On September 2, 2001, Angela Rockwood was a successful model preparing to marry her fiancé and soul mate, actor Dustin Nguyen. One day later, a car accident made her a quadriplegic, paralyzed from the neck down. Now she's one of the four inspiring stars of the new Sundance Channel reality show "Push Girls," which aims to show how four fearless, wheelchair-using women face life's many challenges. In this interview, Angela reveals the depth of her incredible determination -- and relates crucial life lessons that can help us all.
Between the four of you "Push Girls," you hit on all of the fears that everybody has. You, though, are dealing with financial fear more so than the others -- you recently got separated from your husband, Dustin, and you lost your home health care….
It’s really crazy. I have this show with my girlfriends, this beautiful platform to basically educate the masses and to share our world with everybody, and during this time, I’m going through my separation, I’m dealing with leaving my nursing care, and I have to pay for my mortgage now, on my own, without my husband. It’s like the universe said, "Okay, let’s see what you can handle.” No pun intended, but I literally just push through it all and try to stay positive. That’s what I’ve been doing -- and fortunately, I have beautiful friends and loved ones all around me to keep me focused and balanced. You’ve got to go within yourself and take charge to stay focused in the midst of the hurricane.
In the show's third episode, you had your “celebration of life” party, and you were talking about how you try to focus on what you have rather than what you don’t have. How is that an antidote to fear?
The word "fear"…I don’t like that word! I do believe words have the power to heal or destroy. When we’re born, there’s only two fears that we have: the fear of falling and the fear of loud noises. And on the journey, all the way through, all the other fears we put on ourselves. We create them. When I met Dustin, I was 23 years old; I was an overachiever. I was doing like five or six things at once in my life, you know, running around like a chicken with my head cut off. I was too proud to ask people for help, and I was always focused in the future. And I was looking in the past at what I didn’t accomplish, what I didn’t do, how I wasn’t good enough. And it’s just negative. That mentality -- you didn’t get anywhere! And what I learned from Dustin was truly being in the moment. And I learned that after I got paralyzed. I was in the rehab facility, sitting next to this gentleman who was in a power chair like myself. He had the same exact injury as I did. The only difference is, he was hooked up to a [ventilator]. And I wasn’t. I thought, Oh my gosh. He can’t breathe on his own. And I can. So right there it hit me: I need to focus on what I have, and not focus so much on what I don’t have.
How does focusing on the past relate to fear and fearlessness, would you say?
My mom taught me that all the lessons that you learn, everything that you’ve gone through in the past, those are all tools to prepare you for this very moment. That’s one thing the girls and I share: We’ve gone through a lot. Especially Auti and I.
Yes: Both of you were on the verge of huge success when you had your accidents. You were at the top of your modeling career, and she was a dancer getting ready to sign with a record company. And both of your jobs were so body-focused.
I was just sharing [that] with a friend of mine yesterday. And I explained to him, "Let’s just say I didn’t get in my car accident and I became this big actress, very well-known, made lots of money, and I was on top of my game. Okay: So what! I’d be like the rest of them out there." For me, it happened that I got in a car accident. And now here it is, I’m modeling and acting in a wheelchair. I have a whole other mission. A whole other statement. And I have more to give as an individual. I don’t mean to make it [be] about my wheelchair, but it’s like I’m a female, I’m an Asian-American and I deal with paralysis. I have three minorities against me. So what! Let’s take that and let’s make it amazing. Let’s use it to the best of our ability that we possibly can... to still give back to the world.
Before the accident, I imagine that you had the body-image fears that most models have. How do you view your body now?
I was that overachiever. I was that gym rat that was in the gym three hours every single day. I had almost the perfect 10 body, and I still struggled to make sure I was perfect. And then all of a sudden I get into a car accident, and here I am, my body’s atrophied, I have very thin arms, I’ve got my little “quad” belly, and my legs... I lost all my muscle tone. But the funny thing is, I look at my body now, and I love who I am! I embrace my body now. I’m so comfortable in my skin. When I was walking and had a great body, I wasn't comfortable in my skin.
Why do you think that was?
Mentally. It was how I saw myself. Now I’m a different person in the sense of, I embrace everything of who I am and what I’ve gone through. And as [for] my body, I’m just happy to even be living in my body.
