On October 15, 2000, Tiphany Adams, then a high-school senior in Northern California, was a passenger in a car that was hit head-on by a drunk driver going 130 mph. Tiphany and the two friends who were in the car with her were all pronounced dead at the scene... until an EMT detected life in Tiphany's body. She was airlifted to the nearest hospital and spent the next three weeks in a coma; when she came out of it, she learned that the injuries she'd sustained in the accident had left her permanently paralyzed from the waist down. Now, almost 12 years later, Tiphany is 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 candid interview, Tiphany shares some of the life lessons she's learned about personal growth, self-awareness, and coping with other people's false assumptions -- and fears.
You were injured in a car accident, and yet you drive! What was it like for you to drive again?
It was a whole other sense of freedom for me, because once you get used to rolling around in a wheelchair, it’s kind of like something you can’t leave the house without, you know? But I literally started driving six months after I got out of the hospital. I was the fastest recovery the hospital had seen with the amount of injuries I'd had. I’d gone into the hospital on October 15 and got out on December 21. And for three weeks of that, I was in a coma. So: I got out, went back to school in February 2001, and graduated with my class in June. Then I started college in August. So August is when I started driving [again]. I just remember it being like, "Ahh, such a sense of freedom." And not having to depend on anyone else to drive me anywhere.
You talk a lot on the show about your need to be independent. Can you talk about the fear of being dependent? I think that’s a fear that a lot of people share.
I’ve always been the type to just get up and go when I want. I learned how to use the bus system at an early age, even though I grew up in the country. I started working at the age of 15 because I wanted to be independent and do my own thing, and follow my dreams and be ambitious. And the thought of having to depend [on] and ask somebody every single time… the thought really got to me, you know? But now, as I’ve matured a little more, I realized that it’s okay to be vulnerable from time to time and ask for help. But it still makes me uncomfortable.
Is it a fear you still deal with, asking for help?
Not a “fear,” but something I’m uncomfortable with. It’s getting better because I’m learning that it’s okay to ask for help sometimes when you need it. You don’t always have to be so strong. I’m always so strong, and I present that to the world, but sometimes it’s okay to ask for help and not to feel that you’re obligated to give someone something just because they’ve helped you. That’s how I always felt when someone helped me: “Now I’m obligated to give them something.” Instead of just thinking, “Wow, they just want to be kind and help me.” It’s like, “Oh, I’ll pay you for that; here you go,” and they’re like, “No, I just wanted to do it to help.” I realized it’s kind of a blessing for the person that’s helping me, too, because it makes them feel good.
That’s so true! Sometimes the most giving thing you can do is receive.
I saw on the show how there was a time when you were bothered by the attitude people have about people in wheelchairs….
People fear what they do not know. People assume too much. And when you assume… you know the whole thing: “You make an ass of you and me.”
It’s okay to inquire and be curious, but in a respectful manner. It’s just about learning: If you don’t know about something, then study about it or ask questions. It’s about picking off the faￃﾧade of everything and knowing that we’re all human beings, and we can all connect through love. And not to be separate. People want to segregate themselves just because something may be different to them.
What makes you fearless?
Sometimes I definitely insert my wheel in my mouth… I say what I’m thinking and I don’t really sugarcoat it. I watched myself on the third episode, and I was like, “Wow! I kind of am really upfront!” To some people who don’t know me, that might be very abrasive, I guess. But when you know me, my heart is very genuine and I’m super-sensitive, loving, caring and emotional. I like to get to the core of things, and I like to understand and reflect and fully get to the bottom of why something ticks the way it does. I’m like a forever student. I love learning, and I love teaching. What makes me fearless is the fact that I just say what I’m thinking at that very moment, and sometimes I’m learning I need to try to think it more thoroughly before I let it tumble out of my mouth, you know?
I can definitely relate to that! Now, in the first or second episode of "Push Girls," you talked about how being in a wheelchair can be a liability in the job world. How are you handling that?
Some people you cross paths with, you know it’s a godsend: “They’re totally seeing beyond the chair. They’re not even looking at this as something that could prevent me from doing my job perfectly.” For me, working with children a lot, nannying and working in the fitness world, people think, “Oh, she’s in a chair. How the hell is she going to lead an exercise class?!” Or, “How is she going to get me in shape?!” But I’m like, “Look, if I’m in a wheelchair and I’m as active as I am, and I’m staying fit, then you can do it, too.” I’ve had an experience or two where it’s kind of been like, “Ohh. So you’re in a wheelchair. I’m not sure if this is going to work.” For whatever reason. They might be concerned that their child might not be as safe with me -- which is crazy, because I do everything that anybody else does, except for I do it sitting. I mean, beyond running up and down stairs.
I think that people assume, “Oh, there’s cords on the [floor]... she’s going to fall out of her wheelchair. And what if it’s raining? She’s going to slip.” I’m thinking, “You guys probably slip more when it’s raining while walking than we do in our wheelchairs.”
