Geriatric Wheelchair Races and Talking About Sex Have Something In Common

I went to a “geriatrics” Sadie Hawkins New Years event in college and donned my 1970’s polyester peach pantsuit that a floormate had brought back to the dorm in a large black trash bag after helping an older woman clean out her closet. With black bowling style shoes, makeup overdone, and hair dusted with baby powder and pinned into a bun, I showed up with my friends and met my date, James, in the dining hall .

2003 “Geriatrics”

First, James and I played Twister. Being the highly flexible/mobile eighty-year-old woman that I was, I won. My prize? Prune juice. Had it been my sophomore year when I injured my back and had all my muscles lock up for six months, I would have drunk it.

Next, we participated in wheelchair relays. Down to one side of the dining hall, around the cone, and back to the start. We were racing friends of ours. He, Josh, was not an athlete, and certainly not a runner. She, Jess, was not competitive. James? A runner. Me? Runner, soccer player, and highly competitive. When the whistle blew, Josh took off full tilt and nearly made it around the cone before James made it five feet. What the heck, James? Turns out, Josh had set the brakes on our wheelchair when we were distracted.

James disengaged the brakes but did not put the full effort in to beat Josh and Jess. It seemed hopeless. Why try?

Even though James was a far better runner than Josh, James and I lost miserably. When the brakes were on, our wheelchair barely moved. When the brakes were off, we (HE!) did not try.

I have felt for years that I (parts of me) have held the brakes, so I have been stuck—immovable. My life has felt like it has been at a standstill for YEARS. I have squared my body, lowered the center of gravity, and dug my feet into the ground while pushing with all my strength and have barely inched forward.

One part agreeing at a time, the brakes were disengaged. My goal was not to take off on a dead sprint to catch up to “everyone else.” Instead, I started off walking slowly.

  • Step one: Identify all possible maladaptive coping strategies and take away the convenience of them.
  • Step two: Pick up that stupid pink book and start reading because maybe it will open the door to the language I need.
  • Step three: Make an intention. “I will approach this next step with calm, compassionate, curiosity.”
  • Step four: Speak (courageously)…

We talked about sex, and I bounced around from one confusing sexual encounter to another, heart hammering but consciously aware of every breath in an effort to stay calm. My therapist (she’s a freaking saint for sitting in that room with me day in and day out for the past four years) rolled with it.

“I don’t understand why…”

“It makes sense…”

“What about…”

“That was survival.”

“But it isn’t survival if…”

“Survival is…”

“But my life wasn’t in danger.”

“Your brain…”

“But I…”

“It makes sense that you responded in that way.”

I was not arguing or trying to trick her. I was genuinely asking (curiosity). The self-blame, harsh criticism, and self-hatred parts had to know…they had to hear it.

“But what about…”


  • Step five: Curiosity with compassion. So, does that mean the stuff I criticize myself for, suffer over, and punish myself relentlessly for really isn’t my fault? Like, really? What do I do with that? Do I believe that? Am I willing to consider it? Does my therapist know what she is talking about?
  • Step six: Put the brakes back on that wheelchair. Get creative about how to sit with it and not in it; walk away from it if needed but stay connected to myself and be confident that I can and will process this, if not on my own, then with help. And for the love of all things holy, keep breathing. I am in a holding pattern now—containing what I can and doing my best to work with what I cannot contain.

In case I haven’t been clear, what I am saying is this: The parts of me that have kept me silent have trusted me enough to allow me to start speaking, if only for fifty minutes (minus a few minutes for Legos, parking lot observations, coffee in the face, and a few other rabbit trails) about something that has most definitely contributed to me feeling stuck and seemingly incapable of processing trauma. I kind of feel like I should celebrate with the words Chevy Chase uses at the end of his rant about his boss in National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation: “Hallelujah! Holy Sh*t! Where’s the Tylenol?”

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