Questions for Reflection
In each episode, we offer you a few prompts to think about how that day's conversation applies to you. Our supporters over at Buy Me a Coffee now have exclusive access to the PDF versions of all our Questions for Reflection. Join us today!
1. Can you think of a moment in your life when you made the decision to live?
2. What brave decisions have you made?
3. How has your family dynamic shaped who are you today?
4. What did you hear in Ryan’s story that had an impact on you?
Beth Demme (00:03):
Welcome to the Discovering Our Scars podcast.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (00:05):
Where we share personal experiences so we can learn from each other.
Beth Demme (00:08):
Our mission is to talk about things you might relate to, but that you don't hear being discussed in other places.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (00:14):
Our hope is that you're encouraged to have honest conversations with people in your own life. I'm Steph.
Beth Demme (00:18):
And I'm Beth. On today's show, we're going to have an honest conversation titled I Made the Brave Decision to Live with Ryan. Hi Ryan.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(00:27):
Hi. How are you guys?
Beth Demme (00:28):
We're so good. We're so glad that you're here with us. So you're the author of When I Grow Up, I Want to be a Chair.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(00:34):
Beth Demme (00:34):
Your upcoming memoir. It'll be out soon, we hope, right?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(00:38):
Yes. In just a few weeks.
Beth Demme (00:40):
So tell our listeners, where are you right now? So we're in Florida and you're not here with us in the podcast studio. You're appearing remotely.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(00:49):
Yeah. I am in Colorado. I am a native, actually, of Colorado. I live in Denver.
Beth Demme (00:54):
So were you okay in the fires recently?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(00:57):
Yes. So we're about 30 miles from them, but we definitely could feel the smoke here. It was not a great time for Colorado.
Beth Demme (01:10):
Yeah. We're glad you're okay.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(01:11):
Yeah. Well, thank you.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (01:12):
Beth Demme (01:12):
Yeah. So tell us about your decision to write your memoir. Why did you want to write your memoir? And tell us some about the process. What was it like for you?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(01:22):
Yeah, absolutely. So there wasn't one specific moment in my life that I sat down and said, "I'm going to write a book. I would like to write my memoir and this is what it's going to be." I think that looking back and reflecting on my life, I always really found a lot of comfort and stability in writing, and I didn't really know that at the time. I was a kid and I'd write down little things, and then even into my college years, I had a blog, I had two blogs, I did this and that. But I never put much weight on it, and so I don't even know when I first sat down to and started writing these stories. But I think that it started as more of a journaling process for myself.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(02:10):
And I'm very upfront in my memoir that a lot of my stories are the really painful moments, they're really things that I was stuck with and I had to get them out. So sharing with some of the people that I've talked about in my stories, I have to personally talk to them and say, "I wrote the things that I needed to get out and the things that I was personally stuck on. And you may not appreciate that because I didn't write about all the wonderful things that happened during this time of my life." But so I definitely did it, I think, as more of a journal style. And then I had to go back in, once I actually made the decision that I wanted to publish it, I had to go back in and add things like dialogue and descriptions of people and things of that nature.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(03:02):
But I think the most interesting part of writing it was that I wrote it completely out of order in terms of the timeline of it. And I didn't write a single thing in chronological order. I sat down and I wrote all the chapters out on a sticky note and sat for hours trying to piece together where these stories actually fit in time. So that was a little tricky, but I don't think I could have written it another way. That's just how it came out of me.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (03:35):
Yeah. I can completely relate to that because that's actually how my story came about too, is as I started writing big, hard moments in my life, and they weren't in order and I did exactly the same thing as how do I place these to make sense? What is this order that will make sense? How will a reader be able to interpret this? Because in our heads it all makes sense because we lived it. We lived it, we see it all of that. So yeah, I could definitely relate to that process. I'm curious, in your book, you actually referred to some kind of journal entries. Was that something, did you find those journal entries and was that something that motivated you to write the book? Or did you find those after you decided to write the book?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(04:14):
I'm going to be honest with you. Those journal entries were made up because I didn't know how else to write those stories.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (04:19):
Okay. Okay. That's excellent. Yeah. Yeah.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(04:24):
There was a lot of creative nonfiction in my book because there was a lot of... I think the moments that I chose to describe my stories as journal entries is because I couldn't come up with another way, and I think because those are the most painful, the most deep rooted, hidden moments of my life, I think the only way I was able to get them on paper was to make them a journal entry.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (04:52):
I love that.
