The impact of disability on life and life on disability
Byron Bay local Warwick Brown has had a more remarkable life than most, suffering a disabling accident that took him to dark places – including addiction. But more recently his life has taken an upward path. He has generously decided to share his story with Echonetdaily readers in his own words.
Life before my world changed seems like an illusion. The plans I’d had, from the backpacking trip to work in Antarctica, a wife, kids, mortgage. All forks on a path that fate slammed shut that rainy night when my neck went snap in a car accident.
From that initial blur of hospital, morphine, pain ridden screams and beeping machines a new life formed. One filled with stares, and lowered faces, that couldn’t look me in the eye. A life where I’d become an alien in the place I once called home.
Before, I was the fun-loving, sporty kid, studying science in a world where anything seemed possible. Afterwards, I was pinned in a wheelchair I drove with my chin. Everything I did, from answering phones to using computers was done with a stick in my mouth. And even though people gawked at me as if I was some type of freak, my dreams never died and I never stopped believing that I could do anything.
My transition was helped by having two of the greatest gifts anyone can have: a loving family who would always be there for me, and true friends who were always behind me with the challenges I faced. They took me back to the life I knew. To the pubs and barbecues, the footy that bound us together, and the beach that was our playground. There were no obstacles with the friends I had and nothing we couldn’t overcome.
Rehab from the accident was a reality check. They could’ve done so much but a lack of resources and inclination meant I was quickly triaged out of therapy. It was clear they didn’t care and would never help. The only way to make things happen in my life was to do it myself – a valuable lesson to learn.
In 1987 university was new territory for disabled students and there was much ground to be broken. The staff were supportive and bent over backwards. I was basically able to write my own rules. It enabled me to find my feet, but I wasn’t pushed, which may have been something I needed.
Dealing with the student body was a different story. I was their first disabled student and while I was doing a course that prided itself on including the downtrodden, my classmates had trouble confronting what I represented. Few would look at me and even fewer talked. Women, gays and Aboriginals were welcomed with open arms, but embracing me was more than they were ready for.
But not everyone was like that. I’d always liked a drink and the bar was a gateway to the acceptance I craved. I had to get atrociously drunk to do it, but to be greeted warmly by pretty nursing students I don’t remember meeting made uni a far easier place to attend. They gave me recognition that was beyond the students of my liberal Arts course. It meant a lot.
Setting up house
Accommodation was also challenging. Living with my parents didn’t work. Once I was stabilised I went back to being a 23-year-old and partying was high on my agenda. It was hard on them as they also felt they needed to be nurses.
I ended up moving into a nursing home run by the Quadriplegic Association. There were liberties, such as the freedom to drink alcohol and go out. Good as that may have been, it was still an institution. You had no control over what you ate or who worked with you. While I’d grown to appreciate it as a stepping stone to an independent life, at the time, all I wanted was to get out of there.
I moved into a group home where I hired my own carers and organised my own meals. I shared with two other quads who were pretty cool. We partied and smoked pot. I went to uni, cruised down to the beach, and hung with my mates. I was 25 living life the way a 25-year-old should and that time will always be special.
From there I moved into my own home on Sydney’s Northern Beaches. If I thought life would continue its upward trend I was mistaken. I finished uni but had nothing to fill the void. My friends were getting married and having children. I wanted kids, but, while I loved sex and was capable of fathering a child, it takes two and I was very much alone. My longing for ‘the one’ was my deepest desire. Not having that love left an emptiness that ate at my being. Increasingly I found myself at home, lost in a marijuana haze. My health suffered and the many months of bed rest took an emotional toll that demolished my self-esteem.
My world became a small and sombre place. Finding and managing workers also became a problem. Good carers provide opportunities to go out, travel and to enjoy amazing relationships with incredible people. Bad carers are just depressing. Too often I was placed in a position where I felt forced to hire carers I didn’t feel were up to it. Sometimes I was pleasantly surprised. More often I was faced with sleepless nights and a stress-filled life.
In 1996, I stopped smoking and re-discovered a vitality I’d lost. I went out more, bought some land in Byron Bay and began a TAFE course. A lot had changed since my first foray into study. The services were better but perhaps the biggest difference was the actor Christopher Reeve breaking his neck. Now, everyone knew a quadriplegic and the difference in attitude was incredible. I felt accepted.
When I finished TAFE I pursued my long-held dream of traveling around Australia. Making that happen was a lot harder than I envisaged and, by the time it came to fruition, I was back on the marijuana roller coaster. It was a dysfunctional trip that ended with a six-month sojourn in Royal Darwin Hospital.
It took a heavy toll, but I emerged a stronger, more confident person. My hunger to embrace life made the world a fuller, more enjoyable place. In the following years I travelled from Broome to Buenos Aries, finally cast off the marijuana spectre and moved to Byron Bay.
Life in Byron
I live to travel, I enjoy reading, writing, and have become an officianado at luncheoning. I did Mandy Nolan’s comedy course and look forward to using those skills presenting awareness shows that encourage young people to strive for their full potential.
I still have dark moments. Doubt and disillusionment can overtake me and the love I pine for remains elusive. But in the same way that darkness descends, life throws you opportunities, and every time you reach for the light you feel more powerful for it.
Looking at myself now I can genuinely say I’m in a good place. We all have the power to rise above the barriers that life puts in front of us, and we owe it, not just to ourselves, but to all those who’ve loved us, supported us, inspired us or have been inspired by us to be the best we can be. It’s our choice.
An earlier version of this story appeared in the Sydney Morning Herald.