Waking up on Sunday morning, the day before I returned to work, I woke with a nagging question in my mind, ‘What will I wear to work?’ Friends and family have since said, ‘Why does it matter? People know your situation and they’ll understand.’ Except, that was exactly what was bothering me. From the moment I start re-entering work, people will be making excuses for me, beginning with my clothes. And that is just not me. It was hard enough before being a young female lecturer in a theological college. It’s hard enough now returning to work with a disability without feeling uncomfortable in what I’m wearing. And let’s face it, people do make first judgments based on appearance irrespective of whether we like it or whether it’s right. I know this all too well. I wanted to restart work looking like I’m prepared to be there, confident in at least my appearance, even if not in anything else.
You might be asking, especially if you’re a bloke, ‘What’s the problem? Surely you can just wear the clothes you wore before?’ True. And yet too much has changed. I can no longer wear heels. All my smart leather shoes have heels. I have been wearing canvas shoes while in rehab. I associate my cath kidston canvas shoes with what I wear on a research day or on a weekend. Not for the office, board meetings, or for lectures. I might be the same age as some of my students, but that does not mean that I should be okay looking like a student. So my number one concern was finding leather shoes that could fit my ankle leg brace and which do not have heels. Leather flats, it didn’t seem like too much of a tall order that morning. The other problem was that I had lost quite a bit of weight in the first half of the year and I was waiting until I returned to the UK to invest in some new clothes. So my clothes were loose fitting before all this happened. Since the first onset of severe back pain, I kept losing more and more weight, not intentionally. By my last week in rehab, my jeans were hanging off me. I wasn’t going back to the UK anytime soon, so it was time to do some clothes shopping and that Sunday was the day.
I executed my plan after church. I was dropped off at the shops and my first stop was a shoe shop that I was familiar with. I had been buying shoes from this particular shop for a good four years. I’m a creature of habit, after all. As soon as I entered, the shop assistant was by my side asking whether I was just browsing. Seeing a number of flat leather shoes that could be suitable, I asked whether I could please try on a couple of different pairs. The shop assistant flatly refused stating that they didn’t have my size. I was prepared for a battle trying to find shoes that fit with my ankle-leg brace, but I wasn’t prepared for shopping assistants who flatly now refuse to help me. Knowing that this particular shop had a second outlet in another part of the shopping centre, I quickly left and made my way to that second shop. Again, the shop assistant was by my side the moment I entered. But rather than the frosty welcome I received before, this assistant asked if she could help. I explained that I was looking for smart leather flat shoes that I could wear with my ankle-foot brace. She immediately gave me options and I set about trying the shoes on, and she even offered me a shoe horn! Unfortunately, none of the shoes did fit or they were too casual. But we discovered that leather knee high boots did the job and they actually helped me to walk a lot better. A helpful and cheerful shop assistant made all the difference!
With my shoe quandary solved, I went to my usual clothes shop to get a new pair of jeans. Normally I could just buy jeans from this shop without trying them on, but I no longer had a clue what size I fit into. I picked out a pair that I thought would fit and went to the fitting room. And this was when the reality of clothes shopping with my ‘new normal’ hit me. There were no chairs in the change rooms. I can’t actually dress or undress myself without sitting down. Quite embarrassed, I had to ask the shop assistant for a chair. For the second time that day I was fortunate to be asking a helpful shop assistant who tried her best to fit a chair into the change room. The fitting room though was not big enough to fit a chair in. The only solution was to put the chair in the last fitting room and not to close the door. I took a big deep breath and accepted the loss of privacy. This was now the new normal.
While I solved my clothes problems, I learnt on that Sunday that a basic task like buying clothes was now a lot more complex. I have to plan. I have to make sure that I have enough energy to try on clothes. I have to accept that some shop assistants will refuse to help me. I’m thankful though that some assistants will go out of their way to provide a solution; it is in their interest after all! I also have to be prepared that very few of our clothes shops in Australia are designed with a concern for customers who have disabilities. I may have achieved my mission, but I learnt a few sobering realities along the way about my new normal.