Tag Archives: fashion

Only When I Laugh

A few weeks ago I was reading The Times Newspaper’s ‘Spinal Column’, a regular feature written by the columnist Melanie Reid who became quadriplegic a few years ago following a horse riding accident. Her column has provided a much needed window into the disability experience. It is raw at times; written in the moment. Melanie shares with we readers the ups, downs, farcity and at times utter hilarity of life with disability.

I was surprised and saddened when she related that some readers thought she was making light of the problems people with disabilities face. Personally I have always been a great believer in the power of laughter. The ability to laugh at myself has been a saving grace in the last ten years, it has helped me to deal with unimaginable loss. It has saved me from becoming a moaner, I can discuss my problems and not feel weighed down by them. People think I am eccentric when, for example, I say that I have become convinced that my garden shed has a contract out on my life as bits of its construction seem to keep wedging themselves under my wheels at the most inconvenient times.

For me, humour is a way of deflecting my mind from my personal vulnerability, the precarious nature of the limited independence I have. The last few months have given me precious little to laugh about apart from 2 things: our family have now developed a communal sock fund; men see wardrobes very differently to women.

First the communal sock fund, because I have very swollen feet I have to wear men’s size 8 to 10 socks. This is, coincidentally, the same size worn by my dad. He has now taken over laundry duty with the result that recently we discovered we were in fact wearing each other’s socks, as they had somehow got swapped in the process of him doing the laundry at his house and returning it to me.

Secondly, men and wardrobes. My dad has developed a hatred for plastic coat hangers, as he says there are too many of them in my wardrobe and they take up too much space. He also struggles to tell the difference between nighties and dresses, pyjamas and leggings. This makes it really interesting when I come to get dressed each morning and reach into my wardrobe. He did help me the other day when I tried 3 times to fasten a shirt up, got frustrated as I was always left with a button at the bottom and he explained that it was the spare button.

If we both stopped to think about why these things were actually happening we would probably end up in the deepest of depression. However, the ability to laugh in the face of adversity has, to this point, saved us from that.

This week I came across a quote by Robert Kennedy that summed up how I feel about dealing with sadness and adversity, “Tragedy is a tool for the living to gain wisdom, not a guide by which to live.”

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Disability, Fashion and Moving in High Society

The first magazine feature I ever wrote was about disability in the world of fashion, this was a few years before BBC Three’s Britain’s Missing Top Model in which 8 young women with a range of physical disabilities competed to win a fashion shoot in Marie Claire. I had never seen bodies that resembled my own in the world of high fashion, so it became a groundbreaking moment for me.

Previously, the disabled body was confined to the pages of disability equipment or specialised clothing brochures. I was a star of one such photo-shoot for a range of special needs tracksuits, all zips and elastic, functional yes, but certainly not catwalk worthy. I did however, borrow the zip concept recently.

Skinny jeans have become a bit of a nemesis for me. I have tried to acquire the art of wearing this figure flattering item only to be defeated by my lack of body flexibility. Now skinny jeans seem to be remaining a high street staple so I wanted to find a way to make the look work for me. I took my 3 pairs to a local alterations shop, explained my problem and asked if the jeans could be fitted with a zip from the ankle to the knee to enable them to be taken on and off more easily. I was thrilled with the result, a perfect blend of function and style. The alterations cost more than the jeans themselves, but it was definitely worth it.

Adapted skinny jeans

Having a physical disability can all too often mean that style and fashion are denied us, or come at a heavy price. Earlier this year I developed ulcerated feet and I was told in no uncertain terms that my stylish ankle boots had to go and be replaced with orthopaedic soft fabric sandals. I was somewhat put out as I thought my suede/ leather flat ankle boots were sensible enough. From the look the podiatrist gave them you would be forgiven for thinking I had rolled into her office resplendent in six inch wedge platform sling backs. It’s funny but shoes were always one thing that really made me feel different, the thing that no matter what I did, marked me out as disabled. I would be wearing a nice dress and the look would be ruined by my specialist orthopaedic boots, clunky monstrosities in a very limited colour range of black, blue, brown and the much coveted red.

In my life normal shoes were a rare event, reserved for special occasions. I think I remember every pair of normal shoes I ever had and the event that each pair related to. For the wedding of a lifelong friend of my Dad I wore a green and while frilly dress and little black patent shoes. I was bridesmaid at a cousin’s wedding and I had a pair of white canvas pump type shoes to wear under my dress, then on family holidays to the USA and Denmark I had training shoes. I can remember saying once that the underside of my feet hurt after walking in my normal footwear for a while. My parents were puzzled and tried to determine the cause of my discomfort, after some detective work they discovered that it was the terrain itself. The soles on orthopaedic boots are thicker than average and I had never become accustomed to feeling the ground under my feet.

The ability to wear normal shoes was just about the one positive I found in losing my mobility. I no longer had to pay mind to the support my ankles and feet needed. I also didn’t have to worry anymore about how durable the sole was because yay, I wasn’t going to be wearing them out by dragging my feet. However, my joy was comparatively short-lived, I quickly discovered that feet that have been fixed in position by an orthopaedic surgeon do not necessarily comply with or like being introduced to heels. The one time I found a pair my feet could be cajoled into I snapped the heel off the left one when my leg went into spasm and the boot heel was behind the footrest. This resulted in several Star Wars related jokes about feeling the force. To add insult to injury my feet became chronically swollen due to my reduced mobility, so much so that I had to start wearing men’s shoes which are correspondingly wider. I saw the NHS shoe fitter and the made to measure results made my childhood shoes look positively hip. Even my Mum christened the boots the ‘Passion Killers’, which coming from her was a damming indeed.

