Promoting Personal Growth Through the Disability Experience
Carolyn L. Vash, Ph.D.
Clinical Psychologist and Author of Forthcoming Book
Personality and Adversity: Psycho-Spiritual Aspects of Rehabilitation
Sacred psychology is the practice of soulmakingÄnot
necessarily a happy thing. As seedmaking begins with the
wounding of the ovum by the sperm, so does soulmaking begin
with the wounding of the psyche by the larger story.
Soulmaking requires that you die to one story to be reborn to
a larger one. The psyche opens and new questions are asked
about who we are in our depths.
When psychological energy is no longer bonded to social
forms, depth images and archetypes can have their day. Whether
they serve to madden or illumine is up to us. As the "ties
that bind" loosen in our culture and in our psyche, the
incidence of woundings accelerates and comes in many guises:
physical woundings, acts of violation, losses. Suffering
cracks the boundaries of what you thought you could bear.
The wounding becomes sacred when we are willing to
release our old stories and become the vehicles through which
a new story may emerge. When we fail to do this, we repeat the
same old story. Sacred wounding marks the core of all great
Western stories, from Adam's rib to Jesus' crucifixion.
In our woundings we are forced to move in new
directions, to face what had been hidden to consciousness, to
be pruned of primal growth so that we may bear fruit. Instead
of discrediting the phenomena of myth as does a normative
psychology, sacred psychology shows the power of myth to
illumine and redeem the sacrality of the wounding that occurs
in our lives. (Condensed.)
- Jean Houston, 1987
"We are what we eat," at least our bodies are. And our life
experiences comprise raw materials from which our personalities take
form. Adversity carries special potency -- strong medicine that can
make us or break us, depending on whether we can choke it down and
Ejected from Ordinariness
Becoming disabled throws you out of the comfortable middle of the
normal distribution, whether you want that or not. But once you've
been forcibly ejected from ordinariness, you can try to burrow back
into it, or have the courage to explore non-ordinary realms.
Rehabilitation that tolerates nostalgia for a past in which one was
"normal" or "average" may encourage falling back into that restricted
life. An approach that exploits the opportunities offered by sudden
change can help people integrate their experiences of being wounded
into lives of extraordinary proportion.
Heroic lives may not be for everyone, but the advent of
life-disrupting adversity suggests the possibility of a wake-up call.
If a catastrophe is not a call to adventure, the only consequence of
assuming it might have been is a little time spent in imaginative
idea-chasing. If it is a wake-up call, we can help ourselves and
others respond optimally, not minimally.
Many people felled by catastrophes manage to go on to achieve
outstanding successes by reframing their attitudes about adversity and
enlarging their perspectives of life itself. Whatever must happen to
cope with outer life problems, these inner changes seem crucial.
The common social view is that lacks, losses, pain, and suffering are
adverse; and anyone who thinks differently is a masochist or some
other kind of nut. To be about 80% paralyzed is considered tragic. I
shared this view before I became about 80% paralyzed. The cultural
evaluation fell apart in the face of persistent refutation. I kept on
having fun, successes, and satisfaction that belied expectations.
Adverse experience changed my attitudes, and several decades of work
as a rehabilitation psychologist, plus conscious dedication to
evolving a communicable philosophy of life, helped me formalize the
Knowing ourselves is crucial. I'll wager that the main impediment to
psycho-spiritual growth is kidding ourselves. We distort our
perceptions and interpretations of the facts of our lives to protect
our egos from fracture or deflation. Unfortunately, we sacrifice
golden opportunities to gain accurate self-understanding.
Gurdjieff charged that most of us are asleep all of our lives.
Deliberately insulting, but all mystery teachings -- however gently
they state it -- focus on the same issue. A root meaning of the word
"Buddha" is awake. Modern psychology echoes the theme. Ego defense
mechanisms are neurotic ways of hiding the truth about ourselves from
ourselves because to admit them would disturb us.
Psycho-spiritual development calls for conjuring up the courage to
face frightening or disappointing self-truths so we can put them away
with other childish things and grow up. Otherwise, we may carry them
with us forever like pit-sogged security blankets because "Hey, that's
just the way I am." The moment I say, "That's how I am," I tie myself
to a trait that may limit my ability to operate differently when it
doesn't serve me well.
