By Susan Odgers
Over the years, many able-bodied people have told me that what they'd fear most about having a disability like mine would be depending upon other people.
For some, a loss of their independence would be worse than death.
When I listen deeply to these folks, it often seems that what they are really trying to share with me is their fear of being vulnerable and dependent upon people who will take advantage of them physically.
When I had my stroke and became paralyzed, I was 18. My boyfriend was 19. We'd been dating since I was 15. Our young relationship was intense. He was a strong personality and I was just learning I had a voice. We had our share of arguments. He wanted to control my choice of clothing and makeup, the car radio stations, my college courses, finances and my friends. Our disagreements were verbally abusive. They never got physical.
Then I had my stroke and began using a wheelchair.
Neither of us had the skills or experience to deal with the tremendous changes and challenges to our relationship. He'd never been so close to such loss. I couldn't do things the way I use to. Even the simplest tasks like getting dressed took more time.
When he was fearful and frustrated, he could be mean. He'd put my wheelchair where I couldn't reach it. He withheld medications and simple assistance. Several times, he threatened to burn my lower body with a cigar to see if I really couldn't feel it. I often wondered if I told anyone what was happening, if they'd believe me.
In public, he appeared as the dutiful caregiver. Others regularly remarked that he was my rescuer. I suspected that people would find his behavior so reprehensible that they wouldn't believe it. Privately, he told me I should be grateful that he wanted to be with me. Frequently, I thought I should remain quiet and give him time to adjust to my disability. I was very afraid and co-dependent.
Finally, I saw a way to end our relationship. Once we weren't a couple, we seemed to get along better. A woman friend from high school became my roommate and helper. One day while I was alone, my ex-boyfriend got into my apartment and began trashing the place. He threatened to hit me. I locked myself in another room and called my dad. He came right over and got my ex-boyfriend to leave. He also had a long talk with me about the statistics showing women with disabilities had a higher rate of assault and abuse than able-bodied women.
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