Monday, December 12, 2016

Light Fire from the Spark: Rohan Gandhi

"When you are at rock bottom, the only way to move is up."

These are words we've all probably heard at one point or another - but how many of us have actually lived them? Meet Rohan Gandhi...



Growing up, Rohan had dreamed of becoming a pilot. He had a passion for cars and planes, a passion that guided him to becoming a mechanical engineer. Aside from his professional aspiration, he also wanted to box professionally. While growing up, he was a victim of bullying, and was able to overcome an inferiority complex after he was inspired by the Rocky Balboa movies.

Sounds like a story many of us can relate to, right?

The 12th of February, 2004, was just another day in 16 year old Rohan's life - or so he thought. Who knew that a short span of 20 minutes would end up changing his life forever?

A spinal cord infarction is "a stroke either within the spinal cord or the arteries that supply it. It is caused by arteriosclerosis or a thickening or closing of the major arteries to the spinal cord." 

Sounds like a medical definition that we may encounter at a doctor's office and move past - but for Rohan it was a reality that left him paralysed from the waist down in the presence of his peers. As he puts it, "everyone went to school the next day... I didn't."

Unfortunately, for this particular condition, and indeed many other spinal cord injuries in general, there is no real medication or guaranteed form of treatment available. However, there are support services available for rehabilitation at the National Spinal Injury Hospital and a large amount of resources available through the National Council for People with Disabilities. Aside from physical therapy, these bodies also advise and counsel individuals who suffer from depression or low self-esteem as a result of such injuries. 

When the reality of his condition dawned on him, Rohan found himself feeling overwhelmed and confused. Everyone is afraid of that which they cannot understand, and he was no different. On top of adapting to new circumstances, Rohan also experienced a lack of self-confidence compounded by the resulting obesity. He was afraid to go back to school, to face the people he thought were his friends. All his peers were preparing to go overseas to study as he instead had to gear up for his biggest mental battle to date. 

He expected everyone and anyone to judge him for his new circumstances - and the unfortunate reality is that some people did. He recalls one incident when he was actually asked to leave a gym due to his condition some years down the line. Although he could've chosen to give them a fight that they probably wanted, Rohan paused and channeled his energies into becoming even stronger. When they went low, he went high. As he puts it, "Despite my challenge, why wasn't I just as, if not stronger than him/ her physically? Sensible choices - build yourself or break down others."

His lower limbs were completely paralysed up until he began intense physiotherapy. Currently, he has recovered up to about a 60% amount of usage through sheer will and continuous training. 

Rohan cites his father as his role model. He credits his parents and brother as his biggest sources of strength, for helping to make him confident enough to embrace his new reality, and to overcome his fears - a fear of not being accepted, of not being able to stand again, and of not being able to hold his child's hand to teach them how to walk in the future. His family helped him battle the "insecurity demon" as he calls it. They never let it occur to him that he was any less than what he used to be, or that he was at a disadvantage compared to the people standing around him. They laughed at his awkward situations together, and I'm sure we can all agree that a positive approach to any negative situation can do wonders. 

Rohan tells us about a moment that helped change his outlook on life. This was at a stage when he was battling low self-esteem and a lack of motivation to do anything about it. If anyone smiled at him, the first thought he had was that they were mocking him. During his second year of university, a girl approached him with the words "It doesn't matter if you're in a wheelchair, you're a handsome guy. You're just really fat!" Blunt words, but fortunately coming from a place of concern rather than condescension. She invited Rohan to go to the gym with her, and that was it. 

Within 6 months, after having lost 30 kg, his energy levels had shot up, and he saw a remarkable change in people's attitudes toward him. The truth of the matter is that they probably sensed a change in his attitude that became infectious! Exercise does have a wonderful way of boosting self-esteem, whether this is as part of a weight loss journey or not. 




He believes that regardless of your situation - physical, mental, or financial - if you develop a fearless attitude to exploit opportunities, the outcome will be one of two things. Either people will get out of your way, or they will follow you. He cites the example of Franklin D. Roosevelt, who suffered from Polio which left him paralysed from the waist down too, but whose never-say-die attitude resulted in him being remembered as one of the U.S.'s most fearless presidents. 

Let's hear from Rohan as he answers some questions for us:

1) What's the best advice someone has ever given you?

