It’s not very well known that I love talking about how I ended up in a wheelchair… a lot… no seriously, a whole lot. Of course it can make for some awkward conversation with me laughing at being in a near fatal accident, or trying to tell someone with a straight face, “I got off lucky by only losing movement and sensation in most of my body”. It is however the reality of the situation and I genuinely embrace every aspect of this new life that I am aware of. I found that talking about my experience is therapeutic for me on a psychological and emotional level. This wasn’t always the case though.
There was a time when I lived my life on the basis that the accident was in the past and should not be talked about, by or to me, no matter what. Funny enough, I remember the therapist (psychologist) at the spinal rehab unit trying repeatedly to get me to talk about my then recent accident and what I was going through: A whole human being who got paid to listen to me ramble on about my problems… what I would give for that now. Of course I never gave him a chance, not even close. Not while I was in so much denial. In fact, it wasn’t until over a year after leaving hospital, almost two years after “D-Day”, I realised most people around me could not relate to me because no one knew what was going on in my head. So I decided to try telling people how I really felt. “What’s the worst that could happen”, I told myself. A couple conversations later and you couldn’t shut me up. I would tell my story to a house plant if it would listen. And no question was or is too intrusive, in fact, the deeper the question the more I enjoyed answering. Worst case scenario, if I don’t like a question, I don’t answer.

The most surprising part of all this was that as much as I enjoyed getting it all off my chest, that wasn’t why I loved sharing so much. It was the reactions of those I was talking to. That face that says, “If you never told me that, I would never have thought of it that way”. The knowledge that you’ve just given someone else a glimpse into a world they will probably never see but they come across every day. The thought of them meeting someone like myself (be it disabled, spinally injured or in a wheelchair) and not feeling awkward or nervous; in fact, enjoying the interaction, because they can relate to something about that person a little better. The more I spoke about my experiences, the lighter I felt, but more importantly, the more of that reaction I saw on peoples’ faces. The more I heard people show gratitude for learning something that opened there eyes just that bit more, the stronger the sense of purpose I felt to keep sharing. And all I had to do was be myself.

So I started writing a blog. This very blog you’re reading.

I’d wanted to start one, or at least something similar for years now. I had indeed attempted one a few years back. It was dull, hard to focus on, but more than anything, I hadn’t figured out what my message was: Mostly because I hadn’t figured out most of my problems at the time. So all I had to write was… just that… problems, unresolved depressing problems. Writing it made me feel worse than I already did and it didn’t get passed two posts. It wasn’t until I learned to start loving myself again and view my experiences as a source of strength, and not pain, did I have the courage to share. But still, nothing could have prepared me for the reactions from others. I expected all the usual comments: “You’re so strong”, “You’re so inspirational” (that one doesn’t even register anymore, but more on that later). But I wasn’t prepared for people saying they understood THEMSELVES better; or they would try and live THEIR own lives better, after reading what I had to write. It wasn’t the praises and well wishes that got me, it was the people who felt THEIR own lives were better off, those who left my blog a little smarter, a little more caring, a little more aware. Those were the people that made me feel I was doing something good, because I had helped THEM in some way. Hardly anything is more rewarding.

So imagine my elation when someone from my solicitors at Brethertons got in touch about working on a project where I could potentially share my experience with A LOT more people.

Ok before I go any further, a little background on Brethertons. Very soon after my injury, it became glaringly clear my life was about to become ridiculously and unnecessarily difficult, and not for the obvious reasons. Brethertons stepped in and made a lot of that extra stress go away, permanently. I actually intend to do a series of posts detailing how they helped and this new project fits right into those plans.

The idea was to make a series of informative videos for people affected by spinal injury, directly or indirectly, and anyone else willing to learn a thing or two about spinal injury. And I’d be doing it the old fashioned way: talking. Of course I jumped at the idea. The videos in this post are the first results of our collaboration.

The day of filming was actually one of the most enjoyable and productive experiences I’ve had in a while. I spoke for over two hours (could’ve been a lot longer) and then did a couple camera shots to flesh out the video: The most fun ones being having a camera strapped onto my chair. I felt like an X-Wing pilot (not so subtle Star Wars reference there).  The whole thing lasted about five hours but it honestly felt too short. Thanks in no small part to Millie and Declan from Media Spaces who filmed and conducted the interview.

All in all, this whole thing has cemented the idea in my head that I can build a career out of something I love doing – Helping others. There are other ways I’ve learned to help others, but all those are worthy of their own posts. In the meantime, check out these first videos and hopefully you learn something from them.

Till next time, stay awesome.

Don’t Give Up On Tomorrow Because Of Today’s Struggles

“It’s 2010, the end of June, and the sun is shining gloriously outside. I, however, am laid in a hospital bed breathing through a tube in my neck. Less than 2 months before this, I was in a pretty bad car crash and was lucky to survive. My current sorry state is the result of the crash, but on this day I’m not feeling sorry for myself. On this day, I’ve been visited by a good friend and we’ve been talking and laughing for over an hour now. I’m full of joy. And then my friend pauses for a second and tells me how “inspirational” I am. The smile on my face grows wider, but the smile in my head shrinks out of existence. It’s a nice compliment to receive but my brain doesn’t fully understand why it’s being received. I sure don’t feel “inspirational”. I’m not in the middle of achieving a great goal I set out for myself and I’m not changing the world for the good of others. I was just lucky enough to not die from an experience I had no control over, and now I’m simply going through the motions necessary to recover.”

Or so I tell myself.

You see, it’s only now in hindsight that I realise how much the accident had really messed me up psychologically. It would be years before I could look in the mirror again and see anything of any value, let alone inspirational. Now I’m fully aware my mindset at the time was extremely flawed and severely damaged. But that was how I felt at the time and as such, it was my reality. So imagine my bewilderment when people would say things like, “You should write a book” or “You would give an awesome TED Talk”. Suggestions like that felt like fantasy but after hearing them enough times over so many years, I began to indulge those fantasies and imagine a world where I did write a best-selling book or give an “awesome TED Talk”. The seeds had been planted and as my mind healed and my life stabilised I began to genuinely explore more realistic versions of those fantasies. With the overwhelming support and encouragement of those around me and the little self-belief I had managed to muster over the years, I began seeking opportunities to tell my story and share my experiences with others who might benefit from them. At first, it was just those same people around me, and eventually, I was talking in schools, universities and workplaces. My second attempt at writing a blog was well received and eventually turned into what you’re reading today. For the first time in a long time, I felt like I was actively doing something of value with my life and I was happy with that. I’m so grateful that all the annoying people in my life who kept calling me inspirational and telling me I could and should do such marvellous and wondrous things never stopped being annoying. I’m so grateful they never gave up on me. And I’m so proud I eventually believed in myself enough to see and take the opportunities that so many others around me had been talking about.

It isn’t a bestselling book but my blog has definitely done some good. And I’m yet to give that TED Talk, but I definitely have no problem sharing the lessons I’ve learned in-person to a live audience. Knowing how much of a sceptic I can be at times, I would’ve never believed it without seeing it myself but you truly can achieve great things if you set your mind to it. Obviously, it isn’t always straightforward, quick or easy. Things still have to fall into place around you to give you room to achieve certain goals and you may not be able to control what, how or when those things manifest. But you do have control over how ready you are when those things do fall into place. Even my sceptic mind cannot argue with the saying “Success occurs when opportunity meets preparation”. You might only get one big break, but will you be ready enough to see it when it comes.

