This is not to say that the disability/impairment, whether temporary or permanent, is the primary cause of the mental health issue. It could be a contributing factor, or they may be completely unrelated. You might just be super lucky and have been blessed with both – Double whammy!
Equally, those struggling with their mental health will often (if not always) experience physical side effects, such as headaches, fatigue, insomnia, restlessness, nausea and chest pains.
Essentially, what I’m saying is, the mind affects the body and so the body affects the mind.
My Disability & Point of View
I was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy – a physical disability – that has progressed over time. I am now a non-ambulatory wheelchair-user, having lost the ability to walk at age 10.
My condition has a considerable effect on my body and physical capabilities. With the best will in the world, there are many things I cannot do.
For example, my older brother is very fit and able-bodied. He has travelled the world and often goes trekking through the countryside and climbing mountains.
I often wish I could be out there with him. It might not be everyone’s cuppa, but it would be nice, just once, to experience that sort of thrill and adrenaline rush. A real physical accomplishment whilst being in the midst of nature.
But, I can’t. And I never will. Of course, this gets me down and impacts on my mood. Yes, I wish I could walk, run, dance, be completely independent and spontaneous. But I can’t. I am limited and reliant on support from others to live my life. This is something I have no choice but to accept.
There is no treatment, no cure, and no pill I can pop to help the situation. For lack of a better phrase, it is very much a case of, deal with it!
I cannot control my disability or how it affects my body. Therefore, it is important to focus on the things I CAN do and control.
I can’t dance, so I like to watch the dancing (yes, I’m a sad, old Strictly fan. Don’t care!)
I can’t drive, so I have a passenger WAV (wheelchair accessible vehicle), which allows me to get out and about.
I can’t walk or run, so I roll (with style)!
Admittedly, I’m pretty crap at sorting my own problems out. So I tend to focus on other people’s 😂 Not necessarily a good thing, but there ya go!
Living with a physical disability is a way of life. It is inflicted on us – we have not chosen this path. Similarly, living with a mental health illness is a way of life. So what you gonna do? ADAPT or Die!
People who know me well often describe me as incredibly private and somewhat closed-off. They’re not wrong. But I have my reasons. That said, I’ve been trying to open up a little more and share a closer insight into my everyday life in recent blog posts.
For me, 2019 really has been a year of major highs and lows.
The summer was genuinely the happiest time of my life. Everyone noticed.
Now, I’m the type to roll their eyes at the mention of people “glowing with happiness”, sceptical old bint that I am, but apparently it is a thing.
I was kinda hoping it would last longer than it did. But hey, that’s life.
Soon after my birthday came a swift punch in the gut (not literally, fear not!) and that marked the beginning of one of the unhappiest periods of my life. These things come to try us!
I’m not going to lie, this past month has been pretty crap.
Yeah, Christmas is a time to celebrate, have fun and be with those you love most. But it can also emphasise and remind you of what you’ve lost. And who you’ve lost.
I have some amazing people around me – family and friends. Thanks to those of you who patiently put up with me being a miserable fecker!
Some have offered wise words and advice, some have made me laugh when I really needed to, and others have simply been there to listen. You lot are what life is about (Ooh, deep!).
Let’s get this year out of the way and I promise, in 2020, I’ll pick myself up and get back to “the old Carol” ~ generally pratting about, laughing at inappropriate things and maybe even smiling occasionally 😱
A final word for anyone struggling for whatever reason…
I don’t want to get too serious. After all, it is Christmas – oh, joy!
Life ain’t all shits and giggles. I really wish it was. But it just isn’t.
Sometimes life gives you lemons (bastard lemons!) So what you gonna do? Throw ‘em back even harder, I say.
I may be pixie-sized but I’m pretty damn defiant. I’ve faced a fair few battles over the years. Truth is, the battle never really ends. But you gotta trudge through. What’s the alternative?
When I was 8 or 9, I fell off a horse. The horse decided she’d had enough of this trotting bullshit, and wanted to play silly buggars. She bolted downhill then stopped abruptly, throwing me forward.
I landed with my arse in a muddy puddle and lost my bloody boot. Yeah, I was a bit shook up. But I could either sit in that puddle and sulk (well, I couldn’t get up and walk off!) or get back in the saddle. So, I got back on psycho Sally!
Point is, life can be a bitch, but you gotta carry on and you gotta help yourself. Find what makes you happy and go for it!
I have a few things lined up for the new year, including some truly thrilling blog posts (I can sense the excitement already!).
