The Times journalist who doesn't accept her disability

Melanie Reid Image copyright Melanie Reid

Journalist Melanie Reid was paralysed in a horse riding accident five years ago and has struggled to come to terms with her disability since.

Tucked away in rural Scotland, down a winding, rutted track, nestles the home of Melanie Reid, the author of the weekly Spinal Column in The Times. It is remote, often muddy and sometimes inaccessible.

Though her accident left her with minimal movement in her arms and legs, the house itself remains noticeably free of adaptations usually considered helpful for a severely physically disabled person. But there are no lowered worktops in the kitchen and no adapted power points - Reid thinks the adoption of too many would signal an acceptance of her disability, which she does not feel.

Five years ago Reid was at a point in her life where, she says, she was exactly where she wanted to be, doing precisely what she wanted to be doing. She was a successful journalist, with a loving husband and a son who was thriving. They had set up home in the country, complete with beautiful views and stables for her much-loved horses. Reid was the one who tended to stride ahead and lead the activities - she says she was the family's practical problem-solver.

It was while out riding that the accident happened which left her a tetraplegic. Cantering towards a jump, her horse baulked and suddenly stopped. She tried to hang on to the horse's neck but she was thrown off and flew over the jump with her arms out behind her. Her face hit the ground and her body flipped.

People watching have since told her it looked almost innocuous, and like it was happening in slow motion. She did not lose consciousness and says she experienced some incredible sensations in that moment.

"I felt warmth and beauty in my body, and saw bright red in front of my eyes. It was the computer shutting down, the lorry crashing into the telephone exchange."

Image copyright James Glossop
Image caption Melanie was a keen horse rider up until her accident

She spent almost a full year in hospital, determinedly working towards gaining as much movement in her limbs as possible. The idea for her weekend newspaper column was conceived during an MRI scan.

"I have to tell people about this, I have to describe it," she remembers thinking.

Regularly writing about her disability and the frustrations and struggles to do everyday things then became a form of therapy. She says it was also a way of regaining some of her power, not least because it's helped to pay the bills - Reid had always been the main bread winner.


Find out more

Melanie Reid spoke to Peter White on Radio 4's No Triumph No Tragedy

Listen to the interview on iPlayer


She knows that publicly declaring that she can't accept her physical limitations irritates and angers some of her disabled readers, and says that she is resented by them for saying she regrets "being stuck in disability". She has written stories about having constant physiotherapy which has enabled her to shuffle a few steps, and is aware that it has led to some disabled people feeling betrayed and that they're not trying hard enough. "There is that feeling that I'm letting the side down by being 'a walker'," she says.

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Media captionListen to a clip of Melanie speaking to Peter White

She understands that people who have been wheelchair users for the majority of their lives have to be comfortable with who they are and accept their situation. However, she says she has to believe that, given the choice, they too would rather be up and walking around because to her, being in a chair is very frustrating. "I would leave the chair in an instant," she says.

Reid's spinal injury is not complete, meaning she has some movement in her body, and lives with what she calls "the torture of possibility" every day. She asks herself why she can't move just that little bit more, or improve a little further and imagines those with complete spinal cord breaks do not have to live with that torture.

Shortly after the accident, Reid recognised her life was now fundamentally changed and that she could no longer be the practical problem-solver in the family. She says her husband Dave, who was used to being the entertainer, has had to take on her old role. It was a vast change for him.

Reid offered Dave a chance to leave their marriage. She told him he should go and find another woman, someone who could make love to him, someone to walk with and be happy with, someone who was "not just a lump of meat". He told her: "Don't be bloody stupid. I'm not going anywhere."

He has shared a big chunk of Reid's sense of loss and grief, admitting to her that it sometimes does make him sad seeing a couple walking down the street together.

Image copyright Melanie Reid
Image caption Melanie tried horse riding again after her accident, until a hip injury stopped this

Similarly, she has asked her son not to hang around, not wishing to tie him down. He is now in New Zealand and Reid tries not to write or talk to him when she is having a down day. She wants him to think of her as "the mum who could do stuff".

Reid thought there would be nothing more to write about once she had come home from hospital, but due to popular demand, the column continues. She says she would love to stop writing so forensically about her life at some point, perhaps once she has written the memoir that people keep asking her to write.

Whilst being stoic, Reid finds it hard to identify any positives that have come out of her accident. Remaining the stubborn mistress of her largely unadapted home is currently very important to her, but she does not rule out some possible alterations in the future, perhaps when she has made peace with her disability on her own terms.

Melanie Reid is Peter White's guest on No Triumph No Tragedy, BBC Radio 4, Wednesday 22 July. Listen again on the iPlayer.

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