My mother and I had been cleaning out my closet all afternoon, but the entire process came to a resounding halt when I got to one silk dress. It was a strapless, pale pink mini that I had last worn to Duke University’s annual Homecoming ball where I danced the night away with my ex-boyfriend and all of my friends. In fact, I remembered, it was the last time I had danced. I added the dress to the growing pile of my favorite dresses, pretty tops, and high heels because they wouldn't match with my shiny, new accessory — my wheelchair. Here’s what I also got rid of: Any dress, skirt, or pair of shorts that hit above my knee was out of the question in a wheelchair — I still couldn’t get used to the sight of my new “cankles,” I developed from prolonged sitting, and my inability to control my leg positions meant that I had to rely on pants to ensure I didn't flash anyone. I also had to set aside all my favorite fitted shirts and pants I used to love wearing to class and to my clinical rotations at the hospital — they were no longer comfortable now that I sat slumped all day. Worst of all, I had to give up all my shoes. Since I no longer had the muscle strength in my legs to keep shoes on my feet, I wore the same pair of lace-on sneakers. Every new addition to that pile was like watching the funeral of my former life. I considered setting this dress aside just so it didn’t have to feel so final — that my former self was still some part of me, even though my body was completely different. I never considered myself a fashion person, but I was always put-together — the kind of woman who never left the house in sweats or sneakers. But in a sick twist of fate, a massive brainstem stroke at 23 made sweats and sneakers mandatory, and rendered half of my closet obsolete. I had lost so much, from the use of my limbs and voice to my academic and social life, and now even my sense of style was ripped away from me too.
I used to stop by the mirror every morning before I left the house, picking out clothes and seeing what pieces matched better than others. But, now, I could barely stand to catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Looking in the mirror and liking what you see is a luxury that can be so empowering. On the flip side, looking in the mirror and not liking, or recognizing, what you see can be terrifying. I had taken for granted the ability to choose what was reflected back (the most exciting choice I could make now was between gray sweats and black sweats). Before the stroke, I didn’t realize that so much of my self-image was wrapped up in what I looked like, but when everything else about my identity was stripped away, it became obvious. Without the ability to speak to convey my thoughts or to work a job in order to reflect my ambitions, I felt like my looks were all I had left to keep my confidence alive, and I couldn’t even control that. When I was forced to leave the house or meet with people, my embarrassment at my wheelchair, my body, my clothes, and my empty life was all-consuming. I didn’t feel like a human, much less a fashionable person. I felt so helpless, hopeless, and ugly. One day, my brother and I were out shopping (a rare activity for post-stroke me), and he noticed me checking out an athleisure top. It was bright pink, trimmed with gray, and had a little zipper on the neckline that made it an attractive V-neck. Though I might not look like your typical gym rat, I probably spend more time on the ath- part of the word than the -leisure. Since my stroke, I’ve spent almost every afternoon in physical therapy, practicing relearning how to sit, stand, and walk. This constant exercise lifestyle extended well beyond my therapy sessions and into my daily life and required clothing that was comfortable, breathable, and flexible. “This is kind of your life right now, isn’t it?” my brother joked. “You should just get it.” Since then, I’ve embraced sweats and sneakers, and I’ve swapped my BCBG and Express for Lululemon and Fabletics. This new style is far more casual than what I used to wear, but it’s no less fashionable, and maybe even a little more fun. The empty spaces in my closet are full again, with cute yoga pants and colorful shirts, sports bras, half-zips, and workout jackets. I learned to appreciate my new style not only for its fit and comfort, but also for how it helps aid me in my new life of rehabilitation, and the hard work that it entails. And you know what? I’ve reintroduced gowns back into my closet, too. Maxi dresses feel glamorous in a wheelchair, and you don’t have to worry about tripping over them. I’ve even discovered some nice shoes that will stay strapped onto my feet. I've had to be more creative and rely on some trial and error to find out what clothes work with my new body, but I’d argue that forcing myself to be more creative has made me a more interesting dresser, with more interesting style. Now, when I look at myself in the mirror, I don't turn away. I stare right into the eyes of the woman staring back at me, and I recognize her. She is — I am — perfectly imperfect, and that is a beautiful thing.