Merry Christmas, folks. Take care! See you in the new year.
I was born with a rare form of muscular dystrophy, affecting my body and physicality. I have a severe scoliosis (curvature of the spine) which, for various reasons, is not surgically corrected. This causes asymmetry and a shortened torso. Joint contractures mean I am unable to stretch out my arms or legs. Furthermore, the muscle wasting nature of my condition results in extremely thin limbs.
Now 31, I look very different from other women my age. My pixie-sized stature is emphasised by the scoliosis. In place of womanly curves, are unwanted and abnormally crooked humps and bumps. This visible contrast negatively impacts my sense of self and makes me feel odd, weird, and self-conscious.
I love fashion but fashion doesn’t love me
Over the years, I have desperately sought to hide my body with shapeless, baggy clothes. Anything resembling a potato sack is a winner. I live in leggings because jeans are a no-go and frankly, they are the next best thing to pyjamas!
Clothing manufacturers don’t cater for my body since it doesn’t meet standard criteria. Shopping is not an enjoyable experience. It is a frustrating and disappointing struggle to find anything at all to fit, let alone look flattering. Most of the clothes I buy have to be returned which makes me wonder why I bother at all – well, simply because I can’t roll about naked!
Accepting my unique body
Do I love, embrace and celebrate my unique body shape? Hell, no! BUT – I have slowly and gradually learnt to accept it. After all, there’s absolutely nothing I can do to change it. So why stress myself out over something I cannot control.
Exercise isn’t an option for me. I can’t go to the gym and buff-up. And why should I resort to cosmetic surgery? Why put myself through pain, trauma and financial strain simply to conform to societies high and unrealistic standards of beauty? Okay, it might make me feel more confident to look a little more like the average woman. Then again, it might not…
Societal standards of body beautiful
Our perception of body image and beauty is arguably increasingly influenced by social media, particularly Instagram. Heavily airbrushed, edited and filtered selfies are everywhere to be seen. With a smartphone, we can all look like a celeb from a magazine spread!
But this is misleading, unrealistic and unattainable. I can’t relate to the pouty, posers of Instagram. Honestly, can anyone?!
Diverse bodies are sadly under-represented in the media. This is starting to improve but there is still a long way to go before the presence of disabled bodies on our screens becomes mainstream.
This morning, I had a conversation with a friend about anxiety. (It’s good to talk, folks!)
We all experience anxiety to some degree. I know I do. I worry about certain situations and often place far too much emphasis on what others think of me. But I’m gradually accepting that these things are out of my control. So why worry?
My friend, (let’s call her Brenda!), was absolutely fine when she got to mine, though her anxiety had flared up earlier causing her to overreact and behave irrationally. As she put it, she “catastrophized”. The fact she’s aware of this is, in itself, a positive sign.
Brenda has various mental health issues resulting from personal trauma. She takes antidepressants, antipsychotics and is undergoing counselling.
For a LONG time she buried her issues and tried to carry on as usual. This culminated in Brenda becoming very ill and unable to cope with everyday life. It was only at this point that she sought medical support and realised that what she was experiencing isn’t “normal”.
I asked Brenda what happened this morning to cause her to overreact. Her parents have bought a wooden toy kitchen for her son, which wasn’t in the plan. It’s a Christmas present Brenda specifically told her mum not to buy. Not a big deal, you might think. So I asked, “why did it bother you so much?”
Control. The situation was taken out of her control and this triggered Brenda’s anxiety.
She worried her son wouldn’t like it.
She worried he would like it too much.
She worried he might be teased/judged for receiving a stereotypically girly toy.
She worried about the cost.
She worried that he would prefer the toy kitchen to the gifts she has bought for him.
She was overthinking the whole situation. But she knows this. So once her anxiety subsided a little, she removed herself from the situation, went home, shut herself away and had a nap. Anxiety is mentally and physically exhausting!
It’s only through therapy and counselling that Brenda is learning to recognise her triggers, symptoms and manage her anxiety. She can better organise her thoughts, respond to her feelings and differentiate between what is real and unreal.
She summed up her anxiety in one simple phrase ~ fear of the unknown. I’d never thought of it this way. But it makes a lot of sense!
Influenza (flu) is a highly contagious and potentially life-threatening virus. The symptoms can develop very quickly and, in some cases, lead to more serious illnesses like bronchitis and pneumonia. It is so important to get vaccinated as soon as the flu season begins (before December ~ UK).
Who is eligible for a free NHS flu jab?
