I Found Love After Being Trapped Inside My Own Body for 12 Years

05/12/2015 03:26 pm ET | Updated May 12, 2016

I was 25 when I was taken to the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication at the University Of Pretoria in July 2001.

Sitting behind a large sheet of Perspex with pictures of everyday objects pasted onto it, a therapist asked me to look at the ball, the dog and the television.

"I'm sure you understand us," Shakila, the therapist assessing me, said. "I can see from the way your eyes travel you can identify the symbols we ask you to and are trying to use your hand to do the same.

"I feel sure we'll be able to find a way to help you communicate."

Martin with Prof Juan Bornman, at  the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication

With Prof. Juan Bornman at the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication

Unsure of what I might be able to do after so many years of being convinced that I had severe learning difficulties, my parents took a leap of faith and bought a computer loaded with communication software. The speed with which I learnt surprised Mum, who had given up her job as a radiographer to help me.

Slowly, she helped me build up a vocabulary -- adding more and more words to vocabulary grids that were "spoken" by an electronic voice after I selected which ones I wanted to use.

I progressed quickly, and my ease with computers made my father suggest I might be able to help at a local health centre. I started in 2003, working to fix problems on computers. On days when I was not working, I was at home practicing on mine.

Like a new species, I was of interest to experts: I'd learned so much so quickly about computer communication and was teaching myself to read and write.

Then the Centre for Augmentative and Alternative Communication offered me a job one day a week.

Suddenly, life and I were colliding as I had new experiences: tasting a cloud of melting sugar called cotton candy; feeling the warm pleasure of shopping for Christmas presents for my family for the first time.

I was starving for information: There was so much to know. I was learning to build websites and was accepted on to a university course, becoming one of the first two South Africans with non-functioning speech to graduate.

But one thing was missing: love. Ever since I had started to communicate, my hope was drawn towards women like a moth to a flame, only for me to be burned by their indifference.

When I met Joanna, I wondered if she would be different. She was a South African social worker who'd settled in Britain and become friends with my sister Kim, who was working there.

We met during a family web chat in 2008 and started emailing each other, culminating in Joanna suggesting we get together in Britain. I was curious about why she wanted to meet me.

"Because you're the most honest man I've ever met," she said.

Still, I wasn't sure. I explained that I had made progress because my body had strengthened a little when I started to use it more but still needed a wheelchair and help with many daily activities. It didn't matter, she said; we'd work it out. One night I wrote to her: "I can't stop thinking about you. I love you. I had to tell you."

"My love," Joanna wrote next morning. "Do you know how long I've wanted to start a letter with those words? But until now there has never been an opportunity for me to do it. I love you so much it's almost painful."

My heart leapt when I read those words.

But until we met, there would always be a fraction of doubt, however tiny. Joanna was teaching me though that living life was about taking chances, even if they made me feel afraid.

Martin & Joanna in England - together for the first time

With Joanna in England -- together for the first time

After I arrived in Britain to meet Joanna for the first time in person, we couldn't bear to be apart even for a moment. I had never known anyone who accepted me so completely and had so much peace inside. It was the simplest but most perfect of feelings.

It was inevitable that I would move to Britain and settle with Joanna, in Harlow, Essex. I found work as a web designer and got used to the small flat we shared.

We married in June 2009 in a church in Essex. As I sat waiting for Joanna's arrival in a horse-drawn carriage, I contemplated the vows I was about to make. Was it possible that, one month shy of eight years since I was assessed by Shakila at the University Of Pretoria, I was sitting about to commit my life to Joanna?

Martin and Joanna Pistorius - just married, photo courtesy of Jeff Turnbull

With Joanna Pistorius -- just married, photo courtesy of Jeff Turnbull

It was she who has taught me to understand the true meaning of the Bible passage we were having read at the service: "There are three things that will endure -- faith, hope and love -- and the greatest of these is love."

My life has encompassed all three and I know the greatest of all is indeed love, in all its forms. I'd experienced it as a boy and man, as a son, brother, grandson and friend, I'd seen it between others and I know it could sustain us through the darkest of times.

Now it was lifting me closer to the sun than I ever thought I would fly.