Mike stared at the screen of his computer and wondered what to write. Earlier this morning, he had discovered the message board for people with spinal cord injuries, and he had spent the last two hours reading every message that had been posted. With every message he read, Mike found himself growing sicker. He read the complaints about lack of handicapped parking, inaccessible buildings, and urine bags that burst in public, and he wished he wasn’t part of that world.
But he was part of that world. Every since his accident in May, Mike had been a T2 paraplegic. His injury was complete and the doctors said there was no hope of his ever being able to walk again. In a matter of seconds, Mike had gone from a healthy, 23-year-old male to a cripple confined to a wheelchair for life. He still didn’t relate to disabled people yet. After a lifetime of being able-bodied, he knew it would take him a while to adjust. He knew that in ten years, being disabled would be part of his identity—he would constantly be looking out for that little blue wheelchair sign.
Mike looked down at his useless legs. He spent a good portion of each day just staring at them, willing them to move. He knew that time would also allow him to adjust to the sight of his legs, but now they seemed so strange to him. Sometimes it felt as if he could just get up and walk right out of his chair. But, of course, he couldn’t.
He reached his hand down and massaged the skin that he could not feel. It was an eerie sensation. He used to run in college, so his legs had been very muscled before the accident, but now they were growing flabby and had nearly no muscle tone. His level of paralysis was right below his nipples, which gave him full movement of his arms, but no sensation at all below that level. That meant he couldn’t control his stomach muscles at all, so he was unable to even sit up on his own. A seatbelt kept him from sliding right out of the chair. His stomach had been well-muscled before, but now he was developing a gut for the first time in his life.
The worst part was that he had completely lost sensation in his penis. He knew that some men could become aroused after paralysis, but Mike had seen no sign of that since his accident. His penis looked about as dead as his legs. Sometimes when he was in bed at night, Mike massaged the organ, praying that it would come back to life. No luck so far. He supposed that in time, he’d stop doing that as well.
Mike looked back up at the computer screen. There was a message up by a man named Keith. His wife had left him after his SCI and he was lonely now. He was looking for someone new. He said in his message that he had “a lot to offer.”
Yeah, right, Mike thought. Since his accident, he hadn’t even thought about talking to girls. Most girls his age looked at him with a sort of motherly pity. The thought of actually dating a girl seemed completely out of his reach, like most things in the world. Who would be interested in a guy who couldn’t walk? Or worse, couldn’t fuck?
Mike got easily embarrassed lately. He didn’t even want to be seen by attractive women because it just reminded him of his impotence. Most recently, he had been pissing and crapping in his pants a lot. He’d be eating dinner or sitting at the computer, then he’d look down and his pants would be all wet. He was horrified by the idea of this happening in public. What if he somehow managed to get a girl to go on a date with him, and he crapped his pants halfway through the evening.
And now it was Christmas. That meant that tomorrow was the annual family gathering at his uncle’s house, where he’d have to see all those relatives that had never seen him in a wheelchair. He dreaded their reactions. The Christmas reunions were bad enough back when he could walk, and now it would be unbearable. Mike begged his mother to let him skip it this year, but she said that everyone would be hurt if they didn’t show. “And besides,” she said. “Everyone really wants to see you.”
Mike knew that wasn’t true. Maybe everyone wanted to see Mike the Athlete or maybe Mike the Ladies’ Man, but nobody wanted to see Mike the Cripple. This was a new addition to the family and his presence would only make everyone uncomfortable.
Mike sighed. He opened up a form to post a message and he typed in: Hi, I’m Mike. I’m a T2 para, injured in May. I’m feeling a little down with the holidays here and all. How do you deal with depression?
He left the web site and rolled his chair out of his room. His parents had adjusted the entire apartment to make it wheelchair accessible. He had been surprised when he had first come home and seen all the adjustments they had made for his sake, especially in his room. All the shelves had been lowered, there was a grab bar over his bed so that he could transfer easily into his chair, and all the doors were widened.
Mike’s mother was in the living room, finishing up the decorations on the Christmas tree. He had to admit, she had done a good job on it this year. Usually, Mike helped out with the tree, at least by putting the star up on top, but there was no chance of that this year. There was only so much a guy in a wheelchair could do to decorate a Christmas tree.
“It’s nice, Mom,” Mike commented.
“Thanks, hon,” she said. Her eyes followed him as he rolled by the tree. “Be careful.”
Mike felt his face flush. “Don’t worry about it.”
“Do you need me to get you anything? Food?” his mother asked. There was really no way to make a kitchen in an apartment wheelchair accessible. He couldn’t even get in to the kitchen, much less try to cook something or reach one of the upper shelves. He knew it wasn’t his parents’ fault, but he hated being completely dependent on them for something as important as food.
“I’m okay,” Mike replied.
Mike noticed that his mother avoided looking at his legs. She hadn’t gotten used to them either, as it seemed. Because of the high level of his injury, he had some difficulty putting his pants on in the morning, and often he accepted her help. That was the worst time. She tried not to look at her son’s limp legs as the two of them struggled to fit them into a pair of sweatpants. Sweatpants were all that Mike could wear now, because anything else might be too tight and hurt him in a place he couldn’t feel.
