Stepping in | Charisma Jamison

Posted by Reeve Staff in Life After Paralysis on July 24, 2019 # Caregiving

Stepping into my first “interabled relationship” was much more than simply understanding how to navigate a relationship with a man who has quadriplegia. I’ll try to explain what exactly I mean here…

First things first, what exactly is an interabled relationship? I had asked myself that same question when I first heard it from a friend. I learned the term is used to describe the relationship between someone with a disability and someone without. I’ll be honest, I did not care for that particular label much initially, as dating Cole already meant that we were in an interracial relationship, although after starting our YouTube channel, we realized that using this label actually helped us reach those who were in a similar relationship to our own.

Often, when you hear about relationships involving a spinal cord injury, many of those couples are already together when the injury occurs. That was not the case for Cole and me; Cole was six years post-injury before we even met. Stepping into a relationship with Cole was very exciting for me. He was so handsome, kind, smart, goofy, everything I looked for in a man. Truly, I never thought about his wheelchair…

Well, until I had to.

About two months into our relationship, when I knew for certain I wanted a future with this man, a ton of questions hit me all at once. I started asking myself “What would the future look like for us?” “Will we be able to have children together?” I found myself using Google as a tool to answer these questions because these weren’t questions I felt comfortable asking Cole; I was too nervous. So, I would search for things like “wheelchair weddings” on Pinterest and even “Quadriplegic fathers” to try and form a picture of how our future may look.

Yet despite my “research,” I still had so many questions left unanswered. And on top of that, Cole and his parents had a well-established routine I didn’t fully understand yet. I did not realize the family dynamic that I was entering. Cole’s mom is his full-time caregiver and his father helps occasionally. I’ll be honest, it was very hard at first. For example, although Cole and I had our private time, often he would have to go to his parents for intermittent catheterization. One day I asked Cole if I could assist because frankly, I wanted more independence with him beyond the three hours or so before he needed to release his bladder again.

And so very quickly I learned how to give Cole an intermittent catheterization myself, and even transfer him onto the couch so that we could enjoy watching TV together. Despite this, our independence was still constrained, as Cole would always have to go to bed by a certain time because his parents helped him during his night routine and we didn’t want to keep them up too late. This frustrated me. I wanted to stay up super late watching movies with my boyfriend and not feel like I had to abide by a “curfew”. I felt like a kid again even though I was 24.

More and more my frustration grew. Over time I began to feel like I wasn’t just dating Cole, I was dating his parents too, due to their heavy involvement in his everyday care. I begged Cole to teach me more of his care so that we could do more of what we wanted to independently and hopefully help to make us feel more like a “normal” couple. Eventually, once Cole felt comfortable enough, I learned how to help Cole to bed which meant we could stay up longer!

But still, I wanted even more independence in our relationship. Although I helped him to bed at night, in the morning his parents still had to help him get ready for the day. Because we would often go to bed so late I would stay the night, which meant I would have to get my things and move to another room while his parents got him ready, sometimes having to wait for two hours or longer if he had a bowel program that day. The morning routine then posed as the final obstacle before a completely independent relationship.

After over a year of dating, I finally learned everything that went into caring for Cole, and our world opened up. Finally, we were able to travel on our own, which we’ve done multiple times now, and it’s been very exciting and fulfilling for us.

Stepping into a relationship with Cole was difficult at the beginning NOT due to his disability but because of a family dynamic that I was not yet used to. Although it took over a year to truly feel like an independent couple, I appreciate the fact that Cole didn’t push caregiving duties onto me even while I pushed for it myself. Having his parents there through the process helped establish a relationship that focused on us and growing as a couple. Of course, once I learned how to fully care for Cole our relationship has become stronger than ever before, and we continue to grow closer every day.

Stepping into an interabled relationship may have meant facing several obstacles that wouldn’t have been present in a relationship with someone able-bodied, but I wouldn’t change a thing. I love Cole, and I love our relationship, with all the highs and lows that come with it.

-Charisma Jamison