Tag Archives: Anger

Discrimination

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As you have probably heard on the national news circuit recently, my home state of Indiana has been quite the topic of conversation lately. For those of you who do not know, on March 26th Indiana passed a piece of legislation called Senate Bill 101 (SB 101), better known as the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.” This bill states that “a governmental entity may not substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion…” This may not sound so bad, but what this document opens the door for is pretty scary.  It implies that if a business owner does not want to provide his company’s services for a certain group of people because of his religious beliefs, that he does not have to. Believe it or not, a business in my tiny hometown of Walkerton, Indiana, which has a population of only 2,500 people, became the first organization to illustrate the dangers of this legislation. “Memories Pizza,” a small pizza place and one of very few restaurants in my little town, was the first business to openly state that they would deny their catering services to same-sex couples. Whether you agree with same-sex relationships or not, we all can agree that discrimination is bad, and that by allowing companies to deny service to any group of people they choose, we are opening the door for discrimination to occur. As I have been trying to stay up to date on this hot button issue that has been plaguing my hometown, I have been thinking a lot about prejudice and discrimination, and how these despicable parts of human behavior can impact your life.

Scott Drotar Memories Pizza
Memories Pizza, a restaurant in my hometown of Walkerton, Indiana, was the first business to show the dangers of the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act.”

Having been born with a severe, physical disability and having to use a power wheelchair my entire life, I have had to face a fair amount of discrimination. Whether it is a group of teenagers deliberately making fun of my disability at the mall or a business inadvertently not being wheelchair accessible, being singled out and treated differently as a result of something I have absolutely no control over is never easy to deal with. Even though throughout my life I have developed a lot of coping skills to help me manage the negative emotions that arise when these prejudicial situations occur, these feelings of discrimination still have an impact on me. It is not the judgment and discrimination from others that I struggle with however, but rather the feelings of self-discrimination that they create. For example, there are times when I will not go out to do something, because I am worried that I may be viewed or treated differently due to my disability. This self-discrimination is far more dangerous than the judgment of others, because it prevents you from even attempting to experience numerous parts of life. In reality, you could have enjoyed many of these situations without any feelings of discrimination arising, but because of your own fear of these potentially painful emotions, you prevent this from ever happening. As I have matured and learned how to better work through these difficult emotions, I have realized that this self-discrimination is actually what makes acts of prejudice so dangerous, as this is what gives these heinous acts their power.

When I was in my first year of college at Notre Dame, I had to write a term paper on civil rights for my required freshman composition class. As a part of this project, I also had to conduct an interview with someone and include the information I gathered in my paper. To satisfy this criterion I decided to interview a quite well respected professor in the African-American studies department, who I had had for another course the previous semester. During this interview he told me a story from his own life that greatly changed the way that I think about discrimination. Back in the 1970s, when he was 18 years old and was about to graduate from high school, he and his best friend, both of whom were black, decided to enjoy their final Summer of youthful freedom and independence by making a Jack Kerouac-like journey across the country. They spent countless hours planning their way, gathering the supplies they would need, and making all of the other necessary preparations to make their way from the “Deep South” to the California coast, and as the school year was drawing to a close they were merely waiting for graduation so that they could embark on this epic, once in a lifetime journey. Unfortunately though, they never made it to California. In fact, they never even made it out of their hometown. Despite the fact that they had spent a lot of their hard earned money preparing for this trip, devoted an enormous amount of time planning their route, and had been looking forward to their “On The Road” adventure for months, they never even left. They were so concerned, being two African-American, young men, about being discriminated against on their trip that they cancelled the whole thing before even starting.

Even though this was the late-1970s, and a lot of progress had been made in terms of racial equality and civil rights, the powerful effects of discrimination were still a major issue. There were still some people and places where outright discrimination would occur (and sadly, I fear there always will be), and the acts of prejudice and ignorance from these few individuals could be quite upsetting, painful, and at times even dangerous. While these prejudiced people were only a small minority of the general public, and the chances of coming into contact with them was extremely low, the power that these individuals had over their victims was quite large. Despite the fact that these two well-spoken, young men probably would have had no problems with discrimination during their cross-country trip, the anxiety and fear of this happening prevented them from even attempting to live out a dream that they had worked so hard to turn into a reality. This self-imposed discrimination is far more powerful than any form of prejudice that someone else could inject into your life, because it takes complete control over your actions. Whether these feelings of self-discrimination are justified or not, they were powerful enough to stop two young men from seeing the country, as well as keep me from experiencing certain parts of life, and this is what makes them so dangerous. The danger lies in the fact that self-discrimination does not need to have anything “real” attached to it in order to control you. Even though most of the potentially prejudicial situations that you avoid would have been discrimination free, you still do not get to enjoy them because your own self-discrimination and fear prevents it. It is this type of discrimination that you have to learn to control, if you want to stop the prejudices of society from having a major impact on your life.

