In the 20 years since a car crash left him quadriplegic, filmmaker Paddy Slattery has found nothing but opportunity, inspiration and happiness
Paddy Slattery remembers feeling surprised that he had not noticed before that his friend had the exact same black boot runners as he did. The car in which they were travelling had just crashed. He had decided against putting on his safety belt in case the young driver who had stopped to give them a lift might think he didn’t trust him.
Now Paddy was lying with his head in the driver’s footwell, on the pedals, the driver was on top of him and Paddy was thinking about the boot runners. They were the same as his, but he couldn’t feel the feet that were in them, which is why he thought they belonged to someone else. He tried to shout, but realised he could barely breathe.
A few hours later in Tullamore Hospital, in preparation for an operation that would save his life, the doctor cut off his favourite jacket.
“That jacket became a metaphor for my life,” he says. “Everything I knew and was comfortable in was no more.” That was 1996, he was 17.
The crash – Paddy prefers not to call it an accident – had, among other injuries, broken his neck at C5 and C6. It would be a few weeks before he knew what that meant in real terms, that he was quadriplegic.
“I was so naive that I thought I’d be back playing football two weeks later – though, in fairness, I thought I’d probably be on the subs’ bench, because it would take me a while to get my strength back.”
His quadriplegia meant four years in hospital and an end not only to mobility as he knew it, but to independence and privacy for the foreseeable future. But it was also the beginning of a remarkable journey into himself and beyond, a journey that has led to him becoming a poet, a songwriter, a motivational speaker and filmmaker. His studio in Offaly has a fine collection of awards for his short films, and he’s about to make his first full-length feature.
The film, called The Broken Law of Attraction, is in many respects a culmination of Paddy’s years of processing, studying and observing.
“It’s about a young garda, Dave Connolly, whose loyalty towards the law is tested by his younger brother Joe, who has a criminal background and is in desperate need of his help.
“Dave feels that sense of family obligation, so he does help – but in that process he meets and falls head over heels in love with this girl, Amy, who happens to be the victim of his brother’s crime.”
So begins a web of secrets and lies. “Dave learns the lesson that you can break the law, but you can never break the law of attraction,” he adds. “No matter how hard or fast you run, karma will catch up with you.”
There ensues a long discussion between Paddy and me about karma, suffice to say this is a man whose theories are well thought out. He is patient but unwavering in his exposition on a topic that is not only a belief system, but a way of life.
Right in the middle of four sisters and three brothers, and born and raised in Clonbullogue in Offaly, Paddy’s parents split up when he was young and money was tight. As a teen (below), Paddy wasn’t fond of school and felt that he wanted to contribute financially, so he left formal education after his Junior Cert and, at 16, moved to London to work on building sites.
He missed home, and was hankering after a girl back in Ireland. He returned to Ireland and worked for a company which often did jobs in Dublin. He plucked up the courage to ask the girl on a date and they arranged to meet up the following Friday.
On the Monday before his date, his regular lift home was not available. By chance a passing car offered to bring them the seven miles from Edenderry to Clonbullogue. The driver, who they didn’t know, was young and didn’t know the road. Paddy’s memories of the crash are clear, and details, like the runner boots, stay with him still.
The initial time in hospital was very difficult, and he recalls: “There was a point after my car crash where I was ashamed of my life, where I was ashamed to be ‘a cripple’. I didn’t want to see a reflection in a mirror or a window because the image that was projected back to me was somebody that I wasn’t – somebody disabled, somebody that was lesser.”
There were very low moments and he was near despair at his own situation and, on occasion, because of the insensitivity of others. But he learned quickly that much of how his new life would be depended on his own efforts and vision.
And while some of his fellow rehab patients, including those with much better prognoses than Paddy, found it all but impossible to cope – some even being returned to rehab following failed attempts to take their own lives – he found moments to cling to and methods to make progress.
Depending on a ventilator for breathing is a reality for many quadriplegics, and while life-saving it can be a source of real health issues.
“There was a touch-and-go moment where they were going to put in a tracheotomy,” he explains. “I could only whisper. One day on the balcony in the hospital I saw one of the other lads spitting. Being a lad of a certain age, spitting was cool and I tried to spit too, and it rolled down my chin. I thought ‘Right, I’m going to sort that out’.”
As well as his own determination to spit properly, his physiotherapist asked if he ever sang.
“I love singing, the whole family is known for being able to hold a tune, and the physio said, ‘Well, if you love singing, sing – sing for your life’,” he recalls. And he did, belting out the tunes to regain his lung function and to avoid the use of a ventilator.
Determination aside, the boy who had not been interested in school became a young man who read a lot. His perspective changed.
The law of attraction dictates that you create the present you conjure. If you focus on the negative, the negative will continue. If you focus on what is missing, you can find no alternative. If you focus on positive things, these will flow into your life – and Paddy began to meet people who helped him see the world a different way.
