“What being paralysed from the waist down taught me about my brain, my body and strength”

Posted by for Strong Women

Fitness trainer Esmée Gunner’s workouts are high-energy and heavy on the dumbbells. So it may surprise you to learn that, after an accident a decade ago, she was paralysed from the waist down. Here, she tells Strong Women all about what learning to walk again taught her about both her physical and mental strength. 

“My accident was 10 years ago and, although it is part of me, I’m more interested in what has come after it. The things it taught me about the brain, my body and strength

I was an 18-year-old dance student when a routine operation for a hernia went wrong. I reacted to something. Whether it was the anaesthetic or the anti-sickness drugs, we don’t know, but suddenly I was having a seizure. As a consequence of that, I was paralysed from the waist down. 

I had been athletic. I trained hard and I was aiming to go to dance college. Then suddenly I was in hospital for three weeks, having to re-learn how to stand. Dance became a huge part of my rehab. I went to baby ballet, training with four year olds who were better than me. I couldn’t stand on my tip toes without my leg shaking.

I had to learn these things which were once second nature but became brand new skills through an adult lens. I don’t remember the first time I ever jumped, span around, fell, and nor did these kids. But now it was a conscious decision to have to try these things. I realised that as an adult I had so many more expectations than these kids did: we expect to be able to do things a certain way, to feel a certain way, to be treated a certain way. Suddenly, I could have no expectations for myself or my body.

The thing that hurt me more than the accident was remembering that I used to be better. This is why I now always say that comparison is the biggest thief of joy. Comparing myself to what I used to be like, to these four year olds in my class and my friends who had continued with their lives in dance college really hurt me. It was the first time in my life I felt real resentment. 

Esmée Gummer
Esmée Gummer: "Now when I work out, my mind and my reasoning come first, the body comes after."

I spent a good two months really unhappy, but I learnt how important it is to sit in your feelings. This idea of “putting your head up and keeping going” doesn’t always work. I had to acknowledge my feelings because I physically couldn’t get away from them. I couldn’t shake the anxiety off. 

From that, I realised how parallel the brain and body are. While movement had been such a huge part of my life before the accident, I hadn’t realised the brain to body connection. Now when I am in a workout, my mind and my reasoning come first, the body comes after. 

It’s for that reason that my training sessions are pretty brutal now. It’s nothing to do with wanting to be the best or show off. I could write myself a fitness programme that I’m good at, breezing through each workout, but what’s the point? If I don’t feel like I’ve fought through something or like I’ve failed at something then I lose sight of something to aim for.

Physically, it took about a year before I felt like I had the confidence to walk down the street without losing my balance, without panicking every time that I got pins and needles. Mentally, I’m still growing. It’s not linear, and you don’t have to grow every day. You drop down and you grow again, you drop down and you grow again. I don’t want the whole world to have to be paralysed to learn all of these lessons. feel like I’ve been able to do it for you. 

The two questions I ask myself before bed are: What have I done today to contribute to my life? And what have I done today to grow? 

We can contribute by adding things that we never would have thought to add into our lives – be it a training session, a new friend, a new mindset. We can grow by doing things we never thought we could do – be it hitting a new PB or applying for a new job. Sometimes I haven’t grown or contributed. I’ve not even brushed my teeth and I’ve laid in bed in a mood. But that reminds you of what we can do tomorrow: we can brush our teeth, we can leave the house. That would be growth. 

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