Beth Demme (04:53):
Stephanie Kostopoulos (04:53):
Actually that makes it even more impactful to think that, "Oh, she found a creative way of actually..." I really like that.
Beth Demme (04:58):
It is still a journal entry, it just is a more of a reflective journal entry. It's not made contemporaneously with when the event happened, but it is still a journal entry.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(05:07):
It was both really difficult and really easy for me, the chapter that we're talking about, it spans over journaling for 10 or 15 years. So at the beginning of those, I tried to write it more like I was a teenager and then show the growth through the journal entry writing of it, and it was a little bit difficult, but it was also very easy because those memories were captured within that timeframe anyway.
Beth Demme (05:40):
Well, we've talked around it, and Steph and I have both read your book, thank you for providing it to us for an advanced copy, we really appreciated that. And we can give our synopsis of it, but I think it's better if we can hear it from you. So tell us, what is your book about?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(05:53):
It's about a tragic moment in my life when I was 16 years old and I was in a car accident and I became a paraplegic that uses a wheelchair for everything. So it chronicles all of my life and experiences, good, bad, in between. But I think overall, as I compiled my entire higher memoir, what it is about is it's about exposing somebody's vulnerabilities and being able to really grow and realize how strong you are, and then that's really the theme that came out of that over and over again for myself.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (06:34):
So you just alluded a little bit to it. Basically your life changed when you were 16 when you were in that car accident with five other people. Can you tell us a little bit about that?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(06:45):
Yeah, I'd love to. I will start by saying that because of my accident, the trauma that was sustained during that time, I have no memory of that accident or even a day before to about a week after. So when I talk about it, I don't have a lot of emotional tie to it, and it's really just all of these little stories that people have told me along the way, whether it be my family members that arrived to the hospital or even the state troopers that were there that night. Everything that I know about my accident is not from me.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (07:16):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(07:18):
And that, I think really helped me come out of it and be able to move on a little bit easier. But to tell you a little bit about my accident, I was a high school junior at the time, and kind of just like a typical kid, really, my priorities were hanging out with my friends, being a good swimmer and getting my school work done on time. That's kind of where I was. My accident happened the night of a school dance. It was one of those girls ask guys dances. And I had this boyfriend at that time that went to a different high school, so I knew the only way that he would want to go is if some of his friends were going to. So I conned some of my girlfriends from the swim team into inviting his friends, and so there ended up being six of us that were going to this dance together.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(08:13):
One of the girls that I was friends with, she was able to borrow her dad's suburban SUV, so we could all fit in the car safely, and so we were pretty jazzed about that. We went to dinner, we went to the dance and then after the dance, we decided we were going to go midnight bowling. So we hopped in the car, we were actually following another carload of friends that were going to the bowling alley as well.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(08:38):
And nobody really knows what happened that night. There were no drugs, no alcohol, nothing, no sort of foul play that we can speak of. But we were driving on the highway, our car lost control, and we ended up crossing the grass median of the highway and hitting the traffic head on. The driver of the car that we hit was killed instantly, my boyfriend was killed instantly. Everybody in the car was hurt. I ended up flying out of the window. The paramedic said I was about 75 feet away from the car when they found me. They actually had trouble finding me initially. They knew just from talking to some of the people on scene that I existed, but they didn't know where I was and they finally found me.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(09:24):
So at that point, I had pulled and stretched my spinal cord enough that it had paralyzed me instantly. But beyond that, I had extreme road rash. They said I looked like a burn victim. I had collapsed both my lungs and so I wasn't breathing. The paramedics told me later that they tried to get blood from me and they couldn't even get any blood through an IV, and so they just put me on an ambulance and hoped that I made it.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(09:55):
So speaking to the title of this podcast today, I Made the Brave Decision to Live, I did that at some point and I don't know how to take credit for it because I don't remember it, but clearly I had some courage and I fought really hard that night. I ended up being in the ICU unit for a month, just trying to heal. Even before they could do surgery to replace my spine, they actually had to do surgery on my legs because my legs were so mangled that they had to reset those. That was going to be a more acute thing.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(10:41):