So I’ve been writing this blog now since 2015 and have no plans of stopping any time soon. But the public speaking, well that’s a bit more difficult to do in a pandemic. But, the ways we now use technology have opened up a whole new set of opportunities for so many. And for me, experiences like being able to give my first-ever keynote speech as part of something as big as Social Work Week from the comfort of my own home have opened my eyes to an opportunity I’ve wanted to try for a while now. I’ve decided to branch My Life in a Chair out to YouTube. I’ll be sharing the same types of experiences and lessons learned I always have, and then some. This will also be more accessible and possibly reach a lot more people. My first proper video is still in the works but here’s just a taster. If you’ve enjoyed what I’ve had to share over the years or feel it’s of any value to yourself or anyone else, then let’s get the word out. My Life in a Chair is now on YouTube. Subscribe to the channel and spread the word. Till next time, whether it’s on here or over there, stay awesome.

2020: The Year Of Lemons

“When life gives you lemons, make lemonade.”, or so the saying goes. I’ve always found that statement interesting: why are lemons synonymous with something negative?, I happen to quite like lemons; and why is lemonade synonymous with positive results? Not everyone likes lemonade. But I digress. The question that’s really been bugging me of late is: What happens when life gives you lemons but you don’t have the utensils or even a recipe to make anything resembling lemonade? And these are no ordinary lemons, they are twice as big as your head and weigh a ton. You look to your neighbours for help but turns out life didn’t forget them either. They all have lemons just as big as yours and just as heavy that they have to focus on. Though a much more layered and complex situation, this analogy is essentially what most of 2020 looked like for the majority of the world’s population. Seemingly overnight, we all had to deal with a global disaster more akin to fiction than reality. And we have all had to find our ways through it individually and collectively. Things are far from back to normal, but the light at the end of the tunnel is finally visible. It might still be unclear when we’ll reach that light or even what it would look like. But one certainty we didn’t have just less than a year ago is that an attainable end exists to all this. So at this focal point, it only feels right to at least acknowledge some of the instances we have actually remarkably managed to make some lemonade.

Now it goes without saying, the last year has seen a lot of loss and hardship: Loss of jobs, livelihoods, normality, but worst of all, loss of life and loved ones. We have all been shaped and altered in ways that are immeasurable and in some cases, irreversible. Too many of these changes have been negative, but that’s all the more reason to acknowledge the positives. If you’re reading this, you’re still here. On so many levels, that in itself is remarkable and worth celebrating. Many of us have been made stronger and more aware of who we are. We’ve learned new ways to make the most out of things with so little. We rediscovered the value in so many things and people we would normally have taken for granted. We discovered new ways to appreciate the things we have, and indeed new things to appreciate in their entirety. It’s not all been smooth sailing getting there. In making our lemonade we’ve had a few spillages, broken some utensils and in some cases had to reassess our whole recipe and even restart some or all of the process. We battled mental-health issues, isolation from those we love, heartbreak and so much more. But the lessons some of these experiences have taught us and the strength they’ve given us cannot be overstated or unlearned. Many of us now have a much deeper understanding of our abilities, strengths and limitations. A lot of us have had to confront some ideas on what we had accepted as “normal” for so long. Or maybe even enduring far more significant discomfort and suffering only to still pull through and keep moving forward. Whichever the case, our eyes have been opened to experiences, concepts and even knowledge of our own resilience we previously weren’t aware of. All of which can now be used to better inform our experiences going forward. Not all of us have gained the same things from the same experiences. Not all of us have had the same or even similar experiences. And even those of us who gained some positives also endured some negatives. No two people have had the same experiences let alone the same outcomes. We are not even at the end of all this. Some difficulties still lie ahead, but with every hardship comes a possible opportunity for growth, blessings, insight and hope. Every lemon has the potential to become lemonade. And we’ve all been given lemons.

We don’t all have the same resources, knowledge base or of us have already made, tasted and even been able to sell some lemonade. Some of us aren’t even halfway there. Some of us may have to get a taste from others. Some of us may end up having to settle for water. But, we all have one thing in common. We’ve all been giving lemons.

So, I was initially going to end this post in the last paragraph. But I’m trying to get you to understand you’ve more than likely made lemonade already and to acknowledge that, maybe even share what that lemonade might be. As such I think I’d be remiss if I didn’t let you know mine. So here goes.

You may remember I started 2020 on bedrest so the year was already off to a shaky start. I had been working on a few personal projects from before Christmas and in March, though I wasn’t fully healed, I look forward to attending a big event that could have acted as a massive stepping stone in my career. Well, you know what happened next. The UK went into lockdown, the event was cancelled and though on one hand I probably saved aggravating my health, on the other, I’d missed a massive opportunity that at the time looked like it might never come again. And now, like everyone else, I had to navigate the insanity that is lockdown. The first bit of lemonade I squeezed out of the situation came when my brother, who I hadn’t seen in 2 years, was grounded at home with me through that first lockdown. A planned one-month holiday became 5 months with one of the few people whose mere existence brings me joy. I know for a fact I never felt the full effect of lockdown until he left. He was my biggest utensil to tackle that lemon. As if that wasn’t enough, he shared a few recipes with me for making more lemonade. Being the hard-working entrepreneur he is, he left me with a few nuggets of knowledge to feed into my life and career (his own recipes if you will). I quickly got over the event I missed in March and started looking ahead. At first, I didn’t see anything, but I kept looking. Then within the span of a week, I was contacted by a massive organisation wanting to hear and share my story AND, I was separately made aware of a position I’d be interested in within the same organisation. I obliged, shared my story, and also applied for that position. One place, 2 different types of interviews and endless possibilities. The event I’d missed in March was a social work conference. The organisation I was now involved with, in 2 different ways was Social Work England: the official regulator for social work in the country. Lemonade never tasted so good. The interview with them where I share my story was well received and is now published on their website. My application and subsequent interview to work with them was a success. In November 2020, I officially became a member of the National Advisory Forum for Social Work England. An achievement I’m extremely proud of and an opportunity to make some positive change. I went into Christmas happy fairly satisfied with the year I’d had. But it gets better. Stemming from the interview posted on their website, I was invited to give a keynote speech as part of the inaugural Social Work Week coming up next month. From the 8th to the 12th of March, Social Work Week will be home to a whole host of online events celebrating, teaching and exploring everything about social work to anyone and everyone who wishes to take part. On Wednesday the 10th, at 9:30 AM, I will be talking about my experiences with social work and disability, live, during my first-ever keynote speech. It’s the first time I’ll be speaking publicly on this scale and would be beyond honoured to have as many of you watching as possible. Tickets are free and available HERE or on the picture below..

The best part of all this is I know it’s only the beginning. This pandemic will pass, but the lemonade we make can last beyond our lifetimes. If that’s not worth acknowledging, I’m not sure what is.

So go ahead. In what ways have you been able to get rid of lemons from 2020? Share your stories in the comments below or drop me a message. Maybe I’ll even make a little compilation of some of the positive things to come out of 2020. Goodness knows we could all do with some extra positivity right now.

