​Love Yourself

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on February 12, 2021 # Relationships, Lifestyle

By guest blogger Sheri Denkensohn-Trott

Another February; another Valentine’s Day. Each year, the obsession with this day seems to grow. I’m not saying that it is bad to celebrate love; quite the contrary. But the day can be painful to those who don’t have a special partner. Love comes in many forms and doesn’t have to be romantic love. It can be love for a pet, love for a child (even one who isn’t yours), love for a family member, even love for your fellow “man.” But the truth is, loving yourself is the most powerful form of love there is and can be the most challenging.

For individuals with a disability, self-love is not always easy. After my accident at 16, resulting in my becoming a quadriplegic, my feelings of self-worth plummeted. Before the accident, I felt like I had it all (in teenage fashion). I was an athlete, thin, had great clothes, performed well in school, enjoyed innumerable friendships, and was dating the captain of the basketball team. And all that changed in the blink of an eye. My self-image now focused on what my body couldn’t do.

My months in rehabilitation, in some ways, intensified these negative feelings. My first exposure to “health class” as a quadriplegic was devastating. Here was the class that would start to teach me about my re-entry into the world of intimate activity with the opposite sex, post-injury. Incredibly, though, female patients were excluded from the class. As the sole female in the entire spinal cord injury unit, this message hit me hard. My internal conversation was, “Well, now that you can’t move from the neck down, your hands don’t work, and your sensation is limited, you will never have a boyfriend and intimacy of any kind will not happen.”

After rehabilitation, I returned to my hometown to finish high school. But everything had changed for me. I could no longer wear any of my clothes because of my “new normal” of sitting down. I felt as if everything I wore was designed to look like a “non-sweat suit” and I hated my body.

Going off to college helped some. It boosted my self-esteem to live more independently, but I still compared the way I looked to everyone else. Even more frustrating was seeing the flurry of dating around me. I was the person who the guys confided in, but that was it. They just wanted to be friends. Nothing more.

After college, I moved to Washington DC, attended law school, and got a job with the Federal government. During these years, I became friends with other single professional women. I had a fulfilling career and enjoyed my independence. I was moving in the right direction of being okay with me. Importantly, I realized I wasn’t the only one working through my identity. Yes, I had a disability, but I saw that living a life of authentic happiness was a common struggle.

Turning 30 was a tipping point. I decided against having children because of the strain it would pose on my body. But the never-ending series of weddings was difficult. Sure, I was happy for my friends; but I was the classic “always the bridesmaid and never the bride.” I wondered, could I have a full life alone?

Sheri and her husband smiling together wearing redAnd then it dawned on me that the answer was yes. Not overnight, but my sense of self gradually changed. I credit this change to a time of “going inward,” focusing on what I wanted out of life, soul-searching and having discussions with disabled and nondisabled women who I respected. Yes, it wasn’t the life I envisioned, but I had a wonderful career, fabulous friends, a great family, and fulfilling volunteer work. Sure, there were bad days where self-doubt would resurface, but mostly I came to realize that a boyfriend was not necessary to make my life complete. I could do that.

To my great surprise, at age 37, when I was content with my single life, I met Tony. As soon as I saw his bright blue eyes, dark hair, and shy smile, I fell hard. After a year of dating, Tony proposed, and it was my turn to be the bride. Tony also has a disability and uses a wheelchair. It turns out that dating someone with a disability, even though different than my own, made the intimate conversations easier.

Yes, I found my soulmate. But after over 15 years of marriage, I realize that even if you are committed to someone you love deeply, it is equally important to have inner peace. It takes work. But it is well worth it. Smile and be kind to yourself. You can be your own Valentine.

Sheri Denkensohn-Trott sustained a spinal cord injury in 1983 and is a C4 quadriplegic. She practiced law for the Federal government for 25 years and started her own business with her husband (who also has a disability) called Happy on Wheels, LLC. Their vision is to inspire others, with and without disabilities, to live happier lives through writing, speaking, mentoring, and consulting. Sheri is a columnist for New Mobility magazine and a regular contributor to other written publications. Additionally, she is a motivational speaker, professional storyteller, and mentors’ students and individuals of all ages. She serves on The Advisory Board of the Rockefeller College and is also a breast cancer survivor and Ambassador for the American Cancer Society. Sheri is currently writing her first book. Sheri and her husband reside in Arlington, Virginia. You can follow them on all forms of social media, and subscribe to their newsletter by accessing their website www.happyonwheels.com.