I am 28 years old and had lots of girlfriends before my accident. Now, I am in a wheelchair for the rest of my life. Will any girl ever want me again?

Before I answer your letter, I have to state clearly, that I am an able bodied person and as such, I cannot possibly know what it feels like living with a disability and relying on a wheelchair to aid my mobility. Therefore, I base my answer on in-depth discussions with persons living with disabilities over the last 11 years and my observations of how, over time, disabled people make peace with what they have lost and find new ways to cope.

In the dating game, and here I include able bodied people as well, starting new relationships require confidence, which comes from having good self esteem and a personal support base that tells you that you are worthy of giving love and being loved. Spinal cord injury, by its very nature, can have a devastating effect on one’s self esteem and dignity. This places an added burden on the newly disabled person.

Spinal cord injury presents as a series of traumatic events, in quick succession. Firstly, the actual traumatic incident that causes the spinal cord injury, usually followed by admission to an intensive care unit, where the patient loses track of time. Admission to a rehabilitation unit, brings on the third traumatic event, when the consequences of the injury become apparent and the hard work of rehabilitation starts. Another trauma occurs when a person with a disability needs to re-integrate into mainstream society that is still largely ignorant and intolerant of spinal cord injured persons.

The psychological aftermath of distress often evokes strong emotions of feeling out of control and helplessness which makes adjusting to life even harder. The irony of the stress that comes with having a disability, however, is the freedom to choose how you wish to think about it. Only you can make these choices.  You need to take responsibility for your thoughts and depending on the type of person you are, it can take a long time to master this habit.

You can choose to be a victim or a survivor. If you choose to be a victim, you will project that in your appearance and behavior and this will prompt people to feel pity for you.

If you choose to be a survivor, this will also show in the way you present yourself which will result in people treating you with respect and even admiration. I, personally, know a number of persons living with a disability, both male and female, who have chosen to be survivors and it is easy to spot them. They are always impeccably dressed and they have a glint in the eye that says, “Here I am – talk to me.”

The person you were before your injury plays a big role in how you are affected by it. If you already had good coping skills, resilience, hardiness and a positive social support system, those qualities will make it easier to adapt to your new lifestyle.

Some people, however, say that the very injury forced them to acquire new coping skills and tenacity, almost as a survival mechanism.

If you had the privilege of going through a comprehensive multidisciplinary rehabilitation program, you will have acquired skills and techniques, allowing you to transfer easily from and to various surfaces, you should have a working knowledge of with your new bowel and bladder function and you will know that you are still capable of sexual expression and that you have control over your mobility. These are tools that can assist you in re-assessing your self-image.

As mentioned before, many able bodied persons have little, or no knowledge of the implications of a spinal cord injury and you can spend time with able bodied people to tell them about the effect your spinal cord injury has had on your life. (Ask yourself, what you knew about the effect of spinal cord injury before you became injured?)

When people gain knowledge about spinal cord injury, they may understand a little more about how you live and operate differently and that there is no reason for them to feel sorry for you or to give you better or more attention, but rather to accept you as a unique individual and as part of society.

If you want people to take an interest in you, you need to take an interest in yourself. This can be a daunting task or an exciting challenge, depending on how you choose to think about yourself. What you think about, becomes reality and that determines your mood, which in turn, predicts your behaviour and the way people will respond to you. Good luck on your journey of discovery!