Before I answer your letter I have to state clearly that I have no disability and, as such, I cannot possibly know for real what it feels like living with a disability and relying on a wheelchair to aid my mobility. I can only base my answers on in-depth discussions over the past eleven years with people living with disability and my observations of how people with disability, over time, make peace with what they have lost and find new ways to utilize what remains.
In the dating game, and here I include able bodied persons as well, starting new relationships requires confidence - and confidence comes from good self-esteem and having an internal and personal database that tells you that you are worthy to love and to be loved. Spinal cord injury, by its very nature, can have a devastating effect on self-esteem and dignity. This creates an added burden on the newly disabled person which they have to overcome. Spinal cord injury, when it happens, presents as a series of traumatic events that occur in quick succession. Firstly, the traumatic incident that causes the spinal cord injury, followed usually by admission to an intensive care unit where the patient loses track of time.
Admission to a rehabilitation unit brings the third trauma when the consequences of the injury become apparent and the hard work of rehabilitation starts. The fourth trauma occurs when the person attempts to re-integrate back into mainstream society after the relatively safe and protective environment of the rehab unit - into a society that is still largely ignorant and intolerant of spinal cord injury.
The psychological aftermath of trauma often evokes strong feelings of loss of control and of helplessness. This does not help when readjusting to life in the fast lane after discharge. With the stress of disability comes the freedom to choose how you wish to respond to it. Only you can make this choice. These are thoughts you need to take responsibility for and, depending on the person you are, it can take a long time after injury to make them.
You decide whether you want 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 that is what you want. If you choose to be a survivor this will also show in the way you present yourself, and your general appearance, which will result in people treating you with respect and even admiration.
I know a number of people living with disability, both male and female, who have chosen to be survivors and this is clear to see. They are always impeccably dressed in the latest fashions and they have a glint in the eye that says “Here I am – Talk to me.” At parties one of my friends always has the attractive girls crowded around him as he regales them with jokes and his latest stories of what he has been up to. Another of my friends arrives dressed to kill and sweeps into the room with her warm, welcoming smile and arms open wide for a hug and a kiss! It takes a good five minutes to remember that she is in a wheelchair!
You are probably asking yourself: “How the hell did they get there?” Opinions differ but what I do notice is that the person you were before your injury plays a big role in who you are afterwards. If you had good coping skills, resilience, hardiness and a positive social support system then those qualities will make it easier to adapt to your new lifestyle. Other people say that the injury that put them into the wheelchair forced them to acquire new coping skills and greater tenacity - almost as a type of survival mechanism.
If you had the privilege of going through a comprehensive and multidisciplinary rehab program you will have been taught skills and techniques enabling you to, for example, transfer to various surfaces. You should have a working knowledge of, and confidence in, your new bowel and bladder function and you should know that you are still capable of sexual expression and that you have control over your mobility and ability. These are self-empowering tools that can assist you in re-assessing your self-image.
Many able bodied persons have little or no knowledge of the implications of spinal cord injury. You could spend time with the people who are significant in your life telling them how your spinal cord injury has effected you. (After all, what did you know about spinal cord injury before?) As people gain knowledge from you about spinal cord injury they may be able to understand a little about how you live and operate. This is not for them to feel sorry for you or to give you more, or better, attention but rather to accept you for the unique individual that you are and as part of the society you move around in.
If you want people to take an interest in you take an interest in yourself first. This can either be a daunting task or an exciting challenge depending on how you choose to think about yourself. What you think of yourself will become your reality and will determine your mood. Your mood will determine your behaviour. Your behaviour will influence the way that people respond to you.
It’s all in your hands! Good luck on your journey of self-discovery!