Scott Drotar Civil Rights
While the “Civil Rights Movement” ended decades ago, even today discrimination is still a major issue in our society.

Just as developing the psychological tools necessary to cope with the prejudices of others is a long and emotionally painful process, learning how to deal with your feelings of self-discrimination is also an extremely difficult task. The first step is being able to recognize these feelings when they arise for what they are. You have to be able to see that your fears are stemming from your own feelings of self-discrimination, and not from something out in the world. The next step is the hard part. You have to be able to realize that your fear and anxiety is coming from possible, yet not necessarily probable, outcomes, and then convince yourself that you have no real reason to believe that you will be discriminated against beyond your own nightmarish thoughts. While this is a very difficult thing to do, if you can make yourself truly believe that your worries about being discriminated against are merely the worst possible outcomes and there is no reason to think they will happen, your feelings of insecurity and anxiety will instantly lose all of their power. Since self-discrimination has nothing “real” attached to it, once you convince yourself that your fears are just highly unlikely possibilities rampaging around your head, this once awful sense of dread ceases to have any meaning. You will immediately be free of your self-discrimination, and you will be overcome by a revitalizing sense of freedom that is beyond words. Now, this is not an easy thing to accomplish, but nothing worth doing ever is, and by learning to deal with your feelings of self-discrimination you open yourself up to a whole, new world of opportunities and experiences to enjoy.

Thanks to the enormous amount of vocal opposition to this unfortunate piece of legislation from all over the country, it seems like this most recent act of outright discrimination in my home state will be eliminated soon. Even though it looks like my hometown and the state of Indiana will survive these sad, despicable acts of public prejudice that have been wreaking havoc recently, the effects of this discrimination will be felt by those mistreated for years to come. Having to face these actual acts of discrimination, only makes your feelings of self-discrimination stronger and more difficult to cope with. In order to effectively manage and get beyond these emotions, you have to recognize that these fears, although extremely terrifying, are only figments of your imagination. They are only as powerful as you allow them to be. Remember that only a very small percentage of the people and places you come into contact with are prejudiced, and the vast majority of the situations you experience are wonderful and discrimination free. Take the time to slow down your thinking, regain control of your brain from your emotions, and see your feelings of self-discrimination for the illusions they are. This will allow you to eliminate these nasty notions from your life, and without these self-imposed obstacles in your way, you will be able to fully enjoy the happy, fulfilling life that you deserve.

Did this article leave you wondering something? Are you curious about a certain aspect of my life? Do you want to know my favorite color? Submit your question to “Roll Models Mail Call,” and I will do my best to answer it in a post.

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Respect

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Scott Drotar Aretha Franklin
Aretha had it right when she sang that all we need is a little respect.

As a lifelong academic and someone who relishes logic and rhetoric, I am one of those people who loves a “friendly” debate. It doesn’t matter what the topic is (I have no shortage of opinions), I just enjoy the back and forth, premise-conclusion style dialogue of a heated discussion. Not to mention the fact that it is by discussing controversial issues  that we learn more about them and grow as individuals. I won’t lie though, the thing that I like the most are the powerful emotions that rise up inside me as these conversations really get going. That fire in your belly that swells up as you defend your position is something I enjoy immensely. As much as I love the passion and conviction that erupts within me during these civil arguments however, and as much as I want to “win” this oratorical fight to the death, there is one line I will never cross during these debates. I will not lose respect for the other sides opinion.

Having respect for others is probably the most important aspect of creating healthy interactions between people. We all want to feel that our bodies, thoughts, and opinions are respected, and we all feel violated on a very personal level when they are not. It is not important to us that other individuals necessarily agree with what we feel, think, and do, just so long as they respect our behavior and decisions. It is all about feeling in control, and being free to form our own thoughts is probably the most coveted type of control we have. As long as we feel as though we are respected enough to have whatever opinions we choose and maintain this mental autonomy, other people can argue with us as much as they please. In a nutshell, respect is the difference between attacking an argument and attacking a person. We are fine with others disagreeing with and arguing against our opinions (in fact weird people like me actually like it), so long as they are actually targeting the merits of our arguments, not us or our right to have them. We are even fine if they argue well enough to change our opinions and teach us something, so long as they respected us while doing it.

