Erin Clark is a Canadian living in Spain. Writer, Spanish National Parapole Champion, world traveller. She has been published in Refinery29, Wheelchairtravel.org and won the non-fiction award judged by Joy Castro and was printed in the 7th edition of Beecher's Literary Magazine.
She created 'Sex Icon Magazine' where she does all the photography, modeling and writing.
Her work centers herself and her personal life as a disabled women in narratives with as much adventure, glamour, sex appeal and empowerment as she can get herself into.
Photo credit: Eli Mora (https://www.facebook.com/elimoraphoto/)
When I was in grade 4, our class had a pottery lesson. We got into pairs and made rectangular boxes out of clay. My partner was a boy named Seamus. Our box was perfectly measured, the seams smoothly glued by our wet fingertips. We even had a lid. I remember his name because when our box was ready to be sent to the kiln we sat on the bench outside the classroom, under the coat rack, nestled in the down-filled coats, and decided what to write on the bottom.
“Do you want to write ‘Seamus and Erin?” he asked. “But with a plus sign?”
“Oh. You mean with a heart?” I asked. And he did. He meant with a heart.
“We could put a heart next to it… or put our names inside the heart… if you want.” He said. I wish I remembered how he looked when he did.
We signed our clay box: Seamus + Erin. Inside a heart.
Seamus wasn’t the last boy who would be sweet on me. Sweet with me. But he is one of the last ones I would be sweet to in return.
Soon after, I would hit puberty. I would go through puberty as a person with a disability. Before puberty, a disabled child is a sexless angel of soul perfection. A disabled child post puberty is a conundrum. Society still wants us to be sexless angels of soul perfection. But we are not sexless. Hormones come for us, too. Desire changes us, too. Desire to be wanted, to be touched, to be loved.
While our peers date and crush and freak out and figure themselves out, we are told - perpetually - that part of growing up isn’t for us. Sex with us is a taboo, romance with us is embarrassing. No one will love us - that way. Some people are trying to prepare us. Some are genuinely trying to sympathize. Some are still thinking of us as sexless, angel babies whose thoughts are tuned to celestial things and couldn’t possibly care about dumb romance one way or the other. None of them realize they are creating the reality for us as they speak.Then we’re pre-teens, fresh teenagers. Ravaged by hormones and not the most equipped to deal with the social and emotional complexities involved in dating in general, let alone dating someone with a disability. Including the person with the disability. It’s not like I had the answers and could calmly talk a cute boy through it. I was ALSO losing my mind with sex fever! And if he didn’t know yet that he wasn’t supposed to like me that way, someone would point it out to him soon. There were still boys who were sweet on me. Sweet to me. But I had gone mean. And then I stopped recognizing them.
The next boy who was sweet on me, sweet to me, lived in the co-op housing-complex next to mine. We were in grade 6 and hung out all the time. He knew what catheters were because his dad was a medical supplier. I know that because I tried to hide mine once and he told me he didn’t think it was weird that I used them. He went on vacation and brought me back a comb. The comb was teal, with ‘ERIN’ printed on it in pink letters. He knocked on my door and delivered me a gift. It stung. It felt like pain. I would not understand for a very long time why a romantic gesture, an open heart, or total acceptance would make me feel monstrous. The next thing I remember was teasing him badly in our local playground. I kept the comb for a long time. We were in grade 7 and 8 together, but we weren’t friends anymore.
Before I ever got to romance, first dates, first kisses, first loves - I was already heartbroken. It wasn’t something someone had done to me. It was my environment. I lived in an ecosystem of rejection. Old ladies in shops while I tried to buy a decorative night light telling me what a shameful waste my beauty was considering I was in a wheelchair. Television shows I loved bringing on a wheelchair-girl character just to show her being romantically rejected and it be presented as sympathetic but totally reasonable. Movies where disabled characters were written in constant anguish by able-bodied writers who simply couldn’t imagine a person with a disability experiencing romantic fulfillment. Men I had just hooked up with telling me they hoped I had fun because they could imagine how hard it was for me to date.
It didn’t occur to me as a young girl to question the assertion that I was unlovable. The question I was asking instead was: How do I live in a world where this is true? How do I keep going knowing there is no real chance for me to be loved that way? What do I do with all this passion and sexuality and love burgeoning in me? Watch porn and read romance novels? Forever? Big questions for a young girl who hasn’t even had a first date yet. It seemed clear to me, If I was going to make it, if I was going to thrive in some indefinite unloved state, I would need a way to take the edge off. Thankfully, I had my imagination.
I live by my imagination. Most things I do start with an impasse between me and the collective reality. The general consensus on what’s possible for disabled people. A consensus that is prohibiting me in some way. I sort of phase out. Imagine the thing I want. Imagine it into my body - make it physical. And then I get this tug that it’s time to come out of the dream and I bring it with me into reality. Sometimes that happens through my self-expression. My writing, my selfies. Other times in the form of a lived experience, like when I travel or have a not-wheelchair-accessible adventure, or become the spanish parapole champion. It always, eventually, comes out of the fantasy and into the real world. The real version and dream version are often not precisely the same, but the real version after the dream version is infinitely more amazing than the options I was given by the status quo. And the process is what I live for. I keep dreaming and doing. As a young girl, romantic love seemed no more abstract and impossible than any of the other things I could dream real.
I dreamed instead of dated.
It was incredibly effective at keeping me going, at making desires I believed couldn’t be fulfilled feel more bearable. But a dream is not a relationship. A dream is not enough.
The trick where I transition from the fantasy into reality doesn’t work the same when someone else is part of it. Love so deeply involves the willingness of another person. Another person with all their own reasons to dream of and dread the total surrender of their heart to the unknown. If you’re not in on the same dream, you can’t find footing in reality together. The dream dies and reinforces the feeling that love - for me - isn’t real.
At some point I had the maturity and security and sense of self to finally ask the better question - not: how will I cope with this? But: is this even true? Is it true, really, that no one will ever love me that way? The answer is: No. Not necessarily true. Annoyingly, by the time I started asking that question it was also apparent that I had become part of the problem. I was so used to spurning the advances of sincere sweetness and selecting ideal candidates for fantasies that I had no idea what a partner for reality looked like. Or how to let them love me. I was making terrible romantic choices.
I slowed down. Way down. I remembered my heartbreak. The beginning. I started from there.
I used to think the solution was to stop dreaming. That seemed like a ‘reasonable’ change. Most of the people I meet live pretty firmly in a certain reality. They aren’t phasing out whenever they need a solution because most of their day-to-day isn’t filled with obstacles. They don’t have to imagine things first because they can just go ahead and do it. And stay mostly on track. While I’m leaping all over the place to find some way to do the regular and also some extraordinary stuff. How could they keep up? Maybe I shouldn’t dream and date - I should just date.
But the social reality - the consensus that people with disabilities don’t get to experience romantic fulfillment - hasn’t really changed. That reality still exists outside me. In some ways, it still exists inside me, too. Though I am less mean, now. Wheelchair romance takes adaptation, creativity, a crapload of imagination. For many of us with disabilities, It doesn’t seem to happen smoothly, or without thinking - nothing in our lives happens that way. That makes the ability to dream a kind of romance - with all the delicacies of the heart that can still withstand what the world will do to it - very important.
I want to change myself a lot less. Wheelchair-using, heartbroken dreamer. I'm excited by people who can dream with me. Coming up with fantastic possibilities in the realm where rules don't apply, figuring out the trick of transitioning - together - into the world of limits and see how much of our love can still fly.
Photo credit: Erin Clark (wearing Slick Chicks bikini brief)
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