Is this a dealbreaker? Intimacy, dating and disability
Here are the facts as they were later recounted to me by several eyewitnesses. It was the 29th of August, 2014, and I was in Berlin with friends. It was 4 AM and I was extraordinarily drunk. As I crossed the empty highway, the halogen glow of a bakery caught my attention. Possessed by an understandable desire for fresh, warm carbohydrates, I scampered onto the road, freewheeling into the path of a lonely car. That car—driven by a young man on his way to work who surely did not expect a paralytic foreigner to flounder out of the darkness—struck me.
The concussive force of the impact hurled my body into the air, which completed a cartwheel before plummeting down like a mannequin attempting a pin drop dive, only into bitumen instead of chlorinated water. I have been told this story so many times that I can see the events like a stop-motion film in my head: I witness myself breaking rank with my friends, pulling out in front, unable to stop the inevitable. I feel saliva fill my mouth and the morning air whip my face. I hear tires scream as headlights wash over me. This film feels real because, on some level, it is.
'That car—driven by a young man on his way to work who surely did not expect a paralytic foreigner to flounder out of the darkness—struck me.'
The accident broke my body, my brain in particular. Severely, I was told. Rehab was simple: sleep, eat, try to walk, sleep more, repeat. My doctors took care to emphasise how close I came to death and I repeated their words to myself like a mantra. My world was one thing, then there was violence, and then it was something different. I woke up in an alien body I had to fight to control. Without any warning, my world was tiny and unfamiliar and all I could do was respond to this difference as best I could.
Most of the time I had the energy level of an overfed housecat. I would have panic attacks in crowds or be overcome with explosive annoyance over the smallest thing. The early days of my acquired brain injury were defined by rage, something undefinable that saturated my life, a symptom of something unnamable. Letting go of this compulsion meant finding myself again—not in a ‘rich White woman drinking chardonnay in a sarong’ way, but in a more literal sense. Non-disabled me was gone and I had to become familiar with disabled me, familiar enough to introduce him to others.
In any new relationship (a friend, a date, or a lover) there comes a moment where I have to choose how much of my experience to reveal. It has to happen at the right moment and in the correct tone. Failure to provide the proper emphasis leaves me open to ableism, well-intended but no less demeaning. There’s the unsophisticated questions (‘So what about you doesn’t work?’), the pointed way some people refuse to acknowledge my disability (‘You can’t even tell’) and the often embarrassing way people try to relate (‘That reminds me of the time I crashed my push bike’). I want to say: it’s fine to not know what something feels like. It’s fine to not relate to something. It’s fine to just listen.
'I woke up in an alien body I had to fight to control. Without any warning, my world was tiny and unfamiliar and all I could do was respond to this difference as best I could.'
With dating moved largely online, this all becomes an eccentric dance: how to hint at my disability before it comes up. I’m a detective, looking for clues that the person inside my phone is trustworthy:
c: let’s meet at The Bank, I’ll buy you a beer
x: haha sure
c: though controversially I don’t drink
wow that is controversial hey
c: probs better explained in person haha
If I say too much too early then I’m the gloomy oddball, someone governed by something that happened a decade ago. Sometimes this works to my advantage: if I’m not vibing with someone I can lay My Truth on thick enough that they remove themselves from the equation. Still, it’s easy to scare people away or place myself in the ‘too hard’ basket. Or worse, my date reaches out, grabs my hand and simpers: ‘Thank you soooo much for trusting me with this. You’re so brave. Thank you.’
'Queer people know what it’s like to be judged and rejected and, in their own way, my lovers have helped me navigate myself.'
Then, should the date progress, there’s the awkwardness of intimacy. Halfway through dinner I’m already constructing over-explanations for my intermittent but obvious dissociation. ‘A combination of TBI-anxiety and nerve damage mean my body takes a while to catch up, but I promise, I’m having a great time.’ Despite all this, most of my experiences have been positive, even kind.
Queer people know what it’s like to be judged and rejected and, in their own way, my lovers have helped me navigate myself. They’ve been patient, listened, and prioritised my comfort, and helped me move away from an orgasm-oriented version of sex to one which values the joy of simply being with someone.
Though my body has mostly healed, my brain will likely never recover and the psychic damage of my disability is something with which I’m still learning to live. I’ve revealed myself to an uncountable number of people but it remains a moment of vulnerability: a pit in my stomach, words escaping my grasp. Here's this thing I cannot change, is that a dealbreaker for you?
Post accident, all I wanted was to be perceived as ‘normal’, a product of my own internalised ableism: ‘I’m disabled but not disabled disabled’. I saw disability as a pejorative rather than a fact, but over the past few years, I have become outspoken about the way I encounter the world. It’s not something I can change, but it’s not something I want to change. My disability is something I choose to share because it’s integral to understanding me, which is to say: this is a part of me, this matters to me, and hopefully to you too.