BraVa! 2018 – Playtex 8267

I was honored once again to have a piece selected for the 4th Annual BraVa! This event benefits the YWCA of the Greater Capital Region. It is a fundraiser that seeks to provide new bras to women and girls that live at YWCA-GCR and those in need in the Greater Capital Region of New York. As described on the YWCA website, the event features writers from around the region and beyond who read jury-selected poems and essays or perform songs and monologues on the subject of brassieres in their lives.

Once again, it was an inspiring and uplifting (pun intended) evening. The audience laughed and some of us cried. The poems and memoirs were poignant and truthful. I left the event grateful for the opportunity to witness these stories, ready to write more of my own.

I haven’t written much at all these days. I wasn’t even sure I would write something for BraVa! this year. I spent three days in the hospital in mid-October and was released just 10 hours before the submission deadline for the event. At 7:10 pm, four hours and fifty minutes before the deadline, I decided to write this piece. I read it to my mother on the phone before I hit “submit.” On Friday, I read it for the audience at BraVa!

If you are shopping this holiday season, consider buying a new bra for your local women’s shelter. Everyone needs support now and then.

A woman wearing a red cape is seated in a wheelchair in front of a podium. She is reading into a microphone. There is an indoor circular clothesline with various color bras hanging on it on the other side of the podium.
Photo courtesy of Daquetta Jones

Playtex 8267

Whenever I am shopping in the lingerie section of a store selling Playtex bras – the ones sold in the plastic containers with the blue or pink cardboard – I always look for model number 8267, the 18 Hour Original Comfort Strap Wirefree Bra. 34 C is apparently a popular size because rarely do the stores have it in stock. If I am lucky enough to stumble upon the coveted size and model, I whip out my phone and call my mother.

“Mom – you still wearing a 34C? It’s the 18 Hour one, right? I’m in Boscov’s shopping for bras and I looked at the Playtex ones for you. They only have it in white, is that alright?”

The call is really just to let her know to expect a new bra in the mail. Of course my mother, Caroline or Dolly as she is known to everyone, is still wearing the iconic Playtex 18 Hour Bra! It’s the only style of bra I have ever seen her wear in my 45 years of life. At 91 years old, Dolly is not about to change something as critical as her trademark bra.

Dolly’s bra, like her, is no nonsense and genuine. It is functional without needless frills. It gets the job done in a superior manner without calling attention to its work and craftsmanship. No excess lace or color is necessary for her brassieres. Although the model now comes in a variety of colors, you won’t see Dolly wearing any colors other than white or natural beige.

As a child, I noticed the other neighbors only put sheets and towels on their backyard clotheslines. However, Dolly’s underwear and lingerie were displayed for all to see as they dried in the breeze. Of course, so were mine when I lived at home since I was physically unable to do my own laundry. This didn’t seem odd to me because Dolly never used her clothes dryer then and only rarely uses it now. Two days before I left home to be an exchange student to Australia at age 16, I posed for a photo in the backyard with my parents. Dolly sent the photo halfway around the world to me and I promptly put it on the dresser in my borrowed room, in a borrowed frame my host brother gave me. Not until he asked me why we had posed before laundry did I realize Dolly’s five bras were waving in the wind behind our smiling heads. The photo spent the entire year with me, on display in each host family house – me, my parents and Dolly’s bras. Today it is on the first page of my 4 photo albums from that magical year Down Under.

A few weeks ago, I told my mother I might write this essay about her and her bras. I wanted to know if she would be comfortable with me sharing what some would consider personal information with strangers.

“Well, I suppose if anyone can find a way to make my dull white bras interesting, you could. Remember, I wear the 18 Hour – not the Cross Your Heart.”

Was she telling me I was shirking in my bra shopping? Had I made a mistake and accidentally purchased the wrong style? I went online to verify I had purchased the right bra and made a shocking discovery. In 2015, Playtex had a rebranding and changed the model number and name of their iconic bra. It is now model number 4693B, known as the 18 Hour Ultimate Shoulder Comfort Wirefree Bra. I called her again, wanting to make sure she had this important update and also to verify she had sufficient quantity. Apparently I had been neglectful in my duties.

“I’ll still wear it! I have 4 right now so I’m good. I rotate them in my drawer after I do the laundry so I don’t keep wearing the same one all the time. That way they last longer.”

Even though it has been years since I’ve sent a new bra to my mother, she is still treasuring the past gifts I’ve given her; taking care to keep them in good condition for a little longer until life permits me the time and energy to resume my regular lingerie shopping.

Simple life lessons from Dolly. Who knew so much could come from a bra?

