Reclaiming my identity and sense of purpose after my accident

Reclaiming my identity and sense of purpose after my accident

6 min read

Ever since my accident, there hasn’t been a single day that I’ve truly felt like myself. When I look in the mirror, I see someone that looks like me, someone with my face, someone who is so obviously me, but isn’t. The ‘me’ I know doesn’t have a face full of scars, missing front teeth, and the remnants of a broken nose. The ‘me’ I know doesn’t have a shattered leg held together with metal plates and a daily routine reliant on mobility aids. The ‘me’ I know doesn’t have a weekly diary full of medical appointments. The ‘me’ I know is the 23-year-old who was off on a spontaneous Cambodian holiday before starting a Master’s degree in International Development. The ‘me’ who had career plans to work in child protection in South East Asia. The ‘me’ who was one test away from getting my driver’s license and all the independence that came with it. The ‘me’ who was incredibly happy.

One of the hardest internal struggles has been accepting the fact that I’m not that person anymore. But if I’m not the old pre-accident me, then who am I? If I can’t follow the career path I set out for myself, then what can I do? In the process of acceptance  — and I’m still very much in that process — I’ve had to re-evaluate a big part of my identity and sense of purpose.

The impact of my accident on my original life plans

At the time of my accident, I had a solid plan of what I wanted to accomplish during my twenties. I’d rounded off my Bachelor’s thesis on child sex tourism in Thailand and completed a 6-month NGO internship at Hope for Justice working with young sex trafficking survivors in Cambodia. I had just been offered a place for a Master’s degree in International Development and planned to do field research on familiar ground in Phnom Penh. After my Master’s degree, I would search for an NGO position in South East Asia and see what professional opportunities would arise from there. I had serious career aspirations and I was excited for my future.

After my accident, its medical repercussions robbed me of my ability to go down that life path. With weekly rehab appointments, re-learning how to walk, and a list of reconstructive face and leg surgeries over the next few years, my medical situation remains too complicated to pack my bags and leave my specialists in Amsterdam. My shattered leg and reduced mobility also mean I’ve had to re-think where I can live based on accessibility and medical care. 

Like a lot of people, I attributed much of my identity and who I wanted to become to my career aspirations. This meant that when I suddenly couldn’t be that Josephine, I didn’t really know who I was anymore. In fact, my whole life had been uprooted. Unable to work, I lost my job and my income. Unable to take care of myself, I moved in with my parents. I was close to family but away from friends. I used a wheelchair. I slept in the living room for almost two years. I had always loved reading, and now I couldn’t concentrate on more than two sentences. I had always loved socialising, and now groups of more than three people gave me anxiety and a sensory overload. Overwhelmed by grief, anger, and loneliness, I spiralled down into severe depression.

I didn’t recognise myself or my life anymore. And let me tell you, that’s an incredibly scary feeling. Even though certain aspects of my life would eventually become more ‘normal’, I felt like I had to grieve the person I was before my accident. I’d physically survived the collision, but in that moment I left behind a ‘me’ I could never go back to.

Out with the old (me), in with the new

I’ve spent a lot of sleepless nights trying to figure out who this new Josephine is.

In the months and years after my accident, my recovery was (and still is) a hot topic for anyone striking up a conversation with me. Strangers see my disability and feel its visibility is an invitation to jump in and ask me whatever they want. Every day is filled with a dose of “What happened?“, “Have you always been in a wheelchair?” “Aren’t you a bit young to be using a rollator?” and “Will you ever walk normally again?” Even family members and friends often struggle to talk to me about anything else. When I once asked a friend to avoid asking me about my recovery, she responded with: “But what else should I talk to you about?

What else? Literally anything else!

The problem with everyone only asking me about my recovery was that it made me feel like that was all there was to this new ‘me’. I had become my accident. I had become my disability. People would happily talk to my other family members about their day, exotic holidays, current affairs, what have you, and then bam, when it came to me I’d get a “Do you remember much of the accident?” or “When is your next surgery?” or “Have you got your permanent teeth yet?” Most people asked out of concern, but their question was one of a hundred on the same topic that week. A topic I was already struggling with 24/7.

Of course, my accident is a defining moment in my life. And of course, while my disability is around, it’ll be part of the new ‘me’ to some extent. I’m okay with it, as long as people realise I’m also much more than that: I love writing. I have a Bachelor’s degree. I speak three languages. I play piano. I’m a terrible cook. I have a weakness for chocolate. I like helping people. I’m determined to make something of my life. Oh, and also — tiny side note — I was hit by a car and now have trouble walking. Even if my accident cost me part of my old identity, I now realise there are lots of accomplishments and characteristics it can never take away from me.

