Growing Bolder with Jana Banana

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What is wrong with you?!

It’s a question Jana Shelfer was often asked by strangers the first time they saw her in a wheelchair. In fact, she was asked the question so many times she started asking it of herself.

What is wrong with me?

Physically, she knew what was wrong. At age 15, a car accident left Shelfer a paraplegic. In an instant, she went from a vibrant teenager dreaming of teaching gymnastics to sitting in physical therapy re-learning how to function without the use of her legs.

“I cried every single night,” said Shelfer. “It was a really dark time in my life.”

After back surgery and eight weeks in the hospital, Shelfer went to rehabilitation in Colorado where she learned to navigate a wheelchair. It was there she met a quadriplegic man who looked her in the eye and said, “You have no idea how lucky you are.”

After the shock of his words waned, Shelfer realized her arms still worked and her legs still had a little bit of feeling, and she could switch her focus to what she had, rather than what she had lost. She learned a life lesson about gratitude long before most people do and carried it into adulthood.

Shelfer’s wheelchair prowess earned her a spot on a wheelchair sports team which led to recruitment by the University of Illinois’ wheelchair basketball team. In 1996, Shelfer became the youngest player on Team USA at the Paralympic Games and in 2004, brought home a gold medal from Athens, Greece.

At 29 Shelfer retired from competitive wheelchair sports. She landed her dream job with a popular talk radio show based in Orlando, and for 12 years became “Jana Banana,” a voice and personality that most people heard but didn’t see. Suddenly she found herself using talents that had nothing to do with her wheelchair.

When listeners saw her at an event, surprised by the wheelchair, the first thing they said was, you guessed it, “What is wrong with you?” That question. Again.

But over time Shelfer was asking it of herself, again.

Now 38, she had less energy. She “needed” a glass of wine every night to cope. She began competing with her husband over who had the worst day at work. She felt physically sick, developed new allergies, and constantly felt fatigued.

“I loved my job. I loved my co-workers, but I just started feeling complacent and discontent,” said Shelfer. “I kept thinking there was something else out there for my life.”

Shelfer thought if she quit her job, life would improve. So, she did what many people don’t have the guts to do; she walked away from a high-profile, lucrative career on a mission to “find herself.”

But that was harder than it looked. For months she slid into a depression when her “better life” didn’t magically appear. “I was so worried about what everyone thought,” said Shelfer. “I cut myself off from friends because I couldn’t admit I hadn’t found that big, better thing.”

A year after leaving the radio job, Shelfer was transferring herself from the wheelchair to the couch — something she had done 20 times a day for years. But this time she fell and broke her leg in three places.

“That fall put me in bed, completely immobile, alone with my thoughts,” she said.

Her depression deepened. “I had no job, no income, no friends, no purpose,” said Shelfer. “Here I was a Paralympic gold medalist and I’m laying in bed not eating, feeling sorry for myself, and wondering how I got here.”

That’s when Shelfer drew on the lessons she learned as a teenager. She had found gratitude in her accident, her wheelchair, and her paralysis. It was time to find gratitude again, and purpose.

“I had to start facing my fears,” said Shelfer. “I had to believe in myself and stop focusing on what was wrong with me. I had to find myself all over again and get a new identity.”

She stopped asking disempowering questions like, ‘What is wrong with me?’ and instead switched to empowering questions like, ‘What can I learn from this?’ and ‘How can I grow?’

Shelfer says she found the answers she needed to move forward with passion and purpose by listening to her inner voice, and now she wants to help others make that same connection within. A certified life coach and public speaker, she is writing a book, and along with her husband, Jason, created the “Living Lucky” platform which includes coaching, a podcast, a YouTube channel and Facebook Live videos.

Says Shefler, “This current transition in my life is about growth and that had to come from within.”
Connect with Jana at JanaShelfer.com

This article is featured in the September 2022 issue of The Growing Bolder Digital Digest.

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