One example of this phenomenon from my own life that I have written about before is the way my relationship with my mother suffered when I decided to move to Kansas. I knew before I told her that she would not be too crazy about this idea, so I was ready for some resistance, but I figured she would remember that this was my decision to make and see reason. I thought that she eventually would come to terms with the fact that this is my life, that this is what I had worked the last four years to achieve, and that she had been preparing me my entire life to live on my own, so it was time to try. Her reaction to this information was much stronger than I had anticipated though, and as her emotions took over more and more she went from politely disagreeing with, to aggressively attacking, my decision to move out West. While I had prepared for her knee-jerk reaction and motherly anxiety after hearing my news, I had not prepared for the disrespect I felt by the way she responded to me. Since I was not ready for this verbal assault on my choice, I felt violated, put down, and like I was losing control over my life, and this caused me to become defensive and attack back. As a result of the disrespect I felt from this single, 10 minute argument, my mother and I spent the last few months of our time together barely speaking. This could have been avoided however, even though we were polar opposites on this decision (and still are to some degree), if we had merely maintained respect for the other’s feelings.

Scott Drotar Respect
My mother and I may not always see eye to eye, but we do try to always respect each others thoughts and feelings.

Whether you are pro-choice, own 30 assault rifles, want to build a “Great Wall of America” between the United States and Canada, or think aliens are going to beam down this Thursday to probe non-believers, you are free as a U.S.citizen to have whatever opinions you choose. You are free to have any crazy beliefs and feelings you want, with one condition. You can have your opinions so long as you do not infringe on the rights of others to have the same freedom. This most primal, deep seated right, that is at the core of our nation’s laws, is based upon the idea of respect. Our founding fathers realized how important this basic, human liberty is that they based our entire nation on it. If it was good enough for the father’s of our country, why is it then, that we now live in a society that is infested with disrespect everywhere you turn? We can debate that controversial quandary later (get it?), but whatever the reason, it is apparent that we as a society need a reminder of the critical role that respect plays in our lives. I hope that you will take some time today to think about whether you are respecting the people in your life as much as you should. I would imagine that everyone, myself included, will come up with at least one individual who they are not giving enough respect, and we should all make a conscious effort to change our ways, and if necessary, apologize for the disrespect we showed them in the past. This will go a long way in forging stronger relationships with the people in your life, as well as make our country as a whole a much better place.

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A Caring Conundrum (Part 1)

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Scott Drotar Illness
I do things like chest percussive treatment to avoid getting sick, since any illness can be life-threatening to me.

Last week I had an unfortunate encounter with a nasty viral infection. I spent the better part of two days with my head pounding, my body aching, and a fever over 100°F. Luckily, feeling like crap for a couple days was as bad as it got, the virus ran its course, and I was able to recover without a hospital stay. This 48 hours of feeling terribly made a much more lasting impression on me however, by helping me realize something about myself, my life, and my place in the world. It helped me understand the complex set of emotions I feel as a mature, adult man, when people get overly concerned about my health due to my disability. These feelings form two groups that are total opposites, one being positive and the other negative, which is why they are so confusing when I feel them all at once. Since there are a lot of emotions to discuss, and there is no way I could adequately address them all in one post, I am going to discuss the negative feelings today and follow up with the positive feelings in part 2 of this series (I like to get the bad news out of the way first).

I woke up in the morning, and I felt like my head was the size of a beach ball from all of the sinus pressure, but I thought that once I got up and moving that my sinuses would drain, and I would feel fine. After only an hour up in my wheelchair though, not only was my sinus pressure no better, but I had gotten a terrible headache, had body aches all over, and was sweating like a sinner on judgment day. I knew that something was not right, so I just rested the remainder of the day, tried to sweat it out, and drank as many fluids as I could. I was hopeful that by catching it early and getting on top of things that when I woke up the next morning, I would feel at least somewhat better. Unfortunately however, this was not the case. When I awoke the following day, I felt the same, if not worse. I continued to tough it out, and let my immune system try to fight off whatever was wreaking havoc on me, but when evening rolled around and I still felt awful, I decided that I should go get checked out in the emergency room just to be safe. The doctor in the ER was great and ran blood work, urine analysis, and even got a CT scan of my head and chest looking for infection, and, surprisingly enough, for probably the first time ever on paper I was completely healthy. This was good news, as it meant that it was probably just a rhinovirus, and that I would have to just let it run its course. He sent me home with some antibiotics just to be safe, and I woke up the next morning feeling quite a bit better.