So there was just a lot of just body healing involved at that time. So I spent a month in the ICU unit, hooked up to a ventilator machine, so I couldn't really talk, I couldn't communicate much. I actually broke both of my wrists, but they didn't cast my right wrist and it was because somehow along the way, when I was in elementary school, I learned the ABCs in sign language and that's how I started to communicate. So they decided just not to cast it because I was actually able to let people know what I needed or how I was doing. Yeah. And that's a weird thing too.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (11:24):
Did it heal? But did your wrist heal?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(11:26):
It healed, I will tell you that now that I'm in my 40s, now it's giving me trouble.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (11:32):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(11:35):
But I appreciate the sentiment of letting me communicate at that point. So once I was physically well enough, they moved me to a multi-trauma unit, where I was for about another month. And at that point it was more of trying to get me to sit up in bed and to navigate just little things, trying to lift my head up off a pillow. So then once I was well enough to sit up in a wheelchair, I got moved to a rehab facility specifically for spinal cord injuries, and I was really blessed because one of the top facilities in the nation is five miles from my childhood home. It sounds silly, but that's when I learned how to be in a wheelchair, and I learned how to put my pants on and open a door, and do a wheelie and all these things that you don't really think about, and probably don't really think about having to learn and having to be taught these things. And that's where I got the first glimpse of how my life was going to be changed now.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (12:49):
Do you stay in touch with the other passenger from the car?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(12:53):
So we all developed this bond from the accident, where it was like all of a sudden we were these weird siblings now. We had this accident that all of us were involved in, everybody's lives were changed and nobody could really understand that on the outside. So I don't really speak to them every day. I couldn't tell you the last time I did speak to any of them, but if I needed one of them, right now today, I could call anyone of them up and they would be here.
Beth Demme (13:25):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(13:26):
And it goes both ways. So it's kind of like, I think that we all learn to move on and live our lives the way that we needed to, but we are all still very connected at our roots.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (13:42):
Did you all have similar injuries or were yours the worst?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(13:46):
I don't even think mine were the worst.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (13:48):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(13:48):
So the driver of the car, she broke her jaw on the airbag, but then she was the one also that had to live with the fact that she was the driver of this accident.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (14:03):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(14:06):
It was really early on, I would say well within the first year of the accident that I recognized that she couldn't be around me. It was too much for her.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (14:19):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(14:20):
Having this wheelchair, I am a visible disability. I'm a visible reminder to her of that night. So we parted ways very early on, and not because I harbored any negative feelings for her, but it was emotionally too much. And ironically enough, she lives about two miles away from me now and we run into each other every so often, and it's really nice to see her. She has a family, but I know in my heart of hearts that she still has a hard time.
Beth Demme (14:59):
Yeah. It's really generous of you actually to recognize that and to not place whatever your needs would be for connection or friendship or discussion or closure, or whatever it would be, to not place your needs above her need to process this in her own way. Yeah, that's really kind. You said that there was someone else in the car who passed away and then you. So what about the three other teenagers?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(15:25):
There was another boy that just broke his ankle, and I would say that he had a lot of survivor's guilt. Probably still does a little bit. So he struggled a lot, I would say for several years after the accident, just in terms of just watching him choose careers and schooling and the things, it looked like that he was really floundering for quite a while. But he has a family of his own now and he seems to be doing really well. Both of the other two, a boy and a girl, they sustained traumatic brain injuries from the accident.
Beth Demme (16:03):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(16:05):
And that's not something to mess around with.
