By Elizabeth Gilbert from GQ
Jim Maclaren doesn't have any memory of the first
accident. He can't tell you what it feels like to be hit by a New York City
bus and thrown 89 feet in the air, to have your bones shattered and your legs crushed, to be pronounced
dead on arrival at the hospital.
The last thing he remembers about that accident is happily crusing down Fifth Avenue on his motorcycle on a balmy October night. Jim Maclaren was handsome, intelligent, ambitious and well-liked 22-year-old who had the world on a string. He'd recently graduated from Yale, where he'd excelled as a scholar, football player and theater star. He look wonderful and felt wonderful.
Jim never saw the 40,000-pound bus on 34th Street that demolished him. The next thing he remembers is waking up in intensivie care and learning that his left leg had been amputated below the knee.
That was the first accident.
Over the next eight years, Jim made a concerted effort to become the best one-legged man he possibly could. He endured a brutally painful rehabilitation but was uncomplaning about his loss. As a graduate of the prestigious Yale School of Drama, he acted on stage and television, and found plenty of girlfriends.
Within a year of losing his leg, Jim was running. He signed up for 10K road races, and felt exhilarated when he finished them. He ran the New York City Marathon and then the Boston Marathon, breaking the record for amputee contenders. Jim was no the fastest one-legged endurance runner on earth.
Eventually he set out to conquer the triathlon, one of the most brutal sporting events ever conceived: 2.4 miles of swiming, 112 miles of biking and a full 26.2-mile marathon, all in one race, all in one day. And all on one leg.
Which explains what Jim was doing in Southern California on that June afternoon in 1993. Participating in a triathlon, he was speeding through the town of Mission Viejo on his bicycle at 35 m.p.h., leading a pack of cyclsts past cheering spectators. Suddenly, JIm heard the crowd gasp. He turned his head to see what was going on, and there was the steel grille of a black van heading straight toward him.
The racecourse had been closed to traffic except at certain intersections, guarded by the police. But somehow a van had been let through.
This time Jim vividly remembers being hit. He remembers the screams from the crowd. He remembers his body flying across the street and smashing into a lamppost head first, snapping his neck. He remembers riding in the ambulance, aware that he could not feel his limbs.
When he awoke after emergency surgery on his spine, he was in the trauma ward. He could not move. But what Jim remembers most is that all the nurses were in tears. "We're so sorry," they kept saying.
Jim MacLaren, 30 years old, was now a quadriplegic. And this is where his story begins.
Jim is what's known as an incomplete quadriplgeic. Although all four limbs were damaged when he broke his neck, he still had limited nerve activity, allowing him some movement and sensation. He can raise him arms a bit, bend forward in his wheelchair, use his hands somewhat and sometimes even lift his legs by a few degrees.
This tiny range of movement means the difference between an independent life and one with round-the-clock caretakers. With excruciating effort, Jim can breathe, dress and feed himself, and even drive a van (specially outfitted with only hand controls). This all came as a big surprise to Jim's doctors, who initially thought he would never have any feeling or motion below the point of injury. "So I've been very lucky," Jim told me.
Jim is almost always in pain, however. His nerves are spastic and unpredictalbe. He waks up some mornings, he says, "feeling like I'm encased in wet cement with electrical currents running through it."
So when Jim says he's been "very lucky," take that with the biggest grain of salt you need to get it down.
What they do in hospitals to someone who has suffered a major spinal injury looks like something from a nightmare. Doctors put Jim in a halo- a steel ring that encircled his head and was bolted directly into his skull. They had to do this procedure with only local anesthesia, and Jim screamed for mecry as they tightened the screws into his forehead. Then the halo was attached with bars to steel plates clamped on either side of his body. This was to keep his spine immobilized to prevent further injury.
Nurses came to take Jim's blood, to catheterize his bladder or to tighten the screws on his halo. Every time someone touched him, he screamed. He felt as is he had no identity, no history, no future, no hope.
After three months, Jim was released from the halo and moved to a rehabilitation center in Colorado. He was assigned to a floor with other patients who had recently become quadriplegics or paralegics. In this battered company, Jim's sense of self began to re-emerge. He recognized that ther was something familiar about his situation. Loss, pain incapacitation, rehabilitation, endurance? He'd been through this already.
The amputee-triathlete-survivor within him took over. "You know how to do this," he told himself. "Work your butt off in rehab, eat the pain, keep your spirits up, and get the hell out of this place."