– Aged 65 and over
– Weakened immune system
– Certain medical conditions e.g. asthma, COPD, diabetes, heart disease, neurological disease
– Family members of/living with immunocompromised individuals
– Living in a long-stay residential care home facility
– Frontline health and social care workers
– Children over the age of 6 months with a long-term health condition
– Children 2 years +
– Up to 1/3 of flu deaths are in healthy people.
– Public Health England estimate that an average 8,000 people die from flu in England each year, although the figure can be much higher.
– The vaccine is thoroughly tested and has an excellent safety record. The most common side effect is mild soreness around the injection site.
– Getting your flu jab EVERY YEAR is the best way to protect yourself and those around you.
– You won’t be protected against any new strains of flu that may circulate each year unless you are vaccinated every year. Also, the protection from the vaccine declines over time.
– The risk of having a serious (anaphylactic) reaction to the flu jab is much lower than the risk of getting seriously ill from the flu itself.
1. What is your disability and how does it affect you?
Lauren West:I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’ve never walked independently and got my first powered wheelchair at the age of two and a half.
Despite the severity of my SMA, I passed my driving test, went to university three hours from home, and moved to London to start my working life. I now still live in London with my partner and with support from live-in PAs who do all my personal care and domestic tasks.
Michaela Hollywood: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I commonly say that I can do pretty much nothing without assistance except speak! Although, I have recently learned to drive using hand controls.
Possibly the biggest impact of my SMA is my breathing and the impact of chest infections, which can make me sick quite often. I’m also deaf, and have pancreatic insufficiency which affects my ability to digest food, and that can cause a lot of pain and fatigue. My motto is; I can drive a van, and boil a kettle but I can’t make a cup of tea!
Emma Vogelmann: I have SMA (spinal muscular atrophy) Type 2. I’m a full-time electric wheelchair-user and since contracting Swine flu in 2009, I also use a portable ventilator via a tracheotomy.
2. How and why did you become involved with MDUK Trailblazers, and what is your role?
Lauren West: I became involved at the very start of Trailblazers, after I left the Whizz-kidz Kids Board. I felt I had a campaigning void in my life after leaving the board, so I was really excited when I heard about Trailblazers. For a long time, I was the only Welsh Trailblazer and so I formed a great bond with the original team, Bobby and Tanvi.
I stayed involved throughout university through participating in work experience and attending events like APPGs. I was delighted after a few years in different jobs to be offered the role as Campaigns Officer, as I’d always wanted to work for Trailblazers. It was then super exciting to take up the role of Trailblazers Manager at the beginning of 2016.
Michaela Hollywood: I was involved with Trailblazers from the very beginning, before it even started!
I was at a MDUK Family Weekend when I was 16, and, because of my disability and access requirements, I couldn’t book tickets to see the band McFLY perform in my local arena. Consequently, I spoke to the then Chief Executive of the charity Phil Butcher, and said we need a “young people’s forum”. My idea at the time was that those of us with a muscle wasting condition have powerful voices that weren’t being heard, and too many non-disabled adults were making decisions that affected our lives without even thinking of consulting us. And out of that Trailblazers was born!
I volunteered for the first number of years, and directed the organisation from Northern Ireland for a year before it became official. I went to university and did my undergraduate degree in Public Relations, followed by a Masters in PR and Communications, specialising in political lobbying. I then joined the team from home in Northern Ireland a little over 3 years ago.
Emma Vogelmann: I was invited by MDUK to a Parliamentary roundtable meeting about disability employment. I really liked that a prominent charity was directly engaging with young disabled people and their lived experiences. After that, I asked if there were any opportunities to get involved with the organisation which led to a 4 month internship with the Campaigns team. I absolutely loved it, so when the role of Employability Officer was advertised I knew I had to apply. The rest, as they say, is history!
3. How do you feel about being an influential career woman with a disability? Has your disability made you more determined to pursue your career goals?
Lauren West: I don’t think I would describe myself as an influential career woman but if I am seen that way, then that’s a real honour.
I think my disability has made me much more determined in all parts of my life, not just my career. I have always been quite driven and even when I wasn’t sure what career path I wanted to follow, I knew I wanted to do something that made a difference.
But I genuinely think there’s been one driving force behind my ambition and that was a social worker who was sorting out my university care package. She made an off-the-cuff comment about how when I was done having fun at university, I’d come home and she’d help set me up on benefits in a little flat. Whilst this is needed for some, this is not how I wanted my life to go, but I knew I’d face similar beliefs and attitudes throughout my whole life. So I was determined to fight against that societal expectation.
