippant oh, I would have done this for sure.
I tried to not let myself do that. I tried to really think about it. Living as I have these past several months, with the clouds of depression lurking right behind me all the time, I wondered: how would I have handled it? Really. Truly.
And I know I would have given up. One step can send me whirlpooling down into a cave of depression. One thought. One sentence. One turn of my head. That’s all it takes sometimes, and then I’m barely holding on for days. There is no way I could cope with the loss of all four limbs, and, later, the loss of a longtime partner. I would have gotten myself to a roof and then wheelchaired right off the edge.
That’s depressing in and of itself, but also, in my case, a return to something I know, and something I need to learn how to really know. There is always a choice. Always. Sometimes the options aren’t great, but there are still options to choose from. Aimee could have done the whole wheelchair-off-the-roof thing, or she could have chosen to live her life to the fullest, and not let her physical limitations define what she can and cannot accomplish.
I have read other articles and blog posts about living with depression, and people who choose to fight it, who choose to live a life that is more than this illness, and I try to draw courage from those stories, but it is so easy for me to take a deep breath and say yay for them, but my situation is different. What I need is a kick in the butt and a reminder that taking a deep breath and relegating my depression to the “I’m different” category is a choice too.
And every day is a choice. When I wake up in the morning, I have to make a choice: do I get out of bed, or do I bury myself under the covers and slip back into the oblivion of depression-fueled sleep? Some days, that choice is easier to make than others, but it is still there every single day. And I can ignore that choice, but the act of ignoring it is, in fact, a choice.
Therefore, I have to know that living with the illness of depression is a series of choices. Every day, and all day long, I need to make choices. And I want to choose happiness. I want to be like Aimee Copeland and choose to live my life to the fullest.
So here is my first choice: do I fight? Or give up?
Many thanks to Aimee Copeland for being such an inspiration, and for sharing your story. Stay strong, girl!