Meriel Stanger's Permission to Shine - The Gift

Meriel Stanger's Permission to Shine - The Gift, by Ian M Johnstone

Meriel Stanger has told of her terrible injuries and of how her free spirit and determination enabled her to cope with her disabilities. It is told in such a simple and moving way that it is a classic story of the highest human courage.

Meriel was born Meriel Parker in Perth on 12/4/1959. The seeds of her independent outlook were planted at a tiny two-teacher school near her home at Piawaning, via Wongan Hills in the northern wheat-belt. She has two brothers, older than her by five and twelve years, so she was raised virtually as an only child. For her secondary education she was sent off to Penrhos boarding school in Perth. In 1977, at 18, she won a Rotary scholarship to West Virginia for a year. This led to her starting an interior design business in Perth in 1981, which she ran for 10 years. Her first daughter Brittany Parker was born in January 1983 and her second daughter Serena Stanger in November 1987. In July 1992, she moved with her husband and daughters to Queensland and April 1994 she became a single mum.

On 5 March 1995, at age 35, she suffered severe head and brain injuries when a horse named Bridget, owned by her de facto partner James, rolled on her. She was in a coma for three and a half months and in a hospital in Brisbane for a year. She was not expected to live. From the time she emerged gradually from her coma she worked methodically, deliberately and heroically to achieve the best possible physical outcome that relentless positive thinking could produce. She is now in a wheelchair and classified as a "spastic" quadriplegic and is partially blind in one eye. She has the effective use of only one finger which she used to tap out her story in this book.

Elizabeth Kubler-Ross is famous for describing the five stages of dying. Meriel should now be famous for describing the four stages of returning to living. She describes with remarkable self-insight her recovery in four stages which she describes under the headings: Dependence, Co-dependence, Independence and Interdependence. Others similarly disabled are sure to recognize and relate to these stages. Notably free of self-pity, her story is a mix of accurate objective reporting of her incremental progress, and occasional heart-wrenching references to her emotions and challenges. Her concern for Brittany and Serena, then aged 12 and 7, and her gratitude to James for his reliable constant and warm attentions, make parts of the book hard to read through that liquefaction of the eyes which truly selfless and noble actions bring.

Meriel, however, mostly sticks steadily to the practical theme of how she met all the relentless physical and psychological challenges with an exemplary positive attitude. She illustrates the truth of the popular saying that if misfortune does not kill you, it will make you a better person. It takes an extraordinarily self-assured woman to describe her disabilities as a gift which gave her permission to live fully. The sub-title of the book A Journey of Recovery and Discovery is also revealing. She has thoughtfully and unostentatiously articulated how she coped, and still keeps coping. She has set a shining example of coping with huge disabilities.

Extreme suffering can be either extremely life-enlarging, reforming and clarifying, as it was for Meriel, or it can be extremely destructive and depressing for those who cannot or do not turn it to advantage. She drew inspiration from Richard Bach's Illusions (1977) and quotes him on the back cover and on p192: "You seek problems because you need their gifts".

On page162 she writes "I am a creature of habit." Her journey illustrates that she has a strong habit of making effective exertion in a wide range of activities. On p179 she writes "God doesn't give you anything you can't handle". The arch optimist, R.W. Emerson, wrote similarly:

So nigh is grandeur to our dust,
So near is God to man,
When Duty whispers low, "Thou must",
The Youth replies "I can".
Voluntaries III

On p185 she observes "You can wake up and decide it is going to be a bad day or a good day. The choice is yours." H.D. Thoreau would have agreed with her. He wrote in Walden in 1854: "I know of no more encouraging fact than the unquestionable ability of man to elevate his life by a conscious endeavour".

She is still learning to do more for herself. In spite of gloomy medical prognostications she has, with the utmost self-discipline, with dieting and no exercise, lost 35kg in weight. She has learnt how to shower, dress and toilet herself, and to get in and out of bed and cars on her own. Each of these achievements is a triumph of her tenacity. Even washing the dishes is an achievement!!

Meriel now lives with her two daughters and has a lot of community involvement. She is on the Management Committee of Queensland Advocacy Inc, which lobbies for the needs of the disabled in Queensland. She is on the Board of Management of Qualtime Association Inc, a day respite centre for physically and intellectually disabled young people. She is the Event Director for The Horseland Crosby Queensland Dressage Championships to be held at Maroochy Showground at Nambour 8-10/10/2004 with 30 events spread over three days. She has been back on a horse. She has, with help from a naturopath, ceased her reliance on the drug Baclofen, in defiance of medical advice that she couldn't come off it.

She plans to visit New York for her 50th birthday on 12/4/2009.

It is refreshing and satisfying to read such confiding personal experiences of about the most traumatic accident ordeal you can imagine, imparted in an admirably dispassionate tone of offering practical help to others faced with similar hurdles. She will inspire anyone fortunate enough to read her book

Review by Ian M Johnstone

Interview: Meriel Stanger

e-mail Meriel Stanger @