Ryan Rae Harbuck, WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A CHAIR: A Memoir

Ryan Rae Harbuck, WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A CHAIR: A Memoir

Zibby speaks to teacher, swim coach, and writer Ryan Rae Harbuck about When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Chair, a raw, humorous, and profound new memoir about her paralyzing car accident in her teens and the decision to live a life of courage, ambition, and adventure after it. Ryan shares the gut-wrenching details of her accident–the school dance and midnight bowling, the crash on the highway, the spinal cord injuries and broken bones, the loss of her boyfriend, the disintegration of her family, and a new life in a wheelchair. Finally, she explains how swimming, teaching, coaching, and paralympic competitions changed her life.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Ryan. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss When I Grow Up I Want to Be a Chair: A Memoir.

Ryan Rae Harbuck: Thank you so much, Zibby. I am actually less nervous than I thought I would be. I am very giddy-feeling about being here. I will say that I am a little sick this morning. Moms also don’t have time to be sick. Bear with that a little bit.

Zibby: I will bear with anything. No worries at all. I have a jackhammer outside my office. Everything’s been delayed all day. It’s been one of those days. I’m delighted to finally be talking to you. Your book, your story is so moving. I have twins who are almost sixteen. Your story begins when you were paralyzed at age sixteen. The way you wrote about it through the lens of a regular teen wanting to look cool and hang out with the cool guy on the floor and break the rules and all that, you immediately disarm the reader. You take out any of the, not stigma, but just any distance you might feel from somebody going through something else. You immediately connect. You’re like, let’s do this together. I get you. Come along on my journey. Let me take you through it. That was a long way to introduce you.

Ryan: I’ll take it. I appreciate that.

Zibby: Can you share your story with listeners and then end up with how it became a book?

Ryan: For all intents and purposes, my story begins when I was in a car accident at the age of sixteen. It was a tragic event, obviously for me, for my family, and for all our whole community. It was this very well-publicized event where there was six teenagers coming back from a school dance. Nobody really knows what happened. There were no drugs or alcohol involved. The car ended up flying across a grass median on the highway and hitting another car. I was ejected out of the vehicle. When I landed, I suffered a spinal cord injury. I am paralyzed from about my chest level down, both in feeling and in function and moving. Beyond that, I had collapsed my lungs, and so I wasn’t breathing. I had broken both my arms and my legs. I was bleeding out from a spot where I had severed an artery. I didn’t realize it clearly at the time, but they didn’t think that I was going to make it to the hospital, let alone anything beyond that. For whatever it’s worth, my injuries weren’t the worst of that night.

Coming back from that dance, I was sitting next to my boyfriend at the time. He was killed instantly on the impact of the accident. We hit a car head-on. The driver of that car was killed instantly. There were two kids in my car that suffered traumatic brain injuries. If any of your listeners are familiar with that sort of an injury, I would take having a spinal cord injury any day rather than having my brain injured, that one thing that really does — it is who you are. Obviously, I made it. I’m alive. I spent a lot of time in the hospital. I spent a month in the ICU unit just getting my body to begin to heal. It wasn’t until about two months after the accident that I really started to understand what my new life would be. Being paralyzed, now I was going to have to rely on using a wheelchair to get around. Luckily, I live in Colorado, which has one of the best spinal cord injury rehab facilities in the nation. I was able to go there to do some rehab once I was well enough. That’s when I learned what this new change was going to be, this new life for myself.

I always tell people that I think that I was really fortunate to have this accident happen when I was so young because I was naïve and still very carefree. My biggest concern was, how am I going to get to the mall with my friends? not, how am I going to spend the rest of my life in this wheelchair? That wasn’t the biggest thing to me. It was, I want to figure out how I can get in my friend’s car. How can I wear my backpack so that I look cool? That’s really what my focus was. Being that naïve kid but then also understanding that I now had a different kind of perspective on what life really is and that maybe my peers didn’t really understand that, I think those things in combination really saved me and really helped me to develop who I am today and to really challenge others. I think that in all of the events of my life, I’ve constantly been having these similar themes of, how do I get through this experience? How do I reflect on it? What does that do for me? What does it not do for me? All of those things in combination has really been able to teach me so much about myself and what I want and what I need, but also then to really understand those around me and the world around me.

