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Spinal Column: Melanie Reid

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I am a regular reader of Melanie Reid’s weekly Spinal Column in The Times Magazine on Saturday.

If you are unaware of her, I quote from her first Spinal column, Why did I let this happen to me?, back in April 2010:

I lie imprisoned on a hospital bed. I’m here because, three weeks ago, I landed on my head and broke my neck. In the space of 15 minutes I have gone from someone whom I considered to be a fairly high-achieving mistress of her universe to what looks like a tetraplegic.

I immediately empathised.  My illness is different: my outcome similar.  She has written a Spinal Column most weeks since.

Reading her columns I feel relief.  They are about circumstances and emotions that I am oh-so familiar with and relatively few others are.

Of course, that’s a good thing.  I wouldn’t be wishing sudden massive paralysis, loss of autonomy, ongoing illness or physical hardship on anyone.

Nevertheless, it is hard to express how precious it is to not feel so alone in dealing with such extensive paralysis and lifestyle adjustment even across the impersonal distance of a newspaper column.

Melanie Reid’s columns have made me laugh, cry, empathise and feel sad.  Sometimes I am irritated.  Because suffering can be a competitive business and sometimes you don’t know when you are (relatively) well off.

Spinal cord injuries (SCI) are actually quite well supported and funded in our country though it may be that those with such injuries don’t realise it.  They are, like breast cancer sufferers and children who are ill, the public face of illness and disability because they affect the young, fertile and most vulnerable of us by and large.

Nothing wrong with that but it does mean that there tends to be more awareness and support, better financing – public and charitable, access to resources, wider and effective research, more public familiarity and understanding than for those equally debilitated but struggling with less high profile or less visible conditions.

I’m sure Melanie Reid would laugh her head off at the idea anyone might envy her but, really, in my opinion (and somewhat tongue in cheek), SCI’s don’t know how well off they are!

Certainly in comparison to those with obscure neurological conditions – yes, like mine.  Similar to Melanie but through illness rather than accident, I became pretty much tetraplegic quickly (within a few months rather than immediately).  I was told to go home and get on with it.  And that’s just what I have had to do.

Because, obscure neurological illnesses are hanging down there with the lowest of the low on the illness ranking hierarchy (any idea who else hangs with me down here?).

No one expects us to get better.  Not the hospital consultants nor the GP nor social services. And, definitely not the public or politicians.  We are the doomed.  Why ‘waste’ money on us?  There’s no rehabilitation or therapy on offer.  No advice or resources.  No support.  No hope.

But hey, like we didn’t already know life was sucky?  I’m still working on rising above it …

Hence, despite the occasional pang of envy for her ‘resources’, Melanie’s is the first column I turn to every weekend as I download my  Times and much kudos to them for the ongoing support given to her.

This past weekend, in A troubling development, she discusses wonky fingers and Buddhism.  I particularly liked this:

[Pre accident] I found that his monastery, Samye Ling, the main Tibetan Buddhist centre in Europe, tucked in the wilds of the Borders, possessed the same kind of goodness and gentle magic.

I bought some wind chimes and went away quietly impressed. I wanted a bit of what Thubten was having. I suspect most of us do.

Then came my accident, the symbolism of my fall, and the rebuilding of a new life; a necessary acceptance of a bewildered body and a fractured soul. Spinal injury is very Zen: you have much time to meditate upon your position; to “get in the zone”, to inhabit yourself. You have the rest of your life, in fact. And you will – because basically you don’t have any bloody choice in the matter – grow wiser out of suffering. It’s a rather extreme way of testing the old saying that the quieter you become, the more you can hear.

Breaking your neck, put like that, is a bit like going on a retreat. Only for longer than three years. A parallel that has rather haunted me since my accident.

Great perspective.

For reference, I have linked here to The Times but they do operate behind a paywall.  I would love others to read Melanie’s columns but see no blog or website reference elsewhere to link to.  Maybe she alone is worth The Times subscription?

2 Responses to “Spinal Column: Melanie Reid”

  1. steve hayes

    I heard Mel interviewed by Peter White last week-it reminded me of when we both “did” Eng Lit at Edin Univ in the 70s. A group of us affectedly hysterical students were wittering about how difficult it was to read a Henry James novel, and Mel just, very mildly, cut across the cr*p and said something like, “Oh, I just think-got to read it, so might as well get on with it!” Never forgotten that directness, so indicative of determination and that much-maligned quality, “common-sense”. Qualities still very much in evidence in an inspiring interview. (Eventually finished the James novel-think it was “The Golden Bowl.”)


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