January 14, 2012

In Sickness and In Health, Part 3

I've told you about my amazement at the solid marriage and teamwork between my friend Dana and her husband, Mike. Now I want you to hear their side of the story.

They've been married a couple years and are still figuring out marriage, not to mention figuring out how to balance a busy work life with their challenges at home - especially with Mike's disability. He was paralyzed from the chest down when he was 17 which forced him to use a wheelchair. Now he's learning what it means to share the challenges of his disability with his wife. These two make such an impressive team. Sometimes I read about their experiences and I wonder, "How do they manage it all?" They're still figuring it out, but so far they seem to be handling every challenge that comes their way.

Here's my interview with them:

Tamara: Dana, when you first met Mike, did his disability affect whether he was a dating possibility in your mind?

Dana: Certainly. We first met in person, but didn't really remember meeting. We connected through a chance e-mail, and when he first asked me online if we had met in person, the only reason I remembered meeting him was because he was in a wheelchair, and well, that's memorable.
As our relationship grew into a friendship, and then started to get on the verge of something more, I was really scared about all of the disability stuff. I googled my fingers off. I found so many great websites and message boards about spinal cord injuries and read and read and read. I have always been a bit of a researcher. I was scared to death wondering if I would be able to handle everything. Then, I actually flew to Texas to meet him, and I saw that he was way more attractive in person than I even thought he would be, and I knew that despite the physical challenges, that the physical attraction was there.
I drew on the past experience I had in being a caregiver to my grandfather. Just a few years before I met Michael in person, my Papa Tom had a series of strokes, and didn't want to live in a nursing home, so he came home, and as a family (me, my Granny and my Aunt Clara) took care of him, 24 hours a day. It was very challenging, he could do very little for himself. There were times (really personal bathroom type of stuff) that I was the only one who could help him. I saw it as a way to show my Papa love. This was how he needed me to love him. As my relationship with Michael grew deeper, I looked back on that caregiving responsibility I had in my past with Papa Tom, and I knew I had it in me to do caregiving type of stuff. So, it got better as time went on.

Tamara: When you first started talking about a relationship, who was more nervous? Was disability a big issue at that point?

Dana: I think Michael was more nervous. I definitely fell "head over heels' for him first, and I was so smitten, I will admit that I was a bit naive about how challenging everything was going to be. Also, if I'm going to be really honest with you, I will admit to hiding some things that really bothered me, at least for a bit, while we were dating. For example, before we were married, Michael had this giant red wheelchair van. Someone else had to drive it, and there was a wheelchair lift on it, and his chair would be tied down in the back. It eventually came out that I HATED that thing, but at first, I drove it with a smile on my face, even though I definitely hated the spectacle that the giant wheelchair lift van was, I hated tying him down like a piece of cargo, and I hated driving it like I was a chauffeur.

Michael: I figured, by that point, that it was all in her court, because we knew each other for so long, and we were already such good friends, that it was time for something more in our relationship. I was cautious, but not afraid. So, while we were growing our relationship, I was careful to invite her in to the different areas of my disability at different levels. Instead of letting her see everything that I went through and making her do everything from the start, I invited her to help with the smaller, the less awkward things at first. Then, as we continued to get familiar with each other and as we spent more time together, she did more for me. Funny, that one of the first really big things we talked about was having kids. In an afternoon phone call, I pretty much threw it out there, that it might not be easy for us to have kids and this was pretty early on in our relationship. I wanted her to have every opportunity to back out gracefully if she felt uncomfortable.

Tamara: Marriage is already such a major life adjustment for most people. Mike, you'd already faced a major adjustment in your life after your accident. What did you consider would be the biggest adjustment once you both were married?

Michael: There are two people to consider in every decision. Before, I didn't have to wonder how my wife would have to feel about this, how it would affect her, or make plans that included her. I'm a chronic procrastinator and overly cautious about everything. Dana plans everything out, and then she goes for it. She doesn't let anything stop her, once she's determined to do something. My habits and weaknesses are the things that cause a lot of tension. Dana is quick to point out and admit her own bad habits and weaknesses and we work on those things together. But for me, it was easy to coast through life at my pace, and not overexert myself. Now, I'm challenged regularly to be a better person, stronger than I ever have been, because of Dana.

Tamara: What was a big hurdle you faced together? When did you feel as if you'd gotten over it?

Dana: One of my favorite "hurdles" we've faced was on our first anniversary getaway. We rented this tiny little cabinet in the woods, about 2 hours away. It was a romantic little cabin, with a hot tub in the room. Remember, Michael is paralyzed from the chest down and has no ability to move himself from one location to another. He is a fully grown man, and I'm a five foot tall girl. I should not humanly be able to do things like pick him up out of his wheelchair, lift him up and over a hot tub (not the kind that's built into the floor, the kind that's about 3-4 feet high) and into it, without him sinking down in. But, I did it.
We worked together to arrange a series of towels to pick him up, slide him in, and ankle weights to keep him tied down in the right spots. For the record, we had a great time in that hot tub. We did decide to try it BEFORE dinner rather than afterwards, just in case I wasn't able to get him back out. But, I'm happy to report - we used a series of towels and whatever else we could find in the room to slide him back out, up, over and back into the chair again. With no help.
That was a major achievement and we both felt so invigorated in our independence. When I told other couples who are in similar situations as us about that, no one can believe me! Ha!

Tamara: What challenges do you have now? And what do you look back upon during your first couple years together and think, "I can't believe we thought THAT was hard back then?"

Dana: One of the big challenges early in our marriage that I didn't see coming was how all of the attention Michael got would make me feel. This was particularly a problem when we were at church. People were falling all over themselves to say hi to him, shake his hand, fix him a bagel, hold the door open, while I was there, carrying his stuff, the door slamming in my face. People would literally come up to him and greet him, and not say a single word to me.
That hurt me so deeply. I felt invisible. I was depressed, and I was actually jealous when people were like, "Mike, you're so awesome, you're such an inspiration, and we're so happy to have you here," I was thinking awful thoughts like, "What? What about me? Who do you think got him, up, dressed, made his breakfast and drove him here so he could inspire you?... oh, yeah. Me. I'm over here!"
I have gotten used to that now. Now, I realize it's mainly people overcompensating, trying so hard to make him feel "included" (which is hilarious, because he doesn't really ever feel not included he's such a social person!) that they just skip right over me. Michael has also helped a lot, by directing the conversation to me, when I am being ignored, and holding my hand in church, just to remind me that even when I feel like no one else sees me, he does.

Tamara: What are your hopes for your family?

Dana: We hope to have a family one day. Actually, not too far from now. We aren't getting any younger, haha! We hope to start the process of trying in the next year or so. We have to get through this election first, because then my job will calm down a lot. We honestly don't know what to expect when it comes to trying to make a baby. We've never really tried! We expect some challenges, and it will take some help in some way, but we're not sure yet how involved that help will be. We're hoping to be able to pull it off ourselves. We'll see!

Thank you Dana and Mike! I hope your dreams for your family come true!

You see why I think those two are so awesome now, don't you? They blog regularly, so if you want to hear more about their lives, have questions for them, or even if you know someone who could benefit from reading their story, feel free to check out their site here.

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