Monday, October 2

Lessons from heartbreaks


DISABILITY is hard on relationships. No matter how much optimism there was in the beginning, sooner or later it would wear thin. Promises to love each other till the end of time become meaningless. When one side loses hope of a bright future together, a breakup is only a matter of time.

Tribulations like this are no stranger to me. While spinal cord injury broke me physically, the women I gave my heart to broke me emotionally. Between the two, emotional pain was more difficult to bear. It gnawed at the very core of my being and left me drained of the will to do anything, even to live.

I had just gone steady with a girl for a couple of months when I became severely paralysed. After I was discharged from the hospital, we spent most of our time together at home. Those were our dates. My immobility made going out difficult, if not impossible at that time. We carried on like that for three years despite her parents’ objections.

She was a young woman. Her life was just beginning. It must have been tough on her to have a boyfriend who could not take her out for a movie or a stroll at the beach. I was neither in a position to offer financial nor emotional security to her. The future with me looked bleak.

Cracks in the relationship began to appear when it became apparent I would never recover. The signs were obvious. We quarrelled often. Unpleasant words were exchanged. Conversations over the telephone always ended up with the handset being slammed down. I clung on tightly even then.

“If she left,” I reasoned, “no other woman would want me any more.”

The spats culminated to the day she told me straight to the face, “You’re a toad dreaming of eating swan meat.” This is a Chinese euphemism for an ugly man wishing to marry a pretty girl.

“I don’t want to regret in the future,” she added, and walked out.

There was nothing I could do to save the relationship. She was resolute. The breakup hit me hard. It is true that the first cut is the deepest. I fell into depression and became withdrawn. The insides of my chest hurt each time I breathed. I felt empty and despondent. Hopelessness overwhelmed me.

I ate little and barely slept. My complexion turned sallow. I became thinner and thinner by the day. My parents did everything they could to cheer me up but I was determined to wallow in self-pity. They were so worried for me to the extent they got our family doctor to come check on me.

“If you continue starving yourself, I’ll have to admit you into the ward and put you on drip,” Dr Shanti warned.   I gave her a dry smile and nodded when she made me agree to start eating again. I may not have had the appetite to eat but the thought of having to stay in the hospital was even more unpalatable.

Jenny, my physiotherapist, also dropped by to find out why I had missed several sessions with her. The look on my face and the monosyllabic responses told her as much.

“Nobody is worth dying for,” she told me.

Those words resonated in my mind. It made sense. No one is so important for me to give up my life for. She went on to make me realise I was not only hurting myself but the people around me as well. It was only then I saw how immature I was when it came to matters of the heart. As I recovered from that episode, I was mentally prepared for a life of singlehood believing that no other woman would find my condition desirable.

Hope springs eternal nonetheless. I told myself that if  ever I got involved again, it would be because of love and not because I was desperate for a companion, and that she must be able to accept me – impairments, warts and all.

As fate would have it, I went into a relationship again shortly after that. We were good friends and had dated on and off before my accident. She came into it with full realisation of my limitations and what she was getting herself into.

Like other couples, we had our ups and downs too. Half of the 12 years we were together were spent apart because she was working overseas. I gave it my all anyway. Ultimately, the distance, lengthy periods of separation and temptations of the foreign land tore us apart.

Naturally, I was sad, having invested so much time and heart into it but I knew better than to allow depression to take over like the last time. In a way, I was also glad we finally got it over with. The feelings had long been gone. I know she tried to make it work but being with a disabled person, especially one with severe impairments, takes more than love and courage. It requires perseverance and great physical effort to support me in performing my daily activities. These are traits not many people can keep at in the long run.

Heartbreaks may be painful but they are not the end of the world. I survived twice. What didn’t kill me made me stronger. I never fully recovered from them but with each occurrence I learnt to love better and deeper. I also learnt there are people out there who are able to look beyond physical attributes and love the person for who he is inside regardless.

To be in love is a beautiful experience irrespective of the outcome. Lord Alfred Tennyson said it succinctly when he wrote, “Tis better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.” I am glad I didn’t let the painful experiences dissuade me because my true love and I found each other in the end.