Finding my words

I can’t believe how much the world has changed since my last blog post. And whilst it has been an adjustment, I made a decision during this time to quiet my mind. Normally the content for my blog posts flows naturally and the part of my story I feel ready to share pours out on the page. But funnily enough during lockdown I haven’t felt the urge to write. I have been struggling to come up with an answer as to why.

Maybe its because in the early days of lockdown there was so much information coming our way I was just trying to keep up with news flow, the status of this unknown disease and adjusting to the new normal. But on the other hand it really allowed me to connect with what I truly value in my life and what I might have previously been doing to fill the gaps.

I have always known I am a homebody. I like entertaining at home, having people over or just relaxing on the sofa with a good movie. For a long time I berated myself for that. That there was this whole world out there I had been kept from during my recovery from my accident, so I shouldn’t miss a minute of it now I was better. I never really made plans because I never knew from one day to the next how I would wake up feeling, physically or mentally. Some days are harder then others and I didn’t want to let people down who I had made a plan with. So I keep things spontaneous and free so if I didn’t feel like doing something I didn’t have to. But this guilt was a cloud over me, this constant feeling that I wasn’t doing enough, seeing enough, experiencing enough. And to be honest it was exhausting. And so during lockdown, when everyone was unable to do anything, I felt strangely liberated. There was no pressure because there was nothing to do. Everyone is in the same boat.

So I started to think more deeply about this. And what it means for me. Primarily I think it will change my sense of what is important to me. Putting myself and my needs first. And if I want to stay home in my pyjamas that it is nobody’s business but mine. If I feel like being a hermit I shouldn’t have to feel guilty for that. I had to remind myself that I learnt self-reliance a long time ago. It was often the only thing that would get me through some really tough times. I am enough.

Modern society makes us doubt this. Social media is in our faces with fake ideals of what ‘living your best life’ means. But it shouldn’t be defined by anyone else’s standards. It should be about looking inward and deciding does this add value to me? It might sound selfish but if every choice you make adds something to your life isn’t it going to mean a more fulfilling, happier person to be around?

I am not talking about giving up everything and going to live on a dessert island. Or living with reckless abandonment. These decisions can be small but impactful and true to yourself.

It took me a long time to be able to admit my limitations. If friends were going on a hike I would make an excuse because I knew my body wouldn’t be able to keep up. I could have been open and honest about it as no one would have judged me. But I was judging myself. Berating my body for being inadequate. In some ways it was easier to justify because it was something out of my control. I simply couldn’t do it. But what about the things I didn’t WANT to do. The things I did because that was what was expected of me.

I think introverts struggle with this the most. That somehow being an extrovert is better. So there is the constant anxiety that being introverted will mean you won’t get heard. That the loudest voice will always dominate. But there is quiet strength to an introvert. In psychology terms, an introvert isn’t necessarily shy, which I think is the greatest misconception. We are more concerned with our own thoughts and feelings rather than with external things. Whereas an extrovert tends to be concerned with external things or “objective considerations”.

I don’t think there should be a “right” way to be and I hope that whatever lockdown has taught you about yourself, you remember that as we move forward out of this phase. Or maybe we have the opportunity to create a “new normal”, defined by our own sense of what is important.

I had planned a different way to end this post, but in the last couple of days I have been reminded of the fragility of life and the need to cherish each and every moment. There have been many days in my life where I didn’t know what was coming next and I didn’t have the answers as to why these things were happening to me. And I know there will be many people out there feeling the same way. COVID has been brutal and unfair, especially to those affected by it directly or indirectly. And I wish I could say that I had the answer to the question of Why? I have tortured myself with that question time and time again. But I can say this. There have been moments where I wondered if the why had been answered. I may never know, but if the beautiful moments that have been coming my way are somehow related to the suffering then I will take that and keep it with me. The most powerful thing is to try to turn something negative into something positive even if it feels unjust and unfair. Everything that has happened to me has taught me something, I just had to listen. Whatever you believe in – god, the universe, fate, destiny – tune into the message and maybe it will have some of the answers.

“ Do not pursue the past. Do not lose yourself in the future. The past no longer is. The future has not yet come. Look deeply at life as it is” – Buddhist Proverb

Taking back control

The other morning, for the first time in many years the right side of my body, where the front wheel of the lorry went over me, was throbbing.  For no apparent reason.  I hadn’t been to the gym the previous day, I had been home for a few weeks now trying to stay healthy, working on various things to help people get through this time of crisis.  So why now, was I feeling this pain?

