‘I’m only looking for a friend.’ I told myself I wasn’t destined for dating or marriage. I let my disability dictate that.’: Man with muscular dystrophy shares love story, ‘They gave me a new life’

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“Jenny and I met a little over 8 years ago. I lived in northern Indiana at the time and she lived in southern Louisiana. We still talk about how we shouldn’t technically have met at all. We were both using different online dating websites we found out later belonged to the same parent company and had shared our profiles.

I came across Jenny’s profile and immediately noticed her smile and eyes. I never tried contacting her but would keep coming back to her profile every morning as I checked my account. Jen refers to this as my stalking phase but in reality, I just loved looking at her smile. Seeing how this looks written out now, I can totally see what she means by this!

I remember waking up on a Friday morning, checking my emails, and noticing I had an alert in my inbox on my dating site account. I went to check the message with a sort of apprehensive excitement. When I opened the message to see who sent it, I rubbed my eyes, did a double-take, seeing if the sender was really who I thought it was. Jen had written to me! ‘Hi, I’m Jenny. If you’d like to be friends, message me anytime.’ This short introduction ended up changing my life forever.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

Over the course of that weekend, Jenny and I wrote back and forth to each other. Our messages started off as short sentences, then grew into a paragraph. Those turned into a few paragraphs, then ultimately, pages. Our messages were filled with responses to questions from the last message along with new questions that kept our conversation going. We shared pictures from when we were young to more current ones, wrote about where we’ve lived, jobs we had, favorite movies, favorite bands, and what brought us to a dating site.

When I originally joined the website, I had gone in with my guard up and had told myself, ‘I am only looking for a friend.’ Years before I met Jen, I came to the conclusion I wasn’t destined to have experiences like dating, a relationship, or even marriage. I had let my disability (I am in a wheelchair) dictate that conclusion and my immaturity had me putting walls up.

I have facioscapulohumeral (FSH) dystrophy, a progressive, degenerative form of muscular dystrophy. Everyone diagnosed with it is affected differently and the symptoms vary in degrees of severity. My symptoms began affecting me at the age of 20 and by the age of 33, became a wheelchair user.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

One of the biggest ‘reasons’ I didn’t put myself out there was I had told myself over and over I didn’t want to bring any of my baggage into a relationship. I mentioned this to Jen in one of our messages when the topic came up. She wrote back, ‘We all have baggage, and the other person you’re in a relationship with helps you carry it.’ It was then I felt the walls I had put up start to shake a little.

Over all of the messages we wrote to one another, we quickly came to the decision unless we both wanted an early onset carpal tunnel, we should move to have an actual phone conversation. I got an email from Jenny while I was out getting groceries with one of my best friends. She had left her phone number and a short message saying, ‘Let’s talk tonight.’ I know there’s elation, which is probably what I experienced, but I think a more accurate word for what I felt after reading that was ‘inflation.’ My head felt like it had swollen, swirling with a list of emotions, ranging from fear to excitement to disbelief, along with an ocean of possible topics we could talk about on our first, real conversation.

I remember readying myself for the call. I had Jenny’s number already typed in my phone, all I had to do was press ‘send.’ Then I did. It rang and rang on the other end, finally making it to her answering service. I knew I was going to try back, so I decided to not leave a message. I took a deep breath, sort of relieved in a way, because as cool as I wanted to come off on our first conversation, probably wouldn’t come off the way I wanted. Then my phone rang. Jenny had called me back! I think I let it ring two or three times before picking up, taking that time to construct the perfect introduction. It started with something like: Me – ‘Hello?’ Jenny – ‘Hello?’ Me – ‘It’s me!’

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

Actually, it came out more like, ‘It’s meeeeee!’ Shocked she didn’t hang up on me, we started talking, and even after my rough introduction, we talked for nearly 3 hours. It was amazing to finally hear Jen’s voice and get to put it with the image of the girl from all of the pictures we shared. And, like what happened while we first started writing to each other, our phone calls got longer and longer, eventually leading us to have a call that lasted 13 hours!

Talking to Jen was the easiest thing I had ever done, everything just flowed. It’s always felt like we were two old friends catching up with each other after spending a long time apart. So, the next level we went in talking with each other was to do it by video. Jen was so shy on camera, which was adorable. I know it would have intimidated me as well normally, but I tried to keep her calm and laughing. This was the first time we got to see each other as close to in-person as we could be. This was also the first time we told each other, ‘I love you.’ I remember being relieved, like I finally got to tell Jen what I had been feeling for a while. Neither one of us was looking for love, so we were both surprised when it found us!

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

Not having been in a relationship for close to 10 years before meeting Jen, I didn’t know how all of this was going to work or even how long. Our connection grew stronger every day through phone calls, texts, and selfies we sent to each other, we were both ready to finally meet. So many things in the past would have made me hold back, but the love I had for Jen helped keep all of those hesitations at bay.

One of those hesitations was a dread of flying. I had a really bad experience flying a couple of years prior, when my family and I went to Disney World. I’ll just say back then, luggage was handled better than someone in a wheelchair.

As we began to get our plans of meeting organized, I was strongly considering taking a bus or even a train. In the end, Jen made a good case to put my fears aside and book a flight, which would mean there would be more time for us. What was supposed to be a 6-hour flight (with a layover) ended up taking the whole day, but I eventually landed in New Orleans a little after midnight. I had an awesome attendant, Henry, who was assigned to assist me. As Henry and I made our way to baggage, I saw Jen waiting for me as we rounded a corner. Our first time meeting felt like a scene from a movie, where everything outside of Jen and I seemed to blur and fade. We both heard Henry mention, ‘You two look like you know each other!’ That was enough to snap us back to reality. With huge grins, we said goodbye to Henry and left the airport for Biloxi.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

Jen and I had spoken for a while before I flew down for our first meeting, trying to work out how my disability basically ‘worked.’ Like getting in and out of vehicles, wheelchair transfers, and other situations. What made it especially nice, sweet, and completely new was we were working out how to do these together. We spent that week with each other in Biloxi and over the course of that summer, visited each other two more times. On the second visit, Jen had come to Indiana to surprise me for my birthday.

