Place your hand on a flat surface. Tuck all of your fingers except for your ring finger under your palm.
Now, try to lift your ring finger.
That's how Bergen County native Jessica Tawil explains what being paralyzed feels like to her 1.3 million TikTok followers.
The 22-year-old college student began using the video-sharing app last November, nearly six years after the West Milford accident that left her wheelchair-bound, to provide an inside look at life as a paraplegic.
She says sharing videos about the accident and her new life has been therapeutic and eye-opening -- for herself and others.
"TikTok has become my platform to inform others on the dangers of this world," said Tawil, "and educate people on how we as paraplegics live our lives."
Tawil downloaded TikTok for fun late last year to watch funny videos. But one day, as she was scrolling, she came across the video that would soon change her own life.
"I fell down this rabbit hole of watching this girl's personal story and hearing what happened to her," Tawil said. "I became so emotionally invested and... it just struck something within me."
And so, Tawil uploaded her first video about why it can be traumatizing to ask wheelchair bound people about their accidents.
Overwhelmed by the support from the TikTok community, Tawil uploaded another video. And another one. And another one.
Each video was more in depth and personal than the last.
Eventually, Tawil felt comfortable enough to upload a series of videos about the horrific crash that she calls "Kidnapped and Left Paralyzed."
She explained how she went to hang out with a girl she'd met at her high school, but asked to leave when she realized guys were there -- with drugs and alcohol.
When Tawil asked the girl to take her home, she instead drove her to abandoned road in West Milford. There, the driver put her foot on the gas and the break at the same time, but lost control of the car and crashed.
Tawil woke up in the hospital with a spinal cord injury, unable to walk.
Tawil says she had a lot of anger and frustration after the crash. Her life was ripped away from her.
She spent seven months in the hospital before she could return home, and the next six years accepting that life would never be the same, she said.
But opening up about it on social media has been therapeutic, as the TikTok community has been equal parts supportive and curious.
Tawil was soon inundated with questions about being paralyzed from her hundreds of thousands of followers.
Can she feel sexual intercourse? Can she have children? Can she feel if she has to use the bathroom?
Tawil addressed each one in several of her videos. Her most recent video addressed only sexual questions garnered 14.9 million views.
Many TikTokers called it "unfair" that Tawil cannot feel sexual intercourse, but can feel menstrual cramps.
Tawil explained how her body attacks itself daily as she endures episodes of "autonomic dysreflexia" because it is confused.
In fact, those episodes are how Tawil knows she needs to use the bathroom.
"My blood pressure goes up, I start having shortness of breath and my skin has red patches," she says. Those are the precursors to my body attacking itself and the only way to notify me there’s something wrong."
Six years out from the accident, Tawil says she has finally been able to accept her new life, and has adopted an entirely new mindset.
"I have a lot to be grateful for," she said in one of her videos. "I'm a lot more positive... I have a lot of ambitions and there are a lot of things coming my way."
"But that doesn't take away from the fact that this wasn't the life I was supposed to live. I'm allowed to be upset over that despite surviving and being given a second chance at life, it was supposed to be them, not me. And that's just something I don't think I'll ever get over."
Tawil is set to graduate from Fairleigh Dickinson University in May with a major in pre professional biology, concentration in human physiology, a minor in chem and minor in Arabic.
She says things are looking up.
"I’m watching everything I thought I’ve lost come back into existence because I never allowed the chair to hinder me from achieving my goals— even though I hate it more than anything in this world," she writes on Instagram.
"I’m greater than this piece of metal; and I know, soon enough, I’ll be putting one foot in front of the other and pick up right where I left off."
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