University of Southern Indiana

Living Independently Dependent

by Sarah Beth Vaughn '11 M'12

I love the stories about individuals who rise to the top in life, only to hit rock bottom and then quickly rise back to the top again. What I don’t like about these stories is we typically never hear from these individuals while they’re down, en route back to the top. Why is this? Because the overwhelming weight of anxiety, guilt and shame regarding our failures can often paralyze a person. Our brains are intended to protect us from pain, acting as that quiet voice in our heads warning us not to share embarrassing or challenging experiences.

Throughout my life, I have been praised for being strong because I have overcome and embraced the adversity that comes with living with a physical handicap, a noticeable trait the public can see without my confession.

But now…now I am making a choice to be strong in a different way. I am choosing to show my vulnerability that cannot be physically seen. And so, I confess…My name is Sara Vaughn, a professional social worker and motivational speaker who lives with a chronic disability and who temporarily became defeated by chronic pain, rising anxiety and the inability to effectively cope with support system shifts, causing me to lose everything in what seemed like an instant. Gone. Just like that.

I own all the responsibility in my downfall. Our choices shape our lives, despite any unforeseen circumstances. In late 2017, my life story was published in a book authored by Keith Maginn and published by KiCam Projects. The book is titled (Extra) Ordinary: More Inspirational Stories of Everyday People. My greatest ambition, to share my story with the globe, met by the age of 30!

On top of the world, I was working a full-time job at a local non-profit whose mission of preventing and ending homelessness was something I was extremely proud to be a part of. I was educated with two college degrees, had amazing friends and family and a solid committed relationship. People were asking me to share my story constantly, which led to a passion for public speaking. Everything was wonderful! I had come close to achieving many of the ambitions I had set for myself and I couldn’t have been happier.

By the end of 2017, I experienced my first bout with chronic pain, grief and anxiety after losing two grandfathers, two jobs I loved and identified myself with, a significant long-term relationship, two family pets and what I had deemed as my support system, after my family endured their own set of challenges at the time and my friends became concerned and careful around me due to my rising anxiety. I didn’t know how to reach out to anyone for assistance, realizing that I could not manage the stress of living with chronic pain alone. By June of 2018, I found myself quitting a job I loved out of pure exhaustion.

At this time, I began treatment for my anxiety and my family encouraged me to move closer to them, to take some time out and focus for a while on my health. I followed the advice, but things seemed to go from bad to worse. After a few short months of unemployment, I was bankrupt. I was in a place everyone fears. The place where you think to yourself, “I achieved it all…how did I get here…and how do I get back over there?”

My life of overcoming adversity spanned the ages from zero to 30. Thirty years of having cerebral palsy and none of it seemed to phase me, due to my amazing support network and all of you guys reading or hearing these words now. One year of living a life with cerebral palsy without the humility to reach out to a scattered support network, and my defining strength seemed to crumble. Rock bottom. It’s dark.

There’s not a GPS, so in seeking some direction, I picked up the book with the words describing my life and character — I read the first paragraph, “Sara Beth Vaughn might be one of the most upbeat people in America. Despite being diagnosed with spastic cerebral palsy as an infant, she sees this “disability” as a blessing and has dedicated her life to helping others.” I began to cry and there it was: TURNING POINT. I remembered who I was. My joy has always come from keeping active and doing for others—not only thinking. Today, I am reinventing rock bottom by sharing what that looks like from the ground up.

After what seems like the longest year of my life, I am on my way back to the top of my potential, because I learned how to reach out when times get tough. I have a loving family, a beautiful committed relationship and a supportive community. I have been given the opportunity to volunteer as an addictions counselor for people experiencing chronic pain. Now identifying as a warrior of chronic pain, I feel joy in sharing strategies I have learned to manage and cope with physical pain. Within the next six months, I will have obtained my professional license to practice clinical therapy. I am honored to still be part of the homeless services community that is near and dear to my heart by serving as a member of the board of directors for a local family homeless shelter.

And finally, I can say with confidence, I am a motivational speaker who also happens to live with a disability. Never underestimate the support you are giving to the people in your life, organization and community. For me, learning to fully utilize the support I have in my life has become the difference between living with a disability and being disabled. I have finally learned to live independently, dependent. And it turns out, Mr. Maginn was right—I am optimistically upbeat.

Sarah Vaughn boxing


If you enjoyed this story, let us know at magazine@usi.edu.

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