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How I’ve Redefined Success Since ‘Failing’ by Traditional Standards

How I’ve Redefined Success Since ‘Failing’ by Traditional Standards

“Once you choose hope, anything is possible.” ~Christopher Reeve

As a child, my dream was to save the world. My mom found me one day crying in my bedroom. She asked what was wrong, and I said, “I haven’t done anything yet!” I couldn’t wait to grow up so I could try to make a difference.

When I was fourteen years old, I joined a youth organization that supported adults with disabilities. We ran a buddy program and hosted dances. I assisted with projects in state institutions, but was left disappointed by the conditions for residents. I had hoped to work in a state institution.

As a high school senior, I was voted most likely success. Like many other things in my life, it was surprising. I hoped to find meaningful work that could help others.

In my first year at Ohio State I fell in love with the boy next door and we were married. My first job was as a manager in a group home for men who have developmental disabilities. I began my first full-time position a month after my wedding. I didn’t finish college.

At twenty-three, I was officially diagnosed with depression after my first baby, but the doctor didn’t tell me. I received the diagnosis in my medical file a few years later. I was raised in the 1960s with negative mental illnesses. I didn’t understand it, and I thought depression meant being weak and ungrateful. I loved being a mom and wanted the doctor wrong.

At the time of my high school reunion, I was a stay at-home mother with three young children. Bios were also included in the event brochure. For mine, I wrote something a bit defensive about the value of being a mom since I didn’t feel successful in any traditional way.

Thirty-three was the first time I had headaches daily. I tried natural treatments and refused to take any over-the-counter medication. The headaches remained mild. I kept up with my three children, taught literacy to multiple-disability residents at a state facility, and pushed on. I believed I understood the challenges.

At forty I visited the Ohio State University pain clinic to receive another diagnosis of depression. It made sense this time. I felt weak and ashamed by the diagnosis. But I managed to rationalize it.

Which did you feel first: the depression or the headache. Maybe it was the headache’s fault. My depression was managed by anti-depressants, which were first diagnosed. Until…

My youngest daughter Beth and I fell asleep in the front seat of the car when I was 42 years old. She suffered a spinal cord injury which left her paralysed from her chest down. I was her 24-hour caregiver and quit my job at this institution.

Beth was fourteen years old at the time she was injured. However, She Please send me Forward, as she was the one who was emotionally stable between them. Despite her quadriplegia, she was determined to regain her independence. She was able to make decisions about her future and care. Sometimes, we need someone to guide us.

Our new life felt impossible to predict every day, hour, and minute. My old problems of depression and chronic pain merged with new guilt and anxiety. My anti-depressants were not enough to stop me spiraling downward. There was no light at end of the tunnel. There was no hope for light.

My feelings were kept under wraps, which was challenging. I didn’t want to give the people I loved more to worry about. I also felt that if I gave in to my emotions, I wouldn’t be able to function. Beth was in desperate need of my help. That’s what mattered the most.

I began counseling after my car accident. After the first session, I was hopeful that I would find some relief and be able to move on to more. It wasn’t that simple. I felt like a failure, and thought I failed at counseling, too, since I didn’t improve for some time. I should have reached out for help right after Beth’s injury.

Along with my husband’s constant support, weekly counseling was a great help. Beth was the one who taught me to choose hope. I saw her succeed despite failing over and over again in her quest for independence.

Beth and I had many adventures together, from Ohio’s small town to Harvard and all over the globe. She has the most interesting life I know. She’s also the happiest person I know because she finds joy in ordinary life, and that’s the best kind of success.

In 1976, I was voted as the most likely candidate to succeed. I discovered that success is much more than what I had thought. I can think of things like being married for forty five years to my best friend. Three wonderful children. Helping others and working in meaningful jobs. Volunteering and mentoring. To be able to cope better with chronic pain, meditation can also be learned.

Today, I feel like my depression can be managed with prescriptions. I’m no longer ashamed of my depression. It’s part of who I am, and I know for a fact that I’m not weak or ungrateful. There’s light at the end of the tunnel, a bright light.

It is a powerful thing to believe in yourself. Never give up! Hope wins.

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Cindy Kolbe

Cindy Kolbe has been a lifelong disability advocate, even before her daughter’s spinal cord injury. Cindy managed group homes and directed a non-profit. With her husband of 45 year, she lives in Boston. Her memoir, Just Keep Swimming: A crash, a journey, and waves full of hope, was published in its second edition in December 2022. It shares amazing adventures from small towns in Ohio to Harvard, and all around the globe. facebook.com/justkeepswimmingbook  www.cindykolbe.com #hopewins

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