How I Lost and Found My Identity - Part 1

According to Merriam-Webster, identity is defined as “who someone is; the distinguishing character or personality of an individual.” Is it possible to lose your identity? I believe it is. 

I began tumbling and dance class at age 3. By first grade, I had joined the competitive gymnastics team and was at the gym five nights a week. Gymnastics was my life. It was who I was. Even after quitting competitive gymnastics at 14, I continued coaching gymnastics and began cheering - since I suddenly had 20+ hours a week in my schedule that were free. (Side note: Please do not ever call me a cheerleader; I will make it very clear that I was first and foremost a gymnast who just happened to cheer.)

But at the age of 16, in a flash, gymnastics was gone. I was tumbling outside and the grass was wet. I wasn’t doing anything difficult (a round off - back handspring - layout), but the grass was wet with dew that morning. My feet slipped out from underneath me causing me to not have enough height or rotation. I sustained a C6-7 spinal cord injury that left me without the use of my hands and paralyzed from the chest down. 

I had to adapt to my injury physically, but in less visible ways, as well. A gaping hole existed. Who was I? I was no longer a gymnast; no longer a coach. I certainly didn’t want my disability to define me. Life continued on after my injury. I was able to keep a positive outlook on life by clinging to my faith - despite the loss of independence and the mortifying need for help with personal care.

Six months after my injury, I accompanied my former teammates to a national cheerleading competition. Just a year prior, we had won best tumbling at that national competition. Now I was being pushed by my mom, or my friends, in a wheelchair. People were staring. And not because I was the best at what I did. I wanted to scream, “But you don’t know who I am!” That’s when I broke down for the first time. I certainly didn’t expect it. Neither did my friends, who had always seen the happy, everything-will-be-okay Jenny.

The identity I had established over 13 years was completely gone. I was no longer a gymnast.

So who was I? I was still a very good student. So for the next eight years I focused on studying. I graduated from high school a year early (only 10 months after my injury), then went on to college and graduated with my Master’s in Counseling Psychology at age 25. I was a student. Until I wasn’t.

At college, I met another girl who used a wheelchair. Up until that point, I was fully convinced that I wasn’t “one of them.” You know, someone with a disability. I thought I was different. Then I met Terri.She was “normal” like me. She was confident and not ashamed of her disability. I didn’t know what to think. But I was beginning to want whatever Terri had.

 Terri represented the state of Kentucky and won the Ms. Wheelchair America pageant. She talked me into participating the following year. I won the state pageant and was able to meet 26 incredible women with disabilities, at the national pageant. It was the first time I could talk with other women about the parts of a spinal cord injury I couldn’t discuss with friends: bladder and bowel maintenance, getting dressed, personal care, etc. The best way I can describe it was that I was no longer ashamed of who I was. No longer ashamed of having a disability. I was starting to see that having a disability did not have to define who I was.

Read Part 2 of Jenny's journey. 


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