Melanie Reid: Horse riding fall that left me paralysed and my close Northern Ireland links
As her deeply moving and inspiring memoir, The World I Fell Out Of, is published nine years on from her accident, the writer talks to Laurence White
Nine years ago, on April 2, 2010, Melanie Reid, a journalist with The Times, based in Scotland, was approaching a small jump on her horse when it refused, throwing her off.
She tumbled head first into the ground, breaking her neck and fracturing her back.
"I experienced a blinding red flash and felt my body suffuse with a most beautiful intense feeling of warmth, my own internal nuclear explosion, my own terrible mushroom cloud," she writes.
She realised in that moment on that Good Friday that her life had changed forever.
She was left tetraplegic, dependent on others for assistance with the most private of bodily functions and the most mundane of everyday tasks.
But she could still write and came up with the name of her new weekly column for the newspaper's Saturday magazine - what else but Spinal Column.
Now she has written a book detailing life from that fateful moment through her long months in the spinal unit of a Glasgow Hospital to the initial fears and challenges of returning home and the impact on relationships.
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It is a story that is heart-wrenching and emotionally draining, but laced with humour and memorable phrases - "I'm two people, me (the functioning part) and the rest of me" and "overnight your buttocks have become the soles of your feet" - as well as thought provoking.
Q Was writing the book a cathartic experience?
A I am glad I have done it, but it was very harrowing, going back and revisiting all that hospital stuff for the first time. There was loads of stuff about my time in hospital that I did not include in my columns when I was still in the spinal unit. There were grim details of life in the unit which were not appropriate to write about while I was still in there. I had to relive all that for the book. It was very hard and did take a lot out of me.
That makes it sound like the spinal unit was a prison. It wasn't. It saved my life and put me back into the world again. But it was a long, tough haul.
QYet writing your column in
hospital was therapeutic?
A When I wrote what I did it was therapy. I tapped away with one finger and then hit 'send'. However, it was two or three years before I was emotionally strong enough to read what was printed in my newspaper. It had been a case of sending it and getting rid of it at that time. I was expressing some of the grief and writing was a life raft. The analogy I used was that I was a war correspondent reporting from the front line of my own body. Can this really be happening to me? I am sending despatches back to head office.
Q You have had a life-long love affair with horses. Where did that begin?
A I, like many other little girls, loved horses and I used to to draw pictures of them. Endlessly. My cousins in Northern Ireland had a pony and a donkey and we used to spend our summer holidays there every year with my maternal grandmother. It was at Hillhall Road near Lisburn, which at that time in the 1960s was all countryside. Today it is a commuter rat run, but back then we used to go out in a pony and trap.
I loved being allowed to sit on the pony and the donkey. My cousins also had a tack room. I was not allowed to enter, but I used to go and stand at the door and look at the tack and smell it. Unless they also have the horsey disease, people would think you are nuts, but lots of little girls have that love of all things horsey.
Q Do you still have a connection with Northern Ireland?
A Northern Ireland is a huge part of me. Quite a bit of my spirit lies in granny's old home between Lisburn and Belfast and my first husband came from Northern Ireland. I have many cousins there and my parents moved back to Lisburn when they got older and lived there for about 10 years. As they became frail they moved back to my home in Scotland, but Northern Ireland is still very much part of my world.
Q Owning a horse is very expensive. Did you have to sacrifice a lot for your hobby?
A It is madness, the expense is colossal. I think it is one of the reasons my first marriage broke up. My husband said it was crazy, like digging a hole and throwing money into it.
Q In your book you recall an aunt who suffered from a kind of locked-in syndrome, where her body deteriorated while her mind remained keen. Was that memory stirred by your similar position?
A Aunt Averil, who lived with granny near Lisburn, was my mother's oldest sister. She was one of the Northern Ireland victims of sleeping sickness, later called encephalitis lethargica, which was first noticed when she was about 12 in 1924.
She was a presence when we were growing up. She couldn't talk or express herself and lived in a chair and was looked after by my granny.
The disease had been flying around the world since 1918 and came after the outbreak of Spanish flu, which killed millions. Her illness left its mark on me as a child.
Knowing what I know now of her condition - she was trapped in a body that didn't work but with a brain that was unaffected - how dreadful that locked-in syndrome must have been for her. In a way it was worse than what I've gone through; at least I can communicate.
Averil was one of the forgotten people, like those who died from Spanish flu - a lost generation. It was difficult to write about her in my book, but it was a way of remembering her and letting her live on.
Q You say you were lucky compared to your aunt. Many people might not see your situation in that light.