Scott Drotar Emergency Room
After 36 hours of feeling horrible, I finally gave in and went to the emergency room.

Whenever I start to feel really sick, obviously I let my nurses know. They in turn notify my supervisory nurse that oversees them, so that if I would start to feel worse and need to go to the ER, she would know why. This is all fine, as I understand that my medical care providers need to be kept aware of my status. Over the first 24 hours of this latest bout with illness though, I felt like I was bombarded with calls and people from the homecare agency telling me that I was really sick and needed to go to the ER. The way they spoke to me, and each other, made me feel like they felt I was unable to make good decisions about my health. I felt like I was being treated like I was about 5 years old, and I needed someone to tell me what to do. This really bothered me, because I know that any able-bodied, mature 27 year old would not get the same treatment, and getting treated differently due to my disability is a hot button issue with me. As a result, I am not proud to admit that I was a little short with some of these individuals, and while I could make the excuse that it was because I was sick, that would just be a cop out.

Be assured, I completely understand that when these people come to give me “advice” about my health, that they all have my best interest in mind and care about me. I am similarly aware that the fact that any small illness can quickly become life threatening to me, makes for a very stressful situation for everyone involved. I also know that the whole reason I have nurses is to make sure that I am as healthy as possible, and that I should respect their opinions as medical professionals. I am completely aware of all of this, and I do respect and welcome their opinions in regards to my health however, I still want to be left to make my own decisions after hearing their opinions. 95% of the time my nurses do an incredible job of letting me make my own decisions and live my own life, but it seems like sometimes when I get really sick that they lose sight of the fact that I am a grown man who can make good choices regarding his well-being. When this happens, and they start pressuring me to make a certain decision, I feel like I am losing control over my life. Losing my sense of autonomy over my own health brings forth feelings of anger and frustration that in turn influence my decisions from then on.

Scott Drotar Phone
While I was sick, my phone kept ringing from people calling to give me their medical opinion.

The limited control I have over my life is one of the things I value most, and as a result I have a very hard time with being told what to do when it comes to things like my health. As more people come at me with their thoughts on what I should do when I get sick, the feeling that my control and independence is being taken away becomes stronger and stronger. So, being the stubborn person I am, in response to these growing feelings I start digging in my heels and sticking to my course of action as a response to being told what to do. These feelings are even powerful enough that I have found myself wanting to change my mind and agree with other’s point of view, but I don’t because at the same time I feel like this would be giving up some of my control over my life. Agreeing with their perspective and doing what they think is best will make it seem as if they have made the decision, so I feel like I have to choose between my autonomy and my health. Since my autonomy is so important to me, I will continue to make a choice I don’t agree with and know is not in my best interest regarding my physical well-being, just to keep my sense of independence.

This incredibly difficult choice between my autonomy and my health puts me in a quite tough, and potentially dangerous, situation. Since any unnecessary delay in making the best medical decisions can be life-threatening for me, these negative emotions are a big problem, as they cause me to make choices that are not always in the best interest of my health. Since I need and want my nurses to give me their opinions and share their medical expertise, it is imperative to find a way to work through these feelings when they occur. By now being aware that I am even experiencing these powerful emotions, we have taken the first step in this process. In the next part of this series, you will learn about the positive feelings I have in conjunction with these negative ones, which play a large part in the next step to working through the impact of these negative emotions.

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Thick Skin

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Scott Drotar Fantasia Hippo
Not many enormous animals are immortalized for their graceful movements like the hippo.

My favorite animal, hands down, is the hippopotamus. They are simply amazing creatures. Not many animals have been immortalized by the media for their size and appetite (hungry, hungry), as well as their graceful, free flowing movements (Fantasia). They are also the bad ass of the animal kingdom, having no predators other than man. They have many unique abilities, like being the only animal that can make a sound that can simultaneously be heard above and below water and having a body density that allows them to walk on the bottom of lakes and rivers. Of all of their fascinating traits and behaviors though, there is one that always sticks out to me, because it reminds me of an important life skill. The hide of a hippo is almost six inches thick, making it safe from attacks from potential predators such as lions. Just like their thick skin protects them from injury, we can develop a “thick skin” to defend against the negativity, criticism, and malice of others.

