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10 things you're too scared to ask a quadriplegic

07 December 2015, 09:43Lili Radloff interviews Tracy Todd

How did you become paralysed?

This is probably the question I am asked most frequently. People always want to know what happened. They want all the gory details. The short version is that I was involved in a car accident almost 16 years ago at the age of 28.

I took off my seat belt while my husband was driving and climbed over into the backseat of the car to change my baby's nappy. Moments later the car in front of us came to a sudden halt causing a chain of events which led to our vehicle landing up on its roof. I hit my head on the roof of the car as it overturned, breaking my neck and injuring my spinal cord at the 4th cervical vertebrae.

At the time of the accident, I was a young, active, independent woman, wife and mother. I had a successful teaching career and was a talented sportswoman. I was happily married, had a beautiful baby boy (10 months old) and filled with the joys of life as I made plans with my husband, our friends and family to live out our dreams.

Not only did I lose the use of my arms and legs, my privacy, my independence, my career but I also lost my home, my husband (we were divorced a year later) and most tragically, custody of my son. This was given to my ex-husband. My entire world fell apart.

So you can't move your body at all. Can you move your head?

Yes. I can move my head from side to side and up and down. I can shrug my shoulders upwards, but need to rely on gravity to bring them down again.

That is the sum total of my physical independence. So in essence I am paralysed from the neck down. If you really want to put me in a box (which I hate) I am classified medically as a C4 quadriplegic – and still human. Yay! I guess that makes me more unique than most. When I was younger I always wished to be different. One should be careful what you wish for.

How and what do you eat?

That's easy, I eat with my mouth and chew my food with my teeth... just like you do!

But somebody has to feed me. Usually my care assistant is tasked with that job when I am at home. Otherwise, friends and family take over when I'm out with them.

What does your body look like after years of inaction?

My body doesn't look too bad with clothes on. It's amazing what one can hide underneath clothes.

My muscles have completely dissipated sadly. But hey, I still have two arms and two legs. And for that, I am grateful.

Oh, and I have dream feet. As soft as a baby's bum. No pedicure in the world can achieve the same result. My nails are always beautifully manicured. It helps not to have to do the dishes, doll! So, there are advantages to being differently-abled.

There was a time in my life when I had a beautiful, sexy body. I hated it! I constantly complained.... my boobs were too big (I mean really!), my bum was too fat (all size 32 of it!), my legs were too muscular (calves to die for! The guys were so jealous!) etc. I should have been walking around on my hands at the time (and I could have because I was a good gymnast in my day). But I was self-conscious and always covering up.

Opportunities lost! I didn't appreciate what I had until I lost it!

My body loves me unconditionally, even when I have hated it or wanted to swap it. I have abused my body endlessly yet, it is always here for me carrying me through life. If I had treated anyone else as badly or taken them for granted as I have done to my body, they would have abandoned me a long time ago.

You have a son. How does he deal with this?

I think the greatest blessing is that my son has never known me any different. He was 10 months old at the time of the accident. I think it was more difficult for me to adapt to not being able to hold my baby than for him to adapt to having a mom in a wheelchair. To him, I am simply Mom and I need to get on with doing that job. Children have a unique way of keeping things in perspective. Luckily for me, he is an extremely affectionate boy (even though he is already 18) and he has never been ashamed of me (that I am aware of).

Did your husband support you?

The accident was an extremely traumatic experience to deal with for two young people, in the prime of their lives. There is no manual that one can follow, no real advice, no true support structure to help one deal with something so extreme. The situation left both of us, our families and our friends all reeling.  None of us knew what to do or how to handle the predicament.  We both made many mistakes and probably have many regrets. But, we can't go back. We can't change the past but hopefully we can make a difference to the future.

My ex-husband is an excellent father to our son and that is all that matters.

Do you miss sex?

Most people automatically assume – wrongly – that because I am paralysed I am unable to have sex. That is because society has fallen into the classic – and all too common – trap of defining intimacy between two people who love one another deeply as "sex" which in my mind is "animal-like genital intercourse".

The reason I feel the need to be so explicit about this is that many people simply take it for granted that I would not be able to fulfill any man's sexual needs and therefore would not make a suitable life partner. Nothing could be further from the truth. I've heard of many relationships that fall apart because a fully functioning partner has the inability to connect physically with the other.  Thus my abilities – or seemingly lack of – hold no relevance.

But if you must know I have a wonderful man in my life again and I wouldn’t swap our intimacy for anything in the world.

Have you ever contemplated suicide?

Yes, many times over, especially in the beginning. I'd say that the first four years were the most difficult. The most frustrating thing for me was the fact that I had been stripped of that choice. I cannot commit suicide without help. No one has been very willing to help me in that regard.

I thought many times of driving my wheelchair in front of a truck or a bus. The only thing that has stopped me from going through with it is the fact that my selfish act has the potential to ruin other lives by killing or maiming people on the bus or the driver of the truck.

The most difficult part of being paralysed from the neck down is not the immobility; it is the relentless battle that goes on in my head. I don't believe that I will ever be able to get to the point where I can fully accept my state of being, trapped by my own body, almost living like a sort of modern-day mummy.

I recognise that I will still face a lifetime of mind-wars which will probably leave me weary and feeling defeated, at times.

But, I know that I must continue to do my utmost to make peace with this way of life.

Thankfully, I have learned that nothing is worth taking one's own life. I make a conscious decision, everyday, to put a smile on my face and to be positive, in order to get on with life, as is.  If not for me, then for my loved ones, most especially, my son.

Do you walk/run/dance in your dreams?

In my dreams I am always a fully-functioning, able-bodied person who is extremely physically active – running, jumping, dancing wildly – never just walking. In my dreams I have never seen myself in a wheelchair. I think it is indicative of my mindset where I have consciously decided that I am NOT disabled.

I never allow myself to think that I can't do something. I can do everything (and more) that you can do. The only difference is that I need a little more assistance. I injured my spinal cord, not my abilities.

If you could change what happened to you, would you?

Yes. This kind of life is extreme. The frustrations of complete physical immobility are sometimes incommunicable. I try to focus on what I can do and what I have rather than what I can't do and what I don't have.

I continue to remind myself that there are people worse off.

But, to be honest, it doesn't stop me secretly yearning to do more and wishing that things were different.

Have you changed as a person because of what happened to you?

Yes. I've changed. I believe we all change as we grow older.

There will always be familiar personality traits, unique to each of us, which are fundamental to whom we are as people. But, continual exposure to knowledge must reshape you. Awareness and understanding can re-form you. Events and happenings will mould you.

Most profoundly, unpredictable joys and sorrows redefine your essence as a human being, time and time again. Experiences change you. It's called life.

If there was only one thing you could do again, what would you choose?

At the top of a very long list would have to be the ability to put my arms around the people who I love. I don't need my legs. I don't even need my hands. All I want is the use of my arms. Surely that is not too much to ask?

I wish more than anything that I could reach out and hug, especially my son.

Do you mind people asking you questions?

Humans, by nature, are curious. We are also quick to notice differences and then become inquisitive. As a result of my disability, I have been asked many questions. I don't mind.

Questions provide an invitation for you to get to know me; a chance for me to bring you into my world; an opportunity for me to expose my heart and soul so that you can see that I'm not as different as you think I am.

Please feel free to ask me anything, any time – nothing is too personal. There are no stupid questions. The only thing that makes you stupid is ignorance.

Ask me. Come on. You know you want to.

Click here to read more from Tracy follow her on Twitter and like her Facebook page.

- Woman24


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