A Very Odd Christmas

I’ve never really been a very festive person, not in the traditional sense anyway.  For starters, I grew up in Nigeria.  Pine trees don’t grow in tropical countries, the closest thing to snow was the frosting in freezers and it’s practically impossible convincing a kid that Santa exists in a world with no chimneys.  The traditional western Christmas only existed in TV and Christmas card illustrations.  We had our own Christmas traditions.  An annual trip to the village my father grew up in, Christmas barbecue and fireworks, lots of fireworks.  For as different Christmas for me growing up was to Christmas for me today in the UK, one thing stays a common thread for both myself and anyone else celebrating the festive season around the world: Family.

No Christmas traditions, western, Nigerian or otherwise, mean anything without family.  Nothing is or has ever been more important to me than my family.  They are my primary reason for existing.  Seeing any of them smile fills me with joy and knowing any of them may be anything less than happy absolutely breaks my heart.  I literally live my life so my family can enjoy theirs.  The exact specifics of why our families/loved ones are important to us individually will differ for each person on the planet but the end result is the same.  The whole reason the experience of celebrating the end of the year is so powerful in our consciousness as a society is the fact that it’s an experience we share with our family and loved ones.  Well apparently, not if 2020 has anything to say about it… at least in the UK.

This year has already tested our limits psychologically, emotionally and intellectually.  The prospect of a “normal Christmas” already seemed bleak months before anyone had even considered putting up a Christmas tree. As the UK began showing signs of a second wave of Covid 19 and a month-long “soft lockdown” being deemed necessary, Christmas celebrations began to look like an unaffordable luxury.  And then it happened:  The illogical but hope-inducing announcement that families would be allowed to celebrate the days before and after Christmas together.  Strict restrictions would still be in place but it was enough to uplift the spirits of a whole nation.  Like many others, for me, it marked the first time I would be able to see some of my family in a year, and I began uncharacteristically getting excited about Christmas decorations, wrapping paper and roasted turkey.  Then just as quickly as that euphoria had been sparked, it was abruptly snatched away.  Apparently, the risk was indeed too great after all to have the relaxed restrictions over the Christmas period, and in fact, further, more intense restrictions were imposed on a third of the country.  The cynical, logical parts of my brain tried to focus on how we’d all been scammed into spending as much money as humanly possible on a Christmas we now weren’t allowed to have.  But what really hit me was the stark realisation that I would most likely be spending Christmas alone for the first time in my life.  All my plans for the holidays had been hinged on only one thing: I would be spending Christmas with my family like I did every year.  But aside from my uncle, none of my family lives locally to me and the restrictions for the Christmas period meant it would be unfeasible or even bordering on illegal to do the one thing that is guaranteed to give me joy: spending time with my family.  And for the first time all year, every painful, frustrating, stressful and emotionally tasking thing I had fought so hard to keep at bay came pouring out.  I had survived the year on the basis that when all this madness was said and done, I would get to see my family again.  And because of this, the only time I let my guard down was for the hope that I’d get to see them a little earlier for Christmas.  Big mistake.  In all of 2020, nothing regarding this stupid pandemic had brought a tear to my eye.  On Saturday the 19th of December, at approximately 9:30 PM, I put the phone down on the last family member I needed to cancel Christmas plans with, shut the door to my office and cried till I ran out of energy.  I then went to bed in the hope I’d sleep off whatever pain was left and wake up ready to start putting it all behind me like I always do.  But this wasn’t over.

I woke up the next day, went through my morning routine as normal and ended up at my desk ready for the day.  Slowly I realised I’d completely forgotten a whole part of my family.  I’d been so emotional about my first family, I forgot about my new family.  My fellow brothers and sisters with long-term injuries, lifelong conditions and the other “vulnerable” people with whom I share so much in common.  The people who would be most affected by the sudden increase in restrictions over the time of the year most prominently dedicated to just being with those you love.  I normally don’t like people looking at my life situation and telling themselves “if he can go through that, I should have no complaints about my situation”.  But now the shoe was on the other foot.  Thinking of those who would be hit much harder by these restrictions forced me to re-evaluate what my situation really was.  It wasn’t a case of “Their problems are worse than mine so I shouldn’t complain about my problems”. That’s what I don’t like other people doing with me.  It was more “If I can accept some situations are worse than mine, then surely I have things to celebrate that people in those situations don’t”.  So, I acknowledged everything that had upset me so much and accepted them as things I shouldn’t take for granted going forward.  But then, also acknowledging everything I needed to celebrate and not take for granted right this moment.  All of a sudden, not having my family around turned from a horrible situation to simply a different situation.  Not being able to celebrate the holidays like I had planned provided an opportunity to try and celebrate them in a different way.  Because, I have care staff who would be around and one family member who lives locally, so I wasn’t actually going to be alone, just with different people from what I’d planned.  Christmas was still going to be on the same day regardless.  And gifts could still be exchanged.  So,  I decided to make lemonade.  I just had to figure out a way to enjoy Christmas with the people I do have around.  Before I knew it, I had made a very different and unconventional plan for how my Christmas Day would go.  I could very well have just decided to just pretend it was any other day and just been fine with that.  But I’ve learnt over the years not to pass up opportunities to surround myself with positive energy.

So how have I spent Christmas?  Well, I’d already bought gifts to give my care staff whenever they came in for their shifts, so I decided to be more proactive with it.  I put on a Santa hat, jumped in the car with one of my carers and drove house-to-house delivering some of their gifts to them.  I had an offer from another one of my staff to have her mum bring in some Christmas food, which I gladly accepted.  So I had a Christmas meal with my staff, courtesy of her mum.  And then, the one family member who was around came in with his partner for the rest of the day and we just had a calm quiet evening chatting, exchanging gifts and watching a movie.  Now, it could very easily be argued, this has been a much less exciting Christmas than I’ve had in over a decade, but I choose to see it as simply a different approach to MY Christmas which I now know would be equally as fulfilling as anything I could have planned.

I also do not for one second take for granted that I am unbelievably lucky to even have those options at my disposal.  What I do know is, regardless of the situation, even if it’s difficult, I can choose to look at my current situation and choose to dwell on the negatives or the positives.  And if I can’t find the positives, I can either look harder or proactively try and create them.  Again, it’s easier said than done for many people in many situations.  But it is something to never forget is always an option.  I could go into further detail on the smaller, more minute actions I took to achieve this for Christmas 2020, but that’s a whole other conversation. I will say though, I could never have done any of it if I didn’t try.

Never let anyone make you feel like there is no hope there will always be external factors, but in the end, you control how things around you affect you and by how much.

Your Inner Strength

Living with disability, or any long-term illness for that matter, would affect anyone’s valuation of their self-worth: in most cases, not for the better. For many years this was true for me, and even today I still question aspects of my self-worth on a daily basis. I am definitely in a very good place with regards to what I think of the person I see in the mirror; far better than I used to be, but this has only been the case for a few years and is still a work in progress. The main difference now is, I know how I got here, and how to keep going in the direction of loving and respecting myself more every day.

