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Cherie Cotner: Embracing Life Sitting Down

By Jenni de Jong,

I Start Wondering Columnist

Photo By Jenni de Jong
Cherie and her dog, Vancouver

Cherie Cotner radiates positivity. With a ready smile, the Texan enjoys a vibrant life full of grandchildren, church commitments, volunteering with Aggieland Pets with a Purpose, and participating in the annual Walk to End Alzheimer’s.

It’s a full and busy life for her – and frankly, for anyone. Cherie is definitely a glass-half-full type of person. She readily shares her blessings, including her faithful service dog, Vancouver, who helps her as she navigates her 39th year as a wheelchair-bound quadriplegic.

I am fortunate to spend time with her during our weekly Sheng Zhen Meditation class. Even when she shares certain frustrations from the week or challenges she might be facing, she has the ability to hold them lightly.

I often think about Cherie’s daily challenges, and this reminds me to reframe my thinking when I get frustrated or annoyed about small things. I will accommodate my friend in any way I can. For example, our weekly meditation class meets at 8:30 a.m. every Saturday. For the longest time, we held our class at 8 a.m. until Cherie asked if we could add 30 minutes to give her extra time for her caregiver to come to her house to help her dress so she could get to class on time. Any complaints from me about having to get up early on a Saturday morning fade away when I think of the effort it takes Cherie to attend class--and she rarely misses one.

As if her life isn’t full enough, she has now written a book about her injury and her experiences. I am so proud of my friend Cherie for doing this, and grateful, too, because she has so much to teach all of us. She graciously agreed to be interviewed to give readers an idea of what she shares in her book and let us get to know her a little better. Here are the details of the interview:

Can you share with us about your journey and what inspired you to tell your story?

I began writing my book, Breaking Your Neck is a Pain in the Butt, years ago, shortly after I was injured in 1983. The title came first, and the book just evolved over time when crazy things kept happening. It is the culmination of my Christmas letters written over the years in chronological order and life lessons along the way. It was my hope that it might help someone else in a similar situation deal more positively with their outcome in life.

What was it like to find out that you had lost the use of your legs and some of your upper body?

It didn’t really sink in until I got to the rehabilitation hospital in Dallas, Texas. I was in bed for about two to three weeks, both in the hospital and rehab. Once I got up, it was like starting over as a baby. I had no balance and could not stay up in the wheelchair without my blood pressure plummeting and causing me to faint. It was a very gradual process. I can even remember what an effort it was to reach up and hug my husband, Stephen, for the first time.

How did you come to terms with it? How long did it take and what helped you get through it to live a full life?

Photo By Jenni de Jong
Cherie and her daughters

Although it’s unheard of these days, in 1984 I had five months of therapy, which gave me a lot of time to adjust both physically and mentally to my new situation in a gradual process. I went through physical, occupational, and respiratory therapy six days a week and what they called behavioral medicine five days a week where I spoke to therapists about my emotions in dealing with my disability. Later on, having the ability to carry and give birth to my two children made the difference in living a full life!

How old were you when the accident happened?

I was 25 years old and had just been married six months!

What kind of work do you do?

I’m retired now. I majored in health education at Texas A&M University. However, following my accident I mostly worked in marketing and public relations at Carter Blood Center and then later at Sam’s Club.

What is the main message of your book – what do you most want to communicate to your readers?

I hope to convey that no matter what tragedy or illness you may experience in life, although it may appear hopeless in the beginning, through faith and perseverance as well as paying attention to the “angels” surrounding you, life can still be rewarding.

How does this message apply to women who have reached midlife and beyond?

To be honest, it might be a little harder or different for a woman experiencing an injury such as mine later in life. I was fortunate to still go on and have children after the accident. On the positive side, a woman having an injury at midlife would already have an established family, who would hopefully be very supportive and helpful in her recovery.

Can you share one story in the book that means the most to you?

I’m not sure if it means the most but it’s one of my favorite stories when we went to Fossil Rim Wildlife Center near Granary, Texas. The chapter is called “I Survived Darn Near Everything.” My vehicle’s brakes went out, and we practically went over the cliff. On the way home the girls were turning their thoughts to thankfulness, and my daughter Carissa commented, “If you don’t love God, bad things will happen.” After several insightful moments, my niece Dani responded, “I love God!” There’s more to the story that you’ll find out in the book.

What was it like for you to write your first book at midlife? Have you always wanted to write?

If I had to do it all over again, I would have gotten a journalism degree. I don’t believe it was offered when I was at A&M. I have always enjoyed writing Christmas letters and from that people started encouraging me to write the book.

As a person with disabilities, were there special challenges you faced while writing your book?

Photo By Jenni de Jong
At the 2022 Walk to End Alzheimer's

I would say the greatest challenge is typing on the computer. I normally have to use a hand splint to hold a pencil while typing. As the years have gone by, I’ve adapted to just typing with my fingers, although it’s a slow process. With more recent technology of voice recording on my cell phone, I’m able to transcribe and then move over to my computer.

What do you hope your readers take away from this book?

You can still experience joy despite your circumstances. You just have to look for the humor, even if in hindsight.

Do you think people really understand what it takes for a disabled person to get through their day? What do people need to know/do?

I address this in my book. I don’t believe people do realize it. It takes the help of a caregiver and a minimum of 45 minutes for me to get started in my day. My sister says if she wakes up and thinks she’s having a bad day, she realizes what it takes for me just to get started and it changes her attitude for the day.

Are you involved in disability rights as an activist?

I’m not involved in any disability advocacy groups. I’m always willing to speak to groups and have done several devotionals for churches.

Cherie’s book, Breaking Your Neck is a Pain in the Butt, can be purchased through online bookstores.

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1 Comment

Dorian Martin
Dorian Martin
Dec 10, 2022

Thank you, Jenni, for sharing Cherie's story! What an inspiration for us all--and especially for women at midlife and beyond. Cherie's approach to life makes me stop and reconsider when I want to label something as a "crisis" because, frankly, my "crisis" isn't one in the long run. And I love how Cherie models how to continue to explore new ideas and opportunities, such as writing a book (which I am very happy to say I've read).

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