real life

When Emma went skydiving, her parachute failed. She free-fell from the sky.

Emma Carey was lying on her belly on a stretch of strange Switzerland land, wrestling, rolling, numb.

She had fallen from the sky.

Her skydiving instructor, the one who was meant to call the shots, the one who was meant to slow them down, the one who was meant to know, was lying on top of her, unconscious after being strangled by rope mid-air, pressing her already battered and broken body further into the ground.

Her mind, busied with the shock of landing alive after being sure of her death just seconds before, moved to getting the instructor off her. She rolled, he fell. He would be okay, but they wouldn’t know that then.

In that moment, 20-year-old Emma Carey from Canberra was overwhelmed by the intense complexity of being able to feel too much and, in other parts, not being able to feel anything at all.

Emma Carey

"When I landed on the ground, I didn't realise the pain at first. I landed on my belly, and tried to roll over to get him off because he was still unconscious. But it was when I tried to roll that I couldn't move anything from the waist down.

"When the pain eventually came, it was so intense. I have never felt pain like that in my whole life," Carey tells Mamamia from her new home in Burleigh Heads.

It was the 9th of June 2013. Emma, just five days into a three-month-trip around Europe, was buzzing with the energy of a 20-year-old seeing the world, and an infinite stretch of independence, for the first time.

"It was the first time I had ever skydived, but I had always wanted to do it. The funny thing was I only ever wanted to do it exactly where I did it in this place in Switzerland. I have no idea why I had my heart so set on it," she says.

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But set she was, so stubborn her heart is.

As she free fell above a country she didn't know well, the pace of their fall began to niggle.

"Because I had never done it before, I didn't know what was supposed to happen. It took me a while to realise. I had seen videos and I knew that when the parachute opened the instructor would high five you, but we didn't slow down as much as I had imagined.

"I began to yell out to him, wondering what was going on. And when he didn't respond to me, I thought it was a little weird. It was only when we kept falling straight down that I knew something was wrong.

"It went so fast, but it went so slow."

In that free fall, Emma had resigned herself to death. She was "really, really sure" of her fate. There was "no way" she was getting out of this one alive. The parachute had opened only partially, failing to slow them down. But fate had a different plan, proving the 20-year-old wrong but drafting a future littered with complications.

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She had fractured her back, her L1 vertebrae and her pelvis, she was rushed to hospital and had two surgeries in Switzerland. A question mark hovered over her ability to ever walk again. Here she was, just 20, thousands of kilometres from home and a paraplegic.

"The next year, I was so happy. When I was falling I thought I was about to die, so I was so, so happy to be be alive. I was in this state of bliss for about a year. It wasn't until a year or so later when it really sunk in that this a life long injury," she says.

That period, though, was never dogged by anger. She was never angry, she never sought to lay blame, she knew this was what it was - a freak accident.

"I felt frustration and I felt sadness but I never felt angry."

It's perhaps resilience like that that meant four months after free falling onto foreign terrain, Emma Carey would take her first steps. She would hold tight to her wheelchair, stand from a chair and from here on be known as the girl who fell from the sky, but a walking paraplegic at that.

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If Emma Carey's name, face or sentiment sounds familiar, perhaps you've stumbled on her handle on Instagram once before.

Blonde, tall and forever pictured at the beach or in the sun, at a glance, you'd be forgiven for thinking Carey was a clone for the all-Australian girl we tend to gravitate towards on social media.

But Emma Carey's purpose online differs greatly from the exercise in vanity Instagram can often be.

Just last week, she went on an unfollowing spree of sorts.

"I just went and unfollowed a whole heap of people who I didn't feel like were giving me anything. Some accounts are there to look at, and others offer you something that's a little more positive. For the past few months, I haven't wanted to put up a photo that wasn't a big rant," she says.

Carey's followers will know her "rants" well. They're not rants in the angry, irrational sense of the word; they serve a much greater purpose.

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Sometimes Carey is sharing a bluntly sh*tty time, other times she's actively going out of her way to make sure people are nice to each other, and on the odd occasion, she simply tries to inject a little more light in the positive and bright community she's created for herself.

"I do feel a responsibility [to my young, female followers]. I used to really worry if I was feeling sad and I wouldn't really talk about it. I just wanted to be so happy and positive all the time, but that's not real or helpful."

Her smile is bright, her presence genuine and her laugh easy. But her attitude and demeanor wasn't always brimming with the kind of resilience that manifests into infectious happiness.

"I wasn't a happy person at all before my accident. I just genuinely thought I was going to die and in a split second I realised I did actually want to live."

"When Life Pulls The Rug Out From Under You": Listen to Robin Bailey and Rebecca Sparrow discuss the moment life decides to take a turn we don't ask for. (Post continues.)

Today, Emma is walking. And although so much of the focus of her journey in the last four years centres on her physical progress, the more remarkable feat for her is her tendency to grin far more often.

She wants to write, not just for her lengthy, thoughtful captions on Instagram, but write a book, "piece it all together". She wants to speak, too, and hell, does she have some wisdom to share.

As Emma Carey lay flat on that rough and foreign Switzerland terrain fighting desperately to feel her legs, if only she'd known how OK things would be and how bright she would shine.

Because perhaps then, as her mind wandered to consider a life with paralysis, the pain would dim and that life appear like the light it would soon become.