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To This Year’s Class of MWA

Two white women wearing white t-shirts with red lettering that reads "Ms. Wheelchair America." The woman on left has short brown hair and is leaning down next to the woman on the right who is wearing glasses and is seated in a wheelchair. They are on a walkway over a river.Facebook showed me this photo this morning and reminded me that seven years ago, my best friend and I were having fun in Grand Rapids, Michigan, during the week of the 2011 Ms. Wheelchair America (MWA) pageant. It was a timely reminder, since the contestants are gathered in Grand Rapids again right now. They are getting ready for the second day of judging as I type this.

MWA has been a part of my life since I was Ms. Wheelchair NY 2001. As a state titleholder seventeen years ago, I could not predict all the ways MWA would impact my life. I made some of my best friends at my first national pageant as a participant in MWA. Maintaining a state program; mentoring state titleholders; serving on the MWA Board of Directors; traveling to other state pageants – all adventures gained by my volunteer involvement and things that likely would not have happened if I had been crowned Ms. Wheelchair America (I was first runner-up).

Most important to me is the peer support group I have cultivated through my involvement with MWA. In my opinion, this is the best aspect of the MWA organization. At any moment, I know I can reach out to women who have experiences similar to mine. They are creative, resourceful, smart, and generous. If I have a problem or quandary, they will have insight and will offer it freely. If I need support or understanding, they are empathetic and encouraging. This sisterhood is a valuable source of energy for me when I am feeling bogged down by the continual need to advocate for access in a world which is often not designed for our needs.

This year’s titleholders are waking up to a new day. It is mid-week so they still have energy. I hope they realize they are participating in a week which will change them. To all of them, I say best of luck and enjoy this opportunity. This week is not about who goes home with the crown on Sunday. It’s about who you connect with on the way and how you put that into practice in your everyday life when you go back home to your individual states.

Silhouette figures of a male and female with their legs crossed and their hands in front of their crotch as if they have to urinate.

My Drinking Problem

Because of the weakness caused by my neuromuscular disease, I have relied on other people to help me go to the bathroom for the past eleven years. Since 2007, I have timed my use of the toilet around when and where I will have proximity to an accessible toilet AND a Personal Assistant (PA), sister, cousin, friend, neighbor, or other kind person I could coerce ask to help me. I have restricted my fluid intake to coordinate, as best as I can estimate, with other people’s schedules and the times I will be near toilets I can safely use.

I wrote about my battle with “pee math” in this post. Since I have been so open about my methods over the years, I was surprised by the number of friends who did not know this was a routine for me. But, things are changing!

As you might remember, six weeks ago I had my suprapubic catheter tube (SP Tube) placed. According to the surgeon, the procedure “was textbook,” and went well. There were no complications from anesthesia. I remember being wheeled into the operating room with bright tropical fish painted on the walls. The breathing mask went over my face and the next thing I knew, I was waking up in the recovery room.

My SP Tube means I no longer need to sit on a toilet to urinate. Instead, urine freely flows out of the SP Tube to a collection bag. During the day, I wear a bag strapped to my leg. At night, I connect to a larger bag that hangs on the side of my bed.

I am now free to drink without the worry of how I will get on a toilet, or who will help me, or when it will happen. If I want to have an additional cup of coffee, I don’t have to think about where I will be in the afternoon and if I will have a PA with me to help me transfer on to the toilet. Now, I just drink the coffee! Or the juice. Or the water. Or the wine. Or whatever I want!

When I am at work, I can have as much water as I want! The first day I returned to work after surgery, I drank five, yes, FIVE, 16 ounce glasses of water. Granted, I had to dump my leg bag five times as a result. But I was not dehydrating myself because of lack of access to help and an accessible bathroom.

Drinking as much as I want, whenever I want, has created new challenges I have not had to face for several years. For the first time in a decade, I have to worry about accessible public restrooms.

I know – it sounds strange to hear a disabled woman admit she hasn’t worried about accessible public restrooms on a regular basis. I haven’t used them for a decade. Sure, I’ve always known it was an important issue. But, it wasn’t an issue for me so I spent my advocacy energy on other matters. At least, I did until the end of April.