My friend Lorraine, keen to help solve my footwear issues, told me that Evans one of the leading UK, plus size, high street shops, had EEE fitting boots available. It was a lovely experience to put on a pair of shoes that were meant for a woman. It opened up new possibilities in clothing; I could now wear dresses and I felt attractive. I was determined to hang on to my new acquisitions, I had over 12 months of fierce arguments with my podiatrist before ulceration forced me to give in. I agreed to give the Pullman sandals a go. I have to say I was pleasantly surprised, while definitely not Manolo Blahnik, they were not an assault on my femininity.

The Pullman Sandal

Last Christmas my aunty’s present to me was afternoon tea at the Ritz, we arranged to go along recently and I had a lovely day out with her. The Pullman sandals were donned along with my semi-designer dress. I have to say that I certainly did not feel out of place, clunky or unattractive, in fact I am beginning to think I was a posh Victorian and have inhabited high society in a former life. The Ritz had ramps for my wheelchair, the best dairy-free cakes I have ever tasted in my life along with an extensive range of teas, always a winner with me.

Aunty Sue and me at The Ritz

Positive Thinking

This week I have been feeling good, the type of good I had almost forgotten existed. This improvement is I think, in part at least, due to the reduction in healthcare appointments. My feet have as they say ‘got with the programme’ and made a concerted effort to heal themselves. This means that I can now dispense with the unfashionable, but I have to say very effective, plastic/rubber combo, sock device I have been putting over my dressings. This device has lead to some very odd moments in my bathroom. If I had a camera in the room I would have produced some very entertaining footage.

Sexy foot protector
Sexy foot protector

A few weeks ago I was due to go away for the weekend and still had not perfected the art of putting the device on solo, after much thought my mum suggested putting on a nylon stocking so that the device had more of a glide. I have to say it worked like a charm and thus a six pack of supermarket, basic brand nylons were added to my disability essentials kit. Catheters, wheelchair, medication, nylons and I am good to go. I have alway wanted to make a slinky exit from a shower, shrug into a crisp, white bathrobe with my hair wrapped casually in an equally white towel. Yes, my bathrobe is white. However, most of the time it has a black stripe in the middle of it where it has got caught up in my wheelchair wheel, which is not that Hollywood.

Recently while at the railway station I decreed that in my next life I want to come back as tall as I am now, but have the use of all four of my limbs, just so I could have the experience of walking down the platform with some cool pull-along luggage in a matching figure flattering, long coat. Try as I might, I have never yet managed to achieve this look sitting down. Tempted by the displays of colour-coordinated trolley bags, I have on occasion experimented with a pull-along bag. This has mostly just resulted in my damaging the skin on my hand as a result of its unplanned union with the metal baggage handle and one of the components of my wheelchair. I tried to get a long, smart, wool winter coat once but my comparatively muscly arms and thin body means that any long coat that fits my upper body, made the rest of it look like a sack of potatoes.

I read an article by a writer called Melanie Reid who broke her neck in a riding accident and now uses a wheelchair. In it, she talked about her feelings when she was able to stand and walk with the aid of a robot called Rex. This got me thinking about my own feelings such as, “Could I walk down a railway platform with my glamorous baggage in a robot called Rex?” I concluded yes I could, but it would not be sexy, which sort of defeats the object for me.

Some years ago, I saw a consultant who told me and my parents that it was my comparative height that had put me in a wheelchair sooner than my peers. My mum felt partly responsible as I get my height from her side of the family. As I pointed out though, I would have ended up in a chair anyway and at least the height I am, I can reach more things for myself.

For the last few years I seem to have spent an inordinate amount of time bouncing around different consulting rooms being told to accept deterioration, that I am getting older. I felt as though, all of the medical professionals believed that it was someone else’s job to help me. Six months ago a new doctor joined my GP practice, he was like a breath of fresh air. You could go into the consulting room, explain your problem and he would work with you to solve it, he didn’t want to have to refer you anywhere else. He understood me when I said that when I was well I could write (like this blog piece), but when I felt unwell I could barely get out of bed. He actually thought it was worth trying to get me the ability to write back, rather than tell me to accept the loss as part of my deterioration. He made me feel that I was worth the effort on his part. It was so refreshing having someone recognise that I had to have a point to my life.

It was this same GP who started me on anti-depressant medication, something that I had been hitherto too embarrassed to ask about. I was troubled by the thought that my personality would begin to be controlled by chemicals and I would lose part of ‘me’ and also by the idea that my ability would be regulated by drugs. It felt like one too many things to be dependent upon. I was talking to a colleague at a conference recently and something she said really put things into perspective for me and made taking the tablets less troubling. She said, “If you were diabetic and it was insulin, you would take it wouldn’t you?” The upshot is, I have taken them for about a month and a half now at the proper anti-depressant dose and I feel human, not like a dead person any more.

The friends I have made at one of my support groups tell me about getting tattoos done to mark significant events and milestones in their lives. I was a bit tempted to have one done, but I thought that there was too great a risk of an infection, or poor spelling if I had words. I settled for a silver bangle engraved with ‘Resurgam’ (I will rise again). Four days later I promptly dented said bracelet on the engraved word, getting out of my wheelchair. Ironically, I feel that this makes it even more appropriate for me, I am a bit battered, but still rising.