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Thursday, January 8, 2015

The Opportunity of Adversity - The Amie Mullins Story

How do you look at adversity in your life?  Is it something you become afraid of, try to avoid, or fear?  Or is it something you use as a means to becoming the greatest version of yourself?  Well, I want to tell you the story of Amie Mullins, and how she was able to overcome the extreme challenges in her life and prove to all of us, that in spite of what life may have dished out to us, and the experiences we may have had, we still have it within us to reach our fullest potential and excel in whatever we put our minds to. 

Amie was born without fibular bones, and had both of her legs amputated below the knee when she was just an infant.  She learned to walk on prosthetics, then to run – competing at the national and international level as a championship sprinter, and setting world records at the 1996 Paralympics in Atlanta.  At Georgetown, where she double majored in history and diplomacy, she became the first amputee to compete in NCAA Division 1 Track and Field.  This is her story.

This information all comes from the video in which I share with my clients and most of this is in her own words, because what she has to say is so invaluable I want you to have it now.  In the video, Amie stands on the stage and talks to us about being disabled.  She reads us the entry in a thesaurus of the word ‘disabled.’  Here it is:

Disabled:  An adjective.  Crippled, helpless, useless, wreaked, stalled, maimed, wounded, mangled, lame, mutilated, run-down, worn-out, weakened, impotent, castrated, paralyzed, handicapped, senile, decrepit, laid-up, done-up, done for, done in, cracked up, counted out.  See also hurt, useless, weak.  Ant.  Healthy, strong, capable.

When Amie first read this in the thesaurus, she laughed, it was so ludicrous, but then she got choked up around the word ‘mangled.’  Amie had to stop and collect herself from the emotional shock and impact the assault from these words unleashed.  Print date of this thesaurus was from the early 1980’s.  Thank God she didn't read that as a child growing up.  From this entry, it would seem that Amie was born into a world that would perceive someone like Amie to have nothing positive whatsoever going for them.  When, in fact, today she is celebrated for the opportunities and adventures her life has procured. 

Amie decided to look up the updated version of this entry for ‘disabled.’  She looked in the 2009 Edition of the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus.  Unfortunately, it wasn't much better.  Here are some of the entries for ‘disabled’ in this one:

Disabled: blind, deaf, mute, paralyzed, quadriplegic, immobile, immobilized, ailing, diseased, ill, sick, unfit.  Some near ant: bouncing, chipper, fit, healthy, hearty, robust, whole, wholesome.  Ant: able-bodied, nondisabled.

Amie found these to be very unsettling, and she was right, these are unsettling words.  They carry a lot of power.  But it’s not just about the words.  It’s about what we believe when we label people with these words.  It’s about the values behind the words and how we construct those values.  This is something I really want you to get.  Our language affects our thinking, and how we view the world and how we view other people.

Many ancient societies believed, including the Romans and the Greeks, that to utter a curse verbally was so powerful because to say the thing out loud brought it into existence.  So, if this is true, what reality do we want to call into existence?  Do we want to call into existence a person who is limited or a person who is empowered?  By casually doing something as simple as naming a person, a child, we might be putting lids and casting shadows on their power.  Wouldn't we want to open doors for them instead?

The person who opened the door for Amie was her childhood doctor, Dr. Pizzatillo.  He had the perfect disposition to work with children.  One of the things Amie had to do as a five year old child was work with these thick elastic bands during her physical exercise repetitions.  Amie hated it.  She tried as a five year old child to bargain her way out of doing the exercises but to no avail.  Dr. Pizzatillo came in one day and told her, when she was having a very difficult time, ‘Wow, Amie, you are such a strong, powerful little girl, I think you’re going to break one of those bands.  When you do break it, I’m going to give you 100 bucks.’  This was a simple ploy to get Amie to do the exercises.  And, it worked.

What he effectively did for her was re-shape an awful daily occurrence into a new and promising experience for her.  His vision and declaration of her as a strong and powerful little girl shaped her own view of herself as inherently strong and powerful person well into the future.  This is an example of how adults in positions of power can ignite the power of a child. 

But if you think back to the previous entries I wrote out for you from the thesaurus about ‘disabled’, our language isn't allowing us to evolve into the reality that we would all want: the possibility of a person to see themselves as capable.  Our language just hasn't caught up with the changes in our society, much of which has been brought up as a consequence of technology.  Just take a look at all the medical marvels that we have:  people can get titanium knees and hips, prosthetic legs, there is laser surgery to correct vision – think about that for a second.  This is amazing.  Look at our social media networking platforms – Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc – this enables us to self-identify and own our own dispositions about ourselves.  Technology is revealing to us what has always been a truth: that everyone has something rare and powerful to offer our society.  And this above all: our human ability to adapt is our greatest asset.                    

People always wanted to talk to Amie about overcoming adversity, and to Amie, this phrase never sat right with her.  Implicit in this phrase – overcoming adversity – is the idea that success or happiness is about emerging on the other side of a challenging experience unscathed or unmarked by the experience.  As if her successes and achievements in her life came about by side-stepping or circumnavigating the presumed pitfalls of living a life with prosthetics, or what other people perceive as her disability.

But the fact is we are changed.  We are marked by a challenge, whether physically, emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, or all of them combined, and what Amie suggests in this video is that this is a good thing.  Adversity isn't an obstacle that we need to get around in order to resume living our life.  It’s a part of our life.  It’s like your shadow, it’s always with you.  Now this is not intended to diminish any of your struggles.  You may have experienced absolute horrors in your life, incredible conflicts and destructive violence, on either an emotional or a physical level, or both; you may have seen things you wish you’d never have seen; you may have done things you wish you’d never had done; you may have experienced extraordinary pain in your life; I am not in any way diminishing the significance of a person’s struggle with PTSD, depression, and trauma.  But the question is not whether you are going to meet with adversity, but how are you going to meet it?

