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15 Jun

Relationships – Overcoming struggle and staying strong together

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The birth of our daughter was one of the most amazing moments in our lives, but it did not come without challenges of its own, and our previous problems didn’t go away either. This event brought up several new obstacles and struggles, both emotionally and physically. I couldn’t play my part on the physical side of things as a father, patting my daughter’s back when she cried, changing her nappy and helping my wife. My wife had to do all these duties. This had a great impact on my mental health – I was frustrated that I couldn’t help to ease her burdens, and sad that I couldn’t do things like hold my daughter. This combination of feelings and struggle took its toll at the time, and were difficult to overcome.

Like any other couple we had our moments – we fought over things both big and small. I won’t lie and say that everything was smooth. Things were rocky, especially those first few years, but we endured and supported each other through the tough times and I think we came through it stronger and better as a couple. I look back on what we achieved; seeing my daughter growing from crawling to walking and flourishing under our parenthood, that gave us something to keep our relationship strong not only for ourselves but for her. We knew we needed to be there for her and we gave everything our best shot. At one point we went to see a marriage counsellor, to help us realise what we needed to hold dear about our relationship and what we needed to fix between ourselves. Sometimes, we think we can handle everything ourselves, but when it gets too much it is good to reach out for help. There is assistance out there for any situation – no problem is unsolvable and I am glad we sought out that outside perspective on our problems. I don’t think we would have come this far without that counselling, and I am not ashamed of asking for that help because I have seen the value of it, and what we could achieve with it.

I cannot emphasise enough how incredible and how valuable the help of both of our families and friendship circles were. They took on some of our burdens and made it so that we could have some times to ourselves, and I am grateful for that. It was good to be able to just get away for times here and there – when we got away, we could truly see and appreciate what we had and what we had achieved for our family, and we could come back feeling refreshed. That network of family and friends was very important in our lives and I don’t think we would have done this well without their support. My wife and I committed to this relationship before we had any idea of the problems and events we would face in our future – not even our distant future, but our immediate one. We were almost overwhelmed at first as we thought we could handle it all on our own, but the combination of family, friends and professional support was what we needed to make our relationship work as we have now, and there is no shame in that. I am proud to be able to name so many wonderful supportive people, both informal and professional, who made our life together a possibility and I hope they know how much we appreciate them for it. Good relationships are the foundation of a good life and a good future, and we must nurture them.

When a partner incurs a spinal injury, many couples don’t address their problems or concerns right away. It can be especially difficult for younger people, who are still working out so much in life. Sex and intimacy are huge issues for many couples and for a young person to hear they are paralysed from the waist down, that can be a huge discouragement and cause for depression. But things are not over – you can still do everything you used to, just in a different way. This subject needs to be talked about between partners and in general. Any couple needs to be given the support and information to know they can still have sex after having a spinal injury. Doctors are there to help you find ways around these problems, and can prescribe a number of aids both medical and prosthetic to assist you in getting used to the new ways of doing things. It’s the same intimacy, just done a different way, and it’s important to focus on the possibilities rather than limitations. I speak about this because I know I need to – it’s not often discussed in the early days and there is very little information given about this topic by medical professionals during rehabilitation. It’s sad to see struggles with intimacy cause relationships to break down, especially when couples have children together, and there is not enough education about sex and intimacy available in the early days. If it’s mentioned, it’s only when you’re about to be discharged, and for couples that are facing a minimum of 6 months in rehabilitation, that can be far too late, and that relationship could easily break down in the meantime.

I understand many don’t like discussing things like sex, that it’s often considered awkward or taboo. It’s especially hard to have these discussions when you’re coping with the trauma of a newly acquired spinal injury, but while people may not say it, they are often thinking about it. I believe it’s very important to discuss this kind of intimacy in relationships early on, even in the first month of rehabilitation if you are able. It’s important to see the positives, to build a future based on mutual respect, adjustment and hard work. That can only happen if we are honest and if the appropriate education is available, instead of situations where couples are given the bare minimum of information about this issue and then, often given it too late.

All these things are what made our relationship keep working and remain strong. I’m not saying we’re problem free – we still have our moments, like any other couple. But at least we know we can deal with them now. If you’re beginning to feel overwhelmed, and think things might get out of hand, I would advise to see a professional mental health support person. They are there to help, and can assist with many problems you are facing. Marriage counsellors, therapists, psychiatrists and psychologists are all available – reaching out for this help earlier rather than later can be your saving grace, before the problems get too big for you to handle. Speak to your family members or friends if you need to, the ones who love and understand you, your needs and your situation. The ones who will encourage you to stay together and build on the healthy aspects of a relationship. Those informal networks are absolutely valuable. You could also seek out those who are in similar situations to you. Connect with other couples who are facing the same issues or who have overcome problems you are now facing – even strangers can offer amazing advice and you would be surprised how many beautiful people are out there waiting to help how they can. Peer mentors and listening posts are very important. Maintaining a balance of both professional and informal support networks can be challenging but infinitely helpful if you can surround yourself with people who can give you the encouragement you need. We share our lives and experiences as we hope it will help other couples see the possibilities in life.

 

Next time I will be talking about how spinal injury affected my body.