Zibby: Wow. Oh, my gosh, what a story. Can I go back to your accident for two seconds? I know in the book you said you didn’t remember any of it. You don’t remember anything that happened. Who was sitting where? What had happened that night before the accident? Do you remember all that?

Ryan: You’re a hundred percent correct. When you suffer something really traumatic, your brain is really, really amazing, and it has this ability to just kind of shut it off. If it’s something that’s going to be too much for you, your brain can actually just completely dull it out. You have no recollection. I really truly don’t have a memory from even the day before until about a week later. I do have these almost photographic snapshot images of things from that evening or even the day earlier. Then I have a couple of blips of memories from being in the hospital initially. I do have zero memory of the actual accident. Everything that I know about it I’ve pieced together from mostly the paramedic state troopers, those people that were actually at the scene that evening. Most of the kids that I was with, they don’t have any memories either, or they have fleeting memories of the events. Because of all of that, I really don’t have a huge emotional tie to it either. It makes it just this story that I learned once and I keep telling over and over again. As for the night, I do know that we did — we were typical teenagers in the nineties. I think we played laser tag. Then we went to dinner. Then we went to the dance.

Then while we were at the dance, we met up with another group of friends. They were like, “Hey, we’re going to go midnight bowling. You guys should come with us.” That’s actually what we decided to do. That’s where we were en route to go as the accident happened. We were in a suburban, SUV. It’s kind of a big car. My friend that was driving the car, that was her dad’s car that she had borrowed for the night. We thought it was really excellent because all of us could fit in the car. No problems. We didn’t have to rent a limousine or anything like that. It was really slick. We all had appropriate seats. My boyfriend and I were in the very back of the suburban. I think they’re smaller seats. When the accident happened, from what I was told, I flew through the side back window of the suburban. The paramedics actually told me later on that I was so far away from the vehicle when they arrived that they didn’t know where I was. They couldn’t find me. Just from piecing it together, they knew that there were three boys and three girls. They did have trouble finding me at first, which is kind of wild.

Zibby: Then you went to the hospital. How was your family at this time? I’m sorry to even go back.

Ryan: No, I’m glad to talk about all of this. I talk about it so often that I miss pieces. It’s nice to get drawn back to the things that may be super important that I don’t necessarily see at the time. For my family, my family had started kind of falling apart even before my accident. There was a lot of tension and a lot of miscommunication or lack of communication happening that I was aware of, but not in a heightened sense. I was a kid. I didn’t know any better. When my accident happened, I think it escalated everything. You’re a mom. You understand that wholly, I’m sure. When you witness something tragic happen to somebody else, sometimes that’s worse because you feel very at a loss, very out of control. I have always said that I think my accident has been harder on my family than it ever has been for me. When it’s you, when it involves you, you have a little bit of say over it. You have a little bit of control. When you’re watching somebody else struggle or somebody else go through something, that is far more difficult to deal with. Still to this day, my parents — I have a younger sister. They all have lost things because of my accident. They have all struggled more than I have because of my accident. As a daughter and a sister, I don’t know what to do with that. I hold it. I support them. It’s one of those things. It’s the way that nature works itself.

Zibby: Take us through the trajectory of the story after the accident.