We are living in a new normal.  And now in “lockdown” it is even more scary. The constant news stories, media sensationalism, confusing messages about what to do and how to stay healthy is causing people’s stress and anxiety to hit the roof.  Worrying about our parents or washing our hands often enough are exacerbating underlying issues we can normally control.  And then it hit me.  Control.

The hardest thing about dealing with PTSD is the feeling of not being in control.  The accident, my recovery, surgeries, doctors etc etc none of it was my choice and all of it was out of my hands.  In rare moments when I was supposed to do something for myself, it took every ounce of my strength to do it and only served to amplify my feelings of helplessness.  So was this sudden pain, in the place where I experienced the most destruction, somehow a manifestation of this given the times we are currently experiencing?

I personally believe that one of the reasons for stress, anxiety, mass hysteria, panic, is the lack of control. We see the world around us reacting to events that are beyond our grasp. So we try to hold on to anything that helps us cope. Hoarding groceries to ensure we are not caught out if supermarkets shut. Little pieces of our life we can control. Control is also inextricably linked to safety. Most of us go through life generally feeling safe. But when that sense of safety is threatened it can shake our very core. But my psychiatrist thought that living somewhere in the middle of the extremes – feeling totally safe and being paralysed by fear – can actually lead to more awareness in our lives that can help us make more fine tuned decisions. It can help us trust that “gut feeling” which is an incredibly powerful guiding force, we just have to listen.

My parents generation has taught me a lot about dealing with situations out of my control.  They came to the UK as immigrants, my Mother forced out of Uganda, coming to a new country and having to make the best of the situation they faced. They took each day as it came, with fresh challenges and made it work.  They did whatever it took, even when that meant a drastic change in lifestyle from what they were used to.  They didn’t complain, they adapted.  They faced racism, language barriers, social isolation but they came together as a community and built their lives.  

I keep reminding myself of this when I feel that I can’t surmount the challenge in front of me. A few years after my accident I needed to have knee surgery.  At the time of the accident I had dislocated my right knee and ruptured multiple ligaments.  But because of the other injuries I had, they couldn’t operate on it then.  But it was still giving me trouble some years later, so the doctors decided it was best to operate and replace the damaged ligaments.  It was a complex surgery, with only 6 surgeons in the world at that time with the experience needed.   I decided to go to one of the best, in New York.

After the surgery I had to stay in the apartment we had rented for an extended period of time, attached to a bunch of machines to aid my recovery.  Before I went in for the surgery, my sister had taken me to an amazing restaurant that was famous for their lollipop cheesecake tree.   Imagine a small metal tree which had lollipop cheesecakes for branches.  I was obsessed.  Whilst I was recovering my sister tried her best to get them to send some home. But it wasn’t possible so one day, when I was feeling better I suggested we go.  Don’t get me wrong this was no mean feat.  I couldn’t walk yet but I had a wheelchair.  So I did my hair and make up, put on a sparkly dress (the knee brace prevented me from wearing anything else anyway) and my Mum and sister wheeled me the few blocks to the restaurant.  To our surprise at almost every block someone offered to help push my wheelchair in the direction I was going. When we got to the restaurant we hadn’t planned for the fact there were steps to get in.  So the manager carried me to our table.  I was humbled at the kindness of strangers. And I sat there, ate my lollipop cheesecake tree and laughed with my family.  It cheered me up no end and even though that little excursion was exhausting we still laugh about the memory to this day.

We have to make the best of the situation we are in, now more than ever and take pleasure in the simple things.  Take back control in small ways to help us feel like we are not at the mercy of the strange events going on around us.  Keep a routine.  Do the things that make us happy – watching a movie, cooking, dancing, exercising, video chatting with friends.  Just because we are restricted in our normal activities and have to stay home, doesn’t mean we should succumb to the anxiety that is building up.  If you have your health, be thankful.  If you are feeling unwell and self isolating try to stay connected.

We have been through worse and have seen better days but if I know anything from my own experiences it’s that worrying about things that are not in our control never made it better.  I only wasted energy I could have been putting into the small wins that would have helped me feel better. That day it was having my lollipop cheesecake tree.  Today it might be getting in a 20 minute work out.  Tomorrow it’s a video call with my Mum and Dad to make sure they are ok.  We are a generation that has had it so good for so long that we have forgotten what it feels like to be tested.  But we have to dig deep because believe me when I tell you we all have it in us to get through whatever life throws at us.  It’s about mindset.  If you focus on what you can’t do then it will be frustrating and stressful.  But if you look at all the things you still can do, it changes your outlook.  For once in our lives we have time.  Time to reflect, time to spend with the members of our household.  Time to learn, get fit, find a new hobby.  Yes we all wish it could be under better circumstances but that’s not in our hands.  How we deal with it is.  

