PBS' 'This Emotional Life': How I Coped With A Life Changing Accident

03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011
  • Francesco Clark Francesco Clark is featured in the upcoming PBS series, This Emotional Life.

For me, this time of year, as for so many others, is a time of reflection of the passed year, and what is to lie ahead. And while a surge of emotions hits me all at once, like a typhoon, I feel nothing, literally. I am paralyzed, by traditional medical definition. I have been paralyzed for seven years now, from a pool diving accident, and although that in and of itself was enough to catapult me into a deep, severe depression for years, it somehow left me and my personality intact, unscathed. What's most interesting about this is that the very second I snapped my spine into hundreds of shards, severing my spinal cord, I knew I'd be okay. I just knew it. It would be difficult and it would be hard, but there was this inner voice that told me, reassuringly, I'd come out on the other side actually better than before.

Most of what I've learned from my experience, from aging, and from questioning and meeting others is that there is no set way in leading and being happy in life being happy in life. The basis of it needs to stand on a firm ground, which is living my life according to my beliefs and making sure that that core is unshakable. But to get to this point was too difficult at times. To be told numerous times I'd probably die in a six hour span, then to wake up days later in an intensive care unit unable to feel or move 95 percent of my body, breathing with a large plastic tube in my throat, surrounded and attached to numerous medical devices I'd only presume would be life support, made me think it would be easier to die at times. But I didn't. I lived. Dying was a passing thought. But there was a lot of time to think about other more difficult questions: what is the point of my life, and what will make me live a happy life?

The three years following my injury were a blur. I didn't feel human, and in a sense, I hated myself. I couldn't look in a mirror, not even gaze out of a window, fearing the reflection of myself sitting in a wheelchair would be enough to propel me into a downward spiral of negative thought and unending tears. I felt like an idiot, not being able to drink a glass of water on my own, go to the bathroom alone, almost everything had to be assisted. I didn't take showers. I didn't get haircuts -- I'd shave my head bald. I wore the same paper hospital pants everyday, and the same ratty shirt for three years. I wanted to blend in. I didn't want people to look at me, talk to me, notice me, or even think about me. All I did was therapy, for seven to eight hours a day, followed by eating and sleeping. I gained 30 pounds and couldn't care less. And then, Christopher Reeve passed away.

Suddenly superman was dead. He did it all. He advocated for stem cell research, pushed for spinal cord injury research and now, he vanished. And suddenly, I was left with feeling emptiness, followed by a sense of irresponsibility. What had I done to fight for a cure? What had I done to advocate for others with disabilities? What had I done other than wallow in self-pity? In a matter of seconds, my attitude shifted and I realized I need to do something, anything! As I did that, all of a sudden I looked at my pants and ugly t-shirt and, finally, in a mirror, and I saw a different person. This wasn't me. My skin was red, flaky, grey in spots, oily in some; I looked like a mess. I didn't even want to spend time with myself, so why would anyone else?

The injury had taken its toll on me, but the veil had been lifted. But the disgust and sadness I felt on the inside had manifested itself on the outside. I wanted my appearance to reflect the positive attitude I had finally regained. But I looked like Alf. With my father, who is a traditional doctor also trained in homeopathy, I embarked on my next journey. No skin cream worked, both over the counter and prescription, and in my desire to regain my former self, we started to test and try different essential oils and botanical extracts. All of this was purely for the selfish reason that I wanted to look good again, and regain that sense of self I thought I had lost with my spinal cord injury.

Little by little, as we developed these products, all based around Jasmine Absolute, a naturally rebalancing botanical extract, my father's patients started asking for them, and buying them. They were packaged in ugly, glass jars: this wasn't a business idea -- just my road back to recovery. Soon some former colleagues who worked in magazines tried them and one day BAZAAR called once again, asking for product to shoot for an upcoming issue. Clark's Botanicals was now a full-fledged company, and it was exciting.

Finally, I had been able to connect the dots between my worlds and in the next step of logical progression, decided that proceeds of all Clark's Botanicals products benefit spinal cord injury, and specifically The Christopher Reeve Foundation. I'm proud to say that today we are sold in the US as well as Europe and Asia, and having a disability has not stopped me from learning all aspects of the process: ingredient formulations, meeting with buyers for the big stores, working on new packaging, to training store staff, and meeting with customers.

I am very happy with my life today. I am the new ambassador for the Christopher Reeve Foundation, run Clark's Botanicals with a passion that will keep me going for many years, and will have my first book, Walking Papers, published and released June 1, 2010, on the anniversary of my accident. What's next? Walking, another book, anything can happen!