My Life Stopped When I Became Disabled

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Reader’s Question

I was involved in an accident five years ago at my place of work. I’ve had seven spinal surgeries and I live in chronic pain due to the operations not working, scar tissue and damaged nerves. I had three really hard years where I spent a lot of time in bed isolated from everyone. I lost touch with everything and everyone, and I can no longer work. So I don’t have that structure and routine that a 40-hour-a-week job provided. I live alone, and really don’t get human interaction like I used to. I was 34 when the accident happened and when I could finally start moving around again I was 40 years old. So I get anxiety now when I think about the past, and how things have changed. I look around and all my friends have kids, girlfriends, wives, a job, a career and I have nothing. I have no friends now, no career, no places I need to be or people I need to see.

This is what gives me great anxiety — feeling like life has passed me by and I’ve missed out on all these things. I feel like I woke up from a bad dream and my life was switched or totally changed on me. And worst of all, I was not in control at any point during this ordeal. I had no way to stop what was happening to me. So I feel kind of like I was violated and I have a lot of fear and anxiety that I deal with now. I feel old and have a problem with aging. I went from a young, vibrant 34-year-old to a 40-year-old man walking with a cane.

How do I rebuild myself? I don’t mean physically, I mean mentally and socially. I have tried for years to find a support group and have not been able to, and I have had a few years of counseling. But I am still feeling really hopeless and lonely and isolated.

Psychologist’s Reply

I am sorry to hear of your accident and your ongoing struggle with chronic pain and social isolation. Many people who don’t have disabilities have very little understanding of the emotional issues that accompany a sudden disability, or the long-term impact of a disability on social and emotional functioning.

A sudden, unexpected physical loss can be traumatic, and it is not uncommon to experience symptoms consistent with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), including sleep difficulties, intrusive thoughts, or intense anxiety. Avoidance strategies can develop in an attempt to manage the anxiety, and those might even include withdrawing from social situations. As you mention, life can feel out of control and the accident or disability can feel like a violation. This can create lasting anxiety and difficulty with trusting other people.

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When recovery requires years or even months of rehabilitation, it often results in social isolation. Unfortunately, while your life seems to be put on pause, the rest of the world continues on. As you regain physical strength and functioning, friends and family have moved to a different phase of life, further adding to feelings of social alienation.

A large part of the emotional recovery process of a disability involves grieving — not only grieving the loss of physical abilities but also losses related to work or professional identity, social standing, and the dreams or visions of the future that you used to have. The complexity of these multiple layers of grief can at times feel overwhelming, and perhaps also exacerbate the urge to pull away from others who do not understand what you are going through.

You mentioned that you are in counseling, and hopefully your therapist is helping you to process both the trauma and the losses. Another area of focus can be reconstructing your identity. This involves grieving losses while also adapting to a new sense of self and purpose. You may need to let go of some old dreams and visions for the future — or perhaps put them into a new time-frame; that is, some goals such as marriage and family may be possible at a different age than originally anticipated. You may feel ‘behind the curve’ according to your friends’ achievements, but there are some goals you do not necessarily have to let go of altogether. Part of the process of identity reconstruction is valuing the innate qualities that you have not lost due to your disability, and discovering aspects of yourself to value at this stage of life. In fact, re-adjusting our identities is a necessary task for all of us as we grow older and move into different phases of life. I often tell clients, “your interests and goals in life at 19 will not necessarily be the same at 29, 39 or 49 — and that is not a bad thing, it can be a sign of growth.” This is part of orienting yourself to move on from the past toward savoring the life-stage you are in now and building a new vision for the future.

Finally, addressing ongoing social isolation is an important part of the emotional healing process. Support groups are a good way to connect with others who understand the trauma and loss of sudden disability. Although the search for a support group that ‘fits’ can be frustrating, it is important not to give up looking. Social networking and online communities can provide supportive connections for issues related to chronic pain, but also for connections related to your interests, enjoyable activities, spiritual needs, etc. While online connections are important, they are not a substitute for in-person social connections. Consider if you are avoiding old connections with friends or family who could still be sources of good support and connection for you. Don’t be discouraged if friends have busy schedules — keep reaching out. You may have to address negative thoughts or fears of judgment or insensitivity that interfere with your motivation to put yourself out there; it takes persistence to repeatedly find opportunities to connect with old friends or engage in activities you enjoy that can bring new social connections. Finally, if you are having difficulty connecting with friends and family due to their lack of understanding, encourage them to educate themselves about disability issues. Organizations such as Mobility International provide information and resources to learn more about disability and related issues. I also encourage you to honestly express your feelings and fears about how these issues have affected your relationship, to those you care about.

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