As with any successful relationship, Nick says a big part of theirs is communication. “We can’t avoid the fact that I’m in a wheelchair, I have a spinal cord injury, and there is stu that comes along with that,” he says. “Early on, we really had to talk about how that had an effect on the relationship and how it could slow things down, or kind of hinder activities. But, we did a really good job of communicating, we’re very open with each other, very open about how she felt and also very open about how I felt, and it’s worked, it’s worked out really well.”
The Psychology of Friendship
“In my mind there are two types of people who leave a friendship, and they are very distinct,” says Dr. Lester Butt, rehabilitation psychologist at Craig Hospital, in Denver, Colorado. “It’s important for people with a spinal cord injury to appreciate the difference.”
“The first set of people who leave are those with whom your relationship was predicated upon fragile kinds of parameters, things like, ‘all we did is party,’ ‘all we did was go out and hunt.’ These are activity-based relationships,” he explains, and “if the person with a disability can no longer engage in those activities, the friendship might not have as much power for the nondisabled person, and they can leave.”
The second subgroup of friends who can detach, withdraw or potentially leave is very different from the first network. “These are people who care so deeply, care so much, or feel that they have such little skills in terms of understanding that they pull away,” he says. “The person with the injury has to appreciate or discriminate between those two, to be able to reach out to the latter group. It is vital not to leave friends behind who are really caring.”
Johnathan, who became paraplegic at age 19, tells how he was able to preserve friendships that fell in the second subgroup. In the beginning, his friends came to the hospital every day. “But once I was home, my friends would visit and say, ‘We’re just stopping by, and we’re going to get something to eat.’ And I would think after they left, ‘Why won’t you just come and get me, and take me to get something to eat with you, instead of only just stopping by?’”
So he let them know how he felt.
“And once my friends understood that I wanted to hang out, and come out, and do different things, we started to actually go do those different things.”
Butt says Johnathan’s experience is typical of the way strong friendships can begin to grow after a spinal cord injury — and of how the person with the disability usually must take the lead.
“It is very important to be able to educate friends that even though how someone with a spinal cord injury gets from A to B might be transformed, and how they access social or work activities may change, their heart and their brain remain the same,” says Butt. “And usually, so do their values, dreams, goals and humanity.”
Writing from Chicago, Illinois, Stephanie Lollino is executive producer at Facing Disability for Families Facing Spinal Cord Injury (www.facingdisability.com)