One of the most important things I wish I had learned much earlier in my journey living with disability, is to let go of the negatives that life throws our way.  I didn’t believe I had the strength to do so.  Being in any negative situation, it can be difficult to envision positivity while in the moment let alone believe we have the strength to achieve said positivity. In fact, it is very easy, and sometimes seductively comfortable to hold onto the negativity of the situation. There’s a warmth in holding on tightly to “the knowledge” that the present situation is unpleasant because all around us is pain and that “knowledge” is the strongest reminder that things can be different. So we shut our eyes, cuddle up into a ball and repeatedly tell ourselves how things could be better without truly doing much to make them better. Because that would mean opening our eyes to see the pain, then standing up and engaging that pain in order to defeat it. But facing that pain means feeling the pain, and acknowledging the parts of it we can control, or in other words, admitting some of that pain is our responsibility; and we don’t want that. Ironically, we end up going through life surrounded by a wall of pain that follows us everywhere while refusing to acknowledge we are holding onto the very thing that wall is built around. So when that wall comes between us and any relief, remedy or positivity, we blame it on something or someone else so we don’t have to acknowledge the pain exists because we don’t believe we have the strength to tear down that wall let alone let go of the pain.  Meanwhile, the wall grows thicker. But the pain is always there, and will always leave a mark on our lives, and if we continue pretending it isn’t, we will eventually end up blaming the world for all our problems. It is a slippery slope that is all too common today. But none of it would even exist if we face our problems head-on.

Now, this is not to say we let go and “forget” the negatives ever existed. On the contrary, we are acknowledging that the negatives did happen and will forever remain a part of us BUT we will not hold on and remain in the past with them. We will move forward from them, even using them as a springboard to better things. The only effect they should still have on us are the lessons they taught us and how to avoid/overcome them in future.  In essence, the existence of the experiences that cause the pain means we have the lessons those experiences brought with them.  That in itself is a source of some of our strength, we just have to identify and understand those lessons.

Of course, this is easier said than done in most situations. In my case, for example, the pain was because overnight my life had been irreversibly turned upside down through no fault of my own. I was now forced to forget my future as I had seen it so clearly only the day before, and now somehow accept a new future in which all I could see was the absolute impossibility of ever again enjoying many of the things I had come to understand as necessary for a good life. If anyone back then had told me the things I’m telling you right now about not dwelling on negativity, they would have probably received a punch to the face and the end of whatever relationship we had. But that only proves what I’m saying was true. I was holding onto “the knowledge” that my then present situation was unpleasant because all around me was pain and that “knowledge” was the strongest reminder of how things could have been different. It was the only warmth in a cold dark room.

But I was lucky: I had help and thankfully I eventually stopped turning it away. The thing is, the solution to a problem hardly ever just walks up to us and presents itself. Sometimes it presents itself in a way we never would have ever considered. It could be from a place, person or experience we least expect, and are maybe even yet to come across. But regardless of what the solution is, we can only attain it when we are prepared for it to work. I could have waited for someone to invent a cure for spinal injury while feeling sorry for myself. But the solution for me only became clearer when I began to accept I couldn’t change what had happened but I could decide how to move forward from it. The moment I began to accept the fact that my life was never going to be the same again, I started to realise I wasn’t in pain because I had acquired a disability; I was in pain because I had lost almost everything that made up my self-worth. And that was definitely a problem with a very realistic and attainable solution so that.  So what was the solution?  Well, turns out I’d been looking in the wrong place all along.  I’ve been trying to get back what I had lost because that’s what gave me value in the past.  But it wasn’t those things I needed but the value they gave me.  The solution was to find other things that could give me that value.  And then I started to see them.  All the things around me that had just waiting for me to realise they were there.  The lives I could touch, the activities could enjoy, the places I could go, all the things I haven’t given a chance because I was still dwelling on things I no longer had a chance with.  And because I had remembered the lessons from the initial pain and experiences, I knew, this time around to value myself with things that couldn’t easily be taken away by any person, experience or problem.  My solutions had been all around me for years after my injury before I was in the right position to implement them.  But I would never have been in that right position if I wasn’t prepared for them to work.  And how was I prepared?  By letting go of the negativity of the initial problem, facing the pain, and finally acknowledging what parts of it I could control.  And soon enough, I gained enough control over the pain for it not to control me any more and finally let the wall around me come down.

But that was my story.  Your own individual problems, solutions, and journeys from one to the other will be very different.  It could go a lot quicker or take a lot longer.  It could be far easier or more difficult.  But regardless, you will still need to learn to let go of the negativity, holding on only to the lessons to eventually prepare yourself to grab onto your solutions when you come across them.  And you can do it.  No matter how hard things get, what anyone else says or how dark the room might be, you have the strength to find the way out. Don’t doubt the worth of the person staring back at you in the mirror

Lessons From Lockdown

2020 has been a surreal year for every person on the planet and for many reasons. The most common factor affecting everyone being COVID-19. The virus has been a problem in itself but has also created secondary and even tertiary problems as well as a plethora of others. It has forced most of the world to rethink how we live our daily lives with every country instating guidelines to everyday life. The most prominent of these being, to varying degrees, “Lockdown”.

Depending on where you live, lockdown to you has meant something slightly different but to most has involved being advised to stock up on essentials and stay indoors to limit human contact and therefore limit the possible spread of the virus. I won’t go into mine or anyone else’s opinions on the idea of lockdown in this post. But I would like to share three lessons I’ve learned so far. Because everyone has had their own unique experience of the same thing (as with everything else in life), I think it’s important to share these experiences so we can all learn lessons we may not have been able to from our own individual experiences.

For me, as discussed in my post from when I first witnessed what lockdown looked like outside my home, I have essentially had 2 lockdowns. The first of which started in December 2019 when I became temporarily confined to my bed and ended after “lockdown as everybody knows it” had already begun. These lessons have come from my cumulative experiences from December 2019 till now.

I will also add that this is not a write-up about the coronavirus itself or any medical/health implications it has had. I’m strictly talking about the effect this time has had on our everyday lives as a society primarily through the lens of lockdown.

So here goes.

1. Actively Acknowledge Your Blessings (anything good in your life is its own blessing).

I think everyone can now safely agree that it is far too easy to take things for granted once we get used to them. In every human life, some things are simply accepted to be the norm. Whether it is being able to eat at least once a day, work to put that food in our mouths or even choose whether to eat or skip a meal. Every human being on the planet, from every walk of life, has something in their lives they accept to be normally occurring. Even if that normal thing is the absence of something they believe should be normal, everyone has an accepted view of their own normality. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this. But, the moment that normality is altered to any degree, we have to react. That reaction may be working to return to “our norm”, welcoming the change with open arms or adjusting other aspects of our lives to accommodate the change. By the very nature of this dynamic, we interact with these aspects of our lives passively, only interacting with these “normalities” when reacting to an external change (like lockdown). This passive interaction is the beginning of taking things for granted. This becomes a problem when, without realising, we start building things we don’t take for granted around a foundation of things we do. Because when those foundations are altered externally, every aspect of our life linked to them is put at risk. This is partly why leading up to and through the beginning of lockdown, anxiety, misinformation and irrationality reigned supreme. So many aspects we had taken for granted in our lives had all of a sudden been altered almost overnight, immediately highlighting why they should have never been taken for granted in the first place. Anything you can think of that falls in this category is a blessing.

So how can we actively acknowledge our blessings? How can we avoid taking them for granted? A simple starter would be reminding ourselves of our blessings at the moments we experience them. While eating your next meal, having your next conversation or even reading this article, think to yourself, “There are so many ways this current situation could be far worse but here I am”. Regardless of how much life may not be ideal right now, you’d be surprised at how many things you have to be grateful for. Obviously, there will still be experiences you’d rather not have and those do matter. But your focus should be on the good things you do have. They matter more.

