Related Recovering from Disability

Born and raised in Nashville, Chase Akers has a quiet strength about him. On the surface, some might describe him as shy considering he is usually behind the music as a local Disc Jockey. However, his humility is a genuine representation of removing any ego, seeing as he has had his fair share of hardships. “It is me vs. me – always,” he asserts. “If I start comparing myself to others, dark thoughts seep in. It’s no longer me against myself and it becomes me against the world – that is a weight too heavy to bear.” Instead, he says to himself, those thoughts are unnecessary and remembers the embrace of love and support.

Born three months premature, Chase’s neck suffered too much pressure during delivery and caused a stroke. After a month in the hospital, he came home weighing one pound and fitting in his father’s hand.

Cerebral palsy (CP) is caused by abnormal development or damage to the parts of the brain that control movement, balance, and posture. For Chase, it was the nerve damage at birth caused by the excessive pressure on his spinal cord. CP varies from invisible to completely immobile and is a permanent movement disorder that appears in early childhood. Chase’s CP was recognized when his parents noticed his inability to crawl during infancy. Often, symptoms of CP include poor coordination, stiff muscles, weak muscles, or tremors. While symptoms may get more noticeable over the first few years of life, underlying problems do not worsen over time.

Chase’s specific case is called spastic diplegia, a form of CP where muscle tightness is the exclusive impairment and have neuromuscular mobility issues (rather than paralysis). Certain movements or poses will cause spastic episodes that Chase describes as “very painful”. Spastic diplegia is usually in the muscles of the lower extremities, such as the legs, hips, and pelvis, as the case for Chase. “This is why I train in multiple fashions,” Chase explains, “I want to wake up those nerves so they know they can do this.”

Although he will always deal with spastic diplegia, at the age of 5 he underwent 8 invasive surgeries. These surgeries would pull and stretch the affected muscles, the bones would be broken and reset, and he was placed in a lower-body cast to allow the extensive process to heal. His muscles were forced to be lengthened and the bones meant to realign in the hopes his lower body function would become manageable in his later years. His recovery consisted of 3-5 years and the entire first year was spent in a cast. The remaining few years of recovery were in multiple braces. “It was nothing to be afraid of,” he expresses, “I am not fragile, just a normal person that had a stroke at birth.”

“I grew up thinking, ‘I’ll turn 21 and grow out of this,’ like acne or something,” he explains. “But then I’d wake up and it would still be there.” At 24, Chase came to the unsettling realization that it wasn’t something he would outgrow. He recalls that concrete moment when his retrospect shifted to a positive outlook despite any previous dismay.  He woke up from a haze of inhibition and distinguished he was overcompensating his physicalities with an abrasive personality. In his clarity, he no longer felt the needed to be excessive. “I didn’t need to be this presence that said, ‘Please validate me!’” he says and thought, “‘Why are you trying to be someone you weren’t made to be?’ There are a million other things I was made to be, so I had to shift my perspective. The things I could be were more important than the things I was not.” He had his body, his mind, and his heart and allowed himself to be weak and vulnerable, but he wanted to be more for himself. “I’m not just someone to embody CP,” he says.

Once he discovered this feeling, he says it felt like the world around him supported the effort. It wasn’t optimism, Chase says, it was empowerment. He says, “You can be optimistic about everything in the world but still not feel empowered by community and knowledge,” and elaborates, “The first two steps to any kind of change is community and knowledge.”

His first experience with community support started at a college Pilates class. He claims, “I was still chubby and weak, but I forced myself into company so I could learn from those around me.” Here, the instructor would help him move into selective positions and while grimacing from the pain she would say, “I’m proud of you.” It might have ignited those nerve sensors into discomfort, but Chase says it changed various negative thoughts into positive affirmations. His feelings of inadequacy transformed into a new movement with new meanings. Essentially, Chase’s body was recovering through movement, but so was his mind. 

“I reminded myself ‘I can do all things,’ as my mother told me as a child.” His mother’s biblical reference of Philippians 4:13 would become a mantra in many ways. “When you say ‘I can do all things’, it means I can do all things,” Chase explains. But Chase isn’t referring to skydiving or squatting 200 pounds, “I mean I can feel love – I can look in the mirror and love and accept myself.” He says, “It doesn’t have to mean surface-level things. I can have a community and go to a gym and not be afraid or intimidated. I can love my life and myself for exactly who I am and the things I am capable of.”

This affirmation has now become an everyday approach. As he aged, those words became less biblical and more of a vow he latched onto. “My family didn’t see me as their disabled son,” he notes. Therefore, he learned to see himself as they did. He says, “I was going to do the things I wanted because that is what they wanted for me.” Chase says he is closer to his family because of CP. It was a circumstance they chose to fight together and with that adversity came a special bond. Although, he admits it made him “grow up humble” his stance remains, “My family championed me from day one,” and he believes CP was a driving factor in his biggest support system.

“CP doesn’t necessarily get worse, but I do believe it can get better,” Chase says. Most people can rehabilitate whatever the battle may be, but Chase’s disability is incurable. There is no cure for CP and his acceptance of that fact helped in accepting himself – that was and continues to be his true recovery.

This is why Chase’s recovery story is a little different from the rest. His journey was finding something he never had. Growing up with a multitude of limiting factors, he had to overcome an implemented mentality. His recovery process is of course physically demanding, but his real recovery is in its mental feat. The dark place was a series of thoughts and phrases that spiraled into depriving his own life and questioning self-worth and ability. His mental battles consist of “what if’s” and negative self-talk, but with the help of a community providing love with no limitations, Chase patrons the healing process.

“What makes it more challenging is that I’m recovering from not knowing what I want, who I am, or what I am capable of. I have to keep working to progress my mental challenges while acknowledging the physical ones.” Chase’s recovery is learning how to live with the life he has been given and all of its factors, but still setting himself apart as an individual. Ironically and quite beautifully, Chase gives a lot of this credit to becoming a part of something bigger – his community.

Recovering from a disability is unmasking the odds and the person it makes you become. Chase admits, “We spend a lot of time hating ourselves because of limitations. The biggest part of my recovery story is uncovering just that.” We can all relate to finding our way in this world, it’s called growth, but by no means is it easy. It begins with acceptance and continues with overcoming the negative self-talk. Chase replaced his self-deprecations with memories of the words, “I’m proud of you,” and “I can do all things,” and believing them instead of giving into self-preservation. Chase’s message illustrates an invaluable lesson to us all. “Any wall you put up will harm you more than any wall you will ever let down, and the walls of self-doubt will destroy you more than any disability ever could.”