Weightless, Wanted, Worthy

While reading Martin Pistorius’s powerful book, Ghost Boy, I was struck by a passage in which Martin, experimenting with a body that does not behave predictably, attempts to make breakfast for his partner, Joanna.

I forced the knife downwards, cleaving it to my will as it hit the side of the toast before skittering across the plate and leaving a glistening red slick on the table. I stared at the battered toast before looking at the floor, which was covered in coffee granules and sugar. The butter looked as if a wild animal had chewed it and jam had erupted like a volcano across the table. Euphoria filled me. I’d made toast, coffee was waiting in the cups, and the water had boiled—Joanna was going to have breakfast. I banged a spoon on the table to let her know I was ready, and a smile spread across her face as she walked in. “How nice to have breakfast made for me!” she said.

Some might interpret Joanna’s enthusiasm as pretense. As you read through the book, you quickly discover that while Joanna is fully aware of the many barriers Martin faces, she supports his efforts to try new things, even when they end in an imperfect, sticky mess. Martin and Joanna’s marriage is founded on genuine respect and validation, with no suggestion that she is giving anything up to be with him. Rarely have I seen such a beautifully balanced framework, where limitations are acknowledged but never allowed to overwhelm the entire structure.
Naturally, reading about Martin and Joanna got me thinking about my own relationship. My partner has a disability of his own, but it is invisible, and comes up so rarely I sometimes forget it exists at all. We live much like a couple in which only one party is disabled, and we both had to adjust to the different things we need from each other to grow and be happy.
In addition to needing all the conventional things, like love and companionship and the space to laugh with someone in the face of life’s trials, I also crave specific validation from my partner—the validation that says, “I acknowledge that you are disabled, but you are no less complete for it.” From day one, even as I walked him through my various barriers and how they might be an issue for him, he treated me like a whole, autonomous person, and nothing less. If I ever feel inadequate or out of place in the context of our life together, it is my own anxiety talking, not his. Again and again over the past few years, I have been caught off guard by the simple, implicit trust this man places in me every day, without thought and without a hint of charity. Strangers on the bus might wonder what I’d do without him, but he frequently asks me what he’d do without me.
What does this look like in practice? Mostly, it’s an intangible thing—more felt than seen, and usually unspoken. I can point to scores of small things that add up to a larger pattern, and that’s how I can best explain the dynamic.
For example, he asks my opinion on things, with the assumption that of course I’ll have one, and of course it’s as valid as anyone else’s. He doesn’t bombard me with questions about how “blind people” feel about X Y or Z. No, he asks about the best way to install a showerhead, or which ingredients would enhance a new recipe, or what political news of the week is most relevant. Far from assuming I mustn’t be knowledgeable about anything outside the realm of my disabilities and personal interests, he assumes that I am likely to know a little about a lot, and if I’m not sure, I’ll be straightforward about that. I don’t always have opinions or suggestions, but it is so novel and so satisfying to be asked as an equal—as someone who knows things and whose judgment can be trusted. It shouldn’t be so remarkable, but I think most disabled adults would agree that unless the topic is disability-related, our voices are often overlooked.
Like Joanna, my partner doesn’t expect perfection from me, but does expect me to experiment, and won’t ever shame me for the results. He would rather I demolish the kitchen cooking breakfast than have me avoid cooking altogether in case something goes wrong. It’s not that he humours me or enjoys watching me struggle. He simply expects me, as his partner, to contribute where I can and shed my irrational insistence on perfection. If I get hopelessly lost while attempting to conquer my travel demons, he’ll still be sincerely proud that I was brave enough to try, without resorting to empty praise or minimizing my mistakes.
As I’ve noted several times on this blog, living well with disability requires a great deal of self-confidence—or plenty of skill at faking it until you make it—because that confidence won’t come easily from outside yourself. If you don’t have faith in your abilities, you may struggle to find someone else who does. The less you feel you have a right to your place in the world, the less welcoming the world seems to be. While I’ve cultivated my own strong sense of self-respect, I’ve discovered it’s far more bracing when my partner reflects it back at me. I am fortunate indeed to make my home with someone whose faith in me exceeds my own, never hesitating to remind me I am whole.
I’ll return to Martin’s words, because he put it so beautifully: “I’ve lived my whole life as a burden. She makes me feel weightless.”
I, too, have lived my whole life worrying that I am too much like unwanted luggage. But he, together with so many others, makes me feel weightless, and wanted, and worthy.
From where I’m standing, there is no greater love than that.

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Let’s Get This Over With: A Love Story