Forgiveness is important, too. Nancy Lane, an Episcopal priest,
describes her descent into an abyss of rage, and the reversal of
attitudes that followed.
The pain of living with a disability can be like a hurricane raging
inside. To carry this anger is to suffer and cause suffering around
us. I was never afraid to rage at God. I knew God would absorb my
anger about having cerebral palsy and the attitudes of others toward
me. I screamed all of this at God and cried for hours before falling
asleep on my living room floor. In the morning I awoke feeling very
still within. It was clear to me that I had wrestled with God in the
night and had been changed by the experience. I began to see my
woundedness as part of the whole of who I am.
Something of this sort seems to happen for people who learn to live
well with disabilities. There are levels of success in living with
disabilities, and competent coping is the least of them. Most of us
arrive at being as happy, generally, as people who don't have
disabilities. That may not be a high achievement given today's stress,
anxiety, and disappointed expectations -- weak terms reflecting
chronic malaise rather than catastrophic life disruption. Few of us
have the courage or wisdom to move willingly into terror, but people
who are forced to do so may have better chances than most to avoid
When something dreaded happens and we discover that we are not
destroyed by it after all, fear itself is forever undermined, at least
a little. People who have lost some of their capacity for fear seem
automatically to gain capacity for joy. When something happens that is
dreaded deeply by virtually all members of society -- such as becoming
paralyzed -- we may discover that society is utterly wrong in its
evaluations of what is good, bad, fortunate, unfortunate, joyous, or
The pivot point on which transformation turns is a reversal of
attitudes about conditions and events generally deemed adverse or
favorable. If personal evolution hinges on transforming pain into joy,
selfishness into compassion, then lives of ease and comfort could be
wastes of time to people who aspire to more.
Cultural lore is rife with tales of misery among the idle rich and
spectacular successes among poor but hard-working immigrants. The
miserable rich can't let go of power and luxury, even when they know
it separates them from genuine friendship and love. By contrast,
immigrants deliberately cut their past connections and relinquish the
comforts of familiar surroundings to search for something more . . .
and blow open the doors and windows of their minds. When this happens,
spectacular success may follow.
Interruption of life patterns is a prime requisite to spiritual
evolvement. Much of human misery relates to evaluating conditions and
events in only one way. Human bondage is far more commonly mental than
physical. Group progress has been made among people with disabilities
during the past 20 years. The "bondage" stage is ending; we've
advanced to a level where, as a group, we don't put ourselves down;
and when other others do, we write pamphlets telling them how to talk
about us in a politically correct way.
I wrote such a pamphlet in 1959. It contained all of the ideas in
today's pamphlets, but it was not a set of commandments. It gave
suggestions for people who -- like myself -- wanted to exploit the
power of language to influence attitudes about disabilities and people
who have them.
I was not interested in curtailing free speech. It was my expectation
that people of good will would do the best they could and people
lacking good will would ignore the whole issue anyway. As a major fan
of the first amendment, that is my ideal. I like to get people of good
will on my side and let the rest go on exercising their constitutional
right to call me a "cripple." With respect to disability, people can
call me anything they wish. It's been a long time since my
self-esteem, my happiness, my mood, or even a fleeting emotion has
been affected noticeably by some stranger's choice of words.
Terry Cole-Whittaker put the matter clearly in the title of her book
What You Think of Me Is None of My Business. She aims to help readers
transcend dependence on others' evaluations of them for their
self-esteem. Once you truly know you're "okay," you no longer
interpret words others use as communicating information about you. If
John Doe says, "Cripples would be better off dead," that tells me
something about his mentality, but it would only say something about
me if I honored his opinion, and why would I? Why would a sensible
person give credence to the opinion of an insensitive clod?
When fools can "rattle our cages," it is important to face the fact
that we are in cages, cages we have fabricated out of our own
self-loathing. That becomes the top priority for our attention. The
other guy's behavior is his problem, his priority.
Reasonable confidence that we are okay may grow into certain knowledge
that no one else's opinion can shake. When we are no longer vulnerable
to anything as uncontrollable as another's choice of words,
insensitive language rolls off the psyche like water off a duck's
back. This is deep and genuine psychological independence that the
independent living movement has not yet addressed. I've stopped
telling other people how to talk in order to avoid hurting my
feelings. I concentrate instead on making sure my feelings are past
being swept willy-nilly by others' whims.
