Jen Vs. the”What Do I Wear” Challenge

When you can’t stand up, how do you try on clothes? Betcha never stopped to consider that one. Life in a wheelchair complicates the already complex and (for me at least) already traumatic adventure of finding something to wear for an event.

Today, I went shopping for that perfect dress to wear to an event. It’s the first time since my injury that I’ve really REALLY needed to dress up. Sure, I buy clothes but work stuff is different. I’ve gotten used to life in my chair, but this smacked me in the face. So much so that I had to call a friend to talk me down while I sobbed again about what I’ve lost to my spinal cord injury. She’s been there, done that a thousand times since her own injury.

I used to LOVE to dress up. I LOVED that Cinderella moment of wiggling into a gown, stepping into the heels and looking at the up-do, make-up and bling in the mirror and seeing the completed package. I could rock a gown. And, with a 36” inseam, a mini made my legs go on for miles. But, that was a long time ago.

Like many women, I obsessed about finding the right dress. One that didn’t make me look too old, too cheap, too fat, too saggy, too … well, some of you have been there. Let me say, that’s asking a lot from a piece of fabric. Six dresses at time into the dressing room , twisting, turning, wiggling in and out, up on your toes, going from this mirror to that one trying to catch all the angles until you find The. Perfect. Dress. That moment made all the rest worthwhile. Today was more than being a few years older and a few pounds heavier. It was a new traumatic first for this broken old body.

I rolled into the store and headed into the dress aisles. I’ve not worn a dress since my injury… frumpy skirts that made cathing easier yeah, but not a dress. Wow, those racks are high. I can’t see the sizes or price tags from down here. Oh, until this second I forgot about the dresses I couldn’t get to because the racks were too close together and my chair wouldn’t fit. But, I digress.

There I sat, faced with finding something I like that will fit that I can afford that will hide all the dirty little secrets of SCI and work in a wheelchair. Another side note, a dear friend in the know counseled me that if the dress is above the knee, tying your thighs together once you’re set in your chair will prevent your legs from flopping apart and exposing all your umm “secrets.” Sigh. Oh Great! Another thing to worry about: flashing the beeve at the unsuspecting masses. Gawd will the joys of SCI never end??

I find a few things that might work and then it hits me. How do I try them on? Dressing requires hefting my butt out of my chair, bending down and grabbing my legs one at a time, throwing them up on the bed, wiggling around until I’m balanced and safe from flopping over, barrel rolling side to side to get a waist band up or down and on and on and on. It’s exhausting and there have been days that once I’m dressed, I have to rest for a bit before I can get into my chair.

But, to try on clothes, you’ve got to see how they work in the chair. That’s a lot of transfers. Transfers cost a lot of energy. Can you transfer unassisted and keep the clothes on without ripping? Can you still push? This is a real issue for women since clothes usually are cut for small shoulders and I am now built like a line backer and need every bit of that muscle to push. If the shoulders bind, I can’t move. Can you use the bathroom? Does it still look good sitting in the chair? Clothes off the rack were not meant for wheelers. Does it catch on the chair? So much to consider. At least I never have to ask if my butt looks big in this dress.

Yeah, so, back to the store… although stores generally have a fitting room large enough for a wheelchair, I can’t get on that little bench and roll around to try on clothes. I can try on tops but not dresses, slacks, skirts. Let’s not even start on shoe shopping.

The only alternative is to buy everything you want to try on. Go home. Climb onto the bed, roll around wrestle yourself in and out of the clothes and then take back the unwanted items. So, if you LOVE LOVE LOVE a dress but don’t know if you need this size or that one, ya gotta buy them both in order to try them on. Now if some wheeler chick has a better idea, I’m very open to hearing it.

Seven hundred dollars on my credit card later, me, four cocktail dresses a couple of little fun things leave the store.

At home the process begins. Brown dress with jeweled neck line…. Too tight in the shoulders. Larger size fits across the traps but the straps fall off my shoulders. Black and white sassy geometric… lovely but since my kness don’t stay together, it’s not a contender. Sweet little red number oh how I love thee. You slide with grace and promise over my head and skim all the parts that need skimming. I think I’m in love sitting there on my bed. I transfer into my chair. And there it is… that sweet flaired skirt that made me love you catches on my wheels and I cannot push around it. Damn. More tears. This is so unfair.

And so it goes. Back to the store for a refund and on to the next to start over. Of course, a large purchase followed by a same day return and then another purchase at another store the same day will cause the bank to freeze my credit card for suspicious activity and I’m certainly not carrying that much cash or paying by check.

If I bedazzle a set of black scubs, will that count?  Maybe I’ll just stay home.

Jen Vs. the Trash

Some days my life is an “I Love Lucy” episode.  Well, if Lucy used a wheelchair.  The latest episode:  Trash Day Fun! 

I can take the can to the street but it’s a long process.  First I get the can in place and set the brakes on my wheelchair, and then I pull the can a couple of inches to me.  Then I unlock my chair, move forward, relock and pull the can.  Lather. Rinse.  Repeat.  I can move the can several inches at a time so it only takes about 45 minutes to get the can out.   I love heavy breathing with my garbage.   

I had this flash of brilliance that I could move the can in no time if I used my powerchair.   I manage to tow the can behind me and only have to stop a couple of times to release the strain on my backward arm but the motor’s not real happy with the load.  I hit the bend in the narrow sidewalk and lost one of the can’s wheels over the edge.  Before my chair toppled over backward with it, I let go. 

