Jenny Ulrich: The Woman Who Disproved Impossible

You know it’s a good morning when cold Olive Garden pasta tastes amazing for breakfast.  First two mile walk I’ve taken in a while.  I grant you, my body is attempting a protest, simply because I haven’t done anything that physically active in a while.  Now, darling denizens of the internet, I owe you all an apology.  I’ve been in a funk lately, and I know that’s been reflecting on my blog for a few reasons.  I’ll do my best not to bore you with the details, but I’m sure you’ve noticed since my coming out post that I’ve been attempting to be a bit more…Honest?  Raw?  Genuine?  I don’t know what word to put to it, but essentially, I’ve tried to be less, hey look, here’s a bunch of writer tips, and more, hey, this is me, to hell with the consequences.  I heard somewhere the latter is a good idea, yet at the same time, it seems like a good way to really rock the boat, especially when a depression attack is in the driver’s seat.  (Turns out my new prescription Ring of Sustenance is exceedingly effective in very small doses, and a terror for me in larger ones.)

2 hours of sleep and no need to eat? Conquering the world will be a snap!
2 hours of sleep and no need to eat? Conquering the world will be a snap!

In light of that, I owe you all an apology for being more of a downer than I typically like to be.  That said, on to Jenny’s story, so you’ll have some background for the next few days of posts.

See, for years, I held this idea that motivation was a fantasy, and I had no staying power.  None.  Especially since, you know, people with ADHD don’t have staying power.  People with mental illness, disability, or disorder don’t have staying power.  Yada yada yada.  It’s a message I’m fairly sure many of us internalize.  We can’t.  We aren’t good enough.  We aren’t enough.  And yet, my last semester at the University of Wisconsin – Green Bay, something happened.  I agreed to spend an extra $300 that semester for a private room.  Technically, I didn’t have the money.  Technically, until I pay off my student loans from that school, I don’t own a dime I make.

So why pay extra?

Well, when a friend shows up at that table where all your friends muck about in the Union, absolutely panicking, nowhere else to go, because both of her current, random roommates bail on her halfway through the school year, and the Friday before finals?  I did what any reasonable, level headed, stubborn, loyal, pit bull of a friend does.  I made it happen.  Along with one other awesome friend.  Hey, we got private rooms out of the deal.

Warning:  This post is going to get long, and likely will end up being two or three parts, but you need this back story to know why she’s so amazing.

I believe I already mentioned the two mile walk this morning?  Part of it was doctor’s orders.  Part of it was a conversation yesterday with the friend I just mentioned.  Her name is Jennifer Ulrich, and I’ve never met a stronger woman.  Thing is, the day we first met, she sat as though someone had melted her out of wax and poured her into the 600 lb hydraulic monstrosity of a wheelchair that I’ve had driven over my foot a few times.  Her service dog, Wilson, sat by her side, and I meant to pass her, as I had so many times before, too busy (and too afraid, because aren’t we all now taught to fear what is different?) to approach her.  A still, small voice in my head changed my mind.  Go on, it said.  Sit by her.  You won’t regret it.  I never have.

See, what I found out that day is no matter what body we’re in, or how we feel about that body, we are not the sum total of our parts.  We, as human beings, are so much more than just meat bags wandering around a giant dirt ball with some water and air on it.  I sat down, I said hello, and we talked for a few minutes before I finally worked up the courage to ask her what had happened to put her in that state, only to find out, guess what?  Birth had.  Spina bifida myelomeningocele…which I nearly remembered how to spell right the first time.  Basically, her backbone and spinal column didn’t form right, leaving her incapable of normal motor function below the waist, and incapable of typical sensation in much of her legs as well.

Her spine does NOT look like this.

We kept talking, and wound up discussing everything from pop psychology to politics while I scarfed down my pasta, and I told her if she was ever sitting alone in the upstairs Cloud Commons, she should just take the elevator downstairs and head to the table in the corner by the Grille window, because that was The Table, and there was usually somebody there to talk to during usual class hours, all the way up til the Union closed.  This was about eight weeks before finals week.  In those eight weeks, she became a regular at The Table, like the rest of us, and we laughed, and joked, and had jolly times.

There was one thing I never figured out.  If the only major effect the spina bifida had on her upper body was in her left arm, why did she have no muscle anywhere in her neck or torso or anything but her right arm?  Well, I found out after Christmas Break (Yes, I still think of it as Christmas Break.)

I also found out she’d dyed her hair turquoise.  Lol.

Okay, okay, back to the story.

So, she came to The Table, and I got off work about 20 minutes after everyone else heard her roommates couldn’t stand her UNDERSTANDABLE difficulties cleaning up after Wilson, and then just dropped that on her the week of finals.  So I made the necessary arrangements, and moved gratefully into my own room a week before classes started in January.

Okay, also, Jenny has the biggest smile ever.  Seriously, light up the planet and rival the sun type smile.  And that was the smile that greeted me when I arrived.  She even helped carry as much as she could – mostly light stuff that she held in her lap and then wheeled inside, but I mean, here’s a woman who likes to work, right?  We saw my parents off, and then she asked what I thought of the hair.

I suggested we call a friend who actually knew how to use Splat dye because, well…chlorine green, anyone?  I drove us to Wal-Greens in her van.  (Those of you who ever have the opportunity to use a vehicle with a suicide knob attached to the wheel and have not used one, stick with the wheel.  They were banned, except in specialized cases, FOR A REASON.)  Anyway, got a new box of dye, re-applied it, and when I helped her rinse it out, I saw her feet for the first time.  I was going to attempt to find a picture, but I’ve decided against it.  Human flesh has a variety of possible colors.  Bloody, frostbitten purple is not generally accepted as a natural or healthy one.  To make a rather long story quite short, this sparked a conversation where she confessed a desire to walk.

Well, I’m to stubborn to know what impossible means, so I told her I’d help how I could.  Three and a half years after that conversation, June of last year, she walked her first full mile.

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It took four hours and thirty three minutes.  Also, she’s the only person I know of who worked up to doing 360 oblique crunches a day, before she ended up getting surgery to fix tendons in her left wrist.

I skipped over a lot of that semester, but here’s the thing, the first few weeks, we went to the gym every Saturday (where I learned she and our other roommate had been working to get her doing leg press), and she just kept sliding backwards in ability despite our best efforts.  Well, most of the exercises could be done at home on a yoga mat on the floor.  So that’s what we started doing.  Every day.  I remember some nights being so tired I couldn’t be bothered not wanting to, and somehow, it got done.  Not only that, but we figured out how to get her in to a specialist to get proper braces for her feet, the right kind of walker.  I was talking three dance classes at the same time.

The thing is, I had an end point in mind.  And WE had a TEAM.  I’ve got so much more to say, but it’ll have to wait til tomorrow, because the world doesn’t wait for anyone.  However, tomorrow will be Motivation, Staying Power, and Why We Get It Wrong.  Additionally, I’ll reveal Jenny’s and my new five year project.  We figured it was time we were a team again.

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