Writing Our Story Together
Moving On as a Couple After Tragedy
At the time of the accident, AJ and I had been dating for just over year. The biggest question we had as a couple was, “Where do we go from here?” Our story began in fall of 2007. I had just returned from my foreign exchange in Brazil and A.J. from his mission in Massachusetts. We met in college, volunteering with our church missionaries. Straight away there was this magnetic force that connected us with each other. We spent almost every moment we could with each other. We fell in love over discussing bushmen and Himba societies, learning about Djibouti, and calculating battery life (we had a wide array of classes together. Thank you GE’s 😝). Most importantly, we cultivated a love for learning as a couple.
Over the year, AJ easily became my greatest confidant, my best friend. He supported my dreams to graduate college and make a difference in the world. He knew all my crazy family drama and still loved me. He always knew how to make me laugh when times got stressful over family or school. He helped me grow in so many ways. So when the accident happened, AJ was the one person I called.
Neither of us ever imagined this happening—that our story would come across such a twist in the plot—paralysis. It was a part of our story that threatened to ruin all that we had built up together. It felt like our whole world was crumbling. We questioned many things in our life. What we knew. What we believed in. It tested our faith in ourselves and as a couple. And we wondered "Where do we go from here?"
Tragedy places a major strain in a relationship, whether it be a life altering accident, loss of a child, infertility, financial ruin, etc. And people handle tragedy in different ways, which can strain a relationship even more. Sometimes you’ve got to close behind a painful past to start fresh. And sometimes you grab those lemons and make lemonade to sip with each other. We had to determine which direction we would take. Would we continue to write out this story together, or would we split apart and go on to write our own separate stories? We had to carefully consider these options and either way, we had to be OK with it. I knew this accident was going to change a lot for me. For him. For us. I didn’t want him to feel obligated to stay. And for me, I wasn't sure if I wanted to expose the harshness of all my grief to anyone. This accident would shift how we did a lot of things. And emotionally handling the weight of this reality wasn’t going to be easy for me or for him.
As with everything in our relationship, we decided to try it out and go on from there. We really wanted to give this story a fair chance, so with every step of the way, we went in with the understanding that we were going to learn from this experience. As we explored this new life in a wheelchair and assumed new roles to navigate the physical and emotional challenges of inaccessibility and awkward situations. We knew that without the proper tools and mindset, so we set some guidelines in place that really helped us through this period in our lives and eventually led us to staying together and growing closer as a couple these past 13 years.
AJ and I created a safe place of trust, where we could be open and honest with this new reality, the stress, the frustration, the realizations--all without judgment. While trying to navigate our new reality - with no idea of what to expect - we checked in with each other often, opening up the lines of communication in our own safe space created by us for us. This was a really big change for me because I was a mute before all of this. Verbal expression was not my forte, and I would shy away from hashing things out and working through problems, so many emotions were unhealthily buried. But I realized that staying quiet would be detrimental in this new situation and if I wanted my relationship to work, I needed to push myself to formulate and use my words.
As many of my relationships changed because people didn't know what to say or how to react, we made it a point to not be afraid to make mistakes and be willing to work and talk through all of it. When I was having hard days, even though AJ had not gone through these experiences himself, he never said, "sorry, I can't relate," which was a common phrase I kept hearing that made me feel more alone and isolated than ever. Rather, he found ways to lean in to my pain and help me feel heard and understood, and that it was OK to feel the way I was feeling. There was no rule or timeline on any of my healing.
We gave each other space to process and make sense of everything going on. Self-care was very important in allowing us to have time to think when we wanted to think, to learn when we wanted to learn, and move our focus onto building ourselves up. Whether it was spending time with other people, reading our own books, or doing things on our own, we realized in order to sustain each other, we needed to first fill our own cups, and that it was not always by solely relying on each other. We needed time to practice independence and be independent, to figure out who we were and who we wanted to be individually before we could give ourselves to one another. I had so many emotions to work through and there were triggers here and there that brought out frustration, grief, pain, the whole gamut, and I needed to work through that. And honestly, therapy and striving to improve my mental game helped a lot through this. More on this another time.
Remembering our own strengths and realizing our own worth as individuals. The lowest point of my journey was when I struggled to see my own individual worth, when I felt like I had nothing to give or contribute. That was detrimental in all my relationships because I was constantly battling with self pity and despair. AJ was a champ for having patience and giving me time to discover me for myself. I needed that. I did my best to talk through my issues. I read things that helped me understand more of what I was going through. I read words that lifted me and inspired me to get out of my self-defeating mindset. I prayed daily for strength to move on. Then, I went to work, trying out old and new things that helped me figure out how to formulate this new me. Little by little, I realized that by simply living and doing what I could still do, I was discovering who I was, my strengths, and where I belonged. Growing myself and my confidence helped out our relationship so much. Recognizing my value and having gratitude for what I was able to do and who I could be helped me to recognize the value in others--in AJ and our relationship, and I began to treat our relationship with value.
We had our routine and our go-to activities before the accident. After the accident, we needed to write in some new ways to keep up our connection. We needed to find our new normal together and how we were going to move on from the past. We found ways that made us us. As you've probably seen, we have found many new ways to connect and grow together. Whether it be getting back on the slopes together, or planning a trip, or just enjoying a good rom com (my idea of fun!), we found things that we enjoy doing together. We always make time for each other.
Life wasn’t going to be the same, and we've realized over the years that it was never meant to be that way. Change is to be expected. Change enables growth, if you let it. In the wake of tragedy, we leaned into each other, instead of leaning away from each other. Our relationship is by no means easy, no relationship out there is, but we work on it every day. Some days are better than others, but we provide each other with grace and kindness as we are both learning and figuring things out.
In the end of this chapter, we found that what was even bigger than the tragedy in our story was the value and love we placed on each other. We didn't have to, but we chose to stay with each other. And we continue to choose to stay. We wanted to be a part of each other’s stories. We found new ways to fall in love with each other again and again. Yes, one piece of this chapter closed for us, and it was painful as it was happening, but we found other pieces to make our chapter more fulfilling. And we’ve found ways to keep writing and adding to our love story. We've realized that all of the happenings of our lives are real and they are ours and we’ve put meaning to them along the way. And we keep choosing again and again to continue writing this story and making it a beautiful one.
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