Growing up with a visible, physical disability and using a wheelchair has meant that my entire life I have had to endure the stares and comments of people whenever I am out in public. Even though I know that this behavior is done out of ignorance or fear, and that it is not directed at me personally, it is still difficult to deal with. It is hard not to feel self-conscious, out of place, and uncomfortable when you see people staring at you at every turn. There were several occasions when I was a kid where I would feel like such a mutant freak from the actions of others, that I was brought to tears. In order to be able to lead a full life and experience the world, it was imperative that I develop a “thick skin” in regards to the way people react to my disability. Even though it took me a long time, quite a few tears, and a lot of work, eventually I was able to develop the skills to fend off these attacks on my mind and emotions.

Scott Drotar Thick Skin
Growing up in a wheelchair forced me to develop a “thick skin.”

If you are in public schools and have any kind of disability, you are considered special education. Even though I was never in a special education classroom and was valedictorian of my class, for thirteen years I was considered a special education student because of my physical limitations. Kids are cruel, and they will prey upon any other kids who are different or weaker than them. One of these young predators favorite targets are special education students. A lot of these children are perfect targets, since they are often mentally slow and unable to defend themselves. Since in school you are judged by the company you keep, being labeled a special education student was like putting a “kick me” sign on my back. By having to ride the “short bus,” sit with the special education class at school functions, and being included in special education field trips, I was subject to the same abuse as the other special education students, even though I never set foot in their classroom.

While the actions of other children were hard to take, the behavior of other adults was much harder to cope with. As brutally cruel as my peers and classmates could be, since they were young and didn’t know any better, I could more easily fend off their attacks. When adults, who you are taught to respect as a child, are staring and pointing at you, it is much more difficult to dismiss their behavior. The toughest thing to deal with was when an adult would speak to me as if I was mentally challenged. I would get so frustrated when people would come up to me like I have the brain of a 5 year old, and many would even continue to do so after I had spoken and illustrated that I was in no way mentally impaired. I would get so angry and frustrated in these situations, and it took many years before I was able to develop a “thick skin” to get through one of these encounters without it ruining my entire day.

It was because of the emotional pain caused by the actions of the people around me that I was able to develop the “thick skin” that has allowed me to become a happy, functional member of society. As I matured into a teenager and young adult, I knew that if I had any hope of leading a “normal,” independent life, that I would have to learn to ignore and manage the ignorant actions of the people that I encounter out in the world. So, I did a lot of reading, reflecting, and thinking about why people react the way they do to my disability. Through all of this mental work, I was eventually able to realize that the way people react says way more about them than about me. I realized that anyone who is rude and ignorant enough to react in a negative way is not someone whose opinion I should care about. Why would I let someone like that affect how I feel about myself? I know who I am and what I can do, and the actions of some uneducated stranger should not change that. Letting their uninformed reaction influence my thinking would be like going to a bus driver for advice on astrophysics. I would not trust the bus driver, so why would I trust these individuals? This realization helped me to develop the “thick skin” to ignore the way people treat me, which in turn has allowed me to live a happy, successful life.

Scott Drotar Hippopotamus
Take a lesson from the hippopotamus and develop a “thick skin.”

While you may not have a physical disability, we all have things that we feel self-conscious about when people notice them. Maybe it is a large, conspicuous birth mark or a speech impediment, but we all have these insecurities. In order to live the full, happy life you deserve, you need to take a lesson from the hippo and develop a “thick skin.” Remind yourself that the way people react says a lot more about them than it does about you. By developing and maintaining this “thick skin,” the hurtful reactions of others will bounce off of you like bullets off Superman. Why would you let a stranger determine how you feel about yourself? Remember how great you are and use that self-confidence to build your “thick skin.” You will get so much more out of life and feel much better about yourself, if you are able to ignore the uninformed actions of others. Just like the hippo, your “thick skin” will allow to live a happy, carefree life.

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Connect The Dots

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Scott Drotar Connect The Dots
It hasn’t always been pretty, but I have always been determined to find a way to achieve my goals despite my disability.

“I don’t think there is any medical school that will give you a degree given your physical limitations. You may want to start looking at other possible careers, because you are not going to be a doctor.” This is what my pre-med advisor said to me as I sat in his office after 3 years of preparing for medical school. This was hard to hear, and to be honest I was a little pissed off at his bluntness, but as someone who has overcome numerous obstacles to achieve things that no one thought I could, I was not going to give up on my dream of being a doctor based on one person’s opinion. So, determined to prove my tactless advisor wrong, I picked out 20 medical schools, and I wrote them each a lengthy email describing my interest in attending their institution and my disability. Over the next few weeks I heard back from 15 of the schools, and they all said word for word almost exactly the same thing. Each school said that my disability would in no way affect my ability to get in or matriculate, and that they would make “reasonable accommodations” to work around my disability, but that they would not guarantee giving me a degree. They would make the decision as to whether I had met the “technical requirements” for graduation only after I completed the program, and they could see how much assistance I required. This meant that I could spend several years and tens of thousands of dollars completing medical school, just to get to the end and have them say, “Oh, you can’t palpate an abdomen or hold your own stethoscope, so no M.D. for you. Thanks for playing.” There is no way I could commit that amount of time, money, and energy into an endeavor where the outcome is a gamble, so as hard as it was, I had to abandon my dream of becoming a doctor.

