Doing it Disabled

My sexuality is fluid. It flows with my state of mind, my health, my clothing -- my general attitude. It flows like the tide, ebbing and peaking from the pull of the moon. I don't believe I'm alone in this peculiarity of life.Looking back over my years, I observe a map of my self-esteem. It is a reflection of my claimed status in life -- how I felt about myself and my surroundings at each interval. I see its valleys and mountains and remember time and place. Lows -- when I was 24, the mother of three children, and feeling very unloved, unwanted, and undesirable. And highs -- a 31 year-old single mother who worked as an apprentice machinist, made good money, and knew my abilities and my sexual being. I felt strong, secure and sexually confident. I projected that image.I did take a side-trip between then and now -- and that probably made more of a difference in my sexual existence than I will ever know.I was married (for the third time) at the age of 33. The man caught my eye, caught my heart, and gave me the ability to be myself without apology. He also gave me a great lesson on sexuality. I was injured in an automobile accident less than two months after we married. I am paralyzed from mid-nipple down and use a wheelchair for mobility. Three years after the accident, I was still struggling to find my place. Who I was. What was left.I felt down. Lost. One night, in daring and desperate conversation, I told my husband that I no longer felt like a sexual being. His answer stung, but made all the difference in my life. He studied me carefully and replied, "That is not my problem." Instantly, I knew exactly where the problem lie. It was my state of mind. I knew I could perform physically, I'd discovered that aspect of my sexual identity was still intact shortly after my injury. I needed to take a good hard look at how I perceived my sexual self in relation to the world, find my shortcomings and adjust my viewpoint. I needed to stop projecting negative thoughts about my sexuality.Victoria really does have a secret -- clothing does have a great influence on our sexuality. There is a sexual direction driven by appearance and how we feel about ourselves. After my injury, hospitalization (months of nothing but hospital gowns) and rehabilitation (where learning to dress oneself again usually involved wearing sweat-pants on a daily basis), the importance of apparel had dimmed in my memory. I also had to fight with the grief I felt after coming home from the rehabilitation hospital and seeing my former attire -- that no longer fit my body -- hanging in my closet and folded forgotten in my drawers. High heels, short skirts and dresses that no longer worked with my physique made me mourn for my former self. Work pants and boots -- no longer a choice -- made me weep. They reminded me of my former employment and the job I could no longer do. I had to find my new identity whether I wanted it or not.I decided my first step would be one that drove me back out into the world and I enrolled in college. Once I overcame insecurities about my use of a wheelchair (and the fact that I was old enough to be the mother of most of my fellow students), I began to find a sense of self-esteem. I didn't even notice that it had happened, but amazingly, I discovered myself transformed into something desirable and necessary. I no longer projected negative thoughts about myself and could see the difference in how others viewed and treated me. I began to paint my nails and wonder about new hair colors. I flirted once again. The change came from within -- as all changes must. This might sound pretty shallow, but it has real depth.What's up with sex? My ability to physically climax is still an enigma after 14 years of paralysis. I understand that orgasm is 99 percent brain energy, but the physical part is where I become confused. How can a woman not feel a touch, or even a deep cut in the damaged area of their body, but react to stimulation to their clitoris? Women with paralysis have much better odds of achieving climax after injury than men. In reality, we probably have about the same odds as women who are able-bodied. We are also able to bear children without problem.A male quadriplegic friend, who was injured in his early 20's, once told me that "Black Monday", when the stock market crashed in 1987, was almost as castrating to him as his original injury. Over the years he had played the stock market and did quite well. He explained that he had transferred his sexual ability to take care of a woman to his financial capability. He was pretty straight forward with his inner feelings and I understood that I was lucky to be a woman when it came to sexual performance with a spinal cord injury.Men with spinal cord injury have a much more difficult time adjusting to life and their new sexual identity than women -- in my opinion. Not only do they have to stress and mourn the fact that they are no longer the bread-winner in their usual way, but their sexual performance is not what it used to be. Nowadays, medication (such as Viagra) helps compensate for the difficulty of achieving an erection, but men must still deal with insemination problems and the apprehension of truly satisfying a partner.The bottom-line is that adding disability to one's sexual identity definitely keeps life from getting boring. One consoling thought is that I didn't have to endure the slow diminishing effects created by aging. I dealt with many of these insecurities early in life and realized that my position, my claimed status and attitude, belonged mainly to my self-esteem. I created its securities within my own being. Now, at age 47, I feel no lack of sexual identity. That doesn't mean I'm safe from future feelings of insecurity and loss of self-esteem. It happens at all ages.We are sexual creatures. Preening oneself before an encounter with our environment is a compulsion. We establish communication, assert our rightful place, and move ahead. Unfortunately, it can be that simple. Usually, the only thing holding us back is an unwillingness to participate in our social environment. Much of this hesitation spawns from television commercials and magazine advertisements that portray people as beautiful, seductive, and successful. These influences are powerful and can easily prey on our insecurities.Marriage has a defined calling with those of us who are disabled. It calls on each of us to accept one another and live within its constraints. It asks our spouses to accept an almost unacceptable condition and embrace it with unconditional love. In retrospect, I believe that this is a predicament that sweeps across every intimate relationship. No one is truly different when it comes to affairs of the heart.We are one.Flicka Dukes lives and works from her home near Creston. She is a former publisher and editor of a newspaper that addressed issues surrounding the elderly and people with disabilities.

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