Not all so-called “accessible” restrooms are actually usable. Disabled people know this but most non-disabled people do not. Most non-disabled people see grab bars next to a toilet and think the bathroom is accessible. Grab bars are not the only feature that make an “accessible” restroom usable. In addition to grab bars, accessible restrooms must minimally have:

  • Accessible sinks that can be operated with a closed fist (no faucet knobs that require grasping and turning)
  • Soap and paper towel dispensers and mirrors mounted at lower heights
  • Lever doorhandles or handles that can be operated with a closed fist
  • Doors that do not require more than 5 pounds of pull force pressure to open

The majority of bathroom doors open into the bathroom rather than out. This is probably so people walking in a hallway don’t get whacked by someone opening the bathroom door. While I understand that rationale, there are usually more people outside a bathroom than inside. If I can’t open a door because it requires more force than I can generate, I stand a greater chance of finding someone outside a bathroom to help me than I do inside the bathroom.

Since I had my SP Tube placed, I have been stuck inside six public restrooms because the door was too heavy for me to pull open. I now take my phone into the bathroom with me each and every time I go. If I am with a group of people, I ask them to come rescue me if I don’t return after five minutes in the bathroom. Last week I learned if there are multiple bathrooms, it is helpful to tell your colleagues which bathroom you are actually going to if you make this request. My friend Melissa dutifully came looking for me after I requested a rescue not knowing I was in the bathroom on the other side of the building. She sent me a text saying, You good? I just checked the bathroom and you are not there…

I am still learning how my body behaves with all of this extra fluid intake. There are still timing issues related to drinking, particularly when planning paratransit bus trips. It’s not fun to ride around on a bus for an hour with a leg bag that is full to the bursting point. Thankfully, I have not had any messes or spills.

Next week, I will return to the pool – the last step in resuming all of my activities. It will feel wonderful to return to the water, and I miss my swimming buddies.

Right now, I need to go grab a drink. I’m empty!

What If?

I am having outpatient surgery next week. The procedure is fairly quick, I’m told. I do not need to go under general anesthesia. I will be sedated, but not intubated.

Given my reduced respiratory function, any surgery has risks. The last time I went in for “routine” outpatient surgery, I ended up spending ten days in the hospital – four of them in a coma in the Intensive Care Unit! I do not rush into surgery without heavily weighing pros and cons.

This time, I have decided the pros (being able to maintain adequate hydration without worrying about pee math) outweigh the potential harm. I am moving forward with my plan for a suprapubic catheter, which I first discussed in this post.

In preparation for surgery, I am updating my advance directives. What – you don’t know many forty-four year old women with advance directives?

I first considered writing my advance directives for my friends and family when I was starting my career as a speech-language pathologist in nursing homes and geriatric rehabilitation facilities. Each day, I saw families struggle with what they thought their loved ones would want to have happen in their medical care. Too often, discussions about important matters such as artificial nutrition and ventilation did not happen until a person faced a life-changing event such as a stroke or head injury.

Living with what some medical providers have called a “terminal illness,” and being described as a person who “requires maximum assistance with all tasks,” means that some people look at the surface of my life and assume I have a poor quality of life. They see a disabled woman using a wheelchair who cannot function without her Personal Assistance staff and mistakenly think I must be struggling with life.

Thankfully, I have communicated my wishes for my medical care to friends and family. They were my voice when I was incapacitated and could not speak. As I lay in the hospital bed, my sister made decisions based on what she knew I would want.

She knew what to do because we talked about it. I wrote it down and sent it to her. She asked questions, and I was honest.

This week is National Healthcare Decision Week here in the United States. If you go to their website, you can learn more about the steps you can take to better prepare for your future. Each day of the week has a theme and Thursday’s theme is “Spread the Word.”

So, I’m telling you I’ve updated my advance directives. I will be emailing them to the people I have designated to make decisions on my behalf should I become ill or incapacitated.

What about you? Even if you are a healthy, young person, illness and disability can happen to anyone at any time. If you are unable to speak for yourself, wouldn’t you want the people who will be advocating for you to know your wishes?

The National Health Care Decisions Day website has a page listing resources. You can find it here, along with tips for how to chose a health care proxy and how to talk to your doctor.

Start the conversation today!

View of a grey Derwent River, with cloudy skies. Bruny Island is in the distance.

To Tell the Truth

I’ve been sitting on this post for a few months, writing when I felt the urge. It seems fitting to share this today, which I just learned is the International Day of Happiness, because I am the least happy I have ever felt in my life and I don’t know what to do about it. Admitting that is difficult, because I know my friends and family will want to help me, make things better, do something to make me happy. The reasons for my unhappiness are complex and there are no easy fixes. Trust me, if there were, I would have done them by now.

This has been building since I lost more physical independence after my femur fracture in 2016. That catastrophic event took away my ability to independently drive my van, and increased the number of personal care hours I require. It also caused me to change how I use the bathroom, limiting my ability to pee freely as I described in this post. OK – to be fair, I’ve never been able to pee freely. But, until I broke my leg I was not limited to the use of three bathrooms on the planet.