“If I believe myself to be the happiest, most successful person, I suddenly find myself in wonderful situations,” he says. “This is where karma comes into it. Positive energy is an expansive energy. There is a complete awareness that you and everything else are part of a great force. Negativity is a reductive force, it’s a heavier energy, like a black hole.”
His describes depression as “a constant negative force that cuts you off from everything else, it can even cut you off from your heart and leave you just in your head, where you’re reduced to just your negative thoughts”. It is one of the best descriptions I have heard. Although he says he has not endured depression himself, he has seen a lot of it around him.
While he was in rehab he heard of several suicides by people he knew who seemed to have everything to live for. He realised that the key to everything was perspective.
“I started looking at myself in the mirror and thinking ‘OK, let’s figure this out, who am I and where do I go from here? Why am I the way I am? Reading these books and meeting these people made me realise that I was being subjected to a different route of existing that I was never inclined to go down before.
“The world opened up to me and I was seeing potential everywhere. When my body switched off, my imagination switched on. The mind is like a muscle, you have to use it.”
He was determined to walk again and focussed so much on it that those around him feared he was in denial and heading for a breakdown. After two years of lying in bed visualising moving his toes and his legs, Paddy became convinced of sensations in his toe, and says he “begged and pleaded” for a new MRI scan.
“I just wanted to convince my mother that I wasn’t losing my mind,” he says. “Generally, with spinal cord injuries, after a year they will write off any more healing.”
But, while unwilling to use the term ‘walk again’ that Paddy was so keen to hear, the medical team said the scan had revealed progression which, at the same rate and with intensive physical therapy, might yield real results – such as restored bladder, bowel and motor function.
“I went to that meeting feeling like a person who had spent the last four years of my life in the passenger seat of my own car, and after that meeting I felt for the first time in my life [not since his injury] I was in full control of where my destiny might lay.” Ironically it reduced his desire to walk again, as he felt his energy could be better used “by being the personal embodiment of a person who is ‘disabled’.”
He has often wondered how his life might have been, explaining: “I genuinely believe, based on economics and geography and my own personal likes and dislikes, that right now if I wasn’t in that crash, I’d probably have three or four kids and a wife. There would probably be conflict issues in the relationship because there were trust issues with myself early on. I would probably be in debt, have a house and a car that I couldn’t afford, and I would probably be working six days a week in some kind of physical labour, for that’s where my love was.
“But, because of the crash, I was afforded a rare gift that not many people are afforded – the time and the space to be able to examine who you actually are mentally and psychologically.”
The other young men in the car crash all had superficial injuries – Paddy was the only one to have a life-altering one. But he holds no bitterness and feels that this too is a matter of perspective, and chooses to look on what he gained in terms of personal growth rather than what he lost.
In his talks to young people he focuses on how we do not need to experience trauma to do that. He tells his story and advises that we each find quiet time in our own thoughts, explaining: “We normally don’t allow ourselves to delve into our own thoughts – even going to sleep and waking, we’re overwhelmed with stuff. But take five or ten minutes of private time to let love in and love yourself unconditionally. Get to the heart of who you really are – it’s an amazing place.”
Paddy lives now in a lovely house he built to his spec just outside Clonbullogue with his mother and sister. His section has a ‘Paddywood’ sign hanging at the door, and he works in a studio out the back built by his father and brother.
He has a specially adapted car which is driven for him by one of the two personal assistants, paid for the Centre for Independent Living.
“Since 1995, we have a branch in Offaly which pays for me to have two personal assistants who can juggle their time,” he says. “My sister is also my carer and I have brothers and sisters who all help out. These people are my arms and my legs.”
He doesn’t like the word ‘disabled’, but says: “I don’t take offence. I don’t like being described as being disabled, but I don’t get caught up in it – because suddenly you find you’ve spent 10 years of your life caught up in shit.”
He was asked to leave one of his own film sets once, because the person didn’t know he was the director. He doesn’t always tell people before meetings that he is a wheelchair user. The Broken Law of Attraction is at the funding stage, he has a production company on board, there is an application with the Irish Film Board and a crowdfunding campaign is planned.
“We’re shooting in September, by hook or by crook! I don’t want any special treatment, I just want a fair auld crack of the whip,” he says.
Paddy’s philosophy, hard won and considered, is a breath of fresh air, and he adds: “I am where I am supposed to be. I have so many good friends that lose sleep and suffer anxiety over trying to be who they already are – that’s why I’m not walking again, that’s my identity now. I know I can’t heal the entire world in an idealistic kind of way, but I do feel now with the power of media and the power of intentions that I could have a positive impact.”
After a pause he adds: “But you know, the last thing I’m trying to do is project an image of a guy who is saintly – I do have my bastard moments!”
Sunday Indo Living