Because in reality I shouldn’t even be here. So the fact that I still have my body… I may not be able to move it in the way that want to, but the fact that I’m still in this vessel, still living and still here, talking to you, communicating and sharing all of my experiences and living this moment… I’m just very grateful for that. Because literally tonight’s not promised. Ten minutes is not promised. And tomorrow isn’t promised. And for me to be sweating that small stuff… I just feel [like it was] such a waste of energy. All that time I was looking in the mirror and freaking about what I ate: "Oh my God, that’s like 358 calories and it’s going to go my hips; I have to work out for two more hours on the treadmill and I want to make sure I’ve got a 4-pack…." My mind -- where the heck was my mind?! I was missing out on life. Now that I don’t have to worry about my body, I can actually live every moment instead of being stuck in my head.
I think that’s a common thing that happens to perfectionists. Your whole life is fear-based.
Exactly. And that's how I lived my life. Dustin has an acronym called DMAT: “Doesn't Miss A Thing.” But it’s like I’ve changed that perfectionist part about me. Now I guess I’m a perfectionist with time. And being in the moment. Each individual that I meet, I feel it’s for a reason! I take honor in that, and I’m grateful for it.
You and Dustin separated… you made a choice for yourself, because it was better for you to stay here in the U.S. than to move to Vietnam with him. Can you talk about honoring and respecting your own needs? I feel like so many people stay in a relationship that isn’t good for them because of fear.
I love that you’re saying that, because that’s exactly the message that I want to relay. I remember crying to Auti, because separating from Dustin was the hardest decision that I ever had to make in my life. Forget the paralysis. Making that decision to separate from my soul mate was the hardest thing. I’m the type of individual now since I’ve been on my road of healing and since I got injured in 2001... I truly feel that my life has a whole other calling, and that I have this mission to just give back. And when I was in Vietnam -- I gave it a chance; I was there with Dustin for a while -- one, it’s not very wheelchair accessible, and two, I didn’t feel that I was going to be able to thrive. Yes, you can put me anywhere, and I can make it happen. I could’ve made it work. But I didn’t want that. Something inside of me, it felt empty. I made the decision to stay in LA where it is very wheelchair accessible and all of my friends are here.
Dustin and I, we worked on it -- 7 years of a long-distance relationship. And the loneliness set in two years ago. I felt loneliness for the first time in my life. It’s one thing if you’re single and you feel loneliness. That’s normal. When you’re married and you feel loneliness? I don’t think that’s healthy. And if something’s not healthy, I don’t want it in my body. And I shared this with Dustin: When you love somebody so much, and they want to do their dreams, you've got to let them go! I just told [him], “I need to evolve and be the woman that I want to be." And he respected that, the same way that I respected him and his career. And we are still best friends. He will always be my soul mate. I don’t have to be married to him, but he will be in my life for as long as I live.
I love that you respected your own needs, though. It’s such a great lesson that you’re living.
And it’s hard, too, Elizabeth! Don’t get me wrong! I’m a quadriplegic! I’m paralyzed from the neck down! I cannot be left alone. I have to rely on someone taking care of me. And this was a man that I had married, who had vowed to be with me for the rest of my life. And I made a decision to detach from him. That’s like the biggest thing that anybody could do. And it’s normal to think, Did I make the right decision? But feeling that loneliness… you don’t want to be living your life with that kind of feeling. You want to be completely balanced and happy and content in the moment. Because we only have this moment. I stress [that] so much because I’ve passed and come back and I just really, really cherish life to the utmost.
When you say you’ve passed and come back, what do you mean?
Well, three years ago, I had a freak accident at this facility in Redondo. I was up in this walking harness and one of the trainers who was helping me hyperextended my knee and snapped my anterior tib. Which put my body into shock. And my body started galloping profusely.
Oh my God!
When I was jerking up and down... the harness wedged into my chest and cut my blood and oxygen supply off. The trainers threw me on the table, took off the harness, checked for a pulse... there was nothing. My nurse started barking orders: "Call 911." She started doing CPR. And I wasn’t coming around. And then finally, slowly I started coming back around and breathing. And I opened my eyes and looked at her. The first thing I said was, “It was so beautiful. I was there talking to all of those people.” And what's funny is, [later on] I didn't want to accept what had happened. I tried to say, "I probably just fainted. I had a dream." I was in the ambulance calculating how much everything was going to cost, instead of thinking, I just freaking died and came back. Hello!
Wow! When you’ve gone through something like that, what else is there to fear?!
Exactly! And that's my point. We all know that we’re going to die. So it doesn’t keep us from living our life! You know, we’ve got to keep on living!
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