Beth Demme (16:06):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(16:06):
I would choose a spinal cord injury any day of the week because your brain is not something that you want to mess around with. Both of them were affected in different ways. The girl, a little bit worse. She actually was in a coma for about a week. When she came out of it, she didn't know how to talk, walk, eat. She was like a newborn baby. And I actually remember seeing her very early on. We were in the same hospital together and they actually wheeled her into my room in a wheelchair, so that we could see each other, and I almost didn't know who she was just because she didn't look like herself. She looked very glazed over, and it was really, really scary.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(16:54):
She has done so much for herself and if you sat down with her today, you wouldn't know that she had been through the things that she had been through and she has overcome so much. But she still has a lot of issues with memory, and just some daily things that she's to learn to cope and write down everything she needs to do so that she doesn't forget, things like that.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(17:21):
The boy that suffered the brain injury kind of similar things had a little bit of struggle with memory, had struggle with temper as well. So just watching your friends behave in different ways or have to relearn things like that, that was really hard. And that I think I'm just saying this now, thinking about it, perhaps that was something that made me get over myself very quickly.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (17:52):
Yeah. I'm curious, how were you able to process all of that, the physical toll, the mental toll that happened to you, that happened to your friends? Was there a process you went through? Is there an age where you realized that you had dealt with it? What did that look like?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(18:10):
It's really, really interesting, and writing this memoir has really helped me reflect on all of these years and really forced me to go back to them, and I would say that I didn't really let myself stop moving. For so many years, and I think some of it is I was a kid at the time really and so I was just trying to keep going and doing the things that I always did. Some of it may be because I was an athlete, and so it was kind of like, if you want to get better, you have to practice, so had that mentality. Or if there was just a lot of hidden fear and I just didn't, I didn't want to face it. I don't know. But I didn't have a lot of moments, especially early on where I was depressed or really thought about, why me? I didn't spend a lot of time dwelling or lingering in that, and I don't know necessarily why.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(19:13):
This is really interesting. So yesterday I actually met with a friend for lunch. That was a friend at that time. We were best friends before my accident and during my accident, and then in our 20s, we had a falling out, and then we just reconnected last week. So sitting down with her yesterday was really eyeopening because I'm sure, Steph, you can relate to this as you're writing your memoir, you're like, "Did I just make that up? Is that really what happened?"
Stephanie Kostopoulos (19:45):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(19:46):
So some of the things I'm like, well, I was totally fine after my accident and I was totally just looking forward. And she reiterated, she said she was talking with her mom and they both were like, "How did she just keep going? How did she just continue to do things? So that was the reality of it, and I think that perhaps some of it was like survival of the fittest like, if I don't keep moving forward, no one's going to do it for me.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (20:13):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(20:14):
So I might as well if I want to get my driver's license, this is what I have to do. If I want to go to college, this is what I have to do. And I compartmentalized in terms of what was necessary at that moment. And the things that came out were the things that everybody else was doing, like going to the mall.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (20:36):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(20:37):
So there wasn't a lot of time early on that I sat with what had happened. Even in my early 20s, I remember hearing tragic things on the news or things that were happening in our community, and I would actually think like, "Oh my gosh, I couldn't imagine if something horrible like that happened to me." So perhaps that gave me the ability to just get beyond it. And then it wasn't until maybe even I started writing my memoir, or a little bit before that when I was... So I've always coached kids and I was a teacher, so I think that's when I started to actually look back at stuff, when I would tell these stories that I had from my life, and then also try to make it a lesson for these kids that I was telling. That's when I think I started to process it a little bit better because I was always looking forward and I didn't dare look back. But at that point, I had to look back to make my story worth telling, if that makes any sense.
Beth Demme (21:49):
Well, now that you've done that, and now that you've written your memoir, I wonder if you see your resilience. You really are an incredibly resilient person and it's one of those things that, gosh, if we could bottle that up, here's a resilience potion and let other people drink it, that would so amazing.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(22:09):
Throughout my whole life, all I've done is try to be the most normal, boring person that I could possibly come up with, and there have been instances in my life over and over and over again, telling me that that's not true.
Beth Demme (22:24):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(22:24):
And telling me that as ordinary as I want to be, that's just not the reality of it. Whether that be because of who I actually am, or just because of the stories that I've lived with, I think I'm finally, maybe within the last month, ready to accept that.
Beth Demme (22:42):
Yeah. Well, the title of your memoir is When I Grow Up, I Want to be a Chair. Tell us where that comes from.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(22:50):
So it, it comes from a lot of different places and it was a very fitting title very early on. That actually was something I wanted to be when I was in preschool, I think I was four, three years old. I had told my mom that I wanted to be a chair when I grew up, and I often would ask her, "Why didn't you ask me about that? Why didn't you coax me into some other sort of career path?"