“Everyone is really looking forward to seeing you tomorrow,” his mother said.
Mike groaned. He had still been hoping to get out of the reunion. “Can’t I stay home?”
“You know how important this is to your father, honey,” she reminded him.
“Yeah, but why do I have to go?”
His mother hesitated. The truth was that she didn’t want him home alone all day. Mike was nearly twenty-four, an adult, but his own mother didn’t think he could take care of himself for a full day. Mike remembered being nine years old and finally being granted to privilege to stay home alone, and now he had to earn that all over again. Only this time it seemed nearly impossible. In a way, he himself was afraid. What if he was home alone and one of the wheels on his chair came off? Mike pictured himself lying on the floor, his urine sack burst so that he was in a pool of his own urine, waiting for his parents to come home and rescue him. If his injury were a little lower, if he had sensation in just a little more of his body, maybe he could pull himself into a chair. But the way things were, if he fell out of his chair, he would be helpless.
“Your grandparents will really miss you if you don’t come,” his mother said finally.
Mike sighed. He hated to admit it, but it was his duty to go to the reunion. Everyone expected it of him, wheelchair or not. But the thought of having to face all those people who only knew him as an able bodied male was almost more than he could handle.
That night, before going to bed, Mike logged onto the message board for SCI’s. After a few moments thought, he logged off and then made up a new login name for himself: Abe. He logged in again and posted a message:
After years of thought on the subject, I have finally come to one conclusion: HAVING A HANDICAP SUCKS!!! I work with spinal cord injured individuals on a daily basis (in a rehab setting) and I am truly amazed at how many people decide that life in a wheelchair is somehow GOOD. I mean, let’s get real here. You can't walk, you can't feel, you can't even go to the bathroom without using a method of catherization, you have no control of your bodily functions, men with SCI can't maintain erections or ejaculate without some help, just to name a few examples. How can anyone possibly consider this to be a GOOD life? I know that I am going to get a lot of slack for this post, but in my opinion, when you become a cripple, you become a waste to society.
I know, I know, all of you will tell me what you've done since your accident, what you can still do, how much of an asshole I am, how you want me to die, how I couldn't handle it if I received an SCI, how I am uneducated, blah blah blah. And I say: BULLSHIT! The fact remains that you can't walk, you can't feel, and you can't control the most basic functions of life. You people have been brainwashed by some rehab counselor, PT, OT, or therapists that “you can still have a good life from a wheelchair.” Once again, COMPLETE BULLSHIT! When you look at people walking up steps and realize that without a ramp, you can't get into that same building, don't you get sad? Ladies, when you see women wearing heels and skirts and having guys check them out as they walk, and then you roll by in your wheelchair knowing that guys will never look at you that same way again, doesn’t that bother you? Guys, when your wife would like for you to dance with her at the same eye level but you can't, don't you hate that?
Bottom line: You’re crippled and can't ever change that. Believe what you want to and what the nice, sensitive therapists tell you, but you still have to stay in that chair day after day after day after day, month after month after month, year after year after year, for 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 60 years…50 FUCKING YEARS CONFINED TO A WHEELCHAIR NEVER TO WALK AGAIN—THINK ABOUT IT!!! What kind of life can you have? I think you get my point.
Mike realized that his hands were shaking when he finished the post. He felt a few tears welling in his eyes. That was, in truth, what he was facing: fifty years confined to this goddamn chair and he’d never be able to walk again. It was like a jail sentence, except he hadn’t done a thing wrong. It wasn’t fair.
He sent out the message and logged off the message board. He had already brushed his teeth and washed his face, so now it was time for bed. He rolled up alongside his bed and reached up for the grab bar with one hand. With his other hand, he undid the seatbelt holding him into his chair. Once the seatbelt was undone, his body became suddenly heavy and started to sink down in the chair because of his lack of stomach muscles. He grabbed the bars with both hands, then hoisted his limp lower body into the air. When his hips were over the bed, he released the bars and allowed his body to drop into the bed. His legs were still mostly in the chair, so he lifted them with his arms and pulled them into bed with him. He was wearing the sweatpants and T-shirt he had on all day, and he decided to just sleep in that, since he didn’t have the energy to take them off.
Mike shut off the lights and lay in bed, trying to sleep. In the days before his accident, he used to have trouble falling asleep and sometimes would get out of bed to take a walk. Since getting out of bed had become such a challenge, he had no choice but to try to fall asleep by other means. In the darkness of the room, Mike could make out the outline of his wheelchair. His chair. He remembered the day they had given him this chair and he knew this was the one he would be using for a long time to come. It wasn’t just a devise they were using to get him from his bed to the therapy room. It was the chair he was going to use to get everywhere he had to go for the rest of his life (or at least until that chair got too old and he had to get a new one). His chair. Part of his new identity as a disabled person.
As Mike closed his eyes, he wondered what the response would be to the message he posted under the name Abe.
To be continued...