2. Take time to learn who you are.

Why are you the way you are (insecurities, biases, preferences, triggers, likes, dislikes, fears, loves etc)?  We are shaped by the world around us for better or worse and have to control what that shape is.  Passively moving through life will guarantee we become what someone or something else dictates.  External factors don’t ever take a break, why should we.  Actively living our lives ensures we get a say in who we are and who we become. The more actively we live life, the bigger the say we get. The first step for that is understanding as much as possible about who we are now.  How have we gotten here?  How have external factors affected us up until now?  Also understanding, there is nothing wrong with finding out something we don’t like about who we are or how something has affected us.  The important thing is how we use what we now know to dictate who we become.

The truth of the matter is we all have things in our past we would rather not relive through our thoughts whether we realise it or not. But not ever looking back at those experiences, people, places or whatever they may be, also means never resolving them. It may seem easier to just leave them in the past but that’s the equivalent of putting a lump of hot coal in our back pockets where we can’t see them. We may become numb to the pain and be able to move on like there is no pain but every now and then, we’ll sit on the coal and get a painful reminder it’s still there. We might change the angle at which we sit and keep moving on that way. But then it eventually burns through our jeans burning into our skin. So we adjust the way we walk and become more numb to the pain and move on forward a bit more. But then it burns through our pocket, revealing a bare bum with a lump of hot coal stuck in the cheek for the world to see. It is mildly embarrassing, but we put on a new pair of jeans and move on forward a bit more only for the cycle to repeat itself over and over again. The pattern becomes second nature and we’ll become numb to the negative effects and emotions that behaviour brings even as they become their own little smaller burning coals, which we deal with the same way, further creating and repeating this cycle of madness, normalising our abnormal behaviours, attracting unwanted attention to ourselves, attention which also becomes its own little coals. And without realising it, we’ve become that strange person that sits funny, walks funny, obsessively buys new pairs of the same jeans and always smells like a chimney. All this because we didn’t resolve one small lump of hot coal.

So, how do we get around this? Simple answer: we find a way to drop that hot coal before it does more damage. The not so simple part is how to drop that coal. Letting go of some of our past traumas can be difficult for several reasons: it means accepting we have no control over them; they tend to have become part of who we are; and sometimes, we simply want a chance to throw that lump of hot coal back in the face of whatever created it, but letting it go would take that away. Regardless of the reason, in the mean time, we are only just burning ourselves by holding on.

Lockdown has shown me the importance of dedicating time to find out how to identify, remove or even productively use my past experiences to improve myself and my life. I haven’t even touched on those experiences that were actually positive, but for some reason, we don’t value as much as we should. Because believe me, the same way the negative parts of our past that can’t be changed can become a lump of hot coal and progressively make things worse, the positive parts also can’t be changed and can become a [insert positive metaphor] that progressively makes things better. But it all starts with dedicating that time to actively find out these things that makeup who we are and working towards using them to make us even better.

3. We are all stronger than we realise.

COVID-19 healthcare worker using PPE protective equipment showing strength. Nurse or doctor theme preparing for virus treatment.

 All experiences change us, some more than others, and either positively or negatively.  But more often than not, we still keep going.  Maybe a little wiser, a  little worse for wear or a bit more cynical, but most of the time we keep going.  We all have some idea of what normal behaviour is according to society, our environment or self-expectations and for the most part, live our lives within those guidelines.  But we rarely stop to recognise our ability to behave within any guidelines whatsoever even after traumatic experiences.  We experience heartbreak, loss, failure, pain and so many negative things through our lives and still manage to live our lives.  Most of the time never acknowledging we do it.  But every time a new obstacle is put before us, we draw on our past experiences to help us overcome that obstacle.  Again, most of the time not acknowledging that we do it.  Like having a drink whenever you’re thirsty but never stopping to appreciate the fact that there was a drink there for us in the first place ready to quench our thirst. That is how we treat our inner strength.  We only passively engage it when we need it and hardly think about it when it isn’t in use.  But, if we were to acknowledge that strength was there as much as possible, we would go through life with a lot less fear of what could go wrong.  We wouldn’t panic when something does go wrong because we would know we have the strength to overcome it.  In fact, we would more actively engage that obstacle with the confidence that strength gives us, thereby getting rid of the problem more quickly and with less stress.  But we need to be aware of that inner strength in the first place, even when it isn’t in use.

There are many ways to do this.  We could remind ourselves of the obstacles we’ve overcome in the past and how we overcame them.  We could remind each other of the same because sometimes we don’t see how we used our strength as well as someone else looking from the outside.  Hearing another person’s take on our own resilience is extremely powerful.  And that also means we have to be willing to remind others of their own resilience.  You never know who may need to hear those words in the same way they might be oblivious to when you need to hear those words.

We could actively work on improving our strength/resilience like improving a muscle through exercise or a skill through practice.  Put yourself out there in as many small ways as possible.  Try something new on a regular basis.  Do something selfless on a daily basis.  Start at least one new conversation every other day even if it’s only to say hi via text message or social media.  Things like this may seem irrelevant to inner strength and resilience but you will be surprised how trying small new things regularly will expose you to a lot of things outside of your comfort zone, show you how easy it is to face a lot of situations you thought would be more difficult and even give you the confidence to try out bigger and better things.  By the time an unexpected obstacle then comes your way, chances will be high that you have faced a similar situation on a smaller scale and you will realise you already have what you need to get through it.  It might be harder or take longer but you would know it is not impossible.

2020 has opened my eyes to so many things, good and bad, regarding all facets of life. The above merely being three I feel are the most positive to share. There have also been negatives but those are stories for another time. I surely hope they’ve been insightful. Or maybe you’ve already come to your own similar or vastly different conclusions. Maybe you’ve learnt something completely different from any of the above. Whatever the case may be, I’d love to hear it. Let’s all learn from sharing our experiences. Leave a comment below, on Facebook or Instagram. Even drop me an email if you want. There’s always more to learn.

Till next time, you take care of yourself and those around you.

Living In Care: An Abridged Version

Ever since I began life post-injury, I’ve been in one form of care or another. Surprisingly, since I started sharing my experiences here, documenting that aspect of my life has proven elusive for several reasons, even though the entirety of my life in a chair has also been my life in care. The truth is, living in care has been a very interesting and educative but complex weave of many varied stories, moments, people, experiences and life lessons.
For starters, my care set up has changed and evolved over the years and still does creating an almost constant state of flux that could change the moment I put any aspect of it in writing. Then there’s the fact that my experience on the topic has never been outrightly positive or negative but has always slid back and forth along that spectrum making it tricky what tone to write about it in. To further add to the mix of complexities, life in care is a very broad subject so what aspect do I write about?: The actual carers/caregivers themselves; the institutions that have provided said care at different points in time; the most influential/pivotal experiences from my life in care… etc. The list goes on with every single one of the aspects above rich enough to warrant their own articles. So, this post is going to be an attempt at a chronological summary of my life in care so far. And hopefully I’ll be able to hone in on more specific aspects in future posts.

I have to start by reiterating and emphasising that everything within my account of living in care is purely and specifically from my perspective and own individual experiences. I’m very well aware of the extremely unique nature of the circumstances that have made my care what it has been through the years and is today. This is based solely and unequivocally on my personal journey receiving care and does not reflect the majority of cases of life in care in general.

