On the internet, nobody knows you’re tetraplegic
23 Feb 2021
By Carole McMurray
In 2010, after falling from a horse, journalist Melanie Reid became paralysed from the top of her chest down. In that moment, her life changed forever.
‘It’s like your own personal nuclear explosion’, she said as she told us her story, coinciding with the paperback release of her bestselling memoir The World I Fell Out Of.
What happens when you’re derailed in midlife? The profound shock – both mental and physical – as a result of her accident, has stayed with Melanie for years. She described how, after months in hospital, she managed to walk just a few steps with an aid, but this felt like torture. The eternal torture is the ‘torture of possibility’, the tantalising prospect of being able to walk again, but at the same time knowing that the nerve damage is so extensive, she never will. In defiance of her fate, Melanie talks of her rogue, misbehaving ‘Billy Connolly right leg’ with self-deprecating humour and steely determination. For Melanie ‘you become an expert in your own body’. She tells us that tragedy has taught her hope. Her drive, determination and positivity are extraordinary and nothing short of astonishing.
‘I wanted false hope but the physios wouldn’t give me any’, she says, with a wry smile.
Writing she found was her salvation, her life raft. She tells us that she has felt like a war correspondent dispatching from the trenches reporting on her own body. Her weekly column in The Times, The Spinal Column, displays that same sense of dark humour, but never desperately so. I’m astonished to hear her tell how it took her three years to read any of these columns. It was just too painful for her. And yet she’s a big advocate of externalising grief through art.
My heart falters and I find myself fighting back a tear when Melanie says that she wishes she was still young and reckless. That she’d do anything for that. She talks movingly of learning about yourself through the prism of the past. Only when you are in that ‘golden age’ you realise what you had and how special it was. This passage she reads us here is a clarion call to revel and enjoy youth and health while you are able. I am floored when she says she is still able to say she is now living in a golden age of sorts – learning love, ‘sitting at the back of the church at my own funeral’ she says. It’s powerful stuff.
Of course, as we are living in the vice grip of a global pandemic, Melanie’s words really hit home. Smell the flowers, she says, listen to the birds. Sit still and listen. To people, to nature. It’s a gift. She talks of the ‘parallel world’ she inhabits now. ‘You have to make the most of it’. She fell ‘down a rabbit hole’ she says. But we have all had this experience this past year, under the shadow of covid-19. Who doesn’t feel desire to be back in the old days? Melanie’s hope is that people will appreciate things more post lockdown. “The pungent loveliness of life”, she says, quoting her friend Andrew Marr.
Melanie’s positivity, her glass-half-fullness is nothing short of astonishing and inspiring. She tells us there will be a need and desire for art, beauty, creativity, togetherness, otherness, post-pandemic. ‘Dance whenever you can!’ she urges us. She wishes she could. In spite of her ongoing sense of bereavement, she feels the real ‘me’ is in there – ‘it’s a funny old game’ she smiles. ‘On the internet, nobody knows you’re tetraplegic’.
For Melanie, love has been the most important factor in her ongoing recovery process. ‘Disability belongs to those who love you and you love too’. She will always carry guilt and sadness because of the shattering effects of her accident. The tenderness with which she talks of her son and her husband is both humbling and moving.
That she can talk and write so movingly, humorously and with such positivity that goes way beyond stoicism, is testament to the immense courage of Melanie Reid. Of the episode when she was in the spinal unit being entertained by a Kings of Leon tribute band singing Sex on Fire trying to dance in her wheelchair, she proclaims ‘it had the whiff of the circus about it!’
Melanie has written a new narrative for herself in writing this book. Her ‘take home’ message? - ‘If your body works, it’s beautiful and wonderful.’.
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