There are also some things about the new ‘me’ that I like. I’ve got a partially bionic leg that beeps when I go through airport customs (the novelty still hasn’t worn off). Because I order my weekly groceries online, I’ve finally become a meal prep-er rather than an aimless supermarket-wanderer who buys random food that barely goes together. I’ve also started going to the gym — something the old ‘me’ never did — courtesy of my newfound appreciation for mobility and exercise. In no way do these things make my accident worth it, but it has pushed me to try things I never thought I would. 

Finding a new sense of purpose

The search for my new identity came hand in hand with the search for a new sense of purpose. With a schedule dictated by all things recovery-related, it didn’t take long for me to feel incredibly useless beyond a body to be prodded and poked by medical professionals. If I wasn’t going to get my Master’s degree and work for an NGO in South East Asia, I needed to find another way to feel useful.

I tried all sorts of things, eventually finding my passion for accessibility advocacy through Able Amsterdam. Initially I simply saw it as a means to put wheelchair-friendly places on the map, but it soon became a huge source of energy and motivation. In sharing my story, it gave me a voice. In building my own website and logo, I picked up new skills. In researching places throughout Amsterdam, I connected with all sorts of influential local people. Social media became a fantastic tool to network within the international disability community and ‘meet’ others with similar experiences. One by one, emails poured in from potential visitors asking for advice about attractions, hotels, and places to eat. I even received messages from other trauma survivors who felt their experiences resonated with my writing. For the first time in a long time, I felt a sense of purpose and achievement beyond medical milestones.  

Some things I’ve learned
  • It’s important to acknowledge my loss and grief about the old ‘me’. 
  • The only way to find a new sense of purpose is to put myself out there and try new things.
  • Even after everything I’ve lost, there are still many achievements and characteristics that make me *me*.
  • I am more than my accident and my disability.

A long road ahead

I’ve come a long way in the last two years, but I’m still figuring things out. 

I’ll admit, a part of me still hopes that I’m going to wake up from a really bad dream. Accidents are supposed to happen to other people, after all. People on the news. People in films. People you hear or read about. People whose empty crushed cars you might see on a highway. Other people. Not me. 

It’s going to take me a very long time to accept that my accident forced my life in a completely different direction. I’m slowly picking up the pieces again. Life may not have turned out the way I wanted it to, but I’m determined to keep giving it everything I’ve got. 

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Josephine Rees

My name is Josephine Rees (1993) and I am Dutch-British. I was raised in Tokyo and Moscow and moved to The Netherlands to study Anthropology & Human Geography in 2012. After briefly living in Thailand and Cambodia, I am now based in Amsterdam. I love exploring this beautiful city and hope to help others by sharing exciting accessibility tips.

This Post Has 10 Comments

  1. Thankyou for doing what your doing ! This is helping so many other people!
    Go girl 😘xxx

    1. Thanks Judy!

  2. You Rees girls have always been superstars
    x

    1. Thanks Carol!

  3. your strength to keep on going is a candle in the night helping me with my loss and grief …thank you so very very much ……

    1. Thank you, Arlette. I cannot imagine the immense difficulty and grief you are going through. It means a lot to know that my writing can do a little part in helping you to find a way to keep going. Wishing you all the strength in the world.

  4. Hi Josephine, Good to see you there. Hope you are so good now. You know, most of the people in your stage ar failed to comeback but mostly you are brave enough to tackle that hard situation. I really impressed to see you at this stage. Bunch of thanks for sharing your tale with us.

    1. Thank you Rachel!

  5. Hi Josephine
    I was an electrical project manager with a sense of purpose and a drive to succeed.
    I was coming home on my motorcycle and a car driver turned right into his drive without indication, I was the resulting accident. Along the side of his car cart-wheels in the air and a shattered ulna and radius of the left arm along with a few other injuries.
    The accident has changed my life forever. No grip, limited wrist rotation, metal plates, long scars and constant pain. The biggest thing was loss of identity which I took out on my Wife.
    Its something I still haven’t come to terms with and I still don’t know who I am.
    My Wife and I have separated but we are trying to sort it out, but that question that keeps coming back is ” who am I now and what or where do I go from here.
    I’m now almost 51 and feel life is rushing past me and I just want to be invisible. It’s been four and a half years since the accident.
    I’m happy you are finding yourself, it’s an inspiration that people like us need, someone to aspire to and proof there is a future.
    Go Girl!!

    1. Thank you for your kind words, Martin. I’m sorry to hear you are struggling so much after your accident and that it was so life-changing for you too. I hope that with the right support and motivation you can pick up the pieces and find your identity again. My biggest piece of advice is to find something that motivates you and gives you a sense of purpose and fulfillment. It’s going to take time and effort but little by little you will get there!

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