Ben Mattlin, author of the critically-acclaimed 2012 autobiography Miracle Boy Grows Up, didn’t think he’d write a second book. But when his readers insisted, he decided to focus on marriage through the prism of what he terms “interabled romance,” in which one partner has a significant disability.
The resulting book, In Sickness and In Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance, was released Jan. 30 by Beacon Press.
Mattlin coined the term “interabled” because, as he says in his intro, disabled/nondisabled couples are still seen as odd. “Not long ago, the cover of People magazine flaunted the marriage of Gabby Giffords — the brain-injured former congresswoman — and her husband, astronaut Mark Kelly, as a ‘special but unconventional love affair.’ Is that supposed to be flattering? This treacly hooey could give you diabetes!”
Plus the term allows him to focus on marriages like his, in which one partner is disabled, and to explore whether his own marriage’s seemingly unique closeness and intimacy has to do with his disability, spinal muscular atrophy. Is his and his wife’s symbiotic intimacy due to their personalities, or their complementary differences, or is it a benefit of his disability? “And perhaps most crucial of all,” he asks, “can it last?”
With these questions as guides, the book is divided into four sections, each focusing on an aspect of a long marriage: First Comes Love (and Sex), The Long and Winding Road, Aging with a Disability, and Twenty/Twenty Hindsight. Together, this constellation of stories — all these couples sharing the intricacies of their lives together — sheds some light on Mattlin’s own unique marriage. And possibly sheds some light on our own unique marriages as well.
The following excerpt is from the chapter on Rachelle Friedman Chapman, the famed “paralyzed bride,” found in the book’s first section.
On May 23, 2010, at her bachelorette party a few nights before her wedding was supposed to take place, Rachelle Friedman — a sort of all-American-girl type from suburban North Carolina — was drinking with her best girlfriends when one of them playfully pushed her into the swimming pool. Wherein she injured her spine at the C6-cervical-nerve level.
Her injury delayed the wedding by nearly a year, but it didn’t stop it. Her eventual marriage to long-time sweetheart Chris Chapman garnered so much attention, in fact, that it became a feature on The Today Show and in People magazine, among other venues.
Now in their early 30s, Rachelle and Chris live in Knightdale, North Carolina — a leafy suburb of Raleigh with a rapidly growing population, largely thanks to its being within Research Triangle. “Before my accident,” she tells me, “Chris and I were joined-at-the-hip in love, and best friends. I don’t think we could’ve gotten any closer. Then the accident happened — and we stayed that way!”
Fair enough, I think, but it was obviously an adjustment, a learning experience, right? “You’re thrown into a new world,” says Chris.
It’s now nearly five years into the marriage, and her confidence in their union remains undiminished. What’s the secret? What are her tips? “A lot of people think they’re in love and someone loves them, and everything is great,” says Rachelle. “But if something goes wrong, it can end the relationship. So it turns out their love wasn’t as strong as they’d thought. … Our relationship proved to be strong. We’re just two people who love each other and can deal with each other’s flaws — love each other, flaws and all.”
“Does Chris have flaws?” I say.
“You can’t necessarily see his flaws,” she answers. “That sounded so bad. … But he has anxiety, I guess you could say, and I’m the person who calms him down.”
It’s an important point for her, the give-and-take between them. “A lot of people feel that, with an interabled couple, the able-bodied person is some kind of hero just because he’s with you. That’s messed up!” she says. Just the other day, she continues, a man at the mall tapped Chris on the shoulder, shook his hand, and said, “You’re my hero.” “It doesn’t take a hero to be with somebody,” says Rachelle. “I mean, that’s basically saying it takes an extraordinary person to deal with someone like me, when really it’s just that we’re both in love.”
It makes her feel like they’re saying she should be “so grateful” — and that Chris has all the control in their relationship. “It’s not like one of us is forcing the other. We share the power equally,” she says. “I’d never leave him, but not because I can’t due to my disability or something like that. I’d never leave him because I love him. It’s not fair to think otherwise. It’s not true, not how it is with us.”
When I ask him about this, Chris says he’s insulted by such encounters, too. “I just smile and move on,” he says. “But I’m with her for me. Because I want to be. Not because I feel guilty or am doing her a favor.”
“Our love — us together — that’s what should be inspiring,” Rachelle emphasizes. “That’s what I want to get across. Someone should get inspiration from the fact that we chose love. The fact that we stay together should reflect on us together.”
From In Sickness and in Health: Love, Disability, and a Quest to Understand the Perils and Pleasures of Interabled Romance, by Ben Mattlin (Beacon, 2018). Available on Amazon.com, a.co/04PsnQr