Over the next months, Jim became upbeat, stoic and unflinchingly focused. He defied prognosis after prognosis and recovered faster than anyone had expected. Because that's what Jim Maclaren does when he's beating down: He rises up.
Which is why, just six months after breaking his neck, Jim was back in the world, living on his own. About a year after his accident, at a convention of Ironman athletes, Jim gave a rousing motivational speech about endurance and the strength of the human spirit. Everyone gathered around him, telling him what a hero he was. "Isn't Jimmy doing incredibly well?" everyone said.
In fact, he wasnt' doing well at all.
There is a galvanizing momentum to recovery, but there eventually comes a wall where healing stops and the truth of what you're left with settles in. Jim had just hit that wall. His body had healed as much as it was going to. And all the determination in the world could not change the facts that he'd never be out of pain again, he'd never lift his arms above his head again, and he'd never walk again.
The day he realized that truth, the invinvible Jim MacLaren started to lose it.
After winning a $3.8 million settlement for his accident in 1996, Jim decided to move to Kona, Hawaii. "I annouced to my friends I was moving to write my memoirs," Jim recalls. "But I was just running away."
Jim didn't want anyone to know the truth: He had become addicted to cocaine. About two years after he broke his neck, he'd met a woman, and she'd offered some coke to him. "Go ahead," she'd said, full of sympathy. "You've suffered so much, you deserve it." And Jim thought, Yeah, I do deserve it.
Soon he was doing it regularly and surrounding himself with people who encouraged the behavior - junkies, prostitutes, dealers and lost souls.
Then one night he found himself drugged to the grills at three in the morning, wheeling his chair up the middle of some desolate highway. He realized he was on Alii Drive - the most famous stretch of road on the Hawaiian Ironman racecourse. He'd run marathons up this road.
Alii Drive had been the site of Jim's greatest triumph, but now he was trying to figure out where he could score more cocaine. He looked up at the sky and yelled, "Why are you doing this to me!?"
Jim knew he had to make a choice: Was he going to live or die? "I didn't want to leave this life," he says. "I was 33 years old. I didn't want to live as a quadriplegic, either, but since I couldn't change that, I knew I'd have to make some kind of peace with it."
He wasn't exactly sure how to do this, but he knew one thing: If he couldn't find some serious blessing in all this disaster, he did not stand a chance in hell.
His deepest fear was having to spend much of his life in solitude and stillness. "I was afraid of being alone with myself," he says, "with the dark things that lived in me, like fear, doubt, loneliness and confusion."
Now Jim wondered if he could learn to see it differently. "Maybe this wasn't a curse at all. Maybe it was the most exquisite blessing of my life - the opportunity to see my true self."
Inspired, Him tured to his books. He examined all the classical images of wounded men - the crippled god Hephaestus, the blinded Oedipus, the long-suffering Job. What was God trying to do to Job, anyhow by stripping him so ruthlessly of his family, health, fortune? On his tenth reading of that biblical book, Jim saw that God was trying to bring Job closer to him.
Maybe this is what happened to Jim that night when he'd yelled up at the sky. Jim had believed that was his low point, but now he saw it had his highest moment. "I have come to believe that I needed these accidents to bring me deeper inside myself to a place where I could find honesty and peace," Jim says
These days, Jim lives in a loft in Santa Fe, New Mexicao. On good mornings, he can get out of bed, eat, attach his catheter, shower, dress, and be ready to leave the apartment in just under three hours. He works out at a gymnasium one to two hours a day, walking in water and pedaling on a recumbernt exercise bike.
Some days Jim works on his dissertation, which is about the wounded male throughtout mythologial history. He is now pursuing a doctorate in mythology at the Pacifica Graduate Institute in Santa Barbara, California.
It is through his injury that Jim has earned an unsual kind of status. People constanly come to him with their own tragedies, seeking solace or wisdom. They call him at all hours from hospitals, jails, funeral homes and rehad centers, all begging for the same thing: "Please, help lead me out of this fear."
Jim does his best to assist them. It isn't always easy, because he still struggles with his own fears. But he is learning to face those fears.
If the weather is nice, Jim will get into his wheelchair and head into town. He'll park at an outdoor cafe, order up a triple espresso and read in the sun. There he will sit blissfully alone- and blissfully comfortable with his own company.
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