Beth Demme (23:17):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(23:17):
It didn't make sense. And in that sense, my mom was great and didn't want to mess with my creativity. The only thing that I can actually rationalize out of all of that was that I had a little baby sister at the time, and I've always thought maybe that was my way of wanting maybe someone will let me hold her if I was a chair. So that was a very true story.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(23:44):
And then obviously, when I was 16, I became a paraplegic that uses a wheelchair and that chair became a really great metaphor, I think, in terms of it could be something that you're bound to, something that you have to have. I think everybody has struggles like that, where there's something that you are stuck with and you've got to figure it out. There are a lot of people that have identities that they don't necessarily think belongs to them, or that they don't think defines them, and I think that that's something that I've struggled with my whole life. I mentioned that being in a wheelchair is a very physical disability, and throughout my life, almost on a weekly basis, I have complete strangers coming up to me going, "Oh my gosh. What happened to you?"
Ryan Rae Harbuck(24:38):
I'm completely caught off guard and I'm like, "What? Do I [crosstalk 00:24:43] What's happening?" Because it's not as visible to me, I suppose.
Beth Demme (24:49):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(24:49):
So that chair metaphor of is something I think that not everyone obviously can relate to a wheelchair, but you can relate to being bound by something that you think that you are better than, or something that you don't want to define your entire existence on.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (25:11):
So you're not a chair, but you are in a chair and something you talk a lot about in the book is the struggle you had with how visible that was to other people and how your legs look different because, I'm assuming there's no muscle tone?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(25:29):
Yeah. My legs are very, very small and because of my accident, I had to get a lot of skin grafts, and so I have a lot of weird, chunky things happening in my legs. So they're not the most beautiful thing.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (25:44):
So I'm curious, where are you now with your appearance, how you present to the world? How are you with that now, mentally?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(25:51):
That's a great question, because I'm a mom now, and so some of that is just being a mom. I don't know the last time I looked in the mirror. But I will be honest, I don't own a pair of shorts. I am pretty still, I would say aware that my legs do look different and because of all the work that I've had done on them, I don't have a lot of good circulation in them either, and so they get purple, they get swollen sometimes, so I do still hide them to this day. And what really sucks is that I enjoy swimming so much, so when you are a swimmer, you are pretty much half naked, quarter naked, getting into a pool.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(26:44):
So that was something that I really benefited from early on was just having to expose my physical self. If I wanted to swim, I had to suck it up and let everybody see my legs. I think that I've overcome a lot and like I said, I'm a mom and so looking at myself in the mirror doesn't even happen very often because there are other things happening in our household. But yeah, I'm still very impacted by, I think the things early on, people asking what's wrong with my legs or little kids telling me that they are yucky looking,
Stephanie Kostopoulos (27:33):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(27:33):
And that stuff sticks no matter whether you want them to or not.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (27:38):
You mentioned just a little bit ago, you said you get asked on a daily basis, "Oh, what happened to you?" So I'm curious, for somebody like me, walking down the street and you say hi to people and I see you rolling down the street, a stranger or someone that's first meeting you, how would you want them to approach you?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(28:02):
I guess just with a, "Hello," and a, "How are you?"
Stephanie Kostopoulos (28:07):
Beth Demme (28:07):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(28:07):
I guess I don't really...
