One day Melanie Reid’s life imploded. She had it all – tall, outdoorsy, career orientated, a journalist and editor in the prime of life, walking the mountains of Scotland near her home, skiing in the Alps. Then, in a dramatic twist of fate, she became Alice-down-the-rabbit-hole, a physical wreck unable to open an envelope.
One day in 2010 Reid and her husband were returning to their country home in Stirlingshire when they stopped to help a hiker who had lost his way just as the weather was closing in. He was miles off course. When they drove him back to his lodgings the man said: “You are good people. Good things will always happen to you.” Five days later Reid fell off her horse and broke her neck. She was 52.
The story of her accident, being airlifted to hospital, her medical treatment and slow rehabilitation is told in her memoir, The World I Fell Out Of, with uncompromising candour, both tragic and darkly comic by turns. Since the accident Reid has lived life in a wheelchair, paralysed from the upper chest down. She is unsparing in telling of the indignities, the comfort of strangers, the feelings of giving up or going on and the practical day-to-day things she needs to think about.
Her dry-as-dust humour is matched by utter frankness. “Paralysis: all in all, a complete bastard of a word,” she writes. Readers are spared nothing of her first year as a tetraplegic. There’s the tramadol and warfarin, the double incontinence, the kindly and cruel nurses, helplessness, bedsores, oedema, sobbing fits, there is self-pity and feelings of pride and achievement, of “profound inner loneliness” and a cast of a thousand characters: NHS medics, patients, carers and family.
In the spinal unit in Glasgow there was a strange camaraderie of almost Stockholm Syndrome proportions whereby Reid found the unit a safe, known place organised around the needs of the patients while at her wheelchair-unfriendly home she felt adrift. Readers of her weekly ‘Spinal Column’ in The Times Saturday magazine will be familiar with the story. Others might baulk at this frank account of living with disability.
It is a beautifully written memoir which also touches on the general (and unfair) perceptions of disabled people and gives an insightful look into the psychology of disability. The author draws on a variety of sources to illustrate her feelings from neorologist Oliver Sacks to Anne of Green Gables. She offers a wheelchair-user’s view of the world – from once being the tallest in a room full of men to now being at “fart level”. She is upfront about the expectations laid on the disabled by the able-bodied – to be fighting the illness, to say they are fine, to be coping. No self-pity, no tears of frustration. She admits to times of being nearly “washed away with despair” and yet, incredibly, sought to rebuild her strength enough to get back in the saddle, both literally and metaphorically.
This moving book is also a kind of inspirational self-help guide: “We only have one life and, take it from me, we should never waste it. Cherish the people you love, change your job, tilt up your face and kiss the rain, follow your dreams. Because you can.”