Michaela Hollywood: For me, I think it made my education very important. And it’s made me steely and determined. It’s a good advantage to be able to use my voice as communication is so important when your impairment is so physical. I’m proud to be in the position I am, and try to keep my focus on what I can do for others.
Emma Vogelmann: I never really thought of myself as an influential career woman in all honesty. I suppose you just crack on with your day-to-day work, so you never stop to think about it.
Now I am starting to see the impact my work has on other people, such as my employment work. I’ve seen the people involved in my project access jobs, find a careers mentor and so many other meaningful changes. That’s incredibly rewarding for me.
My disability makes me more determined to do a lot of things, but definitely in my career. Someone in a meeting I ran summed it up perfectly, “disabled people feel the pressure to be exceptional just to be considered equal to their able-bodied co-workers”. While this is not the culture at MDUK, I do feel that internal pressure to prove myself constantly. I’ve learned first-hand and from others that it is unfortunately really hard to enter the working world as a disabled person, so once you’re there you feel like you need to show your employer why they made the right decision.
4. In relation to employment, what challenges have you faced due to your disability, and how have you overcome these obstacles?
Lauren West: Throughout school and university, getting a typical student job just wasn’t on the cards for me. For one thing, I just didn’t have the stamina to study and work. But also the usual student jobs just weren’t physically accessible to me. I was worried that this lack of work experience would put me at a severe disadvantage for getting a job once I’d graduated.
I was lucky that Trailblazers found me an internship at my local MP’s office, so I did one day a week there for three months in my final year of study. I also did work experience at MDUK which gave me a great taste of living and working in London.
I was incredibly fortunate to secure a job in London prior to graduating from my Master’s degree. However, when this job turned out to not be what I expected and complete with a very abusive boss, I had real trouble finding a new job. I mainly applied to charities and many claimed to be part of the ‘two ticks scheme’ which offered guaranteed interviews for disabled applicants.
However, it was rare I’d even get called for an interview and it took many unhappy months before I was offered a role as a mental health advocate. The same year, I started working for MDUK and I love being part of a charity that values diversity and inclusivity.
I think the only way I’ve overcome challenges within employment is just through stubbornness and determination. I really think there are organisations out there for everyone but it can just take a long time to find the right fit.
Michaela Hollywood: The biggest one is my health. Self-care is important to keep me ticking over. I’ve been really lucky to work for a group I wholeheartedly believe in, and where we see real help and progress happening. I try to make sure others are afforded the same opportunities I have been lucky to have.
Emma Vogelmann: I struggled to find an employer willing to give me a chance after university. Of course, this is true for most graduates. But I do feel that being a disabled graduate made it harder. I remember asking Lauren West for advice before I started working at MDUK about when, where and how to disclose my disability, because I didn’t want to be counted out too soon for jobs, but I also didn’t want to hide something I consider a strength. I decided to always disclose my disability, though this is a very personal choice that isn’t necessarily right for everyone. I work within a disability charity, so it is extremely relevant to say I’m disabled, but I know a lot of people who aren’t comfortable with this and that’s completely okay too.
As someone who was part of Trailblazers from the start, being able to bring those 10 years together through an incredible event in Parliament was just the best experience. Seeing over 100 people all in one room celebrating their successes of the past 10 years will be forever one of my best moments.
Michaela Hollywood: This is a tough one! My dad, Michael, likes to tell anyone and everyone he meets to “Google” me because he is so proud of what I’ve achieved.
Emma Vogelmann: What a tough question! I suppose it would be winning my case against a taxi driver who discriminated against me due to being a wheelchair-user. It happened on my second day of work at MDUK and it was a difficult experience to go through. But to have two courts agree that wheelchair-users cannot be overcharged was a great feeling. I really hope it will empower other wheelchair-users to not accept discriminatory treatment from taxi drivers.
Many thanks to the brilliant Emma, Lauren and Michaela for answering my questions.
While I’ve been writing and contributing to various other projects, my blog has taken a backseat over the past few months. In all honesty, I’ve recently lacked all motivation and interest to write any blog posts.
I realise many bloggers feel this way from time to time – going through periods of having lots of ideas and enthusiasm, followed by weeks or even months of non-productivity.
I don’t want to go into the reasons for my lack of motivation. Suffice to say, I’ve had other things on my mind. This has resulted in fluctuations in mood, poor focus, zero energy, and insomnia.