Stephanie Kostopoulos (28:09):
Do you want them to acknowledge the chair? How does that feel?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(28:17):
That's such a hard thing and I really feel for everybody in the world that has to interact with somebody that has a difference, because everybody feels differently about how they want to be approached and how they want people to interact with their wheelchairs or their disabilities, differences. So it's there's not one specific way that's best, and I would say that every scenario could be a little bit different too.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(28:44):
So I think that I don't need anybody to skirt over the fact that I'm in a chair, because it's very clear that I am and that I need it. But it doesn't need to be a focus either. People I think are good and people want other people to be happy and to be supported. So throughout all of my years, people have always offered up help in different places. And I've learned to let go of the idea that they think that I'm weak or they think that I can't do things. And just to try to hold that moment in and realize that somebody just wants the best for me. And that's been a real hard lesson throughout my whole life is just understanding that it's okay to need help and that it's okay for somebody to ask if you need help. But I will be also very honest with you, there are a lot of times where I need help and I will completely say, "No, I'm fine. Thank you." So there's that.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (29:59):
Something you bravely you talk about in the book is your family dynamics, your mom, dad, and your sister. Did you feel like you had their support during 16 and on? Because you also mentioned, "I had to make things happen. If I wanted something done, I had to do it." So did you feel their support or did you feel like you had to do it yourself?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(30:26):
Probably once I started to be close to the teen years, I started realizing that my family dynamic was a little bit wonky. There wasn't a lot of open communication, we didn't sit down at the dinner to table together and talk about our day. And then I started noticing that my parents didn't really communicate or really even do anything together, and that was really hard. And then it got to the point where I started watching my mom at night and she seemed like she was kind of goofy and out of it. And my dad was working, he worked a nine-to-five job that was an hour away. So we didn't see a lot of him during the day or even, he would get home at 6:30 at night, I'd get home from swimming and eat dinner and go to bed. So my dad was always in bed when my mom started to act weird.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(31:27):
This was probably when I was 13, 14, I didn't really know what it was. I thought maybe it was sleeping pills, And so I'd hide them from her, or I remember throwing them over the fence and this really dramatic defining moment of mine. But I just didn't understand, and so it was several years that I hid her being weird every night from the world. It was before my accident still, it got to the point where I think that I needed help, but I didn't know how to get it. And there was one night where she kept really bothering me, so I ran upstairs and I slammed my door and I knew at doing that, it was going to wake my dad, and so I knew that...
Ryan Rae Harbuck(32:12):
So he woke up and he was kind of like, "What's going on?" And I just kept my door shut. I remember thinking, "Okay, now this is going to be over," and then it wasn't. The next day my dad was kind of like, "That was weird. What should we do?" And I didn't really know because I still didn't really understand what was wrong, and that's just how life was for a while.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(32:33):
And then when my accident happened, it just amplified things by a million percent. And I remember my mom and my dad would switch places who would stay with me at the hospital each night, and I remember just thinking that there's just something with my mom, and it wasn't until one of my friends came to visit me and said, "I think that your mom is drinking." And that was something that I hadn't ever considered. And unfortunately, he was right and to this day, I think I don't have a lot of the right words or reflection on that time period because... I don't know. I still have a good relationship, I would say with my mom today and in terms of she's a really great Nana to my two kids, but that communication piece has never really opened up. She's clean, she's sober. She does her best every day and I recognize that. But I guess I'm really hopeful that in writing this memoir and releasing it to the world, that it gives our family a chance to connect in a way that maybe we never have before. But it's also really, really scary.
Beth Demme (33:56):
I think we get good at telling our own stories because we live with them and we process them and we do our work and it can be really hard when our story intersects with somebody that we care about because we don't want to tell their story. That's their work. So it does take courage, and I think that you handled it gently in the book, I think. I didn't and come away thinking that your mom's a bad guy or anything. It was like, "Oh yeah, she was doing her best. Everybody's just doing their best."
Beth Demme (34:28):
Well, tell us about the role that swimming has played in your life, because you mentioned that in high school you were a swimmer and that being an athlete gave you that drive to know, "I'm going to keep practicing and I'm going to get better." But swimming has been something that has come back to you again and again at pivotal moments. So tell us about that.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(34:47):
Yeah, absolutely. I think that early on, swimming became part of my identity before my accident, so when my accident happened I never thought that that piece was taken away. And going back to being a naive teenager, I went back to school after I had healed and was ready to go back for my senior year, and the first thing I did was sign up for my high school swim team because that's what I did every year. And I'm fairly certain, looking back now that there were a lot of people that were probably very worried about that and I didn't see it for anything. It was just sort of like, "Well, I swim. What are you talking about, people?"