I’ve essentially been in care since April 18th, 2010, the day of the accident and first admission into hospital for spinal injury. The next 6 months consisted of care aimed primarily at keeping me alive and through surgery; then care to establish a baseline for what my level of health/independence would be going forward and finally; care to help me adjust to what life would be like after leaving hospital. This was provided by a combination of nurses, healthcare assistants and doctors, to mention but a few. I then got discharged into the care of an agency to begin life in the community.

This was where I first encountered the basic framework for what would truly be my life in care. I was blissfully unaware of what to expect from care in the real world, only certain that it would be different from what I had grown used to in hospital. I was discharged into the care of a “care agency”. It would be an understatement to say this initial arrangement was not an improvement by any means. Admittedly, many factors worked against the possibility of enjoying this new set up such as the tiny living space I now had to call my home, the limited funding available to provide what should have been the ideal standard of care and most importantly, my then fractured and fragile state of mind. All that said, knowing what I know now, this agency did not come close to enabling me to live the best life I possibly could in spite of my injury, as should have been their main charter. All that said, there were a couple of staff on my assigned team who were, at times, a small glimmer of hope that things could be better and to a large extent, their presence in the team opened my eyes to the room for improvement across-the-board. The bulk of the issues I had were systemic and embedded into the companies modus operandi, which unfortunately trickled down to the individual staff members. I learned a lot about what I didn’t want in my care from my experiences with that agency. I was in their care for approximately a year including a 2 month transition period after which I moved on.

I began working with a 2nd agency in August 2011 and the improvement in quality of care, and by extension, my life, could not be more significant. The transitionary period between switching agencies meant I got to see carers from both companies work side-by-side with me for 2 months making it extremely easy to compare and contrast. For the first time, I saw an active effort to aid me in living life as I wanted. I saw a drastic shift in the level of work ethic displayed by staff from the new agency. And most significant to me at the time, I finally felt like these people, with whom I had no choice but to spend the majority of my life with, finally saw me as a fellow human being and not a job. I got to know their likes and dislikes, things we shared in common, who they were, outside work and they showed the same interest in me as a person in return. Regarding their capabilities at their job, I realised I had no clue about the majority of the responsibilities that came with their position. Everyday I learned something new that should have been in place since my discharge from hospital but wasn’t, simply because these carers didn’t think twice about putting those things in place. Things I always thought I needed to take permission for from my carers all of a sudden became decisions I could make whenever I wanted, for them to provide assistance with where possible, and to the best of their abilities. For the first time in a while, I felt free to just be myself rather than constantly try not to upset “the structure” within which my carers carried out their duties. I had previously, whether intentionally or not, been given the impression that the service they provided to me was a privilege to which I should have been grateful for, no questions asked. But now I was being SHOWN the value of the service provided on a daily basis and naturally learned to appreciate how lucky I was. My gratitude had gone from being expected, to being earned. This 2nd agency was by no means without fault. We are still talking about human beings here and there were issues that would crop up every so often, but those became the exceptions to be addressed as they arose and not the norm for me to silently live with. Eventually, I had to part ways with this agency primarily due to financial constraints and my growing need for more independence. But I had learned a lot about what I wanted in my care from my experiences with this agency. I was in their care for just under 2 years after which I moved on.

In July 2013, I finalised the frightening but necessary decision to switch my care from an agency to direct employment. For the first time, I had full control over who was employed to provide my care, how my care was provided and how much it would cost financially. In theory, it was the best case scenario for everyone involved. The annual cost was greatly reduced, I could pay my staff better than most agencies at the time and the bulk of their work practices could be tailored around my specific needs not the general practices of a whole company. The reality was not so simple. The benefits of the change still came as expected but there was so much I had not anticipated. The stark contrasts between being purely a “client” receiving care and an employer were way more than I could have ever expected. I had gotten so used to only ever focusing on the social and personal relationships between me and my carers that I underestimated the complexity (and in many cases difficulties) of managing them as my employees. Now I had to recruit suitable staff while looking out for red flags or possible strengths; deal with HR on an admin level; learn when to discipline someone to curb bad practice; draw up staff rotas every month; even learn basic employment law. For at least the first couple of years I was way too unprepared, informal and unprofessional with them. Something that reared its head as a problem any time I had to be stern or assertive. For the preceding 3 years I had looked at my carers more as friends and almost overnight had to redefine and enforce boundaries. This took A LOT of adjustment and safe to say some of the carers employed in those first few years got away with murder because I had no idea how to be their employer on a day-to-day basis. As the years went by though, it became easier to set and stick to boundaries, readjusting them as I went along; read and predict behavioural patterns to spot red flags early or even encourage potentially desirable attributes/characteristics; and eventually, even find the right balance between the employer/employee dynamic and a relatively social/friendly relationship with my staff/carers on an individual basis.

Today, I manage my care with a combination of everything I have learned and continue to learn from my experiences over the last decade of living in care. I would like to think I am at least an adequate employer. Both I and my carers have a positive working relationship in general which I think anyone who’s met them can attest to. Every now and then a new problem crops up but I now have a good foundation to be able to pre-empt issues or address them as they occur without destabilising the rest of my care. Things are at a point where negative experiences in small doses can be very positive in the long run as everyone learns from them. I actually look forward to interviews and handle almost all my admin myself. All this makes focusing on what’s important: my health and independence, a lot easier. I have been fortunate to even be able to have my care very much on my own terms and will never take that for granted. The people who have cared for me over the years have ALL played a crucial part in leading me to a very balanced, healthy and efficient setup that enables me to carry on day-to-day, not worry about so many things and instead focus on living my best life. There will always be one thing or the other to improve. Things that necessitate change over time and new things to learn. I’m confident I at least have the foundations to continue perfecting living my life in care.

As I said at the start of this, there are way too many facets of living in care to fully explore in one post. So if there is anything specific you want to know or just want more detail on, feel free to get in touch through any of the avenues here, and I’ll either get right back to you or write a full post with the answer.

Till next time, blessings, and stay safe.

Happiness Doesn’t Mean Easy

I’m quite content with my life at the moment. I have a lot to be grateful for, a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to. There will always be things I wish were different but I choose to see them as goals I can still achieve, or unattainable things that make me appreciate what I already have. Bottom line, I’m in a really good place right now, not just at this moment but with how I see things unfolding in my future. I’m happy.

That said, it’s taken a lot to get here and it takes a lot to stay here. I was talking to some students a while back and going over how my perspective, actions and overall approach to life help me get through my life as well as I currently do. And as I spoke, I thought to myself, “this is actually a lot of work”. On paper there are more good days than bad days. But many of those good days are spent working to keep them good. If something knocks me off my stride, my first impulse is almost always to look for a solution. To do that, I need to believe there is a possible solution. To believe that, I need to have hope. To have hope, I need to either already be in a positive state of mind, or be able to work towards getting into a positive state of mind. And I need to be able to get their at any time, in any situation, because the problems that need the solutions, that need the belief, that needs the hope hardly ever come with any pre-warning. So to many who meet me, I appear very positive, very level-headed and always happy. In all, very resilient. But while talking to the students it occurred to me how much hard work actually goes into trying to maintain that resilience. But more so how the work never stops because I always need to be prepared for that one thing that could ruin my day, week, month etc. It’s 24/7, non-stop, round-the-clock finding reasons to always stay positive, not be overwhelmed by whatever I might be dealing with and always be ready for what might be around the corner. But even when there are no negatives trying to pull me down, I still have to maintain this actively positive mindset because some of the really significant problems I’m prone to can only exist when I don’t actively prevent them. I’m talking: daily exercise to prevent muscle tightening or wastage; constantly drinking fluids to stave off water infections; making sure I’m never physically sat in the same position for too long or risk pressure sores; the list goes on and that’s just the physical side of things. I also have to keep my mind busy so I don’t start dwelling on the many things that get me down on a daily basis: trying to actively keep up a social life if only to remind myself it’s actually still possible; managing my care staff so I can actually… well… have care on a day-to-day basis; actively making sure my family sees I’m okay so they don’t worry so much; not going insane over the “joys”of dating while disabled; giving back in some way so I don’t feel guilty for everything I know I’m more fortunate to have; or just having a career that gives me a sense of purpose in life i.e. something I can tell myself to justify everything I don’t think is fair about my life.

