7: Turning “I Can’t” into “How Can I?”

7: Turning “I Can’t” into “How Can I?”

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Teens Talk Getting In...To College

Turning “I Can’t” into “How Can I?”

Optimism is the foundation of courage.

~Nicholas Murray Butler

Because I was born with severe cerebral palsy, my parents — eager to find help for my condition — moved us from Iran to the United States when I was only eighteen months old. And if that were not challenge enough, I would later discover that for most of my life, I had been stalked by two killers. But first, some background.

I grew up attending schools where having a handicapped student was novel, but that never proved to be a problem for me. I always felt accepted by my classmates and everyone at school. From my wheelchair vantage point, going through grade school and high school was fun and fulfilling.

Growing up, I assumed I could never move out of my parents’ supportive home and have the kind of college experience most teens do. You see, I’d always relied on my parents for the most basic of tasks. Every morning, they would help me get out of bed and stumble to the bathroom, then assist me with showering, brushing my teeth, and so on. Then they’d help me get dressed and ease me into my ever-present wheelchair — not to mention feed me, gather my books, and get me off to school.

Doing things teenagers normally do — rebelling, demanding freedom, taking risks — was a wistful, daunting proposition for me, because I depended on my parents so much. I believed nobody else would help me. So I ignored and suppressed my desire to go off to university. After I completed two years at a nearby community college, I thought I’d have to attend a university within driving distance of my parents’ house, get dropped off for classes, picked up afterwards — the same old drill. What choice did I have?

As I watched my classmates finish community college and move on, I felt empty inside. And angry. I wanted to be moving on with them. Sure, I should be happy making the Dean’s List and getting good grades. But countless times, I got stuck in the thought, “If I weren’t handicapped, I’d be living on my own and creating a great life at college like my peers.”

Then one day, my humanities professor at the community college suggested I move out of the house and apply to the University of Southern California. “You’re nuts,” I wanted to tell him. “How could you possibly understand the effort and intricacy it takes for me to meet my basic needs every day — let alone live away from home?”

But I must admit, because someone else could see the possibility, I was inspired. Why should I weigh myself down with limited thinking? Why stop my creative mind from exploring possibilities and solving challenges that living on campus would present? In asking these questions, I realized the powerful difference between saying “I can’t” and asking “how can I?”

By saying “I can’t,” I was already beaten; by asking “how can I?” my brain would automatically churn out possible solutions. I figured that since my brain is just like any other muscle, the more I used it, the stronger it would get. So when my professor planted the thought that I really could achieve my dream of living independently on campus, my desire came alive.

Don’t get me wrong. My deciding to go to USC wasn’t as simple as packing my bags, telling Mom and Dad to “just send money,” and wheeling myself out the door. It became a long, grueling journey fueled by research, sacrifice, and problem-solving along the way. I had to explore all kinds of things, such as getting assistants to help me, not only with attending classes and taking tests, but also with meals and getting me ready in the morning and at night. Could I possibly find one person to do all of this? Could I chop up the tasks among several people? What could I realistically handle on my own without assistance? Simply asking questions helped me formulate solutions short of requiring my parents to drive back and forth every day to help me. That would defeat the whole purpose.

Not long after starting my search, I found a roommate willing to help me in the mornings and at night, so I got that part covered. Then, in my classes, I figured out that by making friends, I could ask for assistance with issues that came up like helping me type papers. I had to arrange taking tests with staff members in the office of disability; they would provide me with someone to fill in my answers on the tests. On a regular basis, I’d have to meet a friend or hire an assistant to help me at lunch and dinner. Getting these arrangements set up meant I could enjoy a fabulous new experience — living on campus for two years.

If orchestrating all of this seems like a big chore, believe me, it was. Imagine having to coordinate every “mundane” task around the schedules of several other people. No way can I say having to jump through so many hoops was “fair.” But long before this, I had decided I could sit back with a “life’s not fair” attitude and wallow in “being right,” or I could accept my situation and figure out ways to even the playing field going forward.

Yes, it sounds corny to say it out loud, but I truly believe life is what we make of it. I’m proud to say I relied on my positive thinking and made living on my own at university happen. No, my disability didn’t go away. I didn’t “overcome” cerebral palsy. I can assure you I still have it. But I discovered the identity of those two killers I mentioned, the ones who had been dogging me, and so many other people. They’re dream killers — negative thinking and reduced expectations. They add a highly destructive element to the world. Yet no one has to accept these deal breakers, no matter what disability comes with the package.

Sure, it may be okay for some to settle for a “safe” job with a “decent” mate and say they’re happy because they’re “secure” in this world. But like negative thinking, reduced expectations and safe choices destroy the essence of life.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t suggest rashly rushing into new things. On the contrary, having cerebral palsy has given me the ability to patiently assess situations before ever moving forward. That’s how I methodically and sensibly achieved my dream of living on campus while earning a marketing degree.

Today, I run my own business as a professional speaker, business consultant, and award-winning author. And what keeps me going is constantly asking — and answering — these two questions: How can I do what seems impossible? And how can I love my life just the way it is?

~Sourena Vasseghi

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