You never imagine it's going to be you; the one yelling for someone to call 911, the one floating motionless in a pool, or the one whose story becomes an international media frenzy.
It was weeks before my wedding in 2010, and my four bridesmaids threw me the best bachelorette party I could ever dream of filled with dancing, dinner and fun. To cap off the perfect night, we decided to take a moonlight swim. When a close friend playfully pushed me into the pool -- two feet too far from the deep end -- I broke my neck upon impact, became paralyzed from the chest down and would never walk again. That night, the five of us all shared an unspoken agreement to never reveal the name of who had pushed me no matter what. Our bonds of friendship would not be broken.
Instantly, my story spread across the evening news and the Internet and I was dubbed the "paralyzed bride."
Unfortunately, I think people along the way forgot that there were real people behind the headlines.
I'm not just a "paralyzed bride."
I'm Rachelle, a regular girl who had everything going for her when it all came crashing down. And my dear friend who had only innocent intentions is not just the girl who pushed me, but a friend who will likely carry some level of guilt with her for the rest of her life. I was asked by numerous media outlets who the girl was who pushed me and led to my paralysis. They wanted a name, a face and some answers so that they could be the ones with the "exclusive" interview. But no one stopped to think about how that might make her feel or how it might be catastrophic to the little stability we had in both of our lives after a heartbreaking accident.
If they had gotten their story, she would never have a normal life again, forced to answer questions that are no one's right to ask. "Does she feel guilty?" "How can she live with herself?" "Do you still talk?" "There's no way you two could still be friends, right?"
Wrong. She is and will always be one of the my closest friends.
If she had done any press at all, after her 15 minutes of unwanted fame, my friend and I would both have been left to pick up the pieces of our relationship that we may or may not have been able to put back together.
I don't regret keeping her out of my interviews, which led to a lot of recovery and healing for me along the way. I was flattered that people were interested in my story, and I got letters from all over the world from people who had gained strength and inspiration after hearing about my perseverance. It also gave me hope knowing I was making a difference in a few lives, but when you are dealing with the press and revealing the most intimate details of your private life, you have to walk a fine line.
I wanted to continue sharing this story of mine, not just to inspire but also to spread awareness and acceptance for people with disabilities. That first year was really hard to navigate because I knew every time my friend saw the story on TV or online, it would be really difficult for her. Every time, it would basically force her to relive the accident again and again. I was super sensitive in how I worded things because I didn't want to trigger any bad feelings. What made it even harder is that people were so quick to judge her. "I could never forgive her." "She's a bad friend." "Even if it was innocent, she is the cause of any hardship you now have."
People painted us with broad brushes. Whereas I was the sweet, wonderful example of the human spirit, she embodied the childish idiot who pushed me. Since I was left paralyzed, I'm the good one. Since she pushed me in the pool, she's the villain.
But the truth is: I've pushed her in the pool dozens of times. How easily could our roles have been reversed? We did not realize then how dangerous our seemingly innocent actions really were. Sadly, every year there are accidents just like mine, all originating from people goofing around near a pool. Do I wish we both knew then what we know now? Absolutely. I hope that my story can serve as a warning to others that what seems like fun and games can lead to a lifetime of paralysis or even worse.
Here's the thing: An accident alone doesn't determine someone's character. It's how they respond to that accident in the aftermath.
I've come to accept that some comments on the Internet can be cruel, and I don't think my friend should have to be subjected to that by having her personal information out there. That backlash has made sharing my story difficult over the years. I have even been judged, which I was not prepared for as I recovered in the hospital and attempted to regain some semblance of a normal life. Some people said I deserved it because we all must have been wasted.
The truth is: We had some drinks but we had actually come home early, looking forward to winding down. We responsibly had a designated driver, and we were all totally coherent.
Horseplay by the pool is careless, but we'd carelessly engaged in similar horseplay when we were kids. It was our way of harkening back to those days when we were carefree and younger.
Was it smart? No.
But it wasn't a crazy night by the pool with a bunch of out of control drunks. It also goes to show that people don't realize how easy it is to get a spinal cord injury. These types of tragic accidents happen every day, and it doesn't take a wild night of getting obliterated for it to happen.
In my upcoming book "The Promise" I talk about how these were the most difficult days of my life, and writing it was one of the hardest things I've ever done. While writing it, all I could think about was my friend and how it would make her feel. I dissected every sentence, making sure to tell the story without saying anything that might hurt her. It's a fascinating commentary on human nature that without fail the first question people always ask me is: "What about the friend who did this to you?"
In my book, I actually delve into some very deep life-altering moments with this (still) dear friend of mine, and it will give readers some huge insight as to what really went down before, during and in the years after my last night on legs.
Do I "forgive" her? To me that word implies I had anger that I needed to overcome.
Honestly, I felt bad for her. I didn't play the blame game to make myself feel better. A lot of times people are just looking for someone to take down with them. Seriously, it doesn't do anyone any good.
Things of course aren't always easy, and it's hard to watch other peoples lives progress so seamlessly.
I see baby announcements flooding my Facebook timeline on a regular basis, and it makes my baby alarm clock go off every time I see a new one. It's hard not to feel envy for how easy it will likely be not only for my friend, but for all of my girlfriends to have kids and be active moms. I don't know how I'll handle it when that time comes, but I will tell you I'm moving towards being a mother myself. My paralysis doesn't affect my ability to have a child but my medications would be very harmful to a fetus so I am having to consider alternate methods.
For that reason, my husband Chris and I are raising and saving money for surrogacy. It really is the final piece to our happiness so I really hope this happens for us.
One of the most important people helping me in this journey is the friend in question, and I feel very grateful to have her support and love.
It's interesting for me to see how people still praise me for not outing her after being offered money and extremely prestigious interviews in exchange for her name. To me, turning these offers down was never a question. Media and money come and go, but a friendship lasts a lifetime.
Sometimes I get more of an outpouring of support from people who are impressed with my loyalty to her over anything else. But it's not our sisterly bond that keeps me from saying her name in interviews. It's the fact that she's a human being.
Ruining someone's life isn't something I'm interested in. It doesn't make me a saint for allowing her to have privacy during a traumatic time in her life. That humanity should be a natural instinct in us all.
I look at it this way. You don't go around praising people for making the honorable decision not to rob a bank. It's clearly just something you shouldn't be doing. The decision to keep her name private was just as easy for me to make.
With that decision I keep my dignity, my honor -- and just as important to me, my friend.