On the day before she had to leave for Louisiana, we cried together, knowing we would have to go for another stretch of time before we would see the other again. I knew I felt like keeping up a long-distance relationship would have been extremely hard and eventually a deal-breaker. I knew what I had to do. I leaned into her and whispered, ‘I’ll fix this.’ What that would eventually come to mean is moving away from Indiana so I could be with Jen and really give everything to our relationship. The final time I would visit, the two of us were looking at possible places I might be able to live while we continued dating.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

In the fall of that year, I had gotten everything in order in Indiana, my things packed and ready for my move to Louisiana. My family and friends had thrown me a nice going-away party as well. It was really bittersweet. I was moving away from everything I had ever known and moving to be with the girl I saw my future with. My youngest brother drove me down to Louisiana and helped move my stuff into my new place.

Once I got settled in my apartment, I was slowly getting used to living in this new world. Jen had slowly been introducing me to her children, Nathan and Noelle, her parents, family, and friends. One of the biggest fears I had then was if I would be accepted, but that fear didn’t last long at all. Everyone was and has been so accepting of me, especially Jen’s children and her parents. I truly felt like I had found another place I could call home.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

It wasn’t until Jen and I were dating we really noticed how much our lives had changed. It was such an adjustment to go from a long-distance relationship to spending every day together. We were committed to making it work through these changes though. Looking back at this time in our lives, everything feels like it was so much easier. Jen and I were growing closer and stronger as a couple. I reached official boyfriend status early on and my relationship with Jen’s kids and her family grew stronger. I had become ‘T-dad,’ short for Tony daddy, to the kids, which is what I still go by. I’m truly thankful for the love I’ve gotten and the love I’ve been able to give to them.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

Jen and I eventually started talking about life beyond dating, about marriage. I really felt like I was living a dream of mine, one I thought would never become realized because of my disability. That dream was one of having a family of my own and a sense of normalcy. I loved my role in this new life we were building, I knew I had finally found my why in life. I embraced the attitude of meeting changes and challenges my new life placed before me in a head-on way.

Now the thing about having a progressive disability is I always feel like I’m living life on a timer that’s running faster than everyone else’s. I feel if I don’t go after something now, I might not be able to really, physically go after it later. This kind of thinking has helped in motivating me but has definitely added a level of stress that my mind and body weren’t used to. Stress is also a factor in the progression of my disability. It’s definitely a balancing act.

The day Jen and I got married was the culmination of emotions like excitement, happiness, hope, and of course, fear and doubt. Dating had been relatively easy. What I remember most are the vows I spoke to Jen, even writing vows to Nathan and Noelle too. They had all given me a new life, much larger than the one I thought I had to settle for before meeting Jen. I made the promise they would always have me when they needed me in addition to my love.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

Now marriage is very hard work and it’s definitely not a finish line. I’d even go so far as saying it’s actually the real starting line. Bringing a disability into a marriage is like having a third party in the mix; it has magnified the good and the bad parts of what usually comes along with being married. It’s also brought more to the relationship than what normal couples deal with. With a disability, there’s the potential for such a deeper form of love as well the potential for small incidents to shake the foundation that the relationship was built.

One huge lesson Jen and I have learned is when things get rough, draw a circle around the two of us, uniting, instead of a dividing line between. I don’t want to make it sound like everything took a 180-degree turn after marriage, all of the good that’s happened far outweighs the bad. There have been so many good times, wonderful moments, love, and laughter, it’s enough to fill a book.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

The day Alex was born had to have been the scariest and happiest day of my life. Seeing his face for the first time erased every shred of fear and doubt that had hung over me from the time Jen and I started talking about having a baby. Those fears included whether or not Alex was going to be spared from being born with muscular dystrophy and if he was born with it, how bad it would be, to the kinds of disabilities he might have because of my age. I even had recurring thoughts of how he would see me when he got older. Would he have regrets, feel deprived, or look at me any less?

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

Fighting off these thoughts are really difficult when they start to surface. The doubts I had back then included my ability to be a good parent, how I can parent with a disability, and even expanding those thoughts to me being a father to Nathan and Noelle, a good husband to Jen, and a good provider for the family. All of those fears and doubts, all of it, disappeared when I saw his face. It was at that moment I had the realization love was the one feeling that could make it all go away. I could feel so much love for and from this small baby reshuffled what I thought I knew about myself. The fears and doubts are still there and surface from time to time, but when I shift the focus from myself to Jen and the kids, the fear becomes a call for me to be grateful for what I have now and the doubt becomes an encouragement to be the best version of myself, regardless of my circumstance.

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

Never underestimate what life has in store for you when you choose to embrace it. If I would have been told that 8 and a half years ago, I’d be married with three kids, going to school, and a job at one of NASA’s space centers, I would have said absolutely not, no way. But here I am.”

Courtesy of Jenny and Tony Teel

This story was submitted to Love What Matters by Jenny and Tony Feel from Slidell, Louisiana. You can follow her journey on Jenny and Tony’s Instagram and Youtube. Submit your own story here, and be sure to subscribe to our free email newsletter for our best stories, and YouTube for our best videos.

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