While the media went a little silly over a “fairytale” wedding of a UK prince and a US TV star, I saw a play that explored the darker side of love. Schism tells the story of Harrison and Katherine, played by Jonathan McGuinness and Athena Stevens, as they fall in love and how that love is twisted by ambition and expectation. Written by Athena Stevens it is a tour de force of a play, holding up a mirror to many issues society so desperately needs to confront as it grapples with identity politics. Athena is disabled, but insists she is NOT a “disabled playwright”, and disability is front and centre in the piece. She uses her impairment as a analogy for a lack of perceived power and used it to make the audience question how power really works in relationships and wider society.
Why did Schism have such a dramatic impact on me? As a disabled person myself, a wheelchair user following a spinal injury caused by a childhood cancer, I saw so much of my youthful experience of relationships on that small stage and found a truth about my life that I had not grasped as yet. Anyone who knows me will have heard me banging on about the Social Model of Disability, and how discovering this new way of understanding what it means to be disabled set me free. For most of my life I had been told that I was “dis-abled” by the things my body wouldn’t let me do. I couldn’t run or walk or jump or dance, all because of my “dis-ability”. I was less abled. If I tried to compete with my non-disabled (not able-bodied, please) friends and classmates I was applauded no matter how badly I failed, because I was an inspiration for taking part.
Alongside this lack of expectation, I was continuously told how my existence was a burden on my poor parents. When I was seven my father died of a heart attack, but rather than blaming this on his poor diet or lack of exercise or it just being bad luck, it was laid at my feet. Time after time, as a grieving child I was told, “It’s the stress of having you that killed your dad,” by pretty much every adult I met. Another thing that was rammed down my throat was how hard my parents had fought to give me a normal life. A “normal” life mind, because being disabled meant I wasn’t normal. If you are constantly told you are a burden, you’re abnormal, that having you made your parents’ lives harder and that your birth led to your father’s death, it really messes with your head. Luckily my mum always told me I was special, and that because of the struggles I faced, and the crap other people told me, I was in fact better than anyone who wasn’t disabled, which balanced out some of the greater head f**k imposed on me by society.
Many people, disabled and non-disabled, don’t understand that the Social Model of Disability explains that these negative attitudes are the key reason behind what disables people. I may not be able to walk, but that’s nothing compared to your very existence being made out to be the worst thing imaginable. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told, “If I was like you, I’d kill myself”. That’s the truth of being disabled in the eyes of a great deal of society. Now imagine what happens when you go into a relationship with someone who views you like that, or that you feel that way about yourself. For many disabled people society has created an imbalance of power and expectation that both parties have to navigate. If you’re lucky, as I have been with the 23 year relationship with my amazing wife, you see each other as equals and ignore all the rubbish society tells you. For many this is too difficult and things turn sour. Disabled or not, one person hides their own issues around confidence and self worth by searching for someone who makes them feel better about themselves. Not through the act of being with someone amazing, but through finding someone they see as lesser than them. For disabled people, myself included before I met Diane, this is their experience of “love”.
Love isn’t about power. Isn’t about measuring your success against the success of your partner. If they succeed, it takes nothing away from you. It builds you up. The phrase “learn to love yourself before you look for love” means being OK with your choices. Don’t search for someone who you perceive will make you feel stronger because you see them as weaker or less than you. Too often disabled people are seen as fragile and weak, and this leads them to become trapped in abusive, unhealthy relationships. We aren’t that at all, and don’t blame us when you discover that. We might have bodies or minds that do things differently but we can be everything non-disabled people are. We can be nice, we can be awful. We can be ambitious, driven and successful. We aren’t a vehicle to “make you a better person”. No partner should be.
OK, this might be obvious to you. For me it’s a revelation, that has made me look back on my failed relationships and let the guilt of them go. That’s truly life changing.