Updated: May 11, 2021
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Redefining who you are: Medical aides, fashion, and identity.
It has been three years. Three years of waking up each morning and looking blankly into my wardrobe. As I muster the strength to get out of bed, I stand, gormlessly, running my hand across each garment that neatly hangs on the rail. Feeling and absorbing the material, print and design, I exhale. You see, for me, clothes and fashion have always formed part of my identity, in expressing who I am.
When I think about the word identity, it resonates with the meaning of qualities, belief, individuality, and expression and how I, to some extent, have control over how I wish to be perceived by others. In the many years that I have struggled with mental health, clothing was a huge part in finding my own confidence and voice by portraying fashion as a canvas on my body.
Three years ago, amid a warm British summer, I acquired a suprapubic catheter due to sudden urine retention that then led to me being unable to void any urine naturally. This ultimately was the start of my chronic health journey.
A suprapubic catheter is a hollow small tube that is inserted into the bladder through a small cut in the abdomen, just below the navel.
From that day onwards, I have had to learn how to manage a catheter and the very visible drainage bag that comes alongside it. The bag, that sits neatly on my knee, was not an accessory that I had foreseen. But, unavoidably, I have had to learn to adapt to living with a medical aide that fills with urine (and sometimes blood) every few hours.
In my three years I’ve noted there is also the option of having a flip flow valve that is less visible, but for me this irritated my bladder to the point that I found it unwearable.
I distinctly remember the moment I saw my urologist after acquiring my new catheter, and the only question I had for him was, “what can I wear?”. Thoughts conjured in my mind as I feared the one expression I had in showing who I am, was about to be removed from me. Can I wear my jeans again? Can I wear short dresses? Can I show my legs in the summer? His response was blasé: “You can wear what you want.”
However, what that urologist failed to tell me was, I can wear what I want but those jeans you once loved will now irritate the entrance site. I can wear what I want but those tight-fitting leather leggings you once felt confident in will lead to more bag leakages than a rainy British day. I can wear what I want but you will feel better in maternity elastic type clothing because you will experience bladder spasms that are so excruciating, anything tight will heighten the pain. I can wear what I want but strangers will gawk and stare at your urine filled bag. Some strangers may even stigmatize you. I can wear what I want but oversized dresses will be your go to as you figure out who you are. I can wear what I want but you will lose all sense of confidence that you have had to fight for through your teens. I can wear what I want, but you will feel like you need to learn how to redefine who YOU are again.
Three years on, there are days where I still stand in front of the mirror and question who I am. I have had to adapt my style and in turn redefine who I am through my expression of clothes. I have not worn my jeans in three years, for I find them impractical and uncomfortable to wear. In the first year of acquiring ‘cathy’, I decided to give my catheter a cliché, unoriginal name to form an identity alongside it, I would only wear one of three outfits to feel comfortable in being seen.
But I ask you all, who gets to define your identity? Who gets to say who you really are? The answer will only ever lie within yourself.
In three years, I have learnt that my catheter of wee encompasses an experience that I am living daily. That I am living with a chronic illness. My qualities, values, beliefs, and fashion canvas has not changed, they have just had to adapt to my new normal. For the most valuable thing I have learnt is the journey I am on and all that it encompasses is the architect of who I am and who I will become.