Ryan: After I was released from the hospital, I really tried my best to be the most normal, average kid I could possibly be, and probably to a fault. I spent many, many years trying to really be this very typical, uninteresting, unnoticeable person. Looking back, I almost laugh about it because it was so silly that I worked so hard at this sort of thing. Then it wasn’t until many, many years later that I forced the realization that that’s not me anymore. That’s not my life. I need to embrace who I am and the challenges that I face and move myself forward. I had a fairly typical college experience. I actually studied biology in college. I developed a real appreciation for the human body and the way things work after my accident. That led me to fall into that path. Although, looking back, I was always writing. I was always writing journal-type entries, blogs, things like that. I could kick myself now that it took me so long to actually prove myself to be a writer. However, your path leads you to wherever you’re supposed to go eventually. Swimming has always been a huge part of my life. I was a swimmer all growing up. Swimming, I will say again and again, has saved me so many different times through my life. After my accident, it became the one thing that I could still do that was a bridge to my life before. I didn’t need my wheelchair to do it. Because of that, it continued to be a really big and impactful part of my life, so much so that I began coaching swimming. From that, it gave me a real connection to kids and teenagers. I began hearing myself telling these stories that I had been through over and over again, these life lessons that I had learned, the mistakes I had made. I really enjoyed that. I really enjoyed the connection with younger kids and people that needed to hear those stories. From coaching, that led me to teaching. I taught high school biology for almost ten years. During that time, I started to compete in swimming again.

I had gone through a really nasty health scare probably in my fifth year of teaching. Being a paraplegic and not being able to feel and move, I had developed a wound. It had been growing up from the inside out. By the time I was sick enough to recognize it, it was kind of too late. I spent eight months in bed for that to heal. There were so many different things that were happening. The doctors didn’t understand why it wasn’t healing. They just kept telling me I had to lie in bed. At the time, I had bought a house up in the mountains by myself. I was living by myself in the mountains. I had a home health-care nurse coming in every other day to check on me. Otherwise, I was lying in bed. I wasn’t doing anything. I couldn’t do anything. I had to quit teaching. I had to quit coaching. If there was any point in my entire life that I felt true depression, it was during that time. I write a chapter in my book about it. I write it as I’ve befriended a spider on the wall. I talk to the spider. That’s how dark it was. I had nothing at that point. Sure, I had friends and family. They would come and visit. It was almost worse. They’d come. They’d bring me cookies or whatever. Then they’d be on their way. It was just so hard for me to understand that at that point, I wasn’t living. My life was not moving forward. I was stuck. Once I finally was well enough and began to heal — I realized that what was saving me was, every night I would go to bed, and I would dream about swimming. I would just dream about being in that weightless pool and using my muscles almost in a meditative sort of sense.

As soon as I was well enough — I wouldn’t say I was medically cleared, but as soon as I felt like I could actually get out of bed, I started secretly going to the pool and swimming. It wasn’t long until I made this promise to myself that I was going to start competing again. I was going to see what happens when you put a hundred percent of yourself into something. I really held onto that notion right away. I wanted to almost be this poster child for my students and my swimmers. Look what you can accomplish if you put all of yourself into something. I began training at three thirty in the mornings because I had to get ready and go teach a full day and then coach after that. Really, if I was going to do this training, it had to be then. I look back now, and I have no idea how I actually managed to that. I did that for two years solid. I started going to different Paralympic competitions. Most of those are not easy to get to. They’re not local. There’s not a lot of them. I was having to do fundraising and just out-of-pocket funding for my own self to really follow this dream. It was this burning desire that I needed to see what I had inside of me. My ultimate goal was, I wanted to make the Paralympic team that following year. I trained for two years solid to make it to the Paralympic trials. I was very proud of myself. I was constantly making better times and improving. I got put on a select team to swim for the US at the Pan Am games that year and all of these things.

