In 1994, I began volunteering at a university, helping out a student with physical disabilities. The volunteers all hung around together as a support network, and my first friend among them told me she was volunteering with a student who broke his neck. Growing up, my mother had always told me, “Be careful, you’ll break your neck!” as a threat against doing anything she didn’t want me to do, so my interest was immediately piqued.
I don’t remember the first time I met him, but he does. Apparently I was wearing trousers made out of a Superman duvet and I told him how many packets of noodles I had in my bag, proudly. I think I probably don’t remember because it was in a crowded place, and I was avoiding eye contact.
The next time I met him, I definitely do remember, mainly because I saw him and I knew I would end up marrying him. I wasn’t excited, I was really quite put out; I’d been planning to reinvent myself away from my small home town as popular and outgoing, I wasn’t really ready to be tied down to my future spouse. That day I talked about shatterproof rulers, apparently.
Over the next few months I carried on hanging around with him, and much to my continued chagrin, I fell in love with him, hard and fast. My diary from December that year, when I went home to visit, talks about someone I miss, but who I refuse to name in case I jinx everything. By the following March, I am neck deep in this crush, and drunkenly asking a friend on a park bench outside one of the university’s bars what to do about it.
Luckily for me, it’s nearly Easter and I know he likes mini eggs, so I buy a packet for him. I’m too nervous to give them to him in person, so I wait until I’m home for the holidays again; I post them to him, along with a card in which I’ve written the lyrics to a song I like, in the hope that will somehow be enough to tell him how I feel.
While I’m waiting for his response (it takes him two months to talk to me in person about this specifically, despite sending me a letter acknowledging my feelings), I talk to my mum about what it will mean if I do end up dating him, because he has a spinal injury. She admits she has no idea (she was always very honest) but between us we find a number for something called the Spinal Injuries Association; I honestly don’t remember how this happened because the internet really wasn’t a big deal in 1995.
So I’m at home and have access to a telephone I don’t need to put money in, and a phone number for someone who might be able to help me. I’m nervous, but I pluck up the courage while everyone is out at work to call them.
I wish I knew the name of the woman who helped me, because I would love to give her a shout out. She answered every one of my stuttering, unsure questions, even the ones about children and jobs and erections and death and… apparently people have relationships even if they have spinal injuries, something I had literally no idea was possible at that point in my life as I’d never seen it anywhere. I’d always assumed people broke their necks and died, because I’d never heard anything different.
At nineteen years old I’m terrified but excited to embark on a relationship with someone with a spinal injury. – Fast forward to 2016
Ian and I have been dating for 21 years, married for 15. Over the years I have been asked incredibly personal and ignorant questions about our relationship, and taken them all in my stride, answering every single one whilst trying to be polite and informative.
Can you have sex?
Is he okay in his head?
How do you have sex?
Was he the only person you could get to go out with you?
Can you have children?
Would he like a carrier bag?
We love to watch films, I often joke that between us we’ve probably watched every film ever made, so often people give us recommendations or ask if we’ve seen this. Increasingly, I’m getting asked if I’ve heard about a film coming out called “Me Before You”; surely I must know about it, it’s about a man with a spinal injury!
The internet is now more of “a thing” than in 1995, so a quick search shows me it’s based on a book. The author is not injured, and doesn’t seem to have done any research. The internet is already full of people complaining about her book, who can’t believe it’s being made into a film, so I read a few articles to find out why.
After two or three I’m angry, crying and I’ve started writing a book.
I struggle for a long time writing it; I can’t quite focus on our life enough to make it an autobiography, but then when I try to make it fiction, I feel like a fraud. In the meantime, I’ve started writing on the side as practice, and have chosen my favourite anime to write “fan fiction” about.
It takes months but eventually I think, “What if I write a piece about these characters and give one a spinal injury?” My favourite fictional volleyball player breaks his neck, and Incomplete is born.
The most upsetting things I read about Me Before You (and other hated stories about disabilities) I make sure I change. No one will die, no one will make any remarkable recovery or dramatic sacrifice. It’s a love story, loosely based on us, but changed just enough that I have distance from it, and it ultimately has a happy ending.
I’ve chosen to write about two male characters in a relationship, which gives even more distance; using Ian’s experiences I can write about the accident and recovery, although most of the point of view is from the other boy. I make him bisexual with anxiety problems, like myself at that age, so really the only difference is he’s male.
To my surprise, it’s really popular, much more so than anything else I’ve written. Messages come in from disabled people who’ve read it and love the representation: from people who don’t even know who the characters are, but someone recommended they read this story about a disabled character who doesn’t die, who is in love and loved in return, who has sex, who doesn’t think he isn’t good enough for the person he loves and ‘let’s them go’.
Part of me is annoyed that I managed to do the job but it’s fan fiction, which no one takes very seriously and which I cannot publish due to copyright, and another part of me is drawing pictures of them to go with the story. One particular image, which I base on Korean web comics I’m reading at the time, stands out to me as particularly good, and an idea forms.
This story might help someone, somewhere; they might be gay or bisexual, or newly injured, or they might have a crush on someone with a disability. Somewhere out there is someone who feels like I did sitting on that park bench, on the phone to that helpline, standing at that post box, a package hovering over the slot. I could help them, if I could get them to read this.
The final decision to make a webcomic was mainly due to my love of webcomics and how much I was enjoying drawing, but I also hoped it would make it interesting and novel, and accessible for more people if it was bite sized chapters and available for free online.
I created new characters who look a little like the volleyball players, and called them Pip and Matthew. Then the task came of translating the thousands of words into scenes I could draw and which would get the story across as well as the words. It’s not always easy, and I get blocked when there are big crowds (just like real life…) but Ian and my proof readers and friends keep me going.
Now, it’s 2020, I’m nineteen chapters in, and I’m preparing to print volume 2 as a physical book! I have so many regular readers and supporters, including people asking me when the next volume is out because they want to see what happens next!
A lot of the events I mentioned earlier in this piece I’ve had the pleasure of drawing, including that all important phone call to the SIA; Pip doesn’t remember the name of the kind woman who spoke to him either, but he feels just as grateful to her as I do.