It is exhausting.

I had a whole “positive-spin” to tag on the end of this post. Something to tie it up in a ribbon of positivity. But it all sounded too forced and fake and I honestly don’t have the energy. The truth is life can be a cruel mistress (to put it nicely). There are always going to be things that aren’t fair, with no clear reason and sometimes no known way to turn them into a positive. And that’s okay. There isn’t always a visible silver lining or a light we can see at the end of the tunnel. Sometimes, all we can do is fight through the pain, come out on the other side bruised and battered and tend to our wounds. These are the times that make us stronger. The times that forge us from mis-shapen rocks into diamonds and Damascus steel. But we’ll never become that better, stronger version of ourselves if we don’t get through such times. So we just have to keep going, keep on chugging, or be broken down into pieces of our former selves. Either way, we aren’t coming out of these experiences the same as we went in. How we come out is up to us. I know how I intend to come out and I won’t stop until I get there. I also know I can’t get there alone. I have my friends, family and you guys. Yes, you reading this right now. You’re helping me get through everything. Because a problem shared (WITH THE RIGHT PERSON), is part solved. So thanks. Thank you for listening to me rant.

Lourdes 2018

In 2018 I was lucky enough to go on an amazing and genuinely life altering trip to Lourdes, France as part of an annual catholic pilgrimage. My first time leaving the country post-injury and my first time in France, but definitely not my last. We were there for what at the time was genuinely the best week of my life, still without much competition today. I did not expect the positive impact it had on me as a person and my outlook on life in the slightest and now cannot imagine my life without the experiences and memories of that week. It was a window into a world I didn’t know could exist let alone be within my reach where people could be so genuinely kind, heartwarming and caring to absolute strangers. Though the logical part of my brain accepted that it was a mathematical possibility, the realist/sceptic in me could never have expected to see things play out the way they did let alone experience it first-hand. I met some truly awe-inspiring people who till this day I hold dear to my heart and I’m sure will be lifelong friends.
I intended to write about the trip on here as soon as we got back but the effect of the trip literally rippled on for so long after our return that I never got round to it. I spent the months immediately after that week getting to know a lot of the new friends I’d made a lot better in the real world and was honestly so caught up in the euphoria of it all, there were frankly a lot of things I put on hold. It had sparked off such a positive period in my life at the time, writing about it seemed a lot less important than living it. That said I was eventually able to put some of the experience down in words a year later but again did not get round to posting it because of other things that were happening at the time. So today, with this years trip having been cancelled and my fellow pilgrims currently dealing with life during a global pandemic instead of just retuning from another glorious week in the south of France, I thought it best to share that post and hopefully some of the joy and positivity the whole experience brought.

This was written in April 2019

So, I finally got around to writing this. Almost a year in the making and nearly as long since my last post. I have missed writing and I definitely didn’t forget about all the support you guys give me on a daily basis. But for the first time in a long time… I don’t feel bad for not writing. This is the longest I’ve gone without posting but I think I’m okay with it because of the journey I’ve been on of late.

I’ve already shared the beginnings of this journey with you albeit many months after each phase of said journey. I questioned the nature of living with disability in early 2017 and wrote about it towards the year’s end. I struggled with a lot that year. But with a little help, I summoned the strength to get myself back out into the real world. I got in touch with old friends and hung out with current ones (at the time). My social life began to look more like I’d wanted it to and I thought “Things couldn’t get any better”.

Then through one of ‘said friends’, I got the idea of volunteering, helping out others going through what I did almost a decade ago. The feeling from helping someone else see the light at the end of the tunnel like others helped me post-injury will always give me purpose. Indeed I’d found my calling and I thought “Surely things couldn’t get any better”.

Then one of my new colleagues suggested I go to Lourdes. There were a lot of hurdles in making it happen but thanks to my fellow Therapeutics Care Volunteers, the Middlesbrough Catholic church and some key individuals Lourdes became a reality and I was proven wrong again  – Things could indeed get better.

On the 25th of May 2018, I boarded a plane for the first time in a decade, this time bound for France. And so began the most memorable week of my life post-injury. On arrival at our accommodation, the Accueil, a purpose-built accommodation/hotel for supported pilgrims with health care needs. It looked like a regular hospital ward on the inside but with no hospital staff. It was surreal. All the care was provided by fellow pilgrims and church members (officially dubbed ‘brancardiers’ and ‘handmaids’) who’d volunteered their time through the week, supervised by other fellow members who were nurses, doctors, and pharmacists. It took me off guard how regular everyday people with little to no care experience would roll up their sleeves and with a little guidance, completely dedicate themselves to caring for those who couldn’t. Everything from engineers, small business owners and university students to musicians, pensioners and, I’m certain, a couple of millionaires, these people worked harder than some people I know who actually got paid for the same job. Safe to say they earned my respect. There was a strange sense of safety and calm. Everyone was approachable, helpful and delightfully curious. Genuinely taking interest in each other’s lives and forming unbreakable bonds. I met my roommate and partner in crime for the week on entering my room. Soon enough, awkward introductions turned into copious amounts of banter and philosophical discussion. If for no other reason, I was bound to enjoy the week thanks to him. But there was so much more in store.

Over the next week, I would meet and become very fond of a lot of people from very diverse backgrounds. Some would tell me how I reminded them of their children; others would tell me where they wanted to be when they reached my age. Some would enjoy learning to get me up in the morning; others would stay up late at night with me and talk about all sorts. I even had a constructive discussion with a priest about the existence of God; then later shed a tear during mass (Catholic church service). It is absolutely impossible to put everything amazing about this week in words without writing a bible’s worth of blog posts. So instead, I made a little video that I hope captures at least a little snippet of my Lourdes experience.

Waking Up in The Apocalypse

Oh 2020, how did we get here? You were supposed to be the start of the new decade of refreshing possibilities, positive changes and a whole host of things to look forward to. Or so we all thought. If only we knew. Since the COVID-19 outbreak everyone is having to deal with the same unique situation in our own individual ways. For me though it feels like only the beginning.

A week before Christmas 2019, I was prescribed bedrest for a possible pressure sore. Initially I expected to be in bed just a couple weeks but as it turns out, life had other plans and I was only given the all clear to be out of bed in the 2nd week of April this year. So essentially, I had been on lockdown months before “lockdown”. I did have a week here or some days there scattered around that time where I was able to get out of bed for short periods of time. But for most of the last 5 months, I’ve been horizontal. Everyone around me and online kept me updated with the madness going on outside though. Everything from toilet roll shortages to coughing becoming taboo. As far as I knew, I was well aware of what society looked like outside the 4 walls of my room. And then last Thursday, I was given the green light to get out of bed freely as my skin was fully healed.

