Falling Into Place

I recently asked myself, “Has using art to examine and share the effects of MS on my day-to-day life changed me?” The answer is an emphatic "Yes!"

I didn't start taking self-portraits until 20 years after being diagnosed with primary progressive MS in 1988. During those years, I managed to cope with my symptoms by simply getting on with my life. Of course, there were physical limitations I needed to respect. For instance, walking became very difficult – so I first used a cane, then a walker and finally in 2000, a mobility scooter. And gradually my hands became less and less able, curling in on themselves, and making it hard for me to hold onto objects without dropping them. I adapted by changing my primary art medium from drawing and painting to photography. I also avoided writing by hand as much as possible, preferring to use the computer. For the rest of it, I just figured dropping things on the floor was a fact of life, like it or not.

I stayed active and used any and every device to help me do so. My scooter gave me freedom, my wheelchair accessible minivan gave me wheels, and my can-do attitude kept me out there doing my thing. I flew with my scooter from Detroit to Beirut, Lebanon by myself in 2005. I was in and out of Washington, DC for years demonstrating on the streets for peace. In nine-and-a half years I put 89,000 miles on my accessible minivan, many thousands of those miles on solitary road trips.

What I wasn’t doing was paying attention to how I felt about being disabled, especially about identifying myself as a person with a disability. I joined no disability organizations, nor did I hang out with disabled people. When my neurologist retired in 1993, I never replaced him. I never used meds either – just did my best to stay healthy through exercise and diet. As I said earlier, I simply got on with my life.

Then in June 2008, I turned the camera on myself and started photographing every minute of my daily life. I thought I was doing it for other people, to show an inside view of life with a disability. I now know I was doing it for myself.

While working on this project I discovered there were two identities within myself. One was the photographer who insisted on seeing everything, and the other was the subject who did not want to be seen…especially in the act of falling or having to open containers with her teeth or needing to ask for help cutting up food or wetting her dress when she couldn’t get to the toilet in time.

But my photographer-self was relentless, so my subject-self acquiesced. Then something unexpected happened. The more I saw of my life – even what I considered the “shameful” bits - the more comfortable I became with the whole of it. And the more comfortable I became, the less separate my two identities became. For when my subject-self began to see my life through the eyes of the photographer, it looked not only interesting but beautiful.

By the time my self-portraits appeared online, in exhibits, and even in a book, I had come to accept not only the images, but myself as a person with a disability. And I began to see my body not as a stranger, but as a warrior, an ally, my best friend. Instead of turning against me, I realized my body was working incredibly hard to give me the life I wanted. And I expected a lot!

In essence, my artistic eye restored my self-esteem. Through creating these self-portraits I have learned to see beauty in every moment of my life, even the falls I dislike so much. Because beauty is truth, and I am finally facing up to the truth of my life with MS. While some may look for cures, I am now content to embrace my body exactly as it is...and be grateful.
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Patricia Lay-Dorsey, Photographer

The book “Falling Into Place: self portraits” by Patricia Lay-Dorsey was published by Ffotogallery in November 2013. It can be ordered through Ftotogallery or purchased at the International Center of Photography in NYC.