The Seemingly Insignificant

So far my blog posts have been focused around my accident or my recovery.  But last week something happened that I felt compelled to share, especially as it was unexpectedly but inextricably linked to the work I am doing in the mental health space.

Last Thursday afternoon, I was walking to the post office.  It was broad daylight with a hint of a blue sky after the preceding rain storm had passed. There were plenty of people around, going about their day. It is a road I have walked many times without a care. The bottom half of the road is mainly residential, with a park on one side, which then turns into a busy high street with shops and restaurants.

Whilst I was chatting away to my sister on the phone, I noticed a tall, slightly unkempt man walking towards me. He then stopped in front of me, made a lewd gesture and tried to touch my arm.  I quickly, scowled at him and said “don’t touch me” before pushing past and rapidly walking away.  I could feel my heart pounding and I told my sister to stay on the phone until I had reach the parade of shops. I looked back and he was gone.

At the time I didn’t think anything of it. I am sure women experience much worse on a daily basis from low level harassment to more serious incidents.  But after what happened when I went to sleep, I realised that anything like this (low level or not) trips a fuse in the brain that left unattended, can fester into something much deeper.

I never have any trouble sleeping.  It’s my super power.  Any time, anywhere I can fall asleep.  Once, my sister woke me up after I had fallen asleep on a dining room chair, upright! When I was seeing a psychiatrist for my PTSD, over time as I was getting better, he told me that my often vivid dreams were my brains’ way of processing the stress of the day and this was helping me cope better.

So that night, as usual, I feel asleep quickly. But this time, almost immediately, I started to dream. I was scared in my dream that someone was going to rob me.  I was wearing the coat I had on during that day.  It has lots of pockets and in my dream the pockets were full of my stuff. Suddenly there were people all around me.  They were all wearing the same sand colour as the guy who came up to me in the street.  There was a bus and more people got off the bus.  My mind had recorded subconscious markers from the day.  The colour of the clothes the guy was wearing and when the guy approached, a bus had gone past at the same time.  In my dream as these people got off the bus they started grabbing at me and shouting.  I was trying to defend myself but I couldn’t open my eyes, I couldn’t move, they were taking everything from me. Ransacking my pockets, ripping off my headphones, violating my space. And then I woke up with a jolt.

My husband also woke up as I was shouting in my sleep.  My heart was pounding, my breathing was heavy and I was now wide awake.  And I was scared.  This seemingly small passing event during my day had disturbed something in my subconscious.  Something that needed to be reset.

After any type of trauma, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant the brain and body change. Every cell records memories and every embedded, trauma-related neuropathway has the opportunity to repeatedly reactivate. Sometimes the alterations these imprints create are fleeting, the small glitch of disruptive dreams and moods that subside in a few weeks. In other situations the changes evolve into readily apparent symptoms that impair function and present in ways that interfere with jobs, friendships and relationships.  But there is a way of resetting these patterns to help them become healthy again. To deal with the emotional response our brain is having. This emotional response can manifest in anger, tears, a basic inability to control our reactions, amongst others. And it happens quicker than our “thinking” response.

And this leads me onto my work. Using the principles of Neurofeedback and sound frequencies we can break the unhealthy patterns the brain has developed as a result of stress, anxiety, trauma or PTSD and reset the neuropathways to function in a way that doesn’t have a disruptive impact.  We have the opportunity with our work to prevent trauma embedding itself or healthy neuropathways misfiring.  It’s exciting and groundbreaking and even my small incident proved to me how important it is.  Emotions can overtake anyone, at anytime.  After our reflex reaction our emotional reaction is the next quickest response.  Lastly, comes our thinking response.  The phrase “sleep on it” is based on how our brain functions.  By taking time to let the emotional reaction subside or reset we can allow thought to decide the next step.  But if whatever reason the brain is stuck in a negative emotional loop that won’t go away, it will have an impact on the brain’s ability to think logically and rationally.

