Opportunity and resilience in the COVID-19 pandemic
Reprinted from the COVID-19 issue of Visions Journal, 15 (2), pp. 40-41
Life was pretty normal for me pre-pandemic. I was working as an advocate at Disability Alliance BC, which provides resource support and advocacy for persons living with disability. Several years ago, I was involved in a serious motor vehicle accident that left me with a brain injury and a spinal cord injury which causes mobility challenges. Because of my brain injury, I depend on my colleagues to navigate the confusing world of technology as it is difficult for me to learn and remember now. But all of these challenges were my pre-pandemic normal.
My first thought when everything began shutting down in March 2020 was that this was merely a blip on the horizon—that things would return to normal after two or three months. Initially, the experience felt surreal, like something out of a sci-fi movie. It was only as I learned of the number of people dying daily, and as increasingly more COVID-19 restrictions were put in place, that it began to sink in: this was, indeed, reality. Worse: it was a reality that no one knew how to navigate.
When Disability Alliance BC sent its employees home to work, the change was extremely difficult for me. I did not have the technology (the computer programs, the up-to-date equipment) to do my work the way I was used to. I could always phone the office IT guy for help, and the office loaned me the use of a printer and a laptop, but learning a new operating system on my own, with a brain injury, was an insurmountable task. It magnified my cognitive challenges and brought up feelings of inadequacy and disablement. Just trying to learn Office 365 is still a painstakingly slow process for me; my colleagues must repeatedly remind me how use the program’s features.
But at home, there were no colleagues close by to ask for help. For the first couple of months, I literally cried every day out of frustration. I would Google how to do something, but then I was either unable to comprehend all the technological language or get my outdated home-office equipment to work efficiently. Even faxing a few pages with my old, familiar fax machine took forever. From the office, it took only a few seconds to send multiple pages. But at home, if I used the equipment that I was most comfortable with, I had to fax one page at a time.
As the world increasingly became more anxious and despairing, I knew that I had to reframe how I saw things or I would become stuck in a pit of hopelessness. I had already spent too many years wallowing as a victim in self-pity after my motor vehicle accident; I knew I did not want to return there. As I saw it, my only option was to move from being a victim to becoming a survivor to triumphing as an overcomer—someone who overcomes adversity to thrive, despite the challenges they face. That approach has served me well in the past.
I remembered that when I was doing rehab at GF Strong Rehabilitation Centre in Vancouver many years ago and, more recently, at the Watson Centre Society for Brain Health in Burnaby, one of the activities I participated in was playing computer games, which improved my abilities to meet cognitive challenges. I began to realize that, in my work-at-home situation, instead of resenting the overwhelming task of having to learn computer programs and new devices, I could reframe the challenge as a chance to exercise my brain muscle: free rehab, and no waitlists! In other words, it was an opportunity for me to challenge my brain’s neuroplasticity—its ability to adapt and grow. With this new perspective, I was motivated to gingerly embrace all the new technology that was thrust upon me during the pandemic. I was even able to view other COVID-19 restrictions as part of the challenge.
What helps me to stay positive and resilient during the pandemic is not only my faith in God but also the realization that I have previously dealt with an accident that radically altered my life and my perspective. I know that I could have remained a victim and remained stuck all these years. But instead I became an overcomer and moved on with my life. The encouragement of good friends and family support, and an overcoming attitude, are essential in helping me cope with the pandemic as well.
I have now facilitated brain injury support groups for almost 30 years. With my own experience of countless hours in rehab and counselling, I knew I wanted to give back. My academic and professional background in social work and counselling, and my sense of personal blessing and thankfulness (my high neck fracture could have resulted in quadriplegia, but it didn’t) encouraged me to start a brain injury support group in Vancouver. After some time, the Chinese Christian Mission Canada (CCM) approached me about starting a brain injury support group for the Chinese-speaking community in the Lower Mainland, as these individuals are isolated not only by their disability but by cultural norms and language.
More recently, as part of the Chinese Christian Mission’s COVID-19 pandemic ministry, CCM volunteers have sewn thousands of cloth masks, some of which I have been able to give out to my clients. I have also given out these hand-sewn masks to panhandlers and the homeless. If someone was sleeping on the street, I would leave it on the ground beside them so they would see it when they woke up. I knew they likely didn’t have funds to purchase masks for themselves; it was gratifying to be able to help.
I encourage people to view the pandemic as an opportunity to sift through their life experiences and determine what is truly valuable and meaningful—and to be patient, as it will be a long process. Just remember Aesop’s fable of the tortoise and the hare. It was the slow and steady tortoise who won the race.
We need to let go of the past and our expectations of what our life was “supposed” to be. We must embrace the fact that that life is and will be different for everyone. We need to explore creative new ways of coping and managing the challenges we face.
Life is short. Let us be good stewards of this gift we have been given.
About the author
Lillian is a Tax Aid, Access Registered Disability Savings Plan (RDSP) and Persons with Disability (PWD) advocate at Disability Alliance BC. She has facilitated brain injury support groups for almost 30 years
As told to Stephanie Wilson, Visions’ Editorial Coordinator