In the summer of 1995, I broke my neck in a swimming pool accident and became paralyzed from the chest down. My friends rescued me as I was about to drown. I was 24 years old.

After over two decades of struggle and burdening those close to me while attempting to survive on the meager benefits that we severely disabled individuals receive from our federal government — which are not handouts, but benefits we earn with our work — I faced a difficult decision. With the options of homelessness or wasting away in a nursing home at age 47, I made the radical decision to move out of the United States to, literally, save my life.

No one is immune from a catastrophic accident. I clearly remember reading about Christopher Reeves’ accident the week before I broke my neck and thinking how terrible that must be. The idea that it could happen to me never crossed my mind.

Going from being fiercely independent to depending on others for absolutely everything, including the most basic needs, was not only humbling but also humiliating. I suppose that explains my suicide attempt, trying to consume an overdose of prescription pills shortly after my accident. I didn’t succeed because my virtually useless hands couldn’t reach enough pills to swallow.

Before my accident, I was a carefree party girl. And I guess by “carefree,” I mean “self-centered.” I never really got involved in politics because I was blind to its effects on the everyday lives of so many. It took breaking my neck to realize how cruel our system truly is.

Detailing my harrowing struggles of the past 23 years would take much longer than the 700 words allowed for this op-ed, so I will go straight to my point: what I consider to be my new mission in life, which is to educate my fellow Americans about the silent struggle of the disabled in the United States. It might be silent to you, but we’re screaming. I’ve lost count of the number of people I know in similar situations whose backup plan is suicide.

I was delusional enough to always hope things would get better, that somehow the system would become more humane and inclusive, but when I saw candidate Donald Trump openly and cruelly mock a disabled reporter (then insult our collective intelligence by denying it) and become president regardless of his cruelty not only toward the disabled but also toward immigrants and minorities, not to mention his chauvinistic views of women, I knew things would not get better. This was confirmed to me when the current administration went after the Americans With Disabilities Act. Such unnecessary cruelty.

I’m endlessly amazed by how little most Americans know about the struggles of our disabled brothers and sisters. I, for example, am expected to pay for rent, food, bills and my Medicare premium on less than $1,000 a month.

The problem isn’t that we don’t have enough resources to take care of our most vulnerable citizens; it’s that we don’t prioritize humanely. Just to cite one example: Most disabled Americans get grossly inadequate care for their basic needs, while estimates of federal production and exploration subsidies to the fossil fuel industries top $20 billion per year. That’s money that the industries no longer need since technology is more advanced now than during the era when those subsidies were created. It merely enriches obscenely wealthy executives.

The ugliness we’ve seen in the last couple of years should not be accepted as normal. On our deathbeds, would we wish we hated more? I’ve been close to dying on a few occasions and I guarantee that is not what you will wish as you exit this adventure called life.

Looking back at the way I used to see life before my accident and the way I see it these days, I understand why I needed to have this experience. The selfish party girl developed a deep sense of empathy and compassion for other sentient beings after breaking her neck and becoming paralyzed. I wouldn’t trade that for anything.

Shannon Nelson was born and raised in Gorham and now lives overseas. At the time of the accident in which she became paralyzed from the chest down, she worked as a dental assistant, which she considered her dream job.


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