When she was 15 years old, Mia Schaikewitz was a competitive swimmer in Atlanta. Suddenly one night she found that she couldn't move her legs. Twelve hours later, she was permanently paralyzed from the waist down: A blood vessel had ruptured in her spinal cord. Now 33, Mia's one of the inspiring stars of the new Sundance Channel reality show "Push Girls," which gives viewers an intimate glimpse into the challenges wheelchair-using women face. In this interview, Mia shares her amazing insights about mother-daughter relationships, the importance of perspective, and why you should never settle.
There are so many things about your story that are universally relatable: your journey with your mother; dealing with the need to prove yourself to a parent....
Yeah, the journey with my mom has always been really difficult for me. In general, I think a lot of women have struggles with their moms. In my case, we went on a journey even more divergent because of what happened to me and how we accepted it in different ways. I couldn’t bond with her on a deep level because of it. My dad, when I first got paralyzed, just really prayed and hoped I would be happy. And my mom just prayed and hoped I would walk again. I remember thinking at one point, Walking is not going to make me happy. Happy is a choice. Once I realized I could control being happy, that I could make those decisions, I realized, “Wow, perspective is a huge tool in life. It really helps you accept where you are. And it helps you on your journey.”
Wasting a lot of energy on stuff that can’t be changed… there is a link between that and fear.
I really had this moment in my life where I totally became cool with being paralyzed. I was like, “You know what? There isn’t anything that I really can’t do, and even if there is something I can’t do, it really means I just don’t want to do it anyway!” I can’t go hiking. I’m sorry. But really, it’s because I don’t want to! Anyway, I remember getting to this place where I was cool with [my paralysis]. And then I would go out, and the world would come back to me with, “Oh, you poor thing.” Or, “I’m so sorry that happened.” Or, “Don’t worry: They’ll find a cure.” I was like, “Really? I just want a cure for ignorance. Because that is so obtainable; it’s just awareness and we can change that.” I try to explain to people, “I’d rather change the world as far as accepting difference.” I think that’s way more of an impactful change. It changes humanity in such a powerful way that to me, that’s more of a mission to work at.
Watching your story unfold on the show, I started feeling like everyone has their "wheelchair," so to speak. Or the world will try to give you one!
[Laughs] Yeah! And that’s why we say the show is not about the wheelchairs. It really is about impossibles in life. And every single person has 'em. [On the show], our big thing happens to be on the outside, so people question it more. Whereas most other people, their internal struggles are not visible. But I think you’re right: I’m wholeheartedly a believer that everybody's obstacles are relative to them in a way that enables them to overcome, and makes them more of who they’re supposed to be. I really look back on being paralyzed, and I’m like, "Wow! If that was going to happen to anybody, it would totally be me!" It’s just my perfect challenge in life! You know? It just resonates with me. And that's not to say it’s always easy, but in the hard moments, I just appreciate it, because I really feel this is my challenge. And I like challenge. And I feel like every day it makes me more of who I am. It just feels right. I know it sounds strange.
I love your word choice, because “challenge” is another word for “problem.” If you’re fear-focused, things are “problems.” If you’re fearless, it’s a “challenge.” It sounds like you almost even relish challenge.
Definitely. Because I appreciate it as self-growth. I get the most depressed in my life when nothing is happening. Nothing to do, there are no challenges, life is just easy and there’s nothing for me to work on. Because I feel like those are the moments where you’re not growing. And that’s what life’s about. That’s really how you get to your happiness: by accomplishing. And you really can’t accomplish unless you embrace challenge.
Can you talk about the relationship between fear and forgiveness? It’s hard to forgive people who can’t apologize because they’ll never admit that they did anything wrong. And there’s fear with that -- the fear of getting rid of your cross that you’re bearing against them, or something.
Fear is a form of control. When you fear something, it gives you an excuse. It gives you an excuse not to do, or not to accept, and I think that finally accepting is actually an important part of life, no matter what. You know? Just getting to that place where you accept and realize that this is something you may not be able to change. That is giving up control. It’s hard for humans to do that. I see that being a challenge in relationships a lot of the time. And it is funny, because here I am asking my mom to say sorry, and the funny thing is, she does say sorry. She just adds a “but” on the end.
Right: It’s not the sorry you wanted.
Yeah! But where do I come off saying that’s not good enough for me? Well, you know what, that’s the best she can do. If she really did get to that place where she could say sorry and actually accept the effect that her issues had on me, I don’t think she could handle it. So I’m in a place now where I can just say, "You know what? That’s her place. And that doesn’t mean it should hold me back from anything."
I love that attitude. And speaking of relationships, you had this amazing quote on the show: "A lot of people think I should just settle because I found a guy who can accept my wheelchair. But there’s so much more than that. I’m looking for someone who’s right for me on so many levels." So many people stay in crappy relationships out of fear that they won't be able to have anything better....
Yes! I think that once you start to limit yourself and once you start to take away some of your confidence, you fall into the trap of settling. And you fall into the trap of thinking you’re not going to be accepted completely. But I think once you get to that place internally where you accept yourself wholeheartedly, you don’t need to do that! You don’t need to think you deserve less. It is an easy way to not get hurt, you know what I mean? It’s an easy way to stay in your safe zone, if you don’t try to attain what you really want. But the truth is, in the end, it just makes you feel shittier. In the end, all it does is ruin your self-esteem. It is a vicious cycle.
Was there ever a time in your life where you did stay in your safe zone?
Yeah! With the swimming. When I got paralyzed, I went to an amazing rehab hospital in Atlanta, and they were quick to tell me, “Look, you can do anything that you did before. Especially sports! If you were a swimmer before, you should definitely get back in the pool.” And it was interesting, because I went back to everything… except for swimming. I tried every other sport. And then realized, “Why am I avoiding that?” And it’s because there are these emotional blockages that you put on yourself sometimes, to face things. In all honesty, at the time I got paralyzed, I had enough going on. So to add one more thing like that… I wasn’t ready. I think that’s the key: Knowing when you’re ready for something. You shouldn’t beat yourself up about staying in a safe place, because that’s a natural place for humans to want to be. But I think there comes a point when you gotta sink or swim. There really is that moment where you can stay in there and not live your life. I think every time you choose to go past that you realize how amazing life is. It opens up your world.
On the show, you said about your paralysis, "It's like my whole body turned against me." How did that affect your body-image fears?
Because I was so healthy and athletic, and got paralyzed from something having to do with my body that wasn’t perfect or healthy, it was so shocking to me. I had never even had a broken bone before. So it was really like, “Wait. Okay. All of a sudden one day they tell me I’m never going to walk again?! From a blood vessel in my spinal cord?!" It was really hard to accept at first. And I think because of that, the first couple years, I was really nervous about: “What's next?” I was always waiting for another shoe to drop with my body. Now I feel the complete opposite. Because I’m not afraid of the paralysis. And I realize how it made my life so much better. I’m in that place where I’m like, “What happens, happens." And whether it be physically related, or emotionally, it’s all just another experience around the corner of my life. I definitely do not fear health issues as much now, because I see how people can overcome things all the time.
What makes you fearless?
Knowing that I thought my life was over at one point, and now I see it as a positive thing that happened to me. I’ll be doing something that’ll make me a little upset and I’m like, “Wait. I got over being paralyzed. I’m going to get over this guy.” It makes the little things little. And I think that definitely makes me fearless.
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