The Diving Bell and The Butterfly

By: Katherine Itacy, Esq.

Dated: June 3, 2018

Ok, so I have been going around for quite some time, claiming to feel like I am an active mind and spirit trapped inside a diseased body.

I’ve made this claim, knowing full well that I could have it a lot worse: I could actually have become paralyzed; I could have completely lost my mobility and independence. I’ve tried to imagine what it would feel like if I had become paralyzed, and I’ve tried to empathize with others who are.

I’ve tried to adjust to my physical disabilities, and accept the fact that a large part of my identity is now that of “disabled person.”

I’ve struggled a lot with this over the last decade, and even more so over the last two and a half years. As a child and young adult, I always said: “I have diabetes. I’m not ‘a diabetic.’” I refused to let my health dictate who I am, and instead, have tried to identify myself in terms of my accomplishments. For years, my identity was that of a student-athlete; then, a criminal defense attorney and civil rights activist. 

I refused to let my medical conditions dictate how I lived my life. Until they did. They took over my daily life, ended my identity as an active attorney and activist, and sentenced me to limited mobility and a reduced quality of life.

I’ve had to acquiesce to the fact that many days, my illnesses stop me from making plans or accomplishing certain things. Through it all, I’ve tried to keep a healthy perspective regarding my life, and how I continue to be fortunate in a lot of ways.

But I’ve never felt more grateful about my life, and more empathetic and impressed by another disabled person than when I heard the story of Jean-Dominique Baby.

The 44 year-old editor-in-chief of French Elle was going about his life one day, planning a weekend adventure with his 10 year-old son, when he suffered a major stroke.

Nearly three weeks later, Mr. Bauby woke up from a coma and learned that he was a quadriplegic, with the use of one ear and one eyelid. He was suffering from what’s referred to as “locked-in syndrome,” which is when the mind is aware and fully functioning, but the body makes it all but impossible to communicate with the outside world.

Through the assistance of medical professionals, Mr. Bauby was able to communicate by blinking his one useful eyelid. Anyone trying to communicate with the editor would have to read off letters in the alphabet, and watch as Mr. Bauby blinked to indicate which letter he wanted to use. This was done, over and over, letter by letter, until words and sentences were formed.

As impossible as it may seem to even hold a conversation this way, Mr. Bauby blinked approximately 200,000 times over the course of ten months in order to compose his memoir, “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly.” In it, Jean-Dominique Baby describes what it was like for him to actually be an active mind trapped inside his own body, with his mind and imagination being akin to a butterfly, trapped inside a diving bell.

IMG_2011.jpg

To the best of my knowledge, the above image is an example of an open-bottomed “wet diving bell” from the 1700s, which was used to transport divers to and from the water’s surface. The divers could sit or stand in the bell, with their heads out of the water, in order to adjust to the difference in outside pressure to their ears. 

According to Wikipedia, a closed diving bell is “a pressure vessel for human occupation” under water. It makes sense that Mr. Bauby would equate his experience to his mind and spirit being trapped inside a pressurized underwater vessel; I’ve often found myself making similar comparisons in my situation.

Jean-Dominique Bauby’s book (and life story) is simply incredible. He writes almost objectively about his condition, with no sense of whining or “woe-is-me” found within the pages.

And as inspiring and heartbreaking as his story is, it becomes even more devastating to learn that just two days after the book’s publication, Mr. Bauby passed away due to complications from pneumonia. 

I know it does little-to-no good to compare your situation with others, because there will always be someone worse off than you, and always someone better off than you. But when you’re indulging in a little self-pity, it does help to read a story like Mr. Bauby’s, if only for a little life perspective. 

How could you possibly wallow after hearing such an inspiring, yet tragic story?! Personally, I find such motivation from stories like Bauby’s. The human spirit is so resilient, even when the human body fails us.

From now on, if I ever find myself immersed in self-pity or anger towards my physical impairments, I will remind myself of Jean-Dominique Bauby, and the mental and spiritual strength he summoned during such unimaginable circumstances. 

Wouldn’t you?

If you have any thoughts or comments regarding Mr. Bauby’s life story or his memoir, “The Diving Bell and The Butterfly,” you can let me know by leaving a comment below, or reaching out to me via Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Google+ or Twitter.

’Til next time, my friends!

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