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Last Friday, my girlfriend Laura and I went to Open Stage, a club in Coral Gables, Florida, to meet some of our high school classmates for a fun-filled evening of karaoke and drinks. Unlike our first karaoke night back in October, the turnout was small; when we got to the club, we found out that it was just us and Anita, the organizer of the event. Luckily there were other club-goers who were participating in a birthday party/karaoke night get-together, so Anita, Laura, and I sang our four songs, had our share of drinks, then left the club at 10:30 p.m.
I had fun that night even though I was disappointed that none of the others that had RSVP’d attended. Maybe it was because the event was held on a Friday night and it was hard for many of the invitees to go to a club for drinks and singing almost right after work. Or maybe it was because another classmate had scheduled a disco dancing get-together in Doral that same night. (Disco dancing to ‘80s songs, apparently, trumps jumping up on stage to sing in public after having a drink or two.)
Although I’m now in a loving relationship with an attractive and intelligent woman and I’ve been socializing more in my 50s, I still remember that much of my adult life was marked by loneliness and social isolation because I have a mild case of spastic cerebral palsy (CP).
I don’t often talk about my CP; even when I discuss health issues with my physician, we usually don’t discuss it except maybe peripherally. Once, when I lost 36 pounds in three months after my late mother became ill and I became her primary caregiver, I asked my doctor why I wasn’t gaining weight even though I was eating more. “Oh,” the doctor said, “that’s because your involuntary movements, combined with a fast metabolism, make you burn up calories even if you are sitting still. Since your muscles are contracting and expanding even though you think you’re stationary, you move around a lot without wanting to.”
Now, when I was a kid, I didn’t have too many problems related to socialization. Maybe it was because my mom never treated me as if my CP was the sole factor that defined me as a child. She often made it a point to make sure I didn’t feel “different” or “disabled,” even if it meant allowing me to have impossible illusions about becoming an astronaut or a Marine when I grew up.
So for a while, I was just a happy-go-lucky little tyke who just had issues with tying his shoes or stumbling and falling more than his playmates. I was even precocious about girls; in third grade I was gutsy enough to tell one of my classmates that I wanted to be her boyfriend. We ended up going together from third grade till I was in sixth grade.
She was a year ahead of me, and since junior high (what we now call middle school) started in seventh grade, her departure for another school campus marked the end of our relationship. She started noticing other boys and developed a crush on one of them. Then she broke up with me.
This breakup made me lose much of my self-confidence, and since by now I was in regular classes instead of in Special Ed ones I was surrounded by attractive girls who were not disabled. I had crushes on many of them, but when I hit puberty (or puberty hit me), I became too self-conscious about my CP. I kept on getting the “Alex, you’re sweet, but I need a boyfriend who can ride a bike or walk around like a normal guy” speech from girls I asked on dates.
After a particularly crushing rejection from a blonde cheerleader in ninth grade, I retreated into my shell, so to speak, and gave up on the dating scene. I liked many girls in high school and college, but I was so sure that my CP was a turn-off that I kept my feelings tightly bottled up. Oh, I’d tell my friends that I liked Jane So-and-So or Kathy Doe; I just never told Jane or Kathy how I felt about them because I didn’t want to hear the Alex, you’re sweet, but…..
I eventually got over this fear of rejection when I was in my late 30s thanks to the Internet, chat rooms, and instant messaging, and over the past 16 years I’ve been in several relationships. Some worked out well. Some were spectacular disasters. Like many things in life, dating is never risk-free, and success is never guaranteed in affairs of the heart.
The one common link in all my romantic relationships is that digital technology allows me to communicate with women without worrying if my spastic CP is a turnoff. I can focus on being myself and letting the other person at the end of the modem get to know me. I can be funny, witty, sappy, or even risque online and not have to think along the lines of “Oh, crap. Am I twitching too much? Is my right arm curled to the side or does it look normal?”
Thankfully, all the women I’ve dated since 2000 have seen past my CP and seen the man beyond the disability. Yes, the involuntary movements and other limitations affect my relationships somewhat, but not as adversely as I imagined they would. I’m more self-confident and happier now, and Laura enjoys being with me. She even asks me to dance with her when we go out with our friends. She’s proud and happy to be seen with me.