I was a horrible liar, and we both knew it, but I had no choice. There was no possible way I could tell him that when I reached into his coat pocket and took his hand—to this day the only bold, romantic gesture I have ever made—it was because I thought he wanted me to.
“You’re just doing that as a friend, right?” He asked, sheepishly.
“Yeah. It, uh, helps with balancing.”
A few Captain and Coke-fueled seconds passed before I used the liquid courage to tell him the truth. He stayed calm while I explained that I thought he was cute, funny, and kind. We enjoyed each other’s company, so why not see where this could go?
“Jesus,” he said, sighing. Apparently, it wasn’t going anywhere good.
Embarrassed and disappointed as I was, I also felt a bit relieved. If we weren’t going to be dating, maybe I didn’t have to tell him exactly how serious my slight limp actually was.
We’d known each other for a year and a half already, so he knew that I had mild cerebral palsy, a neuro-muscular disability that occurs when the brain’s cerebellum is damaged, usually at birth. Balance, fine motor, and speech can be affected, but a diagnosis of CP doesn’t automatically mean a lower intelligence.
To him, CP meant that my gait was awkward and my balance shaky. Other subtleties that accompanied my diagnosis—my difficulties with depth perception and direction, my need for assistance when using downward escalators, and the numb sensation in a small part of my left knee that took the brunt of my semi-often falls—were still my secrets.
Dating is hard enough for a nerdy, bespectacled, 24-year-old without adding permanent deficiencies to the mix. I can never decide if the best time to confess that I don’t drive is after the first round of “getting-to-know-you” drinks or on the third “I-think-I-like-you” dinner.
It’s important for me to eventually tell potential Mr. Rights about my CP so that they’ll understand when I might need help or why I’m not able to do certain things.
If we’re walking together and I’m not looking at him, it’s not because I’m not listening to what he’s saying, it’s because I’m scanning the ground for potential obstacles to trip over. If I’m not moving from my corner of the bar, it’s not because I’m anti-social, it’s because I know it’ll be difficult to keep my balance while threading through the crowd, especially with a drink in my hand.
CP is not hereditary, so I can’t pass it on to any kids we have, and it’s not transferable like AIDS or an STD, so my date has nothing to worry about—except perhaps a drink spilled in his lap. It’s non-progressive, so just as it can never be cured, it can never get worse. Therapy can lessen the severity of the symptoms.
People can even improve, like going from plastic braces that reach up to your knee (I had those) to simple orthotics that fit inside sneakers. But even though I’m not getting any worse, a disability isn’t the best first-date conversation fodder.
My hesitation is not the result of shame. I don’t have difficulty answering questions from my friends or even strangers.
My parents have emphasized to me that I must be my own best advocate, so I have not been shy about asking for assistance when necessary. Somehow, though, I’ve found that friends and family are more forgiving than the men I’ve been interested in.
The second time I met the woman who is now my sister-in-law, I spilled a drink on her—twice. The first glass of water slipped through my hand when I accidentally stumbled. Then, just five minutes after recovering from that humiliation, I gestured with my left hand while holding a refill.
When Neysi smiled and calmly asked for another napkin, I was so grateful for her compassion and composure that I almost could have married her myself.
But the clumsiness and awkwardness that I’ve often laughed about with those who love me haven’t been quite as funny in my love life. What my parents saw as cute and my pals saw as quirky, the attractive single guy that I was chatting up saw as strange, unnecessary baggage that he didn’t have the time or inclination to deal with.
Walking across the room to introduce myself to the hottie at the bar would go much better if I didn’t have to clutch the banister like a lifeline down three small steps to get there.
Putting my best foot forward is more difficult when even my best foot doesn’t function as it should, and my other one drags behind.
A few years ago I ran into Eric, an undisputed heartthrob in my hometown. I managed to string a few sentences together that were coherent and vaguely comical. After he had told me how nice it was to see me and gave me the warm smile that he was known for, I walked away—so pleased with the encounter, I felt like I was floating.
Then my giddy nervousness caused my muscles to tense. My feet got tangled, and I hit the ground hard. The floating sensation fled, along with my pleasant daydreams of a possible date. The scar on the left side of my chin stuck around, however; the cut required 25 stitches.
As much as I want a partner who is both understanding and patient, I’m still not sure when to tell him about what to expect.
I don’t think there’s an exact science to telling your date about your handicaps—physical or otherwise. For me, the topic usually comes up in its own time, typically after I ask for help down from a curb. Hand on his shoulder, I confess to cerebral palsy and make a cheesy joke. If he laughs, there’s potential for a second date; it’s part disability, part litmus test.
If first impressions are difficult, sex seems almost impossible. My confidence when it comes to men is shaky at best. My mother has bolstered me as much as she can, teaching me makeup tricks and giving fashion advice that is surprisingly current and useful.
At some point, however, the makeup has to come off. One day, I hope the clothes will follow. If that day comes, it’ll be both thrilling and terrifying, as I fear that my wit and self-deprecating humor will not be able to hide my insecurities.
I take body issues to a whole new level. For me, the concern is not about a number on a scale or the size of a dress tag.
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Instead, I worry about the movements I will be expected to perform. My body is at once rigid and uncoordinated—the antithesis of everything Nora Roberts’ novels and Kate Hudson’s romantic comedies suggest is necessary for a positive sexual experience. My friends’ anecdotes only confirm what those experts of passion have advised.
As much as I want to date and fall in love and be with someone, I have a bad feeling that when push against the wall comes to shove onto the sheets, my body won’t do any of the things I want it to, and all my work getting there will be for naught.
I don’t know what sex and love are like for other people with cerebral palsy. I read a magazine article once by a woman with CP who found love after breaking up with a “normal” (i.e. not disabled) man for someone who happened to be blind.
I’m not sure if I’ll end up with a disabled mate in the future or not. While it would be nice to know that he really understands some of the challenges I face, it’s also nice to have someone—pardon the pun—balance you out. How can my boyfriend help me down a flight of stairs that he has trouble walking down himself?
One of these days the right guy will be A-OK with my disability, like everyone else who loves me is. I’m fortunate that the majority of the scars I have are physical ones.
I also know that everyone has shortcomings, handicaps, if you will, in one way or another. My future partner may not have physical limitations, but he will certainly have habits and flaws that I will have to adjust to and workaround. At least my hang-ups allow me stellar parking spaces.
Carly Okyle is a contributor for YourTango who has written on love and disabilities.