Our responsibility is not simply shielding those we care about from the challenges of adversity, but preparing them to meet it well.  We do a disservice to our kids, our friends, and our loved ones when we make them feel they are not equipped to adapt.  There is a very important distinction between the medical fact of Amie being an amputee and the subjective societal opinion that Amie is disabled.  Truthfully, the only real and consistent disability Amie had to face in the world was ever thinking she could be described by the definitions of being disabled.  In our desire to protect those we care about from the truth of their medical prognosis, or a prognosis on the expected quality of their life, we have to make sure we don’t put the first brick in a wall that will actually disable somebody. 

Perhaps the existing model of looking at you and seeing what is broken in you and how do we fix it serves to be more disabling to an individual than the pathology itself.  By not treating the wholeness of a person, by not acknowledging their potency, we are creating another ill on top of whatever natural struggle they may have.  PTSD is normal, honorable, and inevitable in environments of intense conflict.  It’s a sign of your own humanity.  You should have been wounded by these events and you need to take the time to heal and mend your wounds, share your story with those who understand and can guide you back to yourself, who can help you to transform the pain of those memories and turn those experiences into gifts.  I've said this before, and I will say it again.  We will continue to re-live the same traumas over and over again in some form until we transform them.  You accomplish this transformation by connecting to your wholeness. 

However, when we don’t treat the wholeness of a person, when we don’t acknowledge their potency, what happens is we are effectively grading someone’s worth to our community, so we need to see through the pathology, and into the range of human capability.  Each and every one of you reading this blog can overcome, heal, and transform your pain.  I've done it.  I know how to do it.  And you can do it as well.

There is a partnership between those perceived differences and our greatest creative ability.  It’s not about devaluing or degrading these difficult trying times as something we want to avoid but instead, find those opportunities wrapped in the adversity. 

Here’s Amie’s idea what to do when adversity confronts us, and I agree with her 100%.  She says ‘it’s not so much about overcoming adversity, but opening ourselves up to it; embracing it; Dancing with it.’   

Adversity is natural, consistent, and useful and when we look at it in that way we are less burdened by the presence of adversity. 

Charles Darwin has a great quote about the essence of the human character.  He says, “It’s not the strongest, or the most intelligent, it’s the one that is most adaptable to change that survives.”  Conflict is the genesis of creation.  The human ability to thrive and flourish is driven by the struggles of the human spirit through conflict into transformation.  This is our greatest human skill: transformation and adaptation.  It’s not until we are tested that we learn what we are made of and maybe, that’s the gift of adversity - a sense of Self; a sense of our own power. 

When we look at it this way, we can give ourselves a gift.  We can re-imagine adversity as change.  It’s just change we haven’t adapted to just yet. 

So many people talk about being normal.  We often hear people saying, “I just want to be normal”, or “Why can’t you be normal?” as if being normal was the ultimate desire to be cherished.  But what is normalcy?  There’s no normal.  There’s common, there’s typical, but there’s no normal.  We must change this paradigm from achieving normalcy to possibility or potency, and then we can release the power of so many people, children and adults alike, and invite them to engage in their rare and invaluable abilities with the community. 

Anthropologists say the one thing we as humans have always required of our community members is to be of use, to be able to contribute.  And there is a vast potential in the Human Will.  This is our X factor.  Unless repeatedly told otherwise, and given a little support, a child or an adult will achieve.  There is a difference between the medical condition and what someone might do with it.  No prognosis, whether it’s an amputee or a person with PTSD, can account for how powerful this could be in the determinate in the quality of someone’s life. 

At 15 years old, if you would have asked Amie if she would have traded her prosthetics for flesh and bone legs, she wouldn't have hesitated for a second.  She aspired for that ‘normalcy’ back then.  But if you ask her today, she’s not so sure.  And it’s because of the experiences she’s had with them, and not in spite of the experiences she’s had with them. 

All you need is one person, one person, to show you the epiphany of your own power, and boom, you’re off.  If you can hand someone their own key to their own power, our spirit is so receptive, if you can do that for someone, and open a door for them at a crucial moment, you are educating them in the best sense.  You are teaching them to open doors for themselves.

To Educate.  The root word of educate is ‘educe’ which means to bring forth what is within to bring out potential.  So my question to you is: What potential do you want to bring out?

There was an interesting case study done in the 1960’s England called the ‘Streaming Trials.’  What they did was they separated ‘A’ students from ‘D’ students and for 3 months, they gave the ‘D’ students ‘A’s, told them they were ‘A’s, they were bright, and at the end of the 3 months, these students were performing at ‘A’ level.  The heartbreaking flipside is they told the ‘A’ students they were ‘D’ students, and that’s exactly what happened.  They failed.  Others dropped out.  A crucial part of this case study was the teachers were duped too.  The teachers were simply told that these are the ‘A’ students and these are the ‘D’ students, and that’s how they went about treating them and teaching them. 

What does this show us?  It shows that the only true disability is a crushed spirit.  A person who has a crushed spirit doesn't have any hope, they don’t have any curiosity or a deflated curiosity, they don’t see any beauty in life, and it deprives a person of his or her innate ability to imagine. 

If instead we could bolster the human spirit to keep hope, see the beauty in themselves and in others, and to be curious and imaginative, then we are truly using our power well.  When a spirit has those qualities, we are able to create new realities and new ways of being. 

Charlie Pacello is a PTSD, Depression, and Healing Trauma Recovery Expert and Life Coach, a former US Air Force Lieutenant, and creator of the program, 'Lt. Pacello's Life Training Program.'  He can be reached by visiting his website at