One year ago today, I met a new friend for a casual evening of food and conversation. We had exchanged several text messages and met a couple of times, but we didn’t know each other very well at all. I assumed him to be a stand-up guy—we had a few mutual friends who vouched for him—but that’s all I knew. When asked by friends and family whether this outing was a date, I protested that I was still grieving over the devastating dissolution of a 4.5-year relationship (absolutely true) and was in no state to be dating anyone, much less a mere acquaintance. As the evening progressed, however, and an innocuous meal turned into an entirely too romantic walk along the river valley (the sun was setting, the atmosphere was intoxicating, we didn’t really have a choice in the matter), I realized, quite abruptly, that this was, indeed, a date.
Uh-oh.
Faced with the prospect of opening myself to a new person so soon after being mistreated by someone else, I began to panic. I couldn’t possibly be ready for this! I had so many problems! My mental health was at one of its lowest points, and that’s saying something. I was perpetually exhausted, (I had new-job syndrome), and was nursing emotional wounds that are still healing. My moods were unpredictable. My emotional landscape felt jagged and chaotic. Most days, it seemed as though I was being held together by threads so frayed and fragile they’d snap at the slightest provocation. I was an undeniable mess—not an appealing or interesting mess, the way a million colours scribbled on a page can be beautiful in their own nonsensical way. No, I was more like the mess you shove hastily into your closet when company comes knocking—the kind you pretend doesn’t exist and continually refuse to sort out because it’s too daunting. If you opened that closet door, you know everything would come tumbling out.
That, dear reader, was the version of me trying to decide whether I was prepared to pursue a new relationship.
Certain that I had stumbled into a misunderstanding and determined to set the record straight, I did what any sensible gal would do on a first date: I sat down on this near-stranger’s couch—and an attractive stranger he was, too—and told him everything that made me undatable.
Yes, that was my first-date strategy: reveal every conceivable shortcoming, cover every awkward topic, explore every taboo, and excavate any past mistakes that would disqualify me as a suitable girlfriend. Lay it all out, get the unpleasantness out of the way, and he’ll balk, right? Surely telling him all about my multiple disabilities, my mental illness, my dubious track record with romantic relationships, my spectacularly poor choices, my insecurities, my unwillingness to ever have children, my overwhelming fear of failure—all of these would definitely scare him off, yes? In the name of honesty, I dredged up everything I could think of that would make him retract his interest so I wouldn’t have to deal with big, scary decisions.
In short, I handed him every reason he’d ever need to call it quits before we’d even begun … as one does.
Those of you who don’t know me very well may think you know where this is going. He was caught off guard, improvised some polite and sympathetic response, and led me gently to his door. When a woman implies, without an ounce of subtlety, that she is a disaster on legs, just thank the universe she’s not wasting more of your time.
Those of you who do know me realize that’s not quite how it happened. Instead, he sat quietly and listened while I gave him my spiel. He asked a few respectful questions, provided the odd empathetic comment here and there, and waited patiently until I was finished.
“So…okay…I’m sorry I dumped all this on you, but I really need to know. I need to know if you can handle all my … stuff. Otherwise, there’s just no point. Anyone I’m with has to be okay with my disabled, chronically ill, foolish self.” (For those of you fuming at my excessively self-deprecating portrayal of disability and chronic illness…just hang on. I’m getting to that.)
“Yeah. Of course. I think it’s great that you told me all this now. It’s brave to tell me, and it’s good information to know.”
As it turns out, not only did this remarkable creature have a disability of his own (moderate and mostly invisible), he was happy to explore romance with someone who had a handful of fairly serious problems, as long as I was willing to be honest about them. Exposing everything in one go, on day one, had the opposite effect you might imagine. Far from deterring him, it encouraged him to trust me and seemed to make me even more attractive to him. With everything on the table from the get-go—and yes, for those wondering, he did reciprocate by telling me many of his own struggles that night—we went into our tenuous relationship knowing there would be few surprises and no unnecessary anxiety about whether we were putting on a good face for each other.
Naturally, there were some who were horrified by what I’d chosen to do.
“You talked about all that stuff on the first date? Were you actually trying to scare him away?”
“Well…yes.”
On the other hand, many others were pleased to hear that my impulsive strategy had worked, and a few even confessed they’d like to try it for themselves, perhaps more gracefully than I had, but with the same unflinching sincerity.
“It would be kind of nice,” some said, “not to have to worry about them ‘finding things out.’” The slow reveal, especially with invisible disabilities and mental illness, can be even scarier than spilling it all out at once.
There was another latent benefit to depositing my life story into the lap of someone loving and respectful: I was reminded, once again, that my disabilities, illness, and various other attributes don’t make me undatable. They may present significant challenges, but they are not objects of shame, ridicule, or guilt. Choosing to date me even with full knowledge of my broad range of atypical challenges was an act of faith, perhaps, but never of charity. My partner wasn’t doing me a favour by agreeing to “handle” these things. I wasn’t “undatable,” and never have been.
Today, as I celebrate my first anniversary with a partner I have come to respect and adore, I appreciate the many ways in which our story could have veered into much darker territory. He could have been repulsed by what I’d disclosed. He could have promised he would handle it and realized that wasn’t a promise he could keep. He could have used the sensitive information I gave him to do me harm. Any number of catastrophes could have resulted from the way I handled our first date. Reeling from exhaustion and pain, I wasn’t in the most stable state of mind, and I fully acknowledge that if I’d been in a better place emotionally, I may have dealt with this differently.
All this has taught me that the recipe for a healthy relationship requires trust and forthrightness from the very beginning. Even if you don’t present your prospective partners with bulleted lists of all your issues—and I don’t generally recommend that you do—it’s essential that you feel comfortable around a person you’re planning to date. Romantic relationships place us in vulnerable positions, and if you don’t think your partner could handle how ill you get during migraines, or how much help you need when trying to identify objects you can’t see, you should keep looking. In the meantime, remember that while there may be many people out there who aren’t right for you, you deserve to find someone who is.