After the excitement of being able to whizz around the house in my chair again had worn off, I decided to hop in the car and tag along for a fuel run. A rare opportunity to leave the house for the first time in months and see this apocalypse in the streets with my own eyes. Everything seemed fine as we drove out of my neighbourhood. There were fewer cars on the road but not so few that I would have noticed otherwise. I sat in the car at the fuel station as the tank got filled and diesel got paid for so had a few minutes to watch the world go by while I sat waiting. That’s when I noticed the first signs that something was definitely different. The queue to get into Tesco express, mostly made of people paying for fuel, stretched from the doors right along the length of the building for roughly 15 metres… but there were only 6 people in it. The 2 metre gap between everyone was so strictly and subconsciously adhered to by everyone in the queue, but there was no tension in the air, no expressions of anxiety on anyone’s faces. This was clearly the new norm, and I officially started to feel a little uncomfortable. Then I noticed the queue didn’t extend in through the shop but was merely to get into the doors as a staff member stood making sure customers only entered when another would exit. Clearly to control the number of people in the shop and understandably so. I had been told this was now common practice in pretty much every business with face-to-face customer service. And then it occurred to me, he wasn’t a security guard, but someone working in a likely untitled professional role that literally did not exist at the start of the year. And technically someone in most if not every shop across the country now occupied this role to some degree. Standing at the door, making sure only a certain number of customers were in the store at a time, like a very unintimidating bouncer at a very boring nightclub. Again another facet of life that didn’t exist before. Then I looked around me at the cars driving in and out of the parking lot, past the pumps or parked up beside the pumps and thought to myself, it all looked normal but that could not have been further from the truth. Everyone who had driven any of those cars were going to, coming from or at least ending up at their homes where they were basically under house arrest, living under a veil of fear so thin it its existence could be questioned, and underneath it, an air of normality. To most of them, whether this is temporary or permanent, at this point in time it is all perfectly normal, and simply the way things are right now. And I was about to head back home and do the same thing.

It appears the apocalypse I believed I had woken up into did not look anything like I thought it would. No zombies, no people running in the streets away from someone who coughed, no dodgy character on the street corner discreetly trying to sell off bottles of overpriced hand sanitiser. Nothing even remotely chaotic. The apocalypse I had awoken into was one in which people had adjusted and just carried on with their lives, at least on the surface. Regardless of whatever chaos they had or were going through in their lives because of COVID-19, in many places, like this fuel station, life had just continued like normal with only a few subtle changes.

Old Me vs New Me

Some things will forever remain frozen in time for me, at least in my head.  Or that’s just a conclusion I’ve come to over the last year.  With every day that passes I understand a bit more about myself and what living with a spinal injury means, at least to me.  But I also leave some parts of my pre-injury self further and further in the past each day:  Aspects of myself that have essentially retired.  And I’m not sure if I’ll ever reconcile those aspects of my life, I’m not sure if I should, or if I even want to.  I’m just very aware that parts of the old me were retired and replaced by the new and current me the moment I was injured.

Living life post-injury meant having to accept I was essentially beginning all over and relearning how to live in this world.  It’s taken a while to get me where I am and I’m still learning, accepting and tweaking every single day.  I knew this would have to be the case very early on.  What I definitely did not anticipate was how much of the old me had to be left behind to make room for this new me.  And I’m not referring to the obvious things: I knew walking, playing basketball, writing and drawing by hand, hugging my family… and a plethora of other physical activities were off the table.  But it was the things I assumed wouldn’t change that caught me off guard:  The things that had retired without me realising.  Let me explain.

In theory, nothing stops me from joining my friends on a night out and heading back home afterwards.  In reality, my friends and I are limited to only going places that are wheelchair accessible, I have to take a carer with me or one of my friends has to be a designated chaperone i.e. spend the night out essentially looking after me; once we are out, I can’t move around the premises because crowds are hard enough to get through in a wheelchair without you having to try and get people’s attention while music blares at ear-numbing volumes, so I end up finding a table and sitting in the corner; I can get on the dance floor and “enjoy the music” but I can’t dance; I can’t order a drink myself as almost every bar is too high; in the end the whole affair becomes an exercise in trying to recreate an experience I am no longer able to have.  At least not in the way I used to.

Typical nights out: Retired.

Even things as simply as grocery shopping.  In theory, I can go into any shop, browse the aisles, interact with staff as needed, buy things and leave.  In practice, the route to any shop in walking distance also has to be entirely wheelchair accessible i.e. be entirely level-surfaced or have ramps, dropped curbs, lifts; the shop itself needs to be laid out in a way my wheelchair can get everywhere I need to; again, I have to be chaperoned to pickup anything from any shelf; I need someone to physically pay for my items with my money or my bankcard i.e. my wallet stopped being my personal space years ago; and then of course I can’t carry anything I bought out of the shop myself.  I guess I could place some items on my legs and exit the shop that way, but one unnoticed bump on the way home or ramp with an even slightly excessive angle and my newly bought items end up all over the floor, or worse still, the middle-of-the-road.

“Popping” to the shops: Retired

I could go on paragraph after paragraph about the retired aspects of my life, but that is not what this blog is about.

So, what has replaced the Retirees?  Well, thankfully a lot of new and awesome things I also did not anticipate.

The only reading I ever did pre-injury were for school/uni, texts/emails or comic books.  I put pen to paper a lot but only ever to take notes in class or draw.  I would have never guessed I had any ability to express myself in written word, even more so after losing the ability to use my hands.  Now, unless everyone who reads my blog also lies to me, I know I’m at least a decent writer.

I used to struggle to talk to strangers outside a few very specific conditions.  Once even getting so anxious about meeting my girlfriend’s parents for the first time that I picked up a magazine pretending to read it only to be told 10 minutes in that I was holding it upside down.  Today, I actively seek opportunities to talk to people I’ve never met, be it public speaking or engaging one or a few people in deep conversation, and aiming to always leave that interaction with at least one party having had a positive productive experience (either they learn something new or I do).

I once looked upon people in wheelchairs or with visible disabilities as missing out in life and needing help.  The thought of being one of “them” filled me with a sense of loss and dread.  Now, I take pride in who I am, how I look and the value I bring to every situation or location I find myself in.  I genuinely believe everyone and everything around me can and will be made better by my presence if I put my mind to it.  As such, it is now rare I feel lost, out of place or without purpose.  Quite the opposite in fact.  The old me was very confident but not for all the right reasons.  I look back at him with some advice and guidance to give but I don’t need to.  He’s played his part, took me as far as he could and is now happily retired, which needed to happen for the new me to even have a chance at being born.  This version of me maybe relatively young but he’s already achieved so much and it’s only just beginning. 

Again, I could write paragraph after paragraph on how my life is now better since the old me was retired… Oh wait, I already do… on this blog, and where I can’t write it I definitely say it.  To anyone who needs to hear it or wants to know it. It’s unfortunate it took an experience like my injury for me to see all these things I could always do (because let’s be honest, these were always skills and abilities I had but never wanted or needed to harness) and I will never wish it on anyone.  So in place of any of you having to experience something as drastic as I did to reveal your hidden potential, why not look for them now.  Put yourself out there, try something new, improve something old, help someone else tap into their potential.  No matter what, don’t wait like I did.  You don’t have to find a new you to be your best self.  You already have all the tools you need.  You just have to find them, and put them to good use.

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