We have all felt this pain of realizing that something you had worked for and dreamt about for so long is never going to happen. It is almost like a small piece of you dies with your dream, and you know you will never get this piece of you back. In order to work through your pain and loss, you must allow yourself to grieve. I definitely experienced this when I finally accepted that my goal of becoming Scott Drotar M.D., acclaimed, world renowned neurologist, was not going to happen. At first I was in denial, which is why I sent out 20 emails despite my advisor telling me what would happen. Then I was angry. I had worked so hard for so long preparing for medical school, and due to something I have no control over, I was never going to see the fruits of my labor. After the anger subsided, I made a brief stop at bargaining with thoughts like, “Maybe if they knew I was pursuing a mostly hands off specialty like neurology, they would be more likely to give me a degree.” Then, I moved on to depression. I was pretty down for several months. I wasn’t suicidal or anything, and I went about my life as I normally would, but I was more subdued and melancholy than my typical, chipper self. I no longer had any direction in my professional life. It was not until the following Fall semester of my senior year that I found my way out of this depression and was able to move on to acceptance.

Since I had been pursuing both my major in mathematics and preparing for med school, I had to take a lot of credits my first 3 years of college, carrying 16 or more credits every semester. By my senior year I had already met all of the requirements for my math major, and since I was no longer pre-med on top of that, all I had to take to graduate were a few, piddly university requirements like a fine arts class and something in the social sciences. So, my last two semesters I took the minimum 12 credits and the easiest courses I could find. One of these cake courses was “introduction to psychology.” It had one open book test, no homework, and only met twice a week. It was perfect for a senior looking to enjoy

Scott Drotar House M.D.
I had to accept that I would never be the next Gregory House M.D., but that didn’t mean I had to give up on my dreams of helping people.

his final year of college as much as possible. Early on in the course the professor gave an overview of the various branches of psychology, like social psychology, cognitive psychology, and of course quantitative psychology. Even though it was only briefly mentioned one time, it got me interested. I had wanted to do neurological research as a doctor with a math degree, and this was a combination of studying how people think and statistics. It seemed like a good fit that could get me to the same end result without having to go to medical school. As I was still stuck in my no med school funk, and I had no idea what I wanted to do, I set up a meeting with my professor to discuss quantitative psychology further. From the moment I left her office after that meeting, I knew that quant was where I belonged, and within 2 months I was doing research with the Notre Dame quantitative psychology department and looking at what graduate programs I wanted to apply to. I had broken free from my depression and accepted the fact that I would never be the next Gregory House M.D., but I would be able to reach the same career goal of doing neurological research.

I will never forget that meeting with my professor. I sat in her cramped office surrounded by journals and books as she explained quantitative psychology to me, told me about some good programs, and even put me in touch with the quantitative psychologists at Notre Dame. As she was informing me about this field, it seemed more and more like it was a perfect fit for me. It would utilize my love for mathematics, allow me to do research on the human brain, and let me indirectly pursue my mission to help people through my research. This was a way for me to do everything I had hoped to do as a physician, but without having to go through the rigors of med school. As I slowly realized this, it was like the personal rain cloud that I had been under since giving up on medical school lifted. In finding this alternative to med school, I was able to finally accept that I would never be a doctor and complete the grieving process with a positive outlook.

Looking back at this period in my life, I wonder why I didn’t investigate alternative solutions to reaching my career goals before that day. Whenever I am faced with a new and daunting obstacle, my first reaction, which I talked about in my post, “I Can’t!”, is typically to ask myself, “What is stopping me from reaching my goal? What can I do to get around it?” This is what I did in this situation, but the problem was that I was so focused on becoming a doctor, that I lost sight of what my real goals were. I had turned “becoming a doctor” into my end goal, when in reality this was just another step in reaching my actual goals of doing neurological research and helping people. So when it became apparent that I was never going to be a neurologist, I thought that this was one of those few times in my life where no matter how hard I tried, my disability was going to prevent me from achieving my dreams. These situations where my disability gets the best of me are always difficult for to handle, and that is why I lost perspective and had to let myself grieve in order to heal. This sense of grief and loss was so strong that I was blind to the fact that there is more than one way to skin a cat.

