Years ago, during a university art class, a fellow student sat idly, pissing and moaning about how awful and unfair his life was. (He wasn’t literally pissing, by the way. That would be odd!).
There, in my powered wheelchair, with teeth clenched, I chose to remain quiet while he complained about his superficial, so-called ‘problems’.
As I recall, he’d depleted the bank of mum and dad on nights out and booze, meaning he couldn’t afford to go clubbing again that week.
Oh dear, what an awful shame!
A lad opposite, who I didn’t know well, kept looking at me with a shared expression of annoyance – I remember it vividly. He finally interrupted, “you know what mate, we’ve all got problems! Maybe look around sometime”.
I couldn’t help but smile and offer a nod of respect.
I was 20 at the time. Now 33, my tolerance for ignorance and entitlement has dissipated with age.
Truth is, everyone, at some point in life, will encounter problems, challenges and setbacks. Indeed, we all feel stressed and depressed from time to time – these feelings are completely valid.
Of course, feeling depressed is NOT the same as suffering from depression itself. (That’s a whole other topic, which I won’t go into here).
I’m sure we’ve all been told, “others have it worse off”. While I find this phrase unhelpful and somewhat dismissive, I must concede, it is often true (sorry, not sorry!).
Not to undermine anyone’s struggles or experiences, I do think it’s fair to say that the problems of some people are far greater than those of others – to gain a little perspective, all you need to do is switch on the news!
Admittedly, over the years, I’ve allowed myself to indulge in moments of self-pity (not an attractive trait). The dark pit of despair is easy to fall into, and difficult to climb out of.
That said, I’ve never sulked or felt sorry for myself over what I consider petty complaints, such as missing out on a social gathering or event. Honestly, I’ve no time or patience for that sort of nonsense. Again, it’s about perspective.
On my darkest days, I would ask – Why me? What have I done to deserve this crap?
Funnily enough, no higher power ever answered. Which later lead me to ask – Why not me? What makes me so special?
Shit happens! And yes, some of us face more than our fair share of it. But like it or not, we must learn to accept, adapt and deal with it – limitation, loss, grief, disability, pain, trauma, illness…
What’s the alternative? Hide under the duvet covers and wallow? Trust me, that sort of self-destructive behaviour can only create further problems.
If I’ve learnt anything, it’s that life isn’t fair.
I continue to battle with frustration due to my health, physical limitations and circumstances over which I have no control. So, I now try my best to practice gratitude and remind myself of all the good things I am blessed with. I don’t always succeed, but I try.
I also find it hugely beneficial to avoid self-indulgent doombrains like the aforementioned art student!
Let’s be honest, when we’re young, we’re all enticed by a pretty face or a good body. Attraction is primarily physical, and to put it bluntly, at 18, most of us would shag anything with a pulse – opportunity is everything.
I cringe when looking back at some of the guys I fancied and gave my attention to! What the bloody hell was I thinking?!
Much later, I reluctantly signed up to dating app Hinge, which lasted a total of two months.
I tried modern dating (eurgh!), which, in my limited experience, seemed to consist of shallow idiots and the phrases “you’re no one’s type”, “get in the car!” and, “let’s book a hotel room”.
Responding with a firm no, I was told to “fuck off then”.
There are some lovely people out there!
On reflection, it probably wasn’t the best idea to tell one bloke that his car was shit, but it made me laugh as I rolled home alone in my powered wheelchair.
Growing up, a friend of mine repeatedly told me, “you need a big strong guy to pick you up and throw you around”.
I can see where she was coming from, but even as a young teen, I always thought, why? Don’t I just want someone to care?
Eventually, I did date that guy – the gym guy. And yes, for the first few months it was great. It was fun, liberating, and as another friend once said, “he gave you a sense of independence and adventure”. She was totally right.
In terms of practicality, it made life a hell of a lot easier for me, as a non-ambulatory wheelchair-user. For a fleeting moment, I thought that was what I wanted.
But, ultimately, I couldn’t rely on him and I felt very much like an option, a burden, and too much to take on due to my disability. He was physically incredibly strong, but mentally and emotionally very weak.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but at that stage, I was willing to accept the bare minimum – stupid girl!
I invested my time and energy in the wrong place, the wrong person.
The experience changed my outlook and, as cliché as it sounds, made me realise my worth.
You live, you learn, you move on.
As we get older, our perspective, values and priorities change.