The loss of independent transportation required me to move – twice – in the past eighteen months. I have been using my local paratransit system for most of my travel to and from work and events. Paratransit is a shared ride system, which means you are not guaranteed a direct ride from your pick up location to your destination. There have been days that I am picked up at my house (which is 15.9 miles from my office) to ride around for two hours, picking up and dropping off other passengers until I am dropped off at work. On average, I spend two and a half hours every day on the bus to travel my 32 mile round-trip commute. This is time I don’t get to write, volunteer, read, work, or just relax.

Last September, my friend and former college roommate Chris surprised me with a phone call. We hadn’t spoken since the start of summer, but our friendship is one where we can pick up exactly where we left off even if it has been months since the last conversation. We we played catch up and traded stories, I admitted that the past several months had been stressful. My exact words were something like, “I’m not really doing well and feel like I’m barely keeping it together most days.”

Chris was quiet for a moment, then responded, “Well, I wouldn’t have known that from your Facebook posts! You’re so busy, and always writing about volunteering with Rotary.”

The truth? I hate being negative all the time. So I don’t share all the crap I’m dealing with on social media.

I am not alone in this. According to a survey conducted in Great Britain, only 1 in 5 people are truthful in how they portray themselves on social media sites like Facebook and Twitter. According to the marketing company Custard, who performed the survey:

When asked how people’s lives differ online, 31% of respondent said that their social page is “pretty accurate, just with all the boring bits removed” and 14% said that their profile makes it look like they have a “much more active social life.” The survey also showed that men are more likely to lie about their lives through social networking sites, with nearly half (43%) of men polled admitting to fabricating facts.

I don’t feel like I’m lying on social media. I am not making up the things I share publicly. In my case, I choose to try to keep complaints to a minimum on Facebook. I am consciously not sharing most of the daily stress that is causing me to slip further into a pit of unhappiness. At least, I try my best to keep the negativity to a minimum.

But I’m struggling. Right now, finding positivity is a chore I force myself to complete each day.

It used to be my natural way of operating. I am an optimist. I see the glass half full. I believe things could always be worse. Yet, recently I don’t feel up to the challenge of maintaining optimism.

I have withdrawn from friends and family who care. I text instead of calling because it requires less energy. Until last week, I hadn’t sent a birthday card to anyone in at least two years. At a time when I should be surrounding myself with other positive people because I’m an extrovert who gets energized in social situations, I am hibernating.

I am not writing as often and when I do it’s not my best work. Writing helps me process what is happening in my world. It is a way for me to maintain balance and emotional stamina. A glance at my blog statistics shows I only posted 55 times in 2017. That may seem like a good number. But when you compare it to 2015, the year before the femur fracture, it pales to the 164 posts I shared.

Before any of you start sending me notes reminding me that you love me and that life is not all bad, I need to tell you something. I KNOW this is temporary. I KNOW what is happening in my life is not the worst thing in the world that could happen. I KNOW there will (eventually) come a day when my new wheelchair doesn’t make me cry in pain. I KNOW I will (someday) get that new wheelchair accessible van with the high tech driving controls which will enable me to participate in my community at will. I KNOW there are millions of disabled people who would love to have the difficulties I am facing right now – people who don’t have accessible housing, access to paratransit, full-time employment, adequate personal care assistance. I KNOW I am speaking from a world of privilege they do not have and would gladly take in a heartbeat.

Knowing those things does not make the challenges I’m facing less real or less of a barrier in my life.

Last week I attended a book reading at my local independent living center. During the community discussion after the reading, someone mentioned the anger disabled people feel – anger that is not acknowledged or validated. Often, well-meaning people will listen to me vent in frustrated anger and respond by saying, “Well, at least it’s not this (insert awful thing here)” or “It could be worse! You could have (insert other disability or illness here).”

Those comments don’t help me feel less angry. They don’t acknowledge that here and now, I am living with levels of fear, anger, and unhappiness which threaten to burst out at inappropriate times. They don’t validate my feelings of discouragement at having to battle and navigate a bureaucratic system which is supposed to be helping me but has not produced anything meaningfully helpful in 18 months (I’m talking about you ACCES-VR).

So, today, on this International Day of Happiness, even a gratitude list doesn’t make me feel happy. I debated whether or not to share this post and eventually decided perhaps there was someone else who is not happy today who could benefit from knowing she is not alone. I edited, deleting swear words and prepared myself for the reaction it will bring.

Tomorrow I’ll be better. That’s the way it’s been for over 2 years. This too shall pass. Periods of happiness can be found, just not for me today.