Were there fears that you had before your accident that you don’t have anymore?
Fears that I had when I was walking that I don’t have now? Maybe moving away from my family. Because I have a very closeknit family. I’ve got over probably 80 family members just in the central valley of California.
I have a ton of family members. So moving away from them was a big deal for me. But I knew I had to do it in order to grow. I had to push myself to grow. You know, when something feels uncomfortable… I knew that for me to evolve a little bit more I had to move away and start being even more independent. Shortly after my accident, I moved to the Bay Area. I still was going through my stuff; I think I moved out too soon. But I’ve been on my own since I was 19; I’ve never moved back home. So I’ve been on my own for a while now.
On the show, you said that you remember fighting for your life right after the accident. What’s your inner dialogue when you face a challenge now?
When something feels scary, I think it’s preparing [me] for a huge breakthrough. It’s going to [bring me to] another level that I need [to reach]. A higher level. For me, when the accident [happened], it was just, bang: “Let me live through this. Let me live through this and I’ll do something great with my life.” I feel the same when something’s kind of scary [now]: “Okay, if I can just get through this, then what’s the next goal I can achieve? What’s the next challenge?” It’s this ladder that I see; it just keeps getting higher and higher and climbing further and further up. I’m all about achieving anything and everything I put my mind to. And not settling. And just going further. Going for the gold, I guess!
I love the image of the ladder! It's as if when something scary happens, you see yourself on the other side of it already. That’s really unusual; most people focus on the problem!
I just keep looking up. I may glance down, but I know that’s not where I want to be. So I keep going higher and higher, climbing that ladder until I get where I want to be.
Have you always been that way?
It was one of those things that clicked: “You survived this [accident]….” It definitely pushed me to think. I’m not even kidding: I used to be scared to get shots! I went to the doctor a lot after the accident... sometimes I just would be scared to go. I never really went to the doctor as a little kid. I grew up in the country; you don’t just go to the doctor if you get a cough, like a lot of the other kids: “I have a cough; I’m going to the doctor.” It was like, we only went to the doctor if we stepped on a rusty nail and needed a tetanus shot or something. So I used to be scared of little things like [getting shots]. Now I just remind myself, “You’ve gone through some challenges in your life, kid. You can get through anything. You've just got to keep your persistence, perseverence and have passion and vigor, and you can do anything!”
Do you see any common, trivial fears in other people that make you go, “Why are they in that mindset?”
About humanity as a whole? People separating themselves because of class, or because of the physical being -- the exterior -- and not really connecting on a spiritual level and knowing that we are all one, and that all humanity could go so much further and we could do so many powerful movements if we just realized that. I don’t understand war. I don’t. My opinion on that is, it just doesn’t make sense to kill and fight for peace. I don’t understand that.
I hear you. You’re talking about how fear keeps us separate.
Exactly. Fear separates people, but love brings people together.
You are a proponent of meditation. Have prayer and meditation always been part of your life?
I wasn’t raised any specific religion, but something that always intrigued me was [whether] something existed out there. A higher power. I got myself baptized when I was 15, and after that I would pray, but even more so after my accident. I prayed so much and was going to church so often. But as long as you look within yourself, you don’t necessarily have to go to church. If you believe in a higher power beyond yourself and know that there’s something greater out there.... It's about having self-belief and knowing you can achieve anything you put your mind to, as long as you are persistent.
I love your point about prayer. I think faith is the opposite of fear. Do you pray a lot if you’re feeling nervous or stressed?
I pray every day. I’ll do my morning cardio, and it’s not like I’m asking for specific things, but I’m praying and also thanking: "Thanks for my health, thanks for today, thanks for letting me feel the sun rays on my face, thank you for just everything!" I’m very in tune with animals, too. I love nature. I love being outdoors; I love traveling, I love camping. And those things, to me, are all forms of meditation. Just being out in nature is a form of meditation. I can be where a flowing river is, or the ocean. To me, it's not "seeing is believing." It's "believing is seeing." If somebody is angry towards me, I have to always think, I have no idea what that person’s going through today. Or yesterday. Or a month ago. And I need to be compassionate towards them.
Does anyone ever tell you you’re living out their biggest fear? Like, they have a fear of physical injury?
Some people will say, “I could never imagine if that happened to me. I never would be able to live if that happened to me." And I’m like, “You know, I thought the same thing. I didn’t even understand what paralysis meant, and I thought I wouldn’t want to live if that happened." But life is such a gift and a blessing, you realize how truly priceless each and every waking moment is. We all have our own journey, and our own paths and our own mission to share with the world.
Check out the slideshow for video clips of the "Push Girls" in action!
For more by Elizabeth Kuster, click here.
For more on becoming fearless, click here.