When your life falls apart, you hardly think that the small things matter. Camilla Ackley explains why it’s exactly at those times when those small things are the most important…
Get up, get dressed.
These simple words are, for me, a saving grace. Get dressed. It’s a process we take for granted every day, seen often as a necessity and not a gift. It’s a ritual repeated and repeated by billions of people every morning, unquestioningly and quietly. It’s often the first, second or maybe third thing we do in a day and it marks the beginning of something. We place our old worn out clothes in the laundry basket, we put on something fresh and we leave our homes. It’s nothing new, and it’s not revolutionary, but it’s quietly nurturing and neccesary.
I’ve always loved clothes. There is something nice about looking at well dressed people; a sense of skill that we rarely appreciate openly in everyday life but that always brings a kind of calm, a feeling that I can only describe as akin to when certain shapes fit perfectly in other shapes. Perhaps that doesn’t make much sense, but there is a whole Tumblr devoted to that very feeling. I spent hours of my childhood on those websites where you could dress up cartoons of famous women, decking them in clothes I so badly wanted to have myself. I started a fashion blog when I had just turned thirteen, trawling Vogue and Elle for designer collections and sharing my progressively less embarrassing outfits to the world wide web, and eventually my opinions too.
Much like physics, what goes up must come back down again and like most young people, my interests changed. I went to university and quietly retired from fashion blogging for the majority of my university career. I stopped spending devoted time getting dressed because when I wasn’t hung-over, I was late. I slipped easily into a uniform of dungarees, oversized denim jackets and beaten up Nike’s– far from the sharp minimalism I’d been drawn towards the years before. I needed things to be practical, and I enjoyed blending into the university scene; looking slightly beaten up and less sharp felt natural. There was a new confidence I found from being part of a pack, so in sync with my surroundings in a way I hadn’t been at school. The free time I’d had before university was now spent on my degree, friends and napping in equal parts. I was by all standards a philosophy student cliché, but a happy one. I still liked clothes (my bank account can attest to that fact), but I didn’t enjoy the process of getting ready like I used to. It was just another thing to do in the day.
“I still liked clothes (my bank account can attest to that fact), but I didn’t enjoy the process of getting ready like I used to. It was just another thing to do in the day.”
In the December of my final year, my mother was admitted to hospital and put into an induced coma. The strange flu she’d had for the last two days turned out to be a severe case of bacterial meningitis, which wouldn’t be diagnosed until she’d survived a 10-day coma, and a subsequent week of testing. My mother made it through, but the cost was profound deafness, the inability to move below her neck and all of the emotional tolls you could (and could not possibly) expect to follow from that.
I can’t comprehend what it feels like to be left parentless, but I resonate with something closer than I’d like to be able to. It reduced the smart, rational twenty-year-old woman I thought I was at the time to a mess of indecision, incoherency and emptiness. Questions over her survival soon turned to questions of communication. No one in my family was deaf; sign language can take up to two years to become sufficient in and until then exchanges with my mother would be via a whiteboard, slick with old half erased messages cataloguing a mix of doctor’s notes. When a parent falls so sick so quickly, your entire earth shatters. Who do you turn to? To put a more serious spin on a joke, where are the adultier adults? My brothers and I would spend hours, days and weeks telling her it would be okay when in reality we had no idea. We were children, despite all being in our twenties.
The temptation to exist on hospital wards as my half self was overwhelming; sweatpants, trainers, my body exhausted and crooked from sleeping on waiting room chairs. Waiting for some news, any news – good or bad, but most often just medical words that felt like a foreign language, in whatever item had been picked up off the floor that morning.
“The temptation to exist on hospital wards as my half self was overwhelming; sweatpants, trainers, my body exhausted and crooked from sleeping on waiting room chairs.”
More than just routine, it slowly became something I enjoyed again – clung to as what would inevitably be the easiest part of the day. I revelled in it, knowing it was the thirty minutes in the morning that were mine, mine alone and uninterrupted by the noise of life. It was an act unto itself, a space to feel normal again and the only thing that made me feel human on occasion. To feel well dressed became the feeling of keeping it together.
“…some days are a fight – but putting that chainmail on is the first step in winning that fight.”
Slowly, day by day, my mother healed. The fear of the unknown was replaced by treatments, after-care and physio. Her natural hearing will never come back, but a year on she hears almost as well as you and I because of cochlear implants. She can walk again, hear and we can all breathe again. Some days are hard – some days I look in and see her holding up two jumpers, side by side, knowing that for the next twenty minutes she can just get dressed. It is her time, to escape and be just another woman putting on her armour for the day. And for her it is armour, because some days are a fight – but putting that chainmail on is the first step in winning that fight.