These days, I can’t think of anything worse than attempting to flirt (awkwardly) with some Tinder clone. Quite frankly, I’d rather cuddle up at home, alone, with a nice cuppa tea!
At 33, my life certainly isn’t as I imagined or hoped for as a kid. Then again, with age comes the realisation that life rarely turns out as planned.
I’m no longer impressed by aesthetics. Trust me, a pretty face will only get you so far in life.
Above all, what I want is someone to care, unconditionally. Simple as that.
Don’t we all??
Don’t get me wrong, I cherish my alone time and independence, and I’m more than capable of caring for and supporting myself (mentally, anyway).
I’ve endured a fair amount of crap and spent over 90% of my life single. I’m certainly not the type to need a man.
I’m not interested in grand gestures, a lavish lifestyle, fancy house, or gym-bods!
But, for someone to choose you, want you, and stand by you, even when the shit hits the fan – especially when the shit hits the fan! That, to me, means the world.
As a kid, though aware of the physical differences between myself and my peers, I really didn’t care. I was generally happy with a good group of friends.
But, of course, kids (and adults) can be blunt and sometimes cruel with their words and observations. And, as time went on, I was subjected more and more to stares, pointing, judgement and exclusion.
I became a full-time wheelchair-user at the age of 10. Back then, it was very much a case of ‘suck it up and get on with it, these are the cards you’ve been dealt’. Looking back, I guess it affected me more than I realised.
My teens were hard – I became increasingly withdrawn, conscious of what I consider my flaws, and constantly compared myself to other girls, wishing I looked like them.
Then came the dating years…
Comments such as, “you’re no one’s type” and “no one’s going to want you” massively impacted my self-perception and relationships.
Somewhere along the way, I lost myself and my sense of identity.
Now aged 33, I appear more child-like than womanly. I can honestly say, I’ve never felt sexy, or even attractive, in my entire life!
I’m not body-confident, and I don’t think I ever will be. I still compare myself to others and shy away from people, places and opportunities.
But, I am really trying to accept the fact that there is nothing I can do about my body. It is what it is – unique. I need to make the best of what I do have.
If others don’t like it, that’s absolutely fine, but they can kindly fuck off!
In an attempt to push myself out of hermit mode, I recently ‘dressed up’, took some sour-faced selfies, and posted them on Instagram…
…Excuse the Listerine!
The response was positive, complimentary and sincere. It gave me the confidence to write this post and ‘put myself out there’.
Why? Because I am what I am. I’m not “normal”. But what is “normal”, anyway?
“Normal” life came to an abrupt halt and, 5 weeks later, I’m still struggling with breathlessness, pain and exacerbated chronic fatigue.
For those of you who don’t know, I was born with a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy – a progressive condition. Consequently, my lung function is total crap, immunity impaired, and a significant scoliosis causes my internal organs to fight for space.
I’m a seasoned pro when it comes to extended periods of enforced isolation and inactivity, resulting from a lifetime of ill health. Fortunately, I’m more than comfortable with my own company!
In all seriousness, spending your days sat in the same chair, in the same room, attached to a ventilator 24/7, unable to make it as far as the kitchen, let alone leave the house – it’s…really not good!
This latest period of downtime allowed me to reflect on my 33 years – what I’ve learned, and what I want to focus on going forward.
My Life Lessons
Stop caring what others think of me
(because, actually, they’re probably not thinking anything)
I can trace this back to a comment made by a fellow pupil at primary school who told me, “you look normal when you sit down but really weird when you walk”.
I remember it vividly and, ever since, I’ve been painfully self-conscious, particularly about my appearance. But, now I’m ‘old’, I’m trying not to care about the opinions of others, especially total strangers.
Take me as I am or not at all.
Be my true, authentic self
I once had a (sort of) date which ended up in the guy’s completely bare bedroom. In this room was only a bed, some strewn clothes and a copy of, Alice in Wonderland. Rather than attempt to flirt and seduce (yeah, I’m cool), I turned my attention to the book and asked what it meant to him.
His answer made an impression on me:
“I like it because it’s about being open-minded, being yourself, holding onto your identity, and being comfortable with who you are. I’m weird, you’re weird, everyone’s weird! And that’s a good thing, in my view.”
Man, he was…DEEP!
