Melanie Reid’s ‘Spinal Column’ in The Times is about her life with spinal cord injury. It varies hugely in its tone and emotional tenor. By turns Reid can be darkly humorous or sorry for herself, but she regularly brings a graphic aspect of life with disability into the world of the weekend reader. Her column has covered many aspects. She may be discussing attitudes to wheelchair users (6 December 2014), or describing how her spasticity feels and changes (28 January 2017), or describing with all the gory details the problems of bowel management (27 September 2014).
Now she has completed a book about her journey following the riding accident on Good Friday 2010. The World I Fell Out Of is a retrospective account, characterised by black Glaswegian humour, and a desire not to soft-soap her description of cervical spinal injury. In some ways it lacks the immediate feel of the Spinal Column pieces, more dispassionate perhaps, and lacking the wounded and sorry-for-herself note. But it is a riveting read, even whilst giving telegraphed indications of the emotional roller-coaster she has ridden.
For me, the highlights of the book are the personal struggles she describes. Over a period of years Melanie Reid has had to come to terms with smaller horizons in her life, and at the same time she has struggled to cope with how these have impacted on her family – her partner David and her son Dougie.
Melanie Reid was a six-foot long-limbed adventuress, and – given her attempts at riding as a tetraplegic – she is still an adventuress. But she has lost many of her old freedoms and possibilities, losses which she finds difficult and which she makes no attempt to hide. The inability to walk and ride are only the surface losses. One day Melanie and another tetraplegic are working out in the gym, when a groaning woman, full of self-pity, limps past with walking sticks, broadcasting her grievances, and completely oblivious of those less able to walk than her. All three people have incomplete spinal cord injuries with varying levels of injury, and varying degrees of damage to the cord – but all three are desperately traumatised by their loss of normal walking. The story prompts a retrospective consideration of Melanie’s own initial determination to walk again, as though walking was the ‘be-all and end-all’. “What the paralysed learn about paralysis, eventually, is that there are many things far worse than not being able to walk, the main one being the inevitable double incontinence, part of a vast layer-cake of physical and psychological horrors.” The World I Fell Out Of is the story of a strange traumatic rearrangement of Melanie’s priorities in life, given the constraints imposed by her spinal cord injury. An expression of her new priorities is Melanie’s later decision to have a colostomy, enabling her more easily to manage her bowels herself, despite the surgical and other risks involved.
The changes in Melanie’s relationship with her husband David form a vital theme in the book. David becomes a part-time carer, and without his care the home would be invaded by paid carers. He is also her partner and support, but the language of that relationship is forever changed. “Dave, who knew my heartache, would sleep against the length of my body, trying to comfort me, but I was unaware he was there. My skin didn’t talk to his skin any more.” The losses are drastic – the sexual relationship, physical sensation, desire, reciprocity. But there are also ways in which the two of them forge a new way of being together that is hard and surprising, but also curiously natural and heart-warming.
Melanie’s worries about Dave are mirrored by her worries for her son Dougie, a student at the time of her injury. The injury inevitably affects him too, and their relationship. Some of the possible effects are immediately apparent to her, and she observes the strained family relationships of other patients in the spinal unit. So Melanie makes conscious decisions to tell him to go his own way, and not to be held back by her. And worries about how her accident has added to his stress at a vulnerable time.
Like many other illness narratives Melanie Reid’s story muses on the delicate and changing balance between hope and acceptance, the desire for change alongside a need to cope with the imperfect present. There are many stages of this, and The World I Fell Out Of gives a different retrospective perspective on this from that given by the evolving story in The Times ‘Spinal Column’. She decides that hope was a vital fuel for the early months of determined rehabilitation, but she has seen a change. “Hope has never left me, but it coexists with acceptance” and she appreciates some positives. “Too much of a healthy life, when you take it for granted, is spent in a whirl of plans, achievements, expectation and wanting, trying to bend time to your will. Only when this is taken away from you do you start to understand the simplicity of being where you are, with what you can see, and the wind you can feel on your face.”
Reid, Melanie (2019) The World I Fell Out Of, London, 4th Estate
There is an audiobook read by Melanie Reid, (forward read by Andrew Marr) via Audible:
Melanie Reid was interviewed about her book on BBC Radio 4 Women’s Hour, Tuesday 5 March 2019