This extremely trying time in my life is a great reminder of the importance of making sure you are pursuing your goals and not just one possible means of achieving those goals. Just like I had equated “becoming a doctor” with “helping people through my neurological research,” you too can get so focused on the road you have laid out to reach your end result, that you start to see the journey as the destination. It is important that from time to time you take a moment to ask yourself, “What am I hoping to achieve? Why?” Keep asking yourself “Why?” until you get down to the primal, core belief or value that is motivating you to reach for this goal. In my case, this baseline, motivating factor was using my gift with mathematics and interest in the brain to help people. It didn’t really matter what path I took to get there, so long as I met my goal. This doesn’t mean that the journey is not important, but merely that you need to make sure you don’t confuse the particular route you have chosen to achieve your dreams with the dreams themselves.

Scott Drotar State Function
Your life is a “state function,” so how you connect the dots is up to you.

In the physical sciences, a function where there are multiple ways to get from point A to point B is called a “state function.” That is how you should think about your dreams and long-term goals. You hopefully are in the moment and self-aware enough to know where you are now (point A). You have already dreamed big and know where you want to end up (point B). All you have to do realize your dreams is connect the dots, and since our lives are “state functions” how you do this is completely up to you. Better yet, you can even start with one path, decide it won’t work, backtrack and regroup, and then try an entirely new route to your goal. What big dream are you chasing right now? Are you really pursuing your dream, or have you lost sight of it? Take a minute every day to ask yourself whether your behavior is in line with your core beliefs in reaching your goals. By keeping your goals in the crosshairs and maintaining perspective, you will save a lot of time and energy you could waste in losing sight of what you actually want. This will not only help you avoid grief, but it will also bring you happiness.

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Fairness

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That’s not fair!” This statement has probably been uttered by everyone at some point in their lives. It could almost be the battle cry of teenagers everywhere. Despite how frequently it is spoken about though, most people struggle with the notion of fairness as it relates to life. The truth about fairness, which evades most people for their entire lives, is a lesson that I was forced to learn at a young age. Growing up in a wheelchair meant that there were things in life that I was going to miss out on. Even as a young child I came to terms with this unfortunate reality. Whether it was experiencing a water park, roller coasters, or the McDonald’s Play Place, there were things that other kids would get to do that I would not. However, I also quickly realized that I would get to experience things that I would have missed out on had I been born “normal” (i.e no lines at Disneyworld, meet Jack Hannah, be on TV). As a result of this, I came to a massive realization about life. Life is not fair. Read that sentence again. And again. Let it really sink in. Life is not fair, and further more, it is not supposed to be.

Scott Drotar Poker
All you can do in life is play the hand you are dealt as best you can.

As a lover of playing cards, I often think of it like this, and explain it this way in my Roll Models talks. We all are given a hand to play in life at random. Some of us are dealt great cards and some of us are not. The hand you are given is not going to change though, no matter how hard you try or how unfair it seems. What you can change however, is how you choose to play that hand. You could choose to focus on how bad your cards are, “fold,” and give up, or you can play that hand like a winner and do everything in your power to win the pot. Anyone who has ever played cards knows that how you represent and play your hand is much more important than the actual cards. The reason for this is that no one knows what cards you have been dealt but you. If you approach your life like you are holding a great hand, no one will know whether you are bluffing or not.

I was reminded of this fact of life in the Winter of 2002. I had just survived my near death experience and gotten my trache 6 months before, and I was finally starting to get my life back together. I was getting used to dealing with my trache, had grown accustomed to having a nurse constantly by my side, and was going to school full time again. I got to see my friends more, could get out to do things, and was happy for the first time in what felt like forever. One Thursday afternoon I was getting transferred into my wheelchair by my nurse just like every other day, and as I was lifted into the air I felt a spasm of pain shoot across my back that knocked the wind right out of me. I was barely able to get out the words, “Oh shit, my back. Put me down!” As I laid there, trying to catch my breath, and feeling my back spasm over and over, I knew exactly what had happened. I had felt this type of excruciating pain before. I had torn a muscle along the lumbar vertebrae in my lower back.

Scott Drotar Back Injury
My back surgery and SMA make me extremely susceptible to back injuries.

