Romance is hard to find on the internet and using apps but it’s especially tricky for an amputee, as Ella Dove found after her accident
Thursday, 1st August 2019, 05:00 am
I think of his five profile pictures. He matches all of them. And then… he grins. There, where his two front teeth should be, is a pink gummy ridge. I think back to those pictures: in all of them his mouth was wedged shut.
I want to leave right there and then. But I accept the gin and tonic he has bought for me. Can I really judge him for his lack of teeth when I’m sitting here without half of my right leg?
It was three years ago, when I was 25, that I was out running with my sister on a canal path in east London when I tripped and dropped to the ground, twisting my knee in the process. It was fractured and dislocated – later, it turned out that the blood supply to my right knee was also blocked. Three operations tried to restart the circulation but after four days I was told that amputation was the only option.
I’d had a first date planned the evening of that run. I’d told my sister about him while we jogged; how we’d met at a house party and how he’d made me laugh. Just two hours later she was unlocking my phone to text him and let him know that I wouldn’t be able to make it.
“I hope she’s OK,” came the reply. “I’ve got a cold so it’s probably for the best.” I didn’t hear from him again.
“I’d carefully select outfits for the dates. But, unlike the old me, I’d also select a leg.”
How I re-entered the world of online dating
Plenty more fish in the sea, they say. But after the accident, it took a long time for me to feel brave enough to dip my toes (just on the one foot, mind) back into the murky, shark-infested waters of online dating.
I watched from the sidelines as my two-legged friends went on dates, while I sat in my bedroom – nine months after the accident – and idly swiped through profiles. Men with topless gym selfies; men at weddings; men who posted their Uber ratings like Nobel Prizes. “One of a kind” or “simply the best” some jokers had written under their bios. “Source: my mum.”
I wondered what sort of women they wanted. Then, I’d look at my stump, ugly and swollen; at the red scars inside both of my thighs. How could anyone find this attractive?
My online profile was a nostalgic tribute to the person I used to be: pictures of me cycling through rice fields in Vietnam or dancing in a dingy university nightclub. It felt like I was faking my entire identity, so eventually I decided to be honest and tell the men I was an amputee.
There was no easy way to do this. I rephrased the sentence again and again, eventually settling on “Hey, just so you know…” The aim was chatty; no big deal. But the response? Complete and utter silence. I felt like the tiny shred of confidence I’d so carefully cultivated had been ripped away.
‘What would happen when I did get my (one) leg over?’
My awkward first dates
I tried a new strategy. No old photos, but no photos of my prosthesis either. This time, I felt happier; protected while remaining genuine. My new seed of confidence seemed to pay off. My “banter” got better. The matches became meetings.
I’d carefully select outfits for the dates. But, unlike the old me, I’d also select a leg. I have the choice of two: one lightweight carbon fibre with a mini-blade foot, and a more realistic one, which has a bespoke silicon-skin cover over it matching my exact skin tone. Wearing it gives me a strange sense of freedom.
Admittedly, it’s a shame that my first date after the accident had a foot fetish. His name was Sam*, a lighting engineer who shared my love of the theatre and had a nervous twitch that made it seem like he was winking. Halfway through our second drink, I felt brave enough to drop the leg bombshell.
“No way!” he exclaimed, twitching or winking violently – I wasn’t quite sure which. “Maybe I shouldn’t tell you this. But the thing is, I really like feet. Like, really like them…” His eyes were wide as his gaze travelled hungrily beneath the table, seeking out my realistic prosthetic leg. He wanted to see what the foot was like. I downed my drink and left as soon as I could. He’d made me feel like a total freak.
I tried out a series of different approaches. There were the men I didn’t tell: Jay*, the journalist, worked it out, admitting he’d stalked me on Twitter; William*, the data analyst, remained oblivious but, saying that, any man who thinks a Wetherspoons in a train station is an acceptable first-date venue does not deserve my life story.
Then there were the men I did tell. Kevin*, the teacher, asked far too many questions, including: “How much blood was there when you fell?” Liam* (the guy with no teeth) told me he understood what I was going through because: “My mum works for a disability charity.” Sure.
My fear of sex
If a date did progress to a second, third or fourth, there was the niggling fear of what came next. I was terrified of sex. A fear that was amplified by the endless questions that everyone, from friends to strangers, seemed to think were appropriate to ask.
“Do you keep your prosthetic leg on during sex?” “What if you whack the man in the face (or worse) with your prosthesis?” “What positions work?” As my flamboyant Spanish nurse said in hospital, to the horror of my mother, “You can still do the doggie”.
So what would happen when I did get my (one) leg over? When I asked an amputee pal for advice, her answer was: “Whatever you feel comfortable with.”
The first man I slept with, as an amputee, was Greg* – two years after the accident. I was a bit tipsy, which definitely helped. But mid-kiss, he glanced at my prosthetic leg. It was a fleeting moment, but it was enough to throw my delicate self-confidence off balance. I couldn’t bring myself to expose my stump.
Greg and I had sex a few more times after that – and I always kept my prosthetic leg on. In hindsight, it was a sure sign that I wasn’t fully at ease. Thankfully, there were no painful mishaps, but I don’t think Greg realised just what a big thing this was for me psychologically.
I was yearning for him to reassure me; to tell me I was sexy, to restore my shaky self-esteem. He didn’t. Instead, he cut off all contact without warning a few weeks later.
Every unanswered message, every date that went awry, chipped away at my mental state. It took therapy sessions, chats with friends and time on my own to build myself back up.
Finally, someone I feel comfortable with
Three months after Greg, I was idly scrolling through Hinge when I matched with a man whose smile was warm and kind. His messages were thoughtful and funny. When talk turned to meeting up, I said that I had a prosthetic leg. “It doesn’t bother me at all,” George replied. He didn’t probe or comment – and the chat moved on.
Our first date was a brunch. I was nervous but our conversation flowed easily. In a sense, we were opposites (scientist vs writer, logic vs creativity), and yet we had a lot in common. We shared family values, a silly sense of humour and a love of dogs and food. We connected on a deeper level, too.
From the start, the comfortable honesty between us felt refreshing and reassuring. George’s intuition meant he instinctively knew what I needed to hear. We deleted our dating apps on our fifth date.
As an amputee in a relationship, there will always be challenges for me. Times when I feel unattractive, when I have blisters on my stump that leave me in a wheelchair, when I’m vulnerable and sad. But George is there with home-baked peanut-butter cookies, compliments and unwavering support. And for those of you wondering – yes, I do now take my leg off…
* Names have been changed for privacy.
Ella Dove is the author of ‘Five Steps To Happy’ (£14.99, Trapeze). Read her full article in the September issue of ‘Cosmopolitan’, on sale today, £2