Ryan Rae Harbuck(35:28):
And that was a really, really hard moment, but it was a really necessary one because it was going back to swimming and competing. It wasn't the way that it was before and it wasn't ever going to be the way that it was before. And it was really hard for me being kind of a competitive person by nature to hop in a pool with a group of girls that I always swam with and know where I should be swimming and be a head of this girl or in this certain lane and not be able to. Swimming became at that moment, really early on after my accident, it became the one thing that bridged my life before to my life after where it was like, "Whoa. Okay. I'm still swimming. This is great. I'm swimming, but it's really, really hard. And my body's shaking because it doesn't know how to control the body temperature, and I'm really tired and I just got lapped by seven people." It was kind of, "Okay. Well, now this swimming thing, I still get to do it, but it's going to be really different."
Ryan Rae Harbuck(36:38):
But I think that it became something that also saved me because swimming for all intents and purposes, that's the one activity that I do where I don't need my wheelchair., and it's always been that way. My body can float around me and beneath me and do its own thing. And it wasn't until several, several years later of just swimming the way that I always knew I had and with the body that I thought I had, but I didn't have anymore, it took several years of me just sucking it up and saying, "My legs don't work. They drag behind me. How can I change how I'm swimming to actually fit that now?"
Ryan Rae Harbuck(37:25):
And that was something that I think I fought internally for a really long time. I didn't want to change. I didn't want... I think that that's really metaphor too. Like I didn't want to change what I was doing because I had to with my new body. But then once I did, once I actually paid attention to my body and changed my stroke slightly, then it was easier and I expended less energy and I was able to swim longer and actually enjoy it a little bit more.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(37:56):
So I think that really early on, I got into coaching because I think I was offered the coaching job right out of the hospital because I think that the team that I swam with, the little summer club team didn't really know what to do with me, so they were like, "You can coach," and that was wonderful. It was a great blessing because I really enjoyed coaching and I've been coaching for 20 some years now. I still am coaching. And it was a really good way for me to use some of my knowledge and competitiveness, but also just, I think that there was a lot of myself before my accident that I wished a coach had done for me, that I was able to understand and hold onto and see in other athletes that I've had.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(38:49):
When my accident happened, there was a lot of regret like, "Well, now I can't do the things that I probably could have done." So realizing that after I got off of bedrest, I remember one of my little secret swims, I made a promise to myself and I wanted to train as hard as I possibly could, myself, just me, and see where that took me. And it was kind of like, "I'm going to be an example for my students, for my swimmers, that if you put all of yourself into something, what can you accomplish?"
Ryan Rae Harbuck(39:23):
It was almost written in blood in my mind like this is what I'm doing right now. And I trained for two years solid. I was getting up at 3:30 in the morning, just so I could swim before I taught a full day, and it meant the world to me. I used all the money I had in the world to travel to different swim meets. And I was doing really well, I was breaking American records and placing in really high meets. I got chosen to swim at the Pan Am game, the Parapan Am games in that year, it was in Guadalajara, it was really amazing. And then I had set my sites for the Paralympic trials that year. That was going to be my culmination of this what can I do? Can I make the Paralympic team?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(40:13):
And I went to that meet thinking, "This is going to be it. This is a life changing moment for me, and I feel it." I was getting ready for my very last race. This was a really long five-day meet. It was my last race, the last night of the meet. And I had this brief interaction with this coach on the deck. He had just started coaching Paralympic swimmers and so he was sort of new and the able-bodied swimming world is way different from the Paralympic swimming world. So we were talking about the differences there and I very quickly offered up my phone number, email, whatever I could to help him out in the future with, because I just felt this strong connection with him.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(40:57):
The very next day, all the athletes poured into this auditorium where they called the names of all the people that made the Paralympic team and my name was not on that list, and I was very shocked that I was okay with it. I left that meet and I kept thinking, "Oh, you're going to cry. You're going to cry any moment now," and I didn't. It was like I knew that I had actually put in all of my effort for this and that was enough.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (41:36):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(41:36):
There wasn't anything I would've changed. I had zero regret for any piece of that journey, and so I left that meet feeling rather content. It could have also been the fact that I had just connected with this guy that I was pretty interested in, and needless to say, once I got home from the meet, we started having an email exchange, which led to texting, and then we started Skyping. Thank goodness for all the technologies we have these days because he was living in North Carolina at the time. That meet was in June of that year. His name is Andrew. Andrew came out to spend a week with me in August and we were married in September.
