It was three years ago, on March 10, 2016—in this very spot—I became a paraplegic. Today, it looks nothing like it did on the day of my injury; there is zero indication that this was a place of a life-altering accident. The dirt has been replaced with carpet. Drywall and paint covers the exposed cement foundation and the staircase fills in the dark emptiness of a basement-in-the-making. But one thing remains—framed in with wooden trim—and that is the hole I fell through.
Have you ever been unable to get to your car because the elevator that brought you up from the parkade is now out of service? Have you ever gone out with your friends or family just to be left at the bottom of a staircase while they figure out how to get you into the building? Have you ever missed out on an event because there wasn’t a bathroom you could use? These are just a few of the too-many-to-count scenarios that come up when you use a wheelchair. Being able to move freely around this world with minimal planning or forethought was something I most definitely took for granted before my injury. I had a very limited understanding of what wheelchair accessibility was all about. I have since been given a crash course on the topic and it is not just about the absence of stairs. No, it is most definitely so much more than stairs.
Sometimes you expect certain moments in life to trigger grief or anxiety. I like to think each individual knows themselves and their journeys well enough to foresee how some situations might bring up difficult feelings. But sometimes it is unexpected and it doesn’t matter how well you know yourself or your journey. Sometimes, you are simply blindsided.
I have never been one to venture very far out of my comfort zone. I’ve always preferred to blend into the crowd and let other people attract the attention. From high-school to dance, I was always a back of the class kind of girl. Since being in a wheelchair, I don’t necessarily have the luxury of going unnoticed (and if stairs are involved I also don’t have the luxury of going to the back of the room). In the beginning, it caused me a lot of stress to know that people saw me and that I could no longer feel completely anonymous within a group of people. I was constantly self-conscious every time I went out in public but, somewhere along the way, I stopped noticing the stares.
When you are in a long-term relationship there are numerous stages or milestones you will reach together. Many of them are expected – some we anticipate with excitement, others with dread. Then there are obstacles we come up against that are not part of the plan. These issues were on the list of things that could happen but maybe (hopefully) they wouldn’t happen to us: infertility, infidelity, physical trauma, and disease. The journey that Ian and I have been on since my spinal cord injury has been one that even my anxious imagination could not have invented. We have been tested and our eyes have been opened to an entire world that we didn’t really know existed: the world of disability in romantic relationships.
When I first started to venture out into the world after my injury I felt like the most obvious human on the face of the earth. This was probably giving myself far too much credit as I am actually quite difficult to spot in a crowd. But justified or not, I always felt like everyone was looking at the woman in the wheelchair. Fast forward to today and I find that I don’t feel quite as obvious. I understand that people have more things to be concerned with than the woman in the wheelchair and that, generally speaking, if I carry on like there is nothing to look at, people don’t look (at least not usually for long awkward periods of time).
I suppose it is because I have convinced myself that I blend in to some degree that I was caught off guard a couple of weeks ago. I was in a professional building and I needed the elevator but I was waiting and checking my phone before I ventured down into the no-cell-reception parking garage. A man who was delivering boxes walked over singing and I looked up briefly and smiled at him. He looked at me and said, “oh are you having a problem there dear?”. I honestly didn’t have a clue what he meant at first but quickly thought he was referring to me waiting for the elevator – as in maybe he thought it wasn’t coming. I told him that there wasn’t a problem and I was just checking my phone. I assumed at this point that our conversation was over but I was clearly mistaken because he gestured awkwardly with his hand and said “no, no you uh are in a wheelchair there”
I was absent-mindedly scrolling through my Facebook feed yesterday when I saw a shared video from the television show The Doctors titled “Quadriplegic Mother Has Baby via IVF”. I didn’t give it too much thought; I guess I gave it as much thought as I would if I had heard that anyone had a baby via IVF. “That’s great!” I was distracted and didn’t think anything else of it. However, a few hours later I saw it pop up again and it was captioned in such a way that made me think that, just maybe, not everyone thought that this was so great.
So of course, I watched the video. I was left feeling a bit empty and mostly speechless (which I think most of you have figured out is incredibly rare for me). I have spent the last 14 months convincing myself that I am a capable mother. I have met other disabled women who are incredible mothers. I follow paralyzed women online who are strong and wonderful mothers. However, here sat doctors who blurted out a few sentences that momentarily took the fight out of me.
I’ve certainly been called many different things in my life. While ‘clairvoyant’ would have been super handy, I instead got the equally unexpected ‘disabled’. It was certainly never a description I had ever imagined for myself but I’ve tried my best to embrace it. However, I received a bit of negative feedback a few weeks ago for using the words ‘disabled’ and ‘handicapped’ and I took it to heart. I couldn’t decide whether or not to write this post but I decided that I have something to say on this topic and that I’m going to say it…
Do memories fade or do they really last forever? I suppose I keep hoping it’s a bit of both. The memories that evoke anxiety will go black; those that make me sad will maybe just lose their colour; and those that make me smile will stay vivid and clear. I have always had a good memory and have never been able to decide if it’s a blessing or a curse. I certainly carry a lot of useless information inside my head but it also feels like I have my entire life on a flash drive up there. I remember moments, dates, arguments, dreams and nightmares. I have a lot of happy stored inside of me. And I have a lot of pain.