The End is Where I Begin – TEDxOhioStateUniversity Speech

So this is my story…and you probably think you know how the story ends.

But you’d be wrong.

This moment, right here, is where the story begins. Because what you thought was the end was only the beginning.

One of my caretakers will often tell my story to her family and friends. She can’t stand to hear people say that they no longer would want to live if they were in my situation. Because I have proven to her that after tragedy there can be life.

Would I rather not be in a wheelchair? Of course. But being in a wheelchair for just over two years has taught me more about what is important in life than I learned in my first 24 years before the accident.

When you see someone with a disability you probably do not expect too much of them. But we see the world differently. We understand that you should not take the little things in life for granted. So we must try harder to take advantage of everything this world has to offer.

I’ve had my 24 years of living life as an able-bodied individual. Back in 2008 when I applied to the Sphinx Senior Class Honorary I was asked to write my own epitaph. Sphinx is the highest honor that can be accorded a student at the Ohio State University. Only 24 students are chosen each year and I was chosen to be a member of the 102nd class in the spring of 2008.. My epitaph was, “here lies a man who truly found happiness. He tried what he thought he’d like and pursued only what he knew he loved.” I can say with all sincerity that it was this philosophy that led to my successes in life but it is also what led to my downfall. But I still live by that philosophy today even though there are many things that I can no longer do. I’ve been able to replace old passions with new ones. New passions that bring more happiness and purpose to my life than ever before.

The passions before my accident were mostly physical. The greatest being waterskiing since I was three years old. I accomplished more in this sport than I could ever dream. I was a national championship show skier, a state championship slalom skier, and I helped lead the Ohio State waterski team 2010 Division II national championship. Now imagine telling someone like that that they can never waterski again. It was my life and it was all I knew. But let me tell you that passions can be replaced. But I’ll also tell you that it was incredibly hard to say goodbye.

Now you’re probably all wondering how I ended up in a wheelchair. Smoking marijuana on a daily basis, a drug binge, excessive spending, and other things led me to end up in the psych ward in fall of 2008. I experienced my first psychotic break and thought that I was the second coming of Jesus Christ for 2 1/2 weeks. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder and was told I was experiencing my first manic episode and put on a heavy dose of medications.

I had to fight so incredibly hard to get my mind back. My psychiatrist told me that I could no longer drink, smoke marijuana, or do other drugs or I would end up living under a bridge for the rest of my life. I took my medications religiously but even after drug rehab I started to smoke marijuana once again on a daily basis.

Unfortunately, being in the psych ward was not a big enough lesson for me to learn the importance of keeping a sound mind. I put my family through so much and they had no idea if I would ever get my mind back again. It was the first time my sister had seen my father break down and cry. But that manic state left me higher and more euphoric but I never been in my entire life. I enjoyed being Jesus and although I did not try to get back to that state of mind I quickly was putting myself on that path once again.

When being diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder or other mental health issues, it is important to stay on your medications.

In January 2011 I decided to go off my medication for five days. On the fifth day the signs started come back and I once again believed that I was Jesus Christ. I was in danger this time as I was in a manic state but I was not under the close supervision that I was in the psych ward. I was free to do whatever I wanted to and I took off on a drive on January 22, 2011 that would forever change my life.

At one point everything went black and I later found out that I flipped my car five times front over front and landed upside down in a field in the snow. I actually died at the scene of the crash but they were able to resuscitate me.

I had chest tubes put in to stabilize my collapsed lungs. I had emergency surgery on my neck because I suffered a spinal cord injury at the C6 and C7 vertebrae.

I woke up the next day in the ICU surrounded by my family. I could not move or feel my legs and I knew that I was paralyzed. There were so many questions that I wanted to ask but there was a breathing tube shoved down my throat. So I moved the only thing I could which was my right hand and motioned to my family and I wanted to write something.

They got a pad of paper and a pen and the first thing I wrote was, “did I hurt anybody?” To this they shook their heads no. Then I wrote, “Am I a cripple?” To this they also shook their heads no. Then I wrote the word “hug” and my mom came and gave me a hug. It was the only thing that would comfort me at this time.