Your inability to cope with your reality will ruin you. Fight.

2)  How did you battle your anxieties and depression?


I was always a witty and funny person. Getting paralysed didn't change that.  Initially I battled the anxiety/ depression by ignoring and suppressing it through humor. In one sense, I would hide behind the tears of a clown. Then I picked up the pen and started writing... every time  I felt a certain way I'd write it down as poetry to express myself, then I picked up the mic and became vocal through spoken word and rap. It is unbelievable the solace I found in my own words, in my own mind. 



3) How would you define your life journey now?

I'm not sure. I still haven't figured it out. One thing is I know is I am not the only one that has struggled or is suffering. Whether it is a mental condition or physical there are many people just like me. I was fortunate enough to find my strength and I want to help as many people as I can find theirs. I want to spread positivity and confidence to make people believe in themselves before believing in others ..... no matter what your dreams are or what you're aspiring to achieve. 

I want to help people in need. I don't know how else to put it. This world is an unforgiving place. Competition and the drive to be the best makes people hurt each other rather than inspire. We need to reach out and show people how things are done rather than brag about what we've achieved. Knowledge and good is the only thing you can leave behind worth recognizing, your ego, beauty and money goes with you. What I may lack physically I like to think I make up mentally. I'm only getting stronger and if I focus enough I can only get better or at the least reduce the discomfort associated with my physical state. We define our limits. 

4) What has surprised you about your journey since that day back in 2004?

 People’s attitudes and the fact that situations never get easier, they only get less difficult through conditioning. 

5) Let's say you're invited to give a TED talk. What are you going to talk about?

There are two topics I would consider. One is fearlessness - I'd love to motivate people to do what they've always wanted to. 

The other is women's empowerment from a male perspective, and this would have to be after doing a lot more research and educating myself more on this. I have observed a lot of resistance and inequality that women face in society, from jobs, to relationships, to life in general. My opinion is that women are more considerate to people, and can do what men can't. A personal example is that despite my condition, I have had girls see past my challenges so often that I almost feel like nothing is different about me. However, men would find it difficult to date a woman in a wheelchair, and would tend to see her as less than an abled woman. 

6) What do you wish you had known earlier?

 I wish I knew the power of positivity and how much of a difference it can make in helping one adapt to or overcome any challenge. I found it out a bit late. Still no regrets.

7) Let's say you just won a million dollars. What would be the top 3 to 5 things you would prioritise, and why?

Tough question. So in order.
-     Set up a charity for children. Poverty is the most painful scenario to watch. One child sitting on a couch eating popcorn watching a documentary about another child starving to death.
-     Travel the world. I can’t take the money and go so might as well see the most of what I can now.
-     Set up a music studio and artist development company. – I love music and realize the struggles that go into creating a project. Artists want to express themselves and sometimes can’t only because of the fact that they can't afford the service. I want to help break that norm for others and myself. 

8) Any advice for others who may be struggling in their lives?

Be fearless and let nobody discourage you in any sort of way. Surround yourself with people that lift you up and tell you how to do things, not with people that raise doubts in your mind. How you control your fear, anger and ability to reason in situations determines outcome .... if you fail make sure you learn, if you win make sure you teach. Be brave enough to experience both. 

When asked about why he felt he could share his story on this platform, Rohan says:
My goal with this article, my purpose with being in the public eye in general, is to show people that no matter how bad your situation, someone has it worse. There are people that would gladly trade their problems with yours and comfortably walk a mile in your shoes. We need to understand not everything is going to work in our favor, the beautiful eyes that we love may never look at us, the person we thought would never change ends up being different, one day we’re walking the next day we aren’t... bad things happen but there’s nothing you cannot adjust to. For me personally, I may never be able to slow dance with a girl again or walk with my child clinging to my hand but... I'm here, I'm drawing breath.... and I’m loved.  Open your eyes... how hard is your life really ?  You can use your story as an example of a tragedy or as example of sheer strength and triumph. Losers worry about losing... I’m a winner. 
As he puts it "Anyone who finds hope when they read my story motivates me to be stronger. Out of 100 people that see me, 99 will turn the other way, but the one that doesn't... that's my strength."



A huge thank you to Rohan Gandhi and Aniqah Khalid for their support on this article!

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