Now here’s a predicament worthy of Lucy.  The can is on its side (still closed thankfully) and I cannot get close enough on the sidewalk to pick it up.  That edge is dangerously close.  I try angle after angle.  I create tools to try to lever it back upright.  No such luck.  

I take to the gravel and come up beside the can.  YESSSS!  Back into position to tow that puppy the last 20 feet to the curb I snatch failure from the jaws of victory. 

I bury the axle deep in gravel.  I’m going nowhere.  But there’s no need to panic!  Surely, I can find a way out of this.  I try to rock the chair.  Doh!  I lack chair-rocking muscles.   I try calling the neighbors.  No one is home.  Even my 85 year old neighbor has a more robust social life than I do. 

So I sit.

I’m trapped.  I just have to wait until someone comes along that I can enlist to help me move.  I wait. 

And I wait.

And an hour goes by and I’m still waiting.  People do still live on this street right?  I’m not stuck in some Twilight Zone episode where I’m the last human alive.  Right?  

Still waiting.  But now it’s dark and getting cold.  And, I’m breathing my garbage. 

Finally I dial the non-emergency number for the police.  As a wheeler, when you fall or get stuck, you call 911 and they come save you.  I don’t need a whole fire truck for this right?  Just one guy to get me un-stuck.  I get  transferred to the 911 dispatcher. 


A fire truck pulls up 15 minutes later – at least they didn’t use the damned siren.   I instruct them on how to find the manual releases on the back of my chair and they do.  It takes 3 of them to drag me out of the gravel.  Another puts my recycling can at the curb. 

As I sit on the sidewalk thanking them, my chair starts sliding backward toward the street.  Slapstick hilarity ensues as they dive for me and pull me back just as I start to tip.  I talk them through re-engaging my drive again.  This time it works. 

Would it be inappropriate to just call 911 on garbage day?

Happy Re-Birthday to Me

There are moments in time where we go from being one thing to something completely else.  A demarcation in identity so to speak — the day we’re spit of out the university, diploma in hand; the moment we become parents; the moment we lose our own parents — an instance where one’s self-identity changes irrevocably.

I call mine my “re-birthday.”  In one instant I was just like you, in the next I was a person with a disability and the way the world interacted with me was forever changed. That fateful night my heart stopped beating for a time and was restarted.  Hence, I was “reborn” in a very literal sense.

Six years ago today I was shot in the back in a still-unsolved random attack.   I learned I’m not afraid of death per se but dying hurts like hell.  Especially when you’re slowing drowning in your own blood.  Dying and being resuscitated is a long road of pain; physical and emotional.   I was paralyzed by a spinal cord injury that night and became a full-time wheel chair user.

The anniversary date of my injury is a time of deep reflection on who I was, who I am and who I still want to be.  I’ve accomplished much in the intervening years but there’s much more to do.  I’ve gotten back to work in a brand new venture that gives me purpose and pays my bills.  I’ve found athletic outlets and completed a few half marathons.  I live independently in my own home where I love to cook and entertain.

I’ve gained some insights about life in a wheelchair that they didn’t tell me about in rehab.  Here is a small glimpse into my world as a free-range wheeler

  1. Harry Potter’s got nothing on me. He has that cloak, sure, but my wheelchair imbues me with the power of invisibility – in elevators, at restaurants, in all manner of public spaces.  No small talk in elevators and I rarely have to interact with wait staff in restaurants as they only see my dining companions.  I can zip up and down the mall completely unseen.  This spares me the attack of the kiosk people who jump out to braid your hair or thread your eyebrows or upgrade your cell plan.  I do not get spritzed with perfume or splooged with lotion by random cosmetic counter workers.
  2. People in wheelchairs cannot hear or process language. People often talk really loud and really slow for my benefit or use baby talk.  This also works with people who do not speak your language.  When volume and impeccable enunciation don’t work, you can pantomime.
  3. People in wheel chairs are good luck charms and make GREAT mascots. I was completely unprepared for this phenomenon.  People pet me; usually on the head.  At 5’12” pre-injury, very few people could reach the top of my head, now I’m getting a shiny spot on the very top like one of those brass sculptures rubbed for luck at the museum.  Nothing warms my cockles like being touched by random strangers.
  4. Everything I do is AWESOME! Because few people understand that wheelers live ordinary lives like everyone else, all I have to do is show up to be an inspiration. Standard conversation at cocktail parties: “Wow!  You drive? Incredible!  I’m so proud to know you!”  Whether it’s working, driving, participating in sports, my community or my family, I am inspirational.  Laundry day and cleaning the bathroom takes on whole new reverent meaning that way.   It kinda negates the real things I do that might garner an “attagirl.”  Stay tuned and I promise to dissuade you of the notion that I am more specialer than the average bear.
  5. I am a magnet for charity. When I sit too long in one place, people give me their spare change.  Honest.  It’s happened more than once.  Apparently wheelers and panhandlers are indistinguishable.  It’s incentive to make sure that I comb my hair before I go out and always wear matching socks.  I used to be insulted by the implication. Now I have a kid in college and I need every dime.

Shortly after my injury, I spent time with an old friend who tearfully confessed they no longer knew how to interact with me.  Over beers, I explained that I am still exactly the same person I was before my injury; equal parts of magnificence and snark with a proper sprinkling of downright annoy-ability to round me out; I just do things a little differently.  I made that person pick up the tab just to illustrate the point.

And, I reminded them, I am the perfect Thanksgiving guest. I always bring a chair.