Melissa and Shay

How Positive Thinking Changed My Life

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I was wearing my seatbelt at the time of the accident. A senior undergraduate student at Queen’s University, I would have never known that this catastrophic accident would shift the course of my life forever. Just before I went unconscious, the doctor that saved my life asked me, “Do you not want to die, or do you want to live?”  This question has become one of the most pivotal of my life, and a question for which I am grateful. “YES.” I want to live, and today, I want to share how thinking positively changed my life.

I am incredibly proud to say that the year 2012 marks 10 years since the accident. Most importantly, I am thriving in my life not just surviving it. As a woman with disabilities, I live on my own, am completing my Master’s degree this winter, own a home and have a life that I love. I make a difference through the work I do, in my advocacy, through my Canadian Federation of University Women Access Award, and through sharing my own story with others.

You always have choices, in any situation. If I had not chosen to think positively from the time of my accident, my life would have turned out very differently; perhaps, I would not even be writing this today.

The accident happened in Savannah, Georgia on the way to a sailing trip with four of my university friends. Both passengers on the right side of the vehicle died on impact, the driver broke her arm and her leg, another broke her thumb, and I, well I spent a total of 1460 days of my life in hospitals. Just like that, I went from being a vital, active and self-sufficient 22 year old woman, to a woman who would live the rest of her life catastrophically impaired. Today, I live with over 90% of my body injured.

I had over 100 internal and orthopaedic surgeries, learned to walk again in multiple stages, replaced my knees and ankles replaced and took one and a half years to learn to eat on my own again. The hospital environment was a negative one. I knew very quickly that I would have to generate the energy and power to heal my way out of the hospital system. And, so I did.

I developed six steps that turned a negative set of circumstances into a positive set. These steps served me both while in hospital, and when I went through another transition upon being released. You see, when I got out of the hospital, I faced a new set of hurdles. There was only me directing my recovery and my state of mind. The support of the hospital staff and experts were gone. There’s always only you, but it is far more obvious when you’re physically alone or when its up to you to direct and manage your caregivers.

Here are the six steps that define my approach to positive living, and help me heal.

Develop a power perspective. One of my strengths is my mind. I may have physical limitations but I choose how I see things. It’s developing a power perspective that had me see things as a winner, in spite of any circumstances. I don’t focus on what I can’t do, I focus on what I can and what I am achieving.

Learn to define and redefine. Similar to my first step to positive living, I truly believe that you define your own terms. Yes, we inherit some, but we all have the power to choose a new definition, one which empowers us. It’s a practice I will never give up, and just when I notice myself focused on a disempowering context, I redefine it in a new light.

Acknowledge and accept that thriving cannot be achieved alone. This step is critical. Life becomes so much less fulfilling and enjoyable when you do everything alone. We are not meant to function alone, we were born into families, communities, and societies. And so I realized early in my healing process that I couldn’t get through it alone, and I needed a team of experts and caregivers. Today, I maintain a team of 30 people that support my thriving.

Implement structures to accommodate personal space needs. We all need a place of refuge; a place of solace; a place where we can recharge, regroup, relax and let ourselves be ourselves. I found that when I didn’t have a space of my own – like when I was in hospitals – it was easy to forget who I was and what I need. Today, my spaces always reflect who I am and what I value. It supports me in keeping a peaceful and positive frame of mind.

Reorganize and re-socialize. Coping with change and adversity can be very difficult. When I went from a perfectly normal and functioning young woman to a hospital bed for years, I had to reorganize my sense of self. Socializing can also take a lot of energy so I had to be mindful of how I spent my energy. Socializing is a huge part of thriving. So I found I had to reorganize how I contributed to others in my new state and how they inturn would contribute to me. Today, I have found a multitude of new and meaningful ways to socialize with friends and family from book clubs to time at the cottage.

Contribute to others and the community. There is nothing that draws healing and positive energy back into your life than giving it to others. Contribution is a very important part of my life. My life’a mission is to advocate accessibility for disabled people, spread my message about choosing to thrive not just survive and to empower others to live their fullest life regardless of their circumstances.

I chose to want more for myself and more out of life than a lonely and disabled existence. I began looking to achieve that in any way possible. I stopped thinking about what I couldn’t achieve and focused on celebrating what I could. I looked only for the things that provided happiness and fulfillment. That included the people I surrounded myself by. It was time to be selective about the friends, family members and colleagues I surrounded myself with. And from that point forward, I only did work and jobs that made me happy. It was like being born again. No more obligation, the power of choice and positive thinking was my new kryptonite.

For me, happiness is doing what fulfills me. It’s a lifestyle, it’s a philosophy, it’s a way of life. It’s not luck, it’s not outside of my control, it’s within me to source at all times. I’m extremely proud of that choice, and continuing to choose to live and be happy every day I wake up.

My future is still as uncertain as anyone else’s. And, when I’m dealing with lemons, I have the choice to make lemonade or lemon marring pie. I still struggle day to day, from chronic pain and fatigue, digestive problems, to orthopedic issues so that I can function as best I can. Yet, I choose my lemons, and I chose my disabilities, and I choose to celebrate and contribute everything I still have to offer this world while I am here. I’m only just getting started.

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  1. Pingback: Melissa Vassallo » PRESS RELEASE: Melissa Vassallo Receives Honourary Medal

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