Everything felt like it was really coming together. I felt like I was really doing the thing that I had set out to. I went to the Paralympic trials. That was in 2012. I had this wonderful, almost this warm feeling of, something really important is going to happen here. It wasn’t even tied, necessarily, to swimming. It was just this notion that there is something really important behind this event. I swam really well. I made mostly best times. I was very proud of everything. The meet was five days. They finished the meet. Then they just shuffle all of the athletes into this small conference room and read off the names of the Paralympic swimmers that will join the Paralympic team. My name wasn’t on that list. I remember looking at my — I had my best friend there with me. It was almost like, wait a minute. I had planned from point A to Z. I just finished Z. I had never actually thought about, what am I going to do after this list is put out there? Whether I make the team or not, what happens next? I remember piling into our small rental car and thinking, okay, you can cry now. You can cry. It’s all right. Yet I had this overwhelming feeling of contentment because I knew that I had done everything in my power to make it. There was no regret involved. There was no, I wish I would have done this. Beyond that, the very last night of the meet, I was about to swim my last finals race. I had had this brief encounter with this coach.

He was new to Paralympic swimming. We had talked about how rules are different. Things are different. Let’s exchange numbers. I’ll help you out. Suddenly, my mind was shifting. Something felt really important about that. This same coach ended up being on our flight on the way home. We were flying from Bismarck to Denver. He was taking Bismarck to Denver to go back to North Carolina, so it was super bizarre anyway that he was on this flight. I tried to talk to him a little bit before we got on the flight. Then it was like, I don’t know what I’m doing. We need to go home. I was talking to my friend about it. The whole way home, we kind of sat in silence. Then we deplaned in Denver. We get off the plane. I went to use the bathroom. Then I get a text from my friend. She said, “Where are you?” I was like, “Come on, you know where I am. I’ll see you.” Needless to say, I find her, and she’s standing there with this coach. She says, “We’re all going to go get a beer now.” It was like, okay. However, I knew that her mom was circling the airport to come pick us up. I was like, “Okay, that’s fine.” Long story short, after having this beer, connecting with this coach, we started emailing, texting. Then that soon led to Skype dates. Within three months of meeting him, we were married.

Zibby: What? Oh, my gosh.

Ryan: Thinking about writing my book, I was writing it back then, and I thought I knew how it was going to end. I thought I knew what the last chapters were going to be. From that moment that I met him, everything changed from that piece. That’s such a beautiful notion. I feel like everybody needs to sit down and even just outline the chapters of your own memoir. To be able to internalize what you think is important and what you think that your life is and then watch it visibly change for you is super powerful.

Zibby: That was the most inspiring, amazing story. Ryan, you’re an incredible human being. I’m just honored to hear it straight from you, your life story. I want to know every detail. I’m going to go back to the book and all of that. I had Mallory Weggemann — do you know her? She’s been on the podcast. My husband is actually making her story into a feature film right now.

Ryan: That’s awesome. That’s very cool.

Zibby: I’m well-versed in Paralympic trials, actually, and all of that. I am so sorry you didn’t make it. That seems just cruel and unnecessary punishment, but obviously, it led to something great. Your spirit and being able to adapt and take in all of it and still sit here with — the sunshine is beaming in through the window. Your optimism, your spirit, it’s just amazing. I’m in awe and impressed and just so honored to have even chatted this much with you.

Ryan: Likewise, truly.

Zibby: I hope that we can stay in touch. I want to hear more and keep hearing. I want you to tell me everything that’s ever happened to you and more.

Ryan: Absolutely. Next time, we’ll talk about being moms.

Zibby: You have kids? Oh, my gosh.

Ryan: I do.

Zibby: How many kids do you have?

Ryan: Two boys, actually.

Zibby: Amazing, wow. Yes, we can commiserate on that. Thank you so much. Thank you for sharing your story and writing it. I want to hear more about the process of writing it. Thank you. Thank you for coming on.

Ryan: Thank you. I really appreciate it. I’m so glad to connect. I feel pretty honored.

Zibby: You too. Take care.

Ryan: Bye.

Zibby: Bye.

Ryan Rae Harbuck, WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A CHAIR: A Memoir

WHEN I GROW UP I WANT TO BE A CHAIR: A Memoir by Ryan Rae Harbuck

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