Pen To Print

Click "Enter" to submit the form.

Write On! Interviews: Melanie Reid Reborn – Making The Invisible Visible

By Dr Afsana Elanko

(c) Murdo Macleod

Scottish journalist and author of The World I Fell Out Of, Melanie Reid MBE, has always spoken directly into my own experiences, both as a writer and as a medical doctor. I came across her work through her wider journalism, as well as The Spinal Column, a compelling account of her lived experience of spinal injury, which she writes for The Times magazine. Her writing is direct and relatable, speaking not just into the seen world, but also resonating at a much deeper level; the unsaid elements saying as much as the words themselves.

When we meet, via our screens in early April, Melanie, a wonderful advocate of diversity and inclusion, starts with a light-hearted comment about the importance of donning lipstick on a Monday morning. This sets the tone, the immediate relatability allowing me to lead straight in with the inevitable question around her accident in 2010.

Melanie tells me she was at the peak of her career: “Mistress of my universe.” Already a keen horsewoman, this confidence, coupled with her only son going off to university, gave her the impetus to take her riding to another level by preparing for events on the British Eventing circuit.

“It was a practice session at the start of the season. I came to a jump which my horse refused, came off and broke my back. I was conscious, could feel my legs. I remember the sense of the material of my breeches, but not being able to feel my hand against my leg. That was when I knew something was really wrong. A helicopter came and I was lucky enough to be transported straight to the spinal unit in Glasgow.”

She likens it to a nuclear explosion blowing her life apart; just one second for everything to change forever. Spending just a week short of a year in hospital, Melanie reclaimed as much as she could of her body, but still remembers vividly what those first few days and weeks were like. She speaks of the trauma of the immediate, but also the necessity of learning to look at the world from a different angle. Despite the ‘conveyor belt’ inevitability of it, the scars are etched deeply.

“I believe I still have some kind of post-traumatic stress disorder. There’s a profound sense of unreality in trying to live this new reality. It’s like running into a brick wall over and over again.”

I find myself nodding in understanding, my own medical knowledge prompting the next question around navigating the new reality. I want to explore whether the birth of her weekly column for The Times was part of ‘overcoming’ the pain, while being part of the healing process.

“Though vital for me psychologically, I didn’t read my column for the first year. I expressed myself, hit send and it went. I felt like a war correspondent, sending my report from my body to the world: ‘It’s weird guys, it’s really weird.’ This was my natural way of helping myself. I wasn’t creating a reality; I had found a new one.”

I ask how long it took her to make sense of it all psychologically and am not surprised when the answer comes as over three years. And that, even now, going back into the trenches of this early writing can still upset her. I’m also fascinated by her war analogy and start asking about that when Melanie comes back with a final thought around what she terms: “The dark rebirth” and that she was: “A baby, a toddler, learning to live all over again.”

I suggest this was also tied to the huge physical implications Melanie needed to navigate, especially in terms of her physical ability to write.

“Yes, absolutely. In the beginning I couldn’t even move my shoulders. I had a bit of movement in my right forearm, but my hands were useless, so I just rambled into my Dictaphone. These audio files, sent to my editor by my son, were then transcribed by The Times editorial team. I was still in the high-dependency unit when they offered me a column.

I was just starting to be upright when I realised that, though stiff, I had two fingers that worked, allowing me to type and hit send. A revelation! Such progress from the Dragon Software they’d set me up with, which I broke by changing things all the time. I’m a writer, not a lawyer dictating letters!”

We chat a bit more about the power of technology and agree the world of pixels is oddly timeless. I realise this neatly brings us onto the idea of past, present and future and how the interplay of all three helps us become, as Aristotle suggests, greater than the sum of our parts.

Melanie tells me her book is an example of this. Like so many journalists, she’d always wanted to write one but was too busy moving from one story to the next to have time for the reflection needed. Her accident changed all that, resulting in her 2019 bestseller, The World I Fell Out Of, an award-winning, moving and darkly funny memoir. She shares how the writing of it demanded emotional maturity and a certain level of healing, and I tell her how much I enjoyed hearing this in the audio version.

Maybe that’s why she is so eloquent in her expression of the ‘upper world’ of the elegant and healthy, where everything is fast moving, where most able-bodied people live without giving a second thought to how things really work. It’s contrasted with the harsh reality of the parallel ‘lower world’ where the physically disabled struggle to dress, move and eat. I ask her to expand on these ideas.

“I’d lived in that upper word of happy smiley people. In it, you just don’t think about people who don’t. You are complacent. I remember after the accident being taken somewhere in this mini-bus and I…”

Here, her voice catches. I can hear the tears behind it, but still she continues.

“…I remember seeing people whizzing past in their cars. I was no longer in their world. Writing it down was a way of helping myself. Writing was a way of helping me overcome the grief and lack of agency; maybe taking some of this agency back.”

Although column writing is a very different discipline to that of penning a book, she tells how she still attempted to capture the essence of this in The Spinal Column, which she feels, despite its punchy brevity, has allowed her to express the bewilderment and grief of her journey. She pauses again, this time the silence resulting in a burst of the dark pragmatism that’s also very much part of her writing.

“One of my great friends, the magnificent and now sadly departed writer Ian Bell, sent me this cryptic text: You have a USP now. And I had to admit to myself this was true.”

Despite stylistic differences, both her column and book speak truth, even when it’s uncomfortable. For example, she’s known for shining a light on basic bodily functions and the loss of femininity and sexuality that are typically shied away from. Melanie maintains how important it is to keep a balance between keeping it real and veering into voyeurism. She also describes a life of service and the empowerment this brings.

With this in mind, I wonder if there are any final reflections she wants to share about the invisible, or ‘lower’, world she’s trying to make more visible through her writing.

“So much of my work is about the rebirth, the reshaping identity. For me, the loss of height was a big part of that. At six feet tall, I had the unconscious status height gives you. That was whipped away. I hate being in this supplicant position, asking for help to reach the shelves. It makes me feel diminished.

But there’s another side, too. I’ve become gentler, kinder, less spiky and have a whole bunch of readers who think I’m one hundred per cent kind. Even though that’s not always true, for me, honesty is at the heart of things, but not the kind that precludes kindness.”

I, too, believe in the best in people and that hope comes in all walks of life; both medical and creative fields can help the healing process. I also believe that acknowledging adversity and overcoming challenges gives life meaning. No matter how challenging our own lives may be, by writing our own stories, we can help society see things and people that might otherwise remain invisible as well as charting our own inner recovery journey. The neurosurgeon Henry Marsh wrote: Without hope there is nothing; without hope, medicine has nothing. I therefore leave you with the super-power of creativity as a way of overcoming and, indeed, living. Whether disabled or able-bodied, we can all enjoy living life at a slower pace, taking time to truly see and then communicate the blessings that surround us.

Connect with Melanie Reid via @Mel_ReidTimes


You can read issue 21 online here and find it in libraries and other outlets. Read previous editions of our magazines here.

You can hear great new ideas, creative work and writing tips on Write On! Audio. Find us on all major podcast platforms, including Apple and Google Podcasts and Spotify. Type Pen to Print into your browser and look for our logo, or find us on


If you or someone you know has been affected by issues covered in our pages, please see the relevant link below for ​information, advice and support​:

Writing was a way of helping me overcome the grief and lack of agency; maybe taking some of this agency back.