LEFT tetraplegic after a fall in 2014, Heidi Herkes, 40, from north London, is determined to smash the taboo around disabled people and sex.
In her fight for awareness, the ex-bridal hair and make-up artist opened up to Fabulous Magazine about dating and sex post-accident.
Lying on a faux-fur throw, my date gently kissed me. After a romantic meal, we’d come back to mine to take our fledgling relationship to the next stage.
We were just like any other couple, enjoying being intimate – apart from the fact that I’m tetraplegic, meaning I’m paralysed from the chest down, with very limited movement in my arms.
But I’m still able to have sex and even climax.
I’m very open about the fact I enjoy sex, but that admission has been met with disbelief at times. There remains a stigma around disabled people having sex, and I want to dismantle that.
Before the accident that left me paralysed, I was a successful bridal hair and make-up artist. Then in March 2014, I arrived home from a meal and, desperate for the loo, ran upstairs. I lost my footing and fell, crashing to the floor. I ended up with a serious spinal cord injury near the base of my neck.
My memories of my housemate finding me and paramedics arriving are very hazy and I wasn’t aware I couldn’t feel much of my body.
I was rushed into surgery and put into an induced coma. I woke up three weeks later in ICU, my family at my bedside, with a feeding tube and a tracheostomy to help me breathe. It was terrifying and as I was on high doses of morphine, I was very confused.
When doctors told me the damage to my spine wasn’t fixable – and that I‘d never walk again – I struggled to take it in. I was only 34, and it felt like a nightmare.
At the time of my accident, I was single, as my last relationship had ended six months before. James, 34, and I had dated for five years after meeting online in 2008, but we’d had our ups and downs and it had run its course.
Lying in hospital, I had enough movement in my hand to use my phone and was stunned to find an email from him. He had no idea about my accident, it was sheer coincidence he’d got in touch, telling me he was missing me. I replied, telling him what had happened. He came to the hospital the next day, and kissed me as if nothing had changed. He saw past the tubes and wires and I felt a surge of hope that I could be “me” again. There was no “let’s get back together” conversation, it was unspoken that he was there for me.
I spent two months in St Mary’s Hospital, London, before transferring to Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Buckinghamshire, with its spinal injuries centre.
I experienced every emotion imaginable, from fear about the future to anger and even jealousy of fellow patients less disabled than me. Along with my family, James was always visiting, encouraging and supporting me.
A few weeks after I moved to Stoke Mandeville in May 2014, we had sex for the first time since my accident, at a local hotel James was staying at while he visited me. I felt nervous before – would I feel anything? Would I be able to give him pleasure? But it was a defining moment in my recovery.
Yes, he had to lift me on to the bed, propping me on pillows, and we were limited with positions, but it didn’t matter. Realising sex was something I could still do when there was so much I couldn’t was empowering.
When I was finally discharged that December, I temporarily moved back to my family home in Wales, before returning to London in February 2015 and moving into an adapted ground-floor flat, determined to lead as independent a life as possible.
I have a team of round-the-clock carers (who I prefer to call PAs) and use an electric wheelchair and my own car, driven by a PA, to navigate the city.
James and I remained a couple for the next four years, while I launched a new career as a personal stylist. I’m naturally positive, but of course there were days I struggled. It wasn’t always easy for us as a couple, either. I didn’t want James to be my carer so our relationship had to cope with the presence of my PAs, who do everything from helping me wash to cooking my meals and sleeping in the next room in case I need help in the night.
We made it work though, and my PAs would also help me get ready when James was spending the night – lighting candles and dressing me in sexy nightwear. They’ve always been supportive of my sex life, going out when James visited to give us privacy.
In March 2019, James and I split amicably. He wants to return to his native New Zealand and that’s not an option for me. Although it didn’t work out, it restored my confidence and helped me realise it’s possible to be disabled and have a healthy sex life.
A few months later, I started online dating. I didn’t know if men would see past the wheelchair in my profile picture and want to get to know me.
My experiences so far have been mixed. While I get a respectable amount of swipes and likes, not as many men message me compared to when I used dating apps before the accident. Others are curious and will ask how long I’ve been in a wheelchair, but when I explain what happened some have ghosted me. I do understand; in my old life, I don’t know if I’d have dated someone with my disability. I realise it can be scary.
However, I’ve met some lovely men and had some great dates. They’ve all been older and I think being more mature, they’re more interested in what lies beyond someone’s physical appearance. I’ve been told my resilience and confidence are attractive, as well as the fact I’m bubbly and positive about life.
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If I go to a date’s house, my PA will drop me off and collect me, and they’re just at the end of the phone if I need them. I’ve yet to have sex with anyone I’ve dated, but I’ve come close. I think they were surprised how capable I am in bed, and how I’m not shy about giving directions! At first, they were a bit nervous, in case they hurt me, but then they saw I was relaxed and enjoying myself.
I have my own YouTube channel and last year I released a video about how to have a sexual relationship when you’re in a wheelchair. It’s been viewed around 470,000 times! I hope I can inspire other disabled people to recognise they deserve a good sex life, too.
Now, I’m waiting for someone I want to be in a proper relationship with. I’m able to have children but don’t know if that’s something I want. I hope the right guy is out there, because despite my disability I have a lot to give, not only emotionally and practically, but sexually. In the meantime, I’ll carry on having fun until I find him.
- Visit Heidiherkes.com and follow @heidiherkes.