A If I opened my eyes in the spinal unit I quickly realised there was someone else there worse off than me. I likened our injuries to a lorry crashing into a telecoms junction box. No two wires were damaged in the same way. A myriad of connections are damaged, broken or twisted in different ways and so it is when people have spinal injuries.
Some people had less arm or hand movement than me and others who suffered lower spinal injuries could do things I could never attempt. You have to put things in perspective, even though that can be very difficult. I might have broken my neck in such a way that I would have needed a respirator to help me breathe.
Q Do you think your book will help give people that perspective?
A Unless you experience paralysis I feel it is very hard to imagine what it is like. I wrote the book giving my realities, but they are different from those of others. I felt that if I was completely authentic with mine, it might help give others some advice or help them realise that they are not on their own.
There was terrific spirit among the people with spinal injuries that I met, but when you leave hospital it can feel lonely and scary, like falling off a cliff again. Ultimately, if it might help other people with similar injuries in some way, that is great.
Q What has been the reaction to your weekly columns?
A A lot of my readers tell me they are able-bodied and live normal lives but I have helped them appreciate their lives and put things in perspective for them and they don't take normal things for granted, as I did.
One woman said she had stopped shouting at her son for leaving wet towels or his socks lying all over the place, when she is able-bodied and able to pick them up.
Q What would you say to young people?
A I wish I could spend time with teenage girls or young women and tell them to stop fretting about their appearance, or whether they can fit into a particular dress size. I would tell them that if their body works, then it is beautiful and they should just get out there and enjoy life.
Q In the book you talk about the impact of your fall on your husband, Dave, and son, Dougie, and how you had a conversation with your husband telling him if he wanted to leave you would understand. That must have been very difficult?
A It just seemed polite. Maybe it was a bit of masochism on my part, or a feeling that I couldn't trap him in my disability, so I felt I should offer and I did. But he was wonderful and has been amazing. He has evolved and changed and we joke that between us we are one functioning person; I have the brainpower and he has the functioning body. He has been wholeheartedly wonderful.
It is a big number to ask someone to sacrifice a normal life and become a carer. I know some men just can't cope and I have never been judgmental of that. I reckon we are not all born for sacrifice and it is better to be open and honest and settle things early, rather than causing grief down the road.
Q Does each anniversary of your fall hold any significance for you?
A It is unequivocally a crap day. I have all kinds of aversion techniques to try to forget it. I bury myself in work and I don't look at the clock, as I would say things like 'at this time nine years ago I was being flown to hospital'. For the first few years each anniversary was unbearable, but your skin toughens over the years and you just get on with things.
Q Can you foresee a day when spinal injuries can be healed?
A I am patron of the Spinal Research charity. One of the reasons I became a patron is that I firmly believe there will be a cure this century with enough research funding, but it won't come in time for me. I am 61 now. But I want it to come in time for young people who are now suffering from spinal injuries. They have been cheated out of a lot of good years.
Gene therapy will be the big thing in this century - changing genes, adapting genes, sending genes in to cure things. A lot of things will be cured by this therapy, like multiple sclerosis and cystic fibrosis and I think spinal repair will come out of that.
Electrical implants are also showing positive results. Gene therapy is also showing promise in breaking down scar tissue which forms over the site of spinal injuries. The scar tissue blocks all reconnections, but if we could find a way to dissolve it with gene messengers then we could have spines repaired and nerves reconnected.
Q You are critical in your book of the amount of physiotherapy available to people like you when you leave hospital. What can be done to improve the situation?
A The NHS is so pared to the bone that it cannot afford any greater service. Nobody ever died from lack of physiotherapy and therefore it is not seen as an absolutely essential service.
Journalist Andrew Marr found exactly the same problem when he came out of hospital after his stroke.
Stroke victims' lives could be transformed if they had ongoing physiotherapy. It is one of the things I am passionate about.
It would be wonderful if we could find more money for it.
It can help keep people out of hospital and help stroke survivors lead independent lives and also increase the independence of spinal injury victims.
Q Finally, you have a wonderful phrase in your book about the limitations of what you can wear. You said: "Whatever I wore, I always wore a wheelchair."
A It goes to the nub of everyday life. It is lovely to look pretty and attractive, but what is the point when you are stuck in a metal box on wheels? I know that is defeatist and that I am a grumpy, middle-aged person.
I love it that young people in wheelchairs dress up.
They are much better at saying "Hey, look at me".
I admire them for it. I cannot go there, but they are the future and God bless them.
The World I Fell Out Of by Melanie Reid is published by 4th Estate, price £16.99