Don’t waste my time, effort or tears on those who don’t care
I think, for most of us, our social circle becomes smaller as we age. And this isn’t a bad thing! On the contrary, you learn who you can be your unfiltered self with, who is willing to tell it as it is, who has your back, and who you can count on when times are hard – the ‘no matter what’ friends and family.
I am guilty of investing too much energy into the wrong people. But, from here on, I will realise my worth and focus only on those who bring joy to my life.
Well, I must now bring this lengthy blog post to a close and get back to my milky tea and digestive biscuits.
I withdraw, avoid social interaction, lose interest, lack motivation, procrastinate, overthink, overreact, become defensive, eat less, lose weight, neglect myself, don’t care what I wear or how I look, mood swings, sleep more, insomnia, chronic fatigue.
*DISCLAIMER: The information here is based solely on my personal experiences and circumstances. I am NOT in any way seeking to provide medical advice or instruction.
What I Do Find Helpful:
Saying no: As hard as this can be, it is sometimes essential for both my physical and mental health. It’s also important for me to acknowledge that I am not responsible for how others react. If I’m unable to attend an event or social gathering and others take this personally, that’s ultimately their issue, not mine.
Being selective about who I spend my time with: Age and life experience has made me review and evaluate the people in my life – who adds value and who doesn’t. Who are the “no matter what” friends? It may sound harsh, but I’ve learned it’s not only okay, but necessary to distance myself from certain people. It’s easy to find friends when you’re young, fit, healthy and carefree. But when times are REALLY tough, that is when you realise who and what matters most.
Listening to music (through earphones): A form of escapism, allowing me to block out the rest of the world and any unwanted distractions.
Getting out of the house: It can be anywhere, doing anything or nothing. Sometimes I just sit by the river and stare. Other times I like to venture out in the car, though for me, this means relying on someone to drive me around.
Express: Sometimes I lock myself away and cry, other times I sit all day in total silence. I would say, do what you need to; scream, shout, talk it through. Whatever works for you.
Do what you love: However small or insignificant it may seem, I try to do something, every day, just for me. It could be as simple as listening to my favourite song on repeat, writing, sketching, reading, watching TV or YouTube.
Self care: When I’m feeling low and I can’t be arsed with skin care, presentable attire or brushing my hair, I just spray myself, liberally, with my most expensive perfume. Granted, I’ll still feel like crap, but at least I smell great. It’s a small comfort requiring no effort.
What I Don’t Find Helpful:
Unsolicited advice: Superficial comments such as, “stay positive”, “get better soon”, “it could be worse”, and, “take some multivitamins” – This is neither helpful nor constructive.
Talking when not ready: We are often encouraged to talk and share our troubles. And, while I totally agree that it is ‘good to talk’, and we shouldn’t feel like we have to keep our thoughts, feelings and concerns to ourselves, I also think it should be on our terms. We are all different. Some people find great comfort in talking, while others don’t. I, personally, am the latter.
Since we’re all still stuck at home, twiddling our thumbs, I thought I’d suggest some reading material for you.
The six books I have chosen focus on the themes of disability, mentalhealth, positivethinking, overcomingadversity, trauma, and recovery.
A few years ago, I had the privilege of interviewing this former Olympic hopeful who beat the odds and transformed her life after suffering a horrific accident.
Janine Shepherd radiates energy, enthusiasm and an endearing wit. Her memoir is a must-read!
Some of you may know that Lucy is a good friend of mine. Like me, she is a non-ambulatory wheelchair-user with a form of muscular dystrophy.
‘Wheels of Motion’ is a poetry anthology unlike any other. If you live with a disability yourself, I highly recommend you check this out! (Available on Amazon).
Amberly Lago is another remarkable, kind and generous woman I was able to interview following the release of her memoir, ‘True Grit and Grace: Turning Tragedy into Triumph’.
Fitness fanatic, Amberly’s life was turned upside down following a debilitating motorcycle accident in 2010, leaving her with significant nerve damage and lifelong chronic pain.
She now devotes her life to helping others.
Acid attack victim, Katie Piper, is now a well-known media personality, activist, documentary maker, charity founder and mother.
She has achieved so much since her brutal assault in 2008, which left her partially blind and with full thickness burns. Katie has endured over 200 operations and invasive treatment to ensure her recovery. She really is a true inspiration!
I read Katie’s first book, ‘Beautiful’, around eight years ago. It’s a real eye opener! Yes, it is shocking and distressing, but also incredibly motivational. I highly recommend this book to anyone and everyone.
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.
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.