Nick Santonastasso: Staying Adaptive in a Handicap World

Nick Santonastasso

I’m not so handsome, right?

In 1996, I was born with Hanhart syndrome, a rare condition that leaves babies with undeveloped limbs or organs. Doctors gave me a 30% chance to live because I was the 12th baby in medical history to have Hanhart syndrome. Of those 12 babies, eight died because their organs couldn’t support them. I was lucky. My organs were 100% healthy. Only my limbs were affected. As you can see, I was born with no legs, one arm and one finger, and I’m absolutely rocking and rolling.

It wasn’t always that way. As a kid, I hated my body. I thought it was the biggest curse, the most disgusting thing that could happen to me. I was ashamed that I didn’t look like everyone else. I couldn’t run around and play all the sports, which I thought meant I couldn’t play any sports. So, I hid. I kept myself small. One day, my older brother, Mike, asked me why I didn’t try new things. Why didn’t I try out wrestling like him, he asked.

I had an excuse. My right limb was about 5 inches longer than it is now. The bone developed faster than the skin. It was sensitive, and if I landed weird on that limb, the bone could come through the skin. I could have sat on that excuse and stayed in the comfortable, albeit miserable, place I had accepted as my permanent home. Instead, I chose to embrace a mindset that allowed me to live and grow. It was a pivotal moment.

Doctors amputated my right limb, which allowed me to start wrestling. A snowball effect followed. I took up bodybuilding. I worked on confidence, mindset and self-worth. I put myself on the internet when Vine was still a thing and found a little internet fandom there by dressing up as a zombie and scaring people with Mike. It landed me an appearance on the popular TV show, The Walking Dead. Now, I travel the world speaking at events with the singular goal of helping people understand that their limitations are often much greater than the physical ones they see in me. People will never make more than they think they’re worth. That’s why people stay in draining jobs and relationships.

My journey wasn’t easy. We all know the internet can be a nasty place. But when you build the foundation of self-love and confidence, you can choose to see, read or hear that nastiness without absorbing it or giving it power. In April 2020, Mike died from a heroin overdose, and it nearly broke me. But you have the emotional and mental power to heal from that depth of grief.

How you do one thing is how you do everything. The way you show up in one area of life will affect the ways you show up in other areas. How often are we happy with the ways we show up to our jobs on Monday mornings? How often are we happy with how we show up for our loved ones after a long day? In 2018, my mom wrote a book, Born to Break the Boundaries: How We Raised an Adaptive Child in a Handicap World. She wrote about the ways she taught me to be self-sufficient, to fail forward and to adapt with gratitude.

Here’s the thing: I got a shot at life. A higher power loved me enough to put me here, and I have to take advantage of this human experience. People who don’t know me might see me coming down the street and feel sorry for me. I don’t need—or want—that pity. I want them to see themselves and look inward at the things that are holding them back. As Eminem aptly says, we only get one shot, and our mindset about that opportunity can be more crippling than any syndrome.

Are you taking your shot? 

This article originally appeared in the November/December 2022 Issue of SUCCESS magazine. Photos courtesy of Nick Santonastasso

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