For the most part, I’m happy and content with life as it is. Don’t get me wrong, it is far from ideal and there are things I wish were different – things beyond my control. But this is the case for most of us, right?
My point is, sometimes we need to take a break, de-stress and re-evaluate before moving forward. Inevitably, we all experience stress at some point in our lives, and we each have our own methods of dealing with it.
Here are a few of my coping mechanisms:
1. Music therapy ~
Music is a big part of my life and not a day goes by that I don’t listen to some form of music. Most of the time, I can be found wearing earphones. As soon as I have the house to myself, the first thing I do is put music on. I also listen to it every night before bed. If nothing else, it serves as a distraction and helps to prevent overthinking (something I’ll confess, I do a lot).
(Above: YouTube video of the John Lewis TV advert, featuring a little girl dancing carelessly around the house to the song, Tiny Dancer by Elton John. This basically represents me when home alone!)
There are songs appropriate for every mood and occasion. Music has the power to stir emotions, to inspire, to energize, cheer us up, remind us of past events and people. I think I’d go crazy without it!
Nothing cheers me up more than babysitting my gorgeous baby nephew, who is almost 15 months old. That kid is truly the love of my life! I may be irritable and in the worst mood, but as soon as I see that little face, everything seems okay.
He’s now at the stage where lots of babbling, climbing (of my wheelchair!) and toddling is taking place. His expressions crack me up, and the way he flashes a beaming smile and puts his arms out for cuddles just melts my heart. On a bad day, there’s nothing better (in my opinion) than taking baby G for a ride on my lap while he beeps the horn again and again and again…
3. Alone time ~
Innately, I am a bit of a loner. I’m not a people person and am quite at ease in my own company. Of course, I enjoy being around those I love and care for. But I also need my own space to just…be! If I’m with lots of people for long periods of time, I reach a point where I need to escape and be on my own for peace of mind.
4. Get out the house ~
Another form of escape. Being stuck at home day after day (as is often the case for many disabled people) sends me stir crazy. Simply getting outdoors can be a huge relief. Sometimes I don’t want or need to go anywhere in particular. It just helps to get in the car and drive around country lanes to get some fresh air and perspective.
5. Avoid social media ~
It’s no secret to those who know me best that I’m no fan. Yes, it serves its purpose and I am fortunate to have met some great friends via social media. For me, this is really the only reason I persevere with it! But again, sometimes I feel the benefit to my state of mind when switching off and abandoning social media, if only for a few days.
This can be difficult as a blogger! But long ago, I promised I would never let myself become the type of person who never looks up from their mobile phone. Even now, I see people tapping away incessantly, unable to tear themselves away from their smartphone, and I wonder what they find to do.
Showing my age now, but I do miss the days before mobile phones were common place; when people actually stopped, looked around, appreciated their surroundings, lived for the moment and spoke to people.
Well, it’s upon us again; Flu season is here. Every year my family and I get the Influenza vaccination, which is free of charge here in the UK, courtesy of the NHS.
For as long as I can remember, I’ve had the Flu jab to protect myself through the harsh winter months. It’s important that not only I am vaccinated, but that those closest to me are too. My immune system is much weaker than average, and my condition makes it considerably more difficult to overcome respiratory infections. For me, a common cold can quickly develop into something much more serious. It’s therefore very important that I am not unnecessarily exposed to the Flu virus.
As I have aged, my declining respiratory function has become the most concerning symptom of my disability. Ullrich congenital muscular dystrophy causes muscle degeneration and scoliosis. Not only are my lungs squashed and unable to expand as they should, the muscles that make them force air in and out are slowly wasting away.
Over the years, I have fought recurrent chest infections, several bouts of pneumonia, pleurisy and an acute pneumothorax (collapsed lung), requiring a chest drain. Many long, drawn-out days have been spent in hospital trying to overcome serious complications resulting from respiratory viruses.
For this reason, I implore and encourage you all to go and get the Flu shot. It takes no time at all and I promise you, it’s completely painless. There are fables floating around that will attempt to make you believe the Flu jab can give you the Flu. This is not the case at all. Yes, the vaccine does contain a small dose of the inactive virus. This triggers antibodies, which within two weeks will protect you, if and when you’re exposed to seasonal Flu.
Like all viruses, there are various strains of Influenza which change annually. For this reason, it is essential to ensure you are vaccinated every year.
I visited my local pharmacy, without appointment, a few weeks ago to get my free vaccination. If you haven’t already, please don’t delay. Go and get yours NOW!
For more information on the Influenza vaccine visit the NHS web page here.