Dating and the Hide-the-Disability Mode
Updated: Feb 17
I remembered his dark hair falling in front of his face when he wrote: turned totally inwards, a left-handed elegant scrawl. He was pensive and clever. He had very pretty blue eyes, though you only caught a glimpse of them when he occasionally looked up and through his dark hair. We sat on a table together in year 5. I still have a crystal-clear image of him then. As well as the memory of thinking about him for more hours than the ones we were sat on that table for.
We went to separate secondary schools. Did not bump into each other. We caught each other at the end of my university degree, in a different city from the one we’d grown up in. On Tinder. Initially, when he wrote, “long time, no see”, I jumped out of my skin (he’d recognised me, I’d not recognised him). We chatted.
Moved from Tinder to Facebook, where we’d been friends for 10+ years. I (bizarrely) mentioned that I remembered he was left-handed and that he had (very pretty) blue eyes.
Fast forward to when we met. I remarked, ‘you’re tall,’ – I didn’t remember him being tall at school – so I was taken aback to find a man towering above six foot. He observed, ‘your hair is long.’ Never mind the puberty and life that had transformed us since the last day of year six. After the initial curiosity had worn off, we found that we really got on. He was also – how should I put this – nine-year-old me had good taste.
As our relationship took off, I fell unthinkingly into Hide-the-Disability mode.
What this equates to is never ever going on any early dates that involve any walking. As well as doing as few physical tasks as possible, even at the expense of seeming lazy or uninterested.
Alcohol has also been a great aid as it can be a useful guise (or even, co-conspirator) for many of the symptoms of cerebral palsy. Pissed or not pissed, I don’t walk in the straightest of lines; at least pissed, I can blame it on something other than my cerebral palsy. Additionally, alcohol also decreases the other person’s awareness of you and your body. I have bumped into a coffee table, giggled, and said, ‘sorry, I’m really drunk’ whilst internally thinking: you’re not really that drunk, your balance is off because you have cerebral palsy. You would bump into that table anyway. You bump into tables often.
What dating and the Hide-the-Disability mode always boils down to is being hyper-aware of my body’s every movement in a strenuous effort to maintain the able-bodied façade. It prevents me from focusing on my company and tires me out. At moments, during these performances, I have looked at myself from the outside and thought, this is very, very sad. I am you, and yet, I feel sorry for you. What are you doing? If you are so afraid of this person knowing that you have cerebral palsy – if you are so afraid of their reaction – then you should not be here anyway.
The impulse to do this is deep-rooted. It stems from the belief that no one will fancy me if they know that I am disabled. Of course, as the relationship progresses, this “secret” becomes increasingly impossible to be hide. When my family visit, they expect to be enlisted to take a bin out, shift a heavy object, or a strip a bed. Long-term, any partner would have to know about my disability. Even in a more casual relationship, the differences and limitations of my body reveal themselves.
Eventually, always, I would get to a point where I thought They Really Ought to Know I’m Disabled Now. Perhaps, it was because my feelings for the person were progressing, and deep down I know that any long-term relationship is unsustainable without them knowing this fact about me. Or (more likely), they’d commented on one of CP symptoms and it had made me feel uncomfortable. Maybe they’d laughed. Or I’d wanted to explain something I was doing the Scarlett way to normalise it and found myself tongue-tied.
One day, when I was with my new (old?) man, I knew that a dress I’d been eyeing up for months was on sale. However, it was also a forty-minute walk away, and we had not done a forty-minute walk together yet. At this point, we had not had the conversation where I said, ‘I have cerebral palsy…’ I was still very much in Hide-the-Disability mode. Nothing about him made me believe he’d react badly to my having cerebral palsy. I just automatically clutched on to Hide-the-Disability mode as my safety blanket. I felt torn between wanting to drag him forty minutes to purchase this dress and absolutely not wanting him to see me walk anywhere at all. Fortunately, the desperation for the dress overcame my anxiety over walking with him. Yet, I was incredibly self-conscious of my walk. My self-consciousness was distracting, frustrating, exhausting. And when you’ve been operating in the Hide-the-Disability mode for years, it’s just boring.
There was a whispering, nagging voice in my head saying: he probably remembers that you are disabled. You were at ten and that hasn’t changed…In primary school, my disability had been a lot more obvious as I had worn splints on my left arm and leg and had struggled with subjects like DT and PE.
Prior to this relationship, I had not had really dated anyone who knew much (if anything at all) about my disability before a romantic connection had been established. Sometimes this was incidental; sometimes this was really, really not incidental. I thought it would be impossible for anyone to fancy me if they knew about my disability from the outset. Admittedly, this is a terrible, ableist belief, and one that needed interrogating. But sometimes, these beliefs are so imbedded that you fall into the Hide-the-Disability mode automatically. Hide-the-Disability mode feels safe. It is safer to be an able-bodied person trying to date than it is being a disabled person trying to date.
Afraid, I continued on with my Hide-the-Disability mode. Only, this time, the voice kept nagging: he probably knows, he probably remembers…why are you being so weird about this when he probably already knows…It started to get to me, to bother me.
Eventually, as always, I had to announce my disability. Own it, if you will.
This time, it was not, ‘I have cerebral palsy…’, it was, ‘do you remember I have cerebral palsy?’
Yes. Yes, he did.
Pop. Pop goes out the air of that very tense balloon.
He’d known all along. He’d met up with me already knowing that I was disabled. Not only that, the last image he had of me was when my disability was at its most visually obvious, and he still met up with me. He remembered me before I’d chosen to abandon my splints, as the signifiers of my disability, and had tried so desperately to maintain this non-disabled façade. Someone remembering you as a disabled, shy, bookish, pretentious, socially outcast ten-year-old and still wanting to go on a first date with you is special. It does away with many of those self-hating feelings that you’ve carried with you from that time. Aside from my very lovely best friend, I don’t have many fond memories of primary school. But he was never cruel to me, and you remember things like that.
This relationship has caused me to re-evaluate many of my preconceived notions about my own desirability in relation to my disability. It has made me realise how stilting the Hide-the-Disability mode can be. And that when you are looking for a genuine connection with someone, Hide-the-Disability mode gets in the way of you feeling fully accepted and loved.
 Thanks guys.  Not sure he entirely enjoyed following me dress-shopping, though.  To be honest, the cerebral palsy was probably the least off-putting aspect of ten-year-old me that would have prevented him from meeting up with twenty-one-year-old me.