This is not an across-the-board recommendation. For each style there
is a season. I fought the social-reform battles during the first half
of my life. My midlife crisis came and went, and in the second half of
my life I am finding life tasks, challenges, and paradoxically
reversed attitudes which are mirror images of those which
characterized the first half. It was outer directed, the second half
is inner directed -- not a correction, but a balancing, in the
direction of wholeness.
Strategies for Helping
Two Hindu teachers were walking along a river and heard a call for
help. One started removing his clothing to rescue the drowning man.
The other said, "Don't do that, you'll interfere with his Karma." The
first ignored him, saved the man, and then replied, "Apparently it was
his Karma to be saved." Some people use the idea of Karma as an excuse
to not help their fellows, but the brotherhood of man can be achieved
only by people who know I am my brother's keeper.
- Rev. Ann Davies
For those who object to the idea of Karma I have an alternative
You only live once, but it's enough if you work it right.
- Mae West
What do mythology and art and travel to foreign lands and sorcery and
psychotropic drugs and religious rituals and catastrophic disablement
have in common? They throw you out of your ordinary frame of mind,
consciousness, expectations; they catch you by surprise so that your
typical, practiced everyday attitudes and responses don't operate, or
if they do they don't "work." These experiences force you to be open
to an influx of something different; they hold you down, captivate
you, so that you can't reject or deflect the unusual, the new. It
The tower of Babel was a monument to present glory. It was a vain
attempt to arrest the onward, ever-changing flow of manifestation, to
hold onto the status quo. Helping people move from being "wounded" to
being "powerful" is not a process of facilitating return to a former
state -- the way things were before catastrophe struck. Nor is it a
matter of eliminating awfulness as if it had never been. When
rehabilitation is viewed as restoration or is aimed at erasing the
effects of adversity, it counteracts the natural, forward, integrating
movement of life. Lot's wife turned into a pillar of salt when she
looked back, and backward-looking rehabilitation can be ossifying.
Some Techniques for Facilitating Movement Forward
1. Story telling -- myth reading and spinning to grasp
your larger story
2. Arts therapies -- communication among aspects of your being
Words -- engaging aware consciousness
Pictures -- engaging automatic consciousness (which psychology
calls sub- or un-consciousness)
Music -- engaging the soul
Movement -- engaging the body, cellular consciousness
Combinations -- chant, song, dance, theater, opera
3. Dreamwork -- understanding the meanings of the images
4. Combinations -- e.g., autobiographical murals, dream paintings
5. Counseling/psychotherapy -- so spiritual work doesn't become
"putting whipped cream on garbage"
6. Teamwork -- between disability service providers and clergy
7. Philosophizing -- largely in mutual help settings
To convey the hazards encountered and the wisdom retrieved while in
trance, the shaman paints, composes poetry, dances, sings, and
dramatizes the details of the journey taken. The Paleolithic cave
drawings are conjectured to be examples of shamanic art, and the
history of drama may have begun in the shaman's visionary mime. The
shamanic faith healer integrates all of our fragmented specialties of
physician, psychotherapist, priest, poet, and philosopher. Perhaps
this is what practitioners will do in a newly inspirited discipline of
If I could offer only two recommendations to people helping people
recover from catastrophe, cope with its sequelae, rise above its
effects, and transform them into treasures, they would be these: Offer
principles, not specific advice. And don't be disappointed if a person
doesn't seem to benefit.
Offering principles rather than specific advice is tantamount to
teaching people how to farm and fish instead of giving them food.
Specific advice is useless once a problem is solved, but knowledge of
underlying principles serves for a lifetime, every time a similar
problem appears. Planted seeds don't sprout, mature, and bear fruit
overnight; but if the seed is good and the soil is reasonably fertile,
a crop will eventually be ready for harvesting.
We [who have disabilities] crystallize for ourselves and for others
the real fact and fear of calamity. If we reinforce this image, we
invite sympathy and sorrow. If we proceed apace, we are inspirations
to everyone. We should not be afraid to inspire -- the world needs it
badly and we need the experience of giving extravagantly. Our gift to
the world is the world's gift to us.
- Barry Corbet, Editor of New Mobility
Vash C. Personality and adversity: Psycho-spiritual aspects of
rehabiliation. To be published in March 1994. New York: Springer