Like most women of my generation, I have always been concerned with the way I look, how I present myself to the world and how I am perceived by other people. According to my mum, I had a crisis in a shop at the age of 2 when presented with a blue pair of shoes (god forbid) and I was wearing a green dress – What would people think of such a ghastly combination? Surely only a green pair would be suitable for such an outfit?! My foray into image consciousness continued into adolescence when I restricted food to lose weight (rookie error), wore tiny weenie midriff-bearing tops in the deepest darkest winter months (brrr) and even began smoking to look cool (foolish, very foolish). I think most people make similar mistakes when they are young, trying to appear more stylish, more mysterious, more like you’ve got your s**t together when really you just look like a complete plonker.
I have been through 2 really dramatically life altering transformations in the last 4 years which have really pushed me to my limits with regards to my self image (Oops, I’m getting a little bit emotional just thinking about it – I’m going to blame the hormones!). I really wanted to write about them and how I have coped with both in case any of you reading this are feeling a little bit wobbly about the reflection in your own mirror. So without further ado…
ONE: The first elephant continuously hogging any room I enter these days is paraplegia. What a word! I’m not a fan. Nor am I a fan of the word ‘disabled’ it just seems a bit diminishing… what about altered ability? Maybe not. Anyway, I digress. A split second before my accident I was a 26 year old athletic woman with her whole life ahead of her. I was living my best life out in France with my then boyfriend (now husband) working as a chalet host, snowboarding every day and cooking in the evenings. I remember telling everyone I was the happiest I’d ever been. I was also the most ‘body confident’ I’d ever been. Flash forward the blink of an eye and suddenly I was unable to move from the waist down and I was never going to walk unaided ever again – (insert expletive here).
Over time, following lots of rehab, I managed to gain some strength in about 25% of my lower body and learnt to walk with splints and a rollator (which I like to call my ’walker’). I couldn’t go too far but I was determined not to live out the rest of my days in a wheelchair. I was able to at least try to walk and felt I needed to do so because of this. However, when parts of your body are paralysed you obviously can’t exercise them. I had spent my whole life trying to make my butt look smaller and now it is literally as flat as a pancake! I remember sitting in a shower chair in one of the wet rooms in Stoke Mandeville Hospital’s Spinal Unit a couple of months post injury and catching myself in the mirror before promptly bursting into tears thinking ‘this is what I look like now.’
To be honest, it’s still a struggle. I tend not to look in the mirror so much these days unless I’m fully clothed. When I’m out and about either with the walker or in my wheelchair I can never decipher the expressions on people’s faces when they look/stare at me. Initially it really wound me up when I noticed the stares, especially the pitying, sympathetic faces some individuals would give me. After a while I felt like I was being paranoid – as if I was special enough for anyone to care who or what I was?! Now I seem to have subconsciously put blinkers on and I don’t really notice anyone at all unless I’m having a particularly crap day, usually due to something unrelated to my appearance. When I am on my own with my walker I remind myself of something my husband told me when I was newly injured when I had asked him to be honest about my walk. He said something along the lines of ‘No, it doesn’t look normal but you broke your back and you’re f***ing walking which is amazing and you should be proud. If people are looking at you it’s probably not because you’re weird, they should be in awe of your strength.’ – I definitely hit the jackpot with that guy!
It’s not just body image that alters with an injury like mine. I remember feeling like I couldn’t associate with all of the people in wheelchairs around me when I arrived at the Spinal Unit to start my rehab – how could I be one of them? I now realise how ridiculous it was for me to think like that but I have spoken to many other people with spinal cord injuries who felt the same way when they were first admitted to hospital. I had never known any disabled people before and suddenly I was one. All of those people in wheelchairs were in fact just like me and were dealing with their own new identities. Hopefully this should give you food for thought next time you see someone in a wheelchair or with a limp or using crutches etc. Not every disabled person has had a disability since birth – one can be acquired at any time.
Although unfortunate, I feel that with my accident came a shift. Once the trauma and the heartache of grieving for my past life was over, I had a new found love for my body. It might not look quite as youthful or as strong as before but it is certainly awesome. I happen to love my life. I can appreciate so much more knowing it could have all be taken away. Having to either walk very slowly, trundle along in my chair or cycle around on my electric trike means that I have more time to see the beauty around me. My perception of everything is different and for that I am glad. The only thing I regret not doing before my accident is giving my body the recognition it deserved. I wish I had taken the time to be thankful for a body that worked for me, allowed me to walk around, jump on a horse, go snowboarding, enjoy every piece of equipment at the gym instead of shaming it for not looking like the ones in magazines. I think we should all be thankful for what our bodies can do – we are all very lucky to have them.
3 and a half years later and I have since moved house twice, become a dog owner, got married, travelled around Europe, gone back to work and had a baby.
TWO: Becoming a mum also comes with huge bodily transformation. During pregnancy there’s that awkward first trimester where you just look like you’re bloated (which of course you are but there is a little seed growing in your tummy too). Then comes the backache, the protruding belly, the dark circles under your eyes and if you’re lucky like I was, the swollen feet and cankles. You may also acquire stretch marks, varicose veins and piles – wow. During this time it is also important to be mindful that your body is creating miracles. Somehow, without you even having to try, a real life human being is developing INSIDE YOU! If that isn’t baffling I don’t know what is.
After the baby arrives, whether out of the big V or the sunroof, you’re going to have a whole host of amazing (and sometimes quite grotesque) events in store. I won’t go into detail as I don’t want to ruin the surprise for any expectant mums but in any case, please try to have a sense of humour about it – it really does help.
With the pressure of the baby’s head on my bladder, I spent the last month of my pregnancy in my wheelchair because it was causing painful spasms which were difficult to tolerate. 3 months after the birth of little Ru and I’m still in the chair. I had envisioned being mobile throughout my pregnancy and even walking out of the hospital once baby arrived but these things don’t always go to plan. I don’t have time to concentrate on walking at the moment, there are more important things to think about and I am totally fine with that – walking can wait. I’ve actually just bought a new chair which will allow me to take my baby out and about with a little help from my Baby Bjorn carrier. I now feel an overwhelming sense of pride when I take my little boy out in public. People are all smiles and I’m happy to talk to anyone who approaches me (no one can resist a cute kid). I’m in a wheelchair and I am perfectly capable of looking after my son because of it. My body might be lacking in some areas but my love for it is immeasurable for everything it has given me.
To any new mum I ask you to take a moment to think about all of the wonderful things your body has done for you. Wear your stretch marks as if they are badges of honour, embrace your new curves and leave any thoughts of dieting and exercising behind – looking after your baby is more than enough daily activity. Your body will tell you when you’re ready to make the next move. You have a new identity and it’s a pretty enviable one.
I hope this little entry has settled any uneasy minds when it comes to change. The human body is a wonderful thing and can adapt under the most bizarre circumstances. Give yourself a break when it comes to striving for perfection – not surprisingly, it doesn’t exist.
Peace and love
Lucy @Rewired 💕🌿