Beth Demme (42:23):
Yeah. That's so cool. Even when you described the wedding in the book though, and the fact that you were on the way to the airport when you tell your dad, "By the way, I'm taking this trip because I'm going to get married. Just so you know. FYI," right?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(42:43):
That was actually how it happened. It was very much... And there goes the communication in my family right there.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (42:49):
Yeah. So how long have you been married now?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(42:53):
We've been married nine years.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (42:54):
Nine years. Wow.
Beth Demme (42:56):
And you have two boys.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(42:58):
Two boys. Seven... Well, actually, no. Today is my oldest's birthday. He is eight today. An eight and a two year old.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (43:06):
Oh, that's awesome.
Beth Demme (43:07):
And do you and your husband both coach swimmers?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(43:10):
So once we got married, he moved out to Colorado. I had been coaching a team at that time and I helped him find a coaching job at a different swim club, and so we did that for a little bit. And then the team that I was coaching for was owned by a husband and wife, and they were looking to retire, and so they actually approached us about taking over the team. So talk about being in the right place at the right time. We graciously accepted that and we've been owning and coaching that team ever since.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (43:40):
So what do you hope people take away from your story?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(43:44):
In writing my story, I don't want people to read my story and feel bad for me or to think I'm this really wonderful person on the other side of it. I want them to read it and feel something for themselves. I want them to recognize that we all have vulnerabilities and moments of just not feeling great about ourselves or a situation and taking that moment and actually being able to rise above it and show our true strengths. The things that I struggled with were also the things that I was victorious with. And I think that that's really important to recognize that your perspective on what's happening to you in your life is all that really matters, and if you can see your struggles and your victories at the very same thing, I think that that gives you a lot of growth and a lot of forward motion.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (44:51):
So thank you, Ryan. This has been amazing to read your story, and I'm already thinking of other questions that I want to ask you after-
Beth Demme (44:59):
Stephanie Kostopoulos (44:59):
... because they don't super relate, but I'm just like, "I want to know about this." So thank you so much for sharing your story with us, for being here and letting us dig into your world. We have one last question for you. Just a fun question.
Ryan Rae Harbuck(45:12):
Stephanie Kostopoulos (45:12):
So we like to ask all of our guests this question, what TV show, book, or podcast are you excited about right now?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(45:19):
I'm excited about my book. Just kidding. That's not my answer.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (45:23):
That's a great answer though.
Beth Demme (45:24):
That is. That's good.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (45:24):
There's nothing wrong with that. What else? What other book?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(45:27):
I really enjoy Glennon Doyle's podcast right now. I think that she does a really good job of exposing her vulnerabilities and what she does with them, and so I think that that's something for people to check out.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (45:43):
Awesome. Yeah, that's a good one. So where can people find you?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(45:49):
I do have a website. It is my full name. Ryan Rae, R-A-E harbuck.com. I do have Instagram. That's probably where I put most of my bookish things and how I'm feeling at the moment about the world. So that would be the best way.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (46:08):
Perfect. And your book is coming out soon?
Ryan Rae Harbuck(46:13):
It's very soon.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (46:14):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(46:14):
I don't have a date as of yet, but it should be in a matter of weeks.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (46:21):
Okay. Well, when it comes out, email us, let us know and we will put it in the show description for this, even if it's after this episode comes out, so we'll have a link to it in the description.
Beth Demme (46:33):
Yeah. And we'll put links to your website and to your Instagram account, so that folks can find you because I know they're going to want to.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (46:38):
Ryan Rae Harbuck(46:39):
Yes. Well I really appreciate it. It's been really fun to talk to you guys.
Beth Demme (46:42):
Yes, thanks so much.
Stephanie Kostopoulos (46:47):
At the end of each episode, we end with questions for reflection. These are questions based on today's show that Beth will read and leave a little pause between and you can find a PDF copy on our Buy Me a Coffee page.
Beth Demme (46:58):
Number one, can you think of a moment in your life when you made the decision to live? Number two, what brave decisions have you made? Number three, how has your family dynamic shaped who you are today? And number four, what did you hear in Ryan's story that had an impact on you?
Stephanie Kostopoulos (47:20):
This has been the Discovering Our Scars podcast. Thank you for joining us.