I have had back problems my entire life due to the combination of the scar tissue and rods around my spine from my spinal fusion and my weak muscles from my Spinal Muscular Atrophy. When I pull or tear a muscle, it means about a week of terrible pain every time I move and bed rest. After I got home, painfully got into bed, and took a cocktail of muscle relaxers, anti-inflammatory drugs, and heavy pain killers, I started thinking about what had just happened. As I laid there, I kept thinking about how I had just gotten my life back to a place where I was happy, and once again my body had taken it away from me. I was so frustrated and angry about how unfair this was that I laid there and cried. I kept thinking what was the point of working and fighting to overcome all of the obstacles I have to face, if I never get a chance to enjoy the fruits of my labor by being happy. It just wasn’t fair.

Laying there wallowing in my own self pity, I realized that I had a choice to make. Life wasn’t fair, and I couldn’t change that. I could either give in to my body and stop fighting and working to make a full, independent life for myself, or I could just accept that life was always going to be difficult for me and that my disability was going to cause setbacks in my plan for my life but work to achieve my goals anyway. In making this decision, I thought about many things. I thought about my family and loved ones and how proud they were of me. I thought about all the things I had accomplished that everyone thought I couldn’t do. I even thought about how much worse off I could be. I thought about how even though the deck was stacked against me from the start, and I had been dealt a terrible hand, that I had accomplished so much in my life. I decided that I didn’t care how unfair my life was, because this was the only life I was going to get, and I was not willing to stop living it. I was going to overcome this setback just like all of the others for no other reason than because I had never let my disability dictate my life, and I was not going to start now.

Scott Drotar Fairness
Even though life is not fair, I have still played a winning hand.

A lot of people look at me and think, “Oh, poor Scott Drotar. He was dealt such a bad start. How unfair.” I don’t see it that way though. Not to toot my own horn, but I have a great life and have achieved a lot. I have loving friends and family, two college degrees, am incredibly good looking, and get to pursue my passion of helping people by telling my story. What more could I ask for? It is all a matter of deciding how you want to play your hand that life has dealt you. I hope my story helps you realize how even though you may have it much harder than most people, you can still achieve great things if you really want to. So the next time you are feeling like life is out to get you, or that life is unfair, remember that you control your life. Only you know your hand, and you can play it however you choose, so why not play it like a winner?

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Hijacked!

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Over time man has evolved into the rational, thinking being he is today. At least, for the most part. Some of the traits that were necessary thousands of years ago still exist within us, and unfortunately these evolutionary relics can create problems in our modern world. One of these issues is often referred to as, “amygdala hijack”.

We all have those buttons inside us that once pushed, puts us into rage mode. Those things that can take you from 0 to 60 on the “angry-ometer” in 2 seconds flat. And once the launch sequence to rage is initiated, it seems there is nothing to be done but ride it out. In a sense, that is almost true, due to how our brains are wired.

When we perceive a threat (one of our buttons), the stimulus goes into a part of our brain called the amygdala. From there, two things happen: 1) a slower signal is sent to the rational, thinking parts of the brain in the prefrontal cortex to analyze the threat and 2) a second, quicker signal is sent to our more primitive limbic system where memories are stored. If in a past memory this threat was large, our higher functioning, rational brain is shutdown as we go into “freeze, fight, or flight” mode, which is referred to as “amygdala hijack”. Although this split-second improvement in processing time (around 0.3 seconds) may have been useful when running from sabretoothed tigers, today this antiquated neural response tends to do more harm than good.

You may be thinking, “If I’m hardwired to react this way then there is nothing I can do, right?” Well…right…and wrong. Once the rage cascade reaches a certain point, our mental faculties for dealing with it are shutdown, and we just have to wait until our body’s chemistry balances out. The solution to avoiding this is two pronged. First, know your “triggers” and work on the reason behind them. I keep a list entitled, “Scott Drotar’s Hot Button Triggers” on my iPhone, and periodically I will read it to keep myself aware to avoid my triggers as much as I can. This will stop the hijack process from even starting. Second, learn to catch the anger before it escalates to “the point of no return”, and use strategies to stop the build-up process. At the very least, this will curb the length and intensity of the episode. I offer Roll Models workshops and coaching on methods to accomplish this.

So, the next time you see someone fly off the handle and make a fool of themselves in anger, keep in mind that at this point they can’t help it. Just imagine them narrowly avoiding the jaws of a giant, fanged tiger and be thankful. Because if not for this neurological tool, man may have died out long ago.

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