When Carolyne Underwood woke up one morning paralysed from the chest down, the
last thing she expected to be worried about was her love life.
Up until a blood vessel burst in her spinal chord in January 2007, the bar manager from Stalybridge, Manchester, was like any other fun-loving 24-year-old girl. But within 12 months, she’d lost her 10-year relationship and was facing up to singledom – in a wheelchair.
“Even though some people might think I had bigger things to worry about, I just couldn’t help thinking ‘who’s going to love me?’. I was convinced I’d be single forever.”
The idea of disability standing in the way of a happy love life is challenged in a new Channel 4 programme called The Undateables – and Carolyne decided to take part to share her own experiences and confront the so-called taboo.
“It’s impossible to imagine losing the ability to walk, until it happens to you. I woke up one morning with excruciating chest pains,” recalls Carolyne. “I thought I was dying.”
After undergoing emergency scans, doctors told her there was no obvious reason the blood vessel had burst, but that it had caused permanent damage to her spine, and she’d never walk again.
“In that instant I felt my life was over. I was devastated.” she says.
“I kept thinking: ‘Why me?’.”
After six months at the Princess Royal Spinal Injuries Unit in Sheffield, specialists told her she should prepare to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair. Carolyne’s relationship with boyfriend John* was under huge strain.
“How do you cope with the shock of going to bed without a care in the world, only to wake up to be told you’ll never walk again?” she remembers. “When John visited I could see how hard it was for him too. He told me he loved me, but we both knew life would never be the same for us as a couple.”
Carolyne couldn’t imagine any man ever wanting to look twice at her again. “People assume I can’t get a date being in a wheelchair,” she says. “I don’t blame them. I used to think exactly the same. I couldn’t imagine why anybody would want to date me with my broken body.”
Carolyne returned from hospital to Stalybridge to live with her parents Ann, 62, a care assistant and Richard, 59, a countryside warden, and her younger sister Theresa, 27, but struggled to cope with life in a wheelchair.
“At first everything was a battle,” she says. “I couldn’t even put on my shoes. It was so frustrating. I’d scream at my family and John, before bursting into tears for hours. I was a nightmare.”
She returned to the bar, which she managed with John, but was only able to do administrative work in the back office.
As she had feared, Carolyne realised her disability had irreversibly changed the dynamic of her Relationship with John. The couple split within a year.
“I wasn’t the happy, bubbly girl he’d fallen in love with. I was so full of anger and resentment, I didn’t even consider how hard it was for him.
“It wasn’t just me grieving, he was too,” she says. “We’d planned our whole life together, but now everything felt different. I left my job, as John and I found it too hard to work together.”
Carolyne found herself single for the first time in 10 years, and she was terrified. “That’s when I believed I’d never find someone to love me again,” she says.
But the reality has been very different. Far from becoming an “undateable” – invisible to men, perpetually single, an object of pity – Carolyne has found that her disability has made no difference.
After the end of her relationship with John, Carolyne’s girlfriends rallied round, encouraging her to come out on nights out with them and get back in the dating game. She was reluctant. “I thought men would stare and pity me,” she admits.
As she shyly wheeled herself to a table in a bar, men did stare, but she soon realised it wasn’t down to pity, they were genuinely interested. “One guy offered to buy me a drink, saying he’d been dying to ask me out for years,” she says.
Carolyne was nervous that he was only asking because he thought she might say yes to him now out of gratitude. However, he confessed that he’d simply been waiting until she was single again.
“Of course, he asked what had happened, but the chair didn’t bother him,” she says. “However, he wasn’t my type, so I turned him down in the end! But it was a huge confidence boost and I realised disability and dating could mix.”
As the months went by, Carolyne discovered her wheelchair wasn’t the turn-off she thought it would be and went on a number of dates, although she became wary of overenthusiastic types.
“Some blokes would ask straight out if I could still have sex,” she says. “I wasn’t interested in men like that, though. I was sure they were only after the novelty of having sex with a woman in a wheelchair.”
Carolyne’s condition has not put an end to her sex life, and far from feeling desperate to settle for anyone who’d have her, she says she’s fussier than ever about potential boyfriends. “I shouldn’t feel lucky someone fancies me.”
She says of her part in the Channel 4 programme: “I wanted to show that girls in wheelchairs are just as dateable as able-bodied women,” she says. “I’m proof a wheelchair isn’t a deterrent. I haven’t let it become part of my identity and try to be the same girl I was before the injury.”
Carolyne has now moved into a flat next door to her family home and is fund-raising full-time for stem-cell treatment that could help her walk again. “It’s not a miracle cure, but it could work,” she says. “It costs £48,000 and I’m working hard to raise it through events and campaigns.”
She’s no longer on the dating scene, having met an able-bodied, boyfriend.
“It’s still early days, but I really like him. Five years ago I thought I faced the rest of my life alone, but I was wrong,” she says. “My wheelchair hasn’t made a jot of difference to my love life. We go on dates, watch movies, and what’s more romantic than being carried to bed?”
- The Undateables starts Tuesday, 9pm, Channel 4.