I quickly learned that my core is paralyzed and I could no longer feel temperature or pain from the chest down; losing control of the majority of my body.

But what was worse, my bipolar was left untreated during that first week and the manic episode continued. My family now believed that I had not just lost my body but I also had lost my mind forever.

When I got home life was so different and I thought that it was a life that was no longer worth living. I contemplated suicide and thought that all of my hopes and dreams were crushed. I had to say goodbye to all of my greatest passions. I was extremely active before my accident and I would have to say goodbye to waterskiing, long boarding, snow skiing, and many other things. As each season passed there were so many things that I so deeply missed. I focused on what I could not do and not what I can do. I was devastated during that first year but soon enough I was going to be woken up.

I started to write about my experiences on Facebook. The responses that I got were incredible and people were telling me that I completely changed their perspective on life. They would say that they no longer were taking the little things for granted. I finally had a purpose in life and I would reach out to people and share my story in hopes that I could affect their lives in a positive way. I continued to write on a daily basis and I could not stop. I decided to start writing a book to share my story with the world.

When I crashed my car I was only five classes away from graduating from Ohio State. I desperately wanted to get back there but I thought that this would be impossible. I found out about a therapy program called locomotor training at Ohio State and soon enough I was accepted into the program. This gave me new hope that I would walk again and also gave me the opportunity to return to Columbus.

I found a unique place to live called Creative Living, which is for people with severe physical disabilities. My writing truly paid off when a girl named Brooke, who had been reading my Facebook posts, contacted me and asked if she could take care of me when I moved back down to Columbus. Everything was in order and I was to move back down to Columbus.

I would take part in therapy for five days a week for two hours a day for the next year and three months. I returned to class at the same time, which was a huge adjustment. I always loved to stand out but I did not like standing out in a bright green wheelchair at the front of the class. But I quickly learned that the wheelchair made me more approachable. People were interested in my story and I was glad to tell it. Everyone remembers the guy in a wheelchair and I constantly was getting a hello as I rolled down the hallways. The students really respected what I was trying to accomplish.

In the spring of 2012 I finished what I thought would be impossible. I graduated with a degree in civil engineering from the Ohio State University. I already had a new plan for my future. When before I chose my degree so that I could build waterski lakes, I now wanted to make this world a better place for people with disabilities. I want to get into grant writing to help build more places like Creative Living for people with physical disabilities. Also it is very difficult for people with physical disabilities to travel so I want to build handicap accessible vacation housing. I now understood God’s plan for me.

Just recently I finished my book titled ‘Well… I Guess I’m Not Jesus’, which I am in the process of getting published. It is in this book that you can hear all of the details of my story. I also started a blog over the summer (adamhelbling.com), which has been read by over 14,000 people. In my blog you can read about my process of transforming a tragedy into triumph.

I have learned the importance of staying away from drugs and alcohol especially if you have a mental health issue. I am proud to say that I have now been clean since the day that I crashed my car. I think more clearly than ever before.

No matter what your limitations are you are still capable of doing great things in this world. I wrote a book with one hand. I finished school when I thought it would never happen. Most Importantly I am now giving back and helping the people that got me through my situation during that first year by sharing my story.

“Here lies a man who truly found happiness. He tried what he thought he’d like and pursued only what he knew he loved.” Two years ago that could have easily been inscribed on my grave. But I had yet to truly find happiness like I have found it today. I never would’ve thought that when I woke up in the ICU that I was waking up to a new dream. To a life filled with more opportunity then I can ever imagine. God was with me when I crashed my car that night and he has been with me every day since. He gave me a chance to prove why I was worth saving.

Despite a traumatic physical accident, this fight has been more of a mental battle than it has been physically. In my life I have lost both my mind and my body. However, above all else I have learned that I am very lucky to still have my mind. This powerful lesson is how I have been able to change what may have been the end, into a new beginning. 

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