No one should feel that their emotional reaction to a situation is invalid, the incident not serious enough or that it will just go away. It’s time to stop using the phrase you are being “over emotional”. Our brain can’t always override this by itself, especially when an external event has had an impact. Everyone has the right to good mental health and their own journey should be respected and supported. It’s not the same for everyone. And achieving good mental health doesn’t always mean there is a problem. People take vitamin C to prevent a cold in winter. For every other aspect of our health we take preventative measures to ensure we stay healthy, without thinking twice. And our mind, the most important organ in our body, should be first in line.

For more information please visit www.mysphereapp.com 

Pain and Punishment

It’s January and a new decade is upon us! This month can be difficult, feeling tired and lethargic from the holiday excess or for some, feeling increased anxiety from the emotional tension the holiday may bring. For myself, I love the time with my family over the holidays and the first few days of the new year give me time to reflect on what I want to achieve for the year ahead. I don’t believe in New Year’s Resolutions, I think they are a set up for failure, but rather I like to visualise how I would like the year look.

This year I want to keep trying to reduce the physical pain I still experience on a daily basis.  Being active helps keep my body in check, so I need to continue to challenge myself in the gym and get stronger. Sometimes it’s a vicious cycle; if the pain prevents me from exercising or being active it becomes worse, but then the longer I leave it the worse the pain becomes.  It can be draining and exhausting. But I have come to terms with the fact that this will be a constant in my life.  So, as I was contemplating these goals for 2020, I started to think more deeply about pain and it’s impact. 

Pain comes in many different forms and affects people differently. For some when pain hits it’s impossible to do or think about anything else, whilst others find solace in “getting on with it” to take their mind off what may be bothering them. The word pain comes the from the Latin word ‘poena’ meaning a fine, or penalty. And often that was exactly how I felt. That my pain was some form of punishment.

We can spend our whole lives trying to avoid pain. As children you hope the most pain you ever have to experience are the bruises and scrapes that come with being a child trying to find your balance.  Through the teenage years a bit of heartache and so called “growing pains” are manageable, part and parcel of preparing to become independent from our parents.  As we enter into adult life, pain can come in all shapes and sizes. Sadly, we can never be immune to the kind of pain that leaves a legacy and can assert influence over our entire lives. The kind of pain that comes out of the blue and is out of our control. That’s when it is the hardest to process.

Whether it is the daily aches and pains I still experience or moments when pain sears through my body like a lightning bolt, I have learnt to live with and deal with the emotional toll.  But this wasn’t always the case.  I can recall many moments where I felt despair and hopelessness because of the persistent pain. During the critical early days in hospital, I was attached to a morphine pump.  This allowed me to self-administer my pain medication (there was a timer so I couldn’t pump less that 5 minutes apart). Sometimes it was enough and other times I would press it and press it and the pain just never seemed to go.  But given my general lack of consciousness and the inability to grasp the reality of my situation I think my mind didn’t have a chance to react fully to what was going on.

A few years after I had left hospital I was trying to get my life back on track. One of the biggest obstacles hampering my mental recovery was the large skin graft they had put over the right side of my body. I can only describe it like snakeskin. They had taken skin from my left thigh and grafted it over the large open wound on my right side. As a young woman I couldn’t bear to look at myself in the mirror as all I could see was this deformed body staring back at me. My sister has memories of me sleep walking to the mirror and screaming at my reflection. So, when I was given the opportunity to have ground-breaking surgery to get rid of the skin graft I was willing to do whatever it took. I didn’t realise that would mean pain like I have never experienced, darkness that I almost didn’t shake and possibly the worst 6 months me and my family had to endure.

The idea was that below the skin graft, at the top of my right leg they would insert a silicone balloon. Over a period of 5 months they would inject saline into the balloon and slowly expand the skin. When there was enough stretched skin to cover the area taken up by the skin graft, they would remove the balloon, remove the skin graft and use the new skin (my own skin) to cover the area. It sounded amazing and would give me the opportunity to cover the alien looking area on the right side of my body.

As the months went by the pain became worse and worse. Each time they injected the saline and the balloon grew, stretching my own skin, I was carrying more and more weight on my leg. Towards the end the balloon weighed around 5kg and was the size of a rugby ball. I couldn’t sit down and getting up and moving around was a challenge. But most of all the pain was unbearable.  It was so bad that slowly the darkness in my mind started to creep in. I couldn’t “get on with it” because physically I couldn’t do anything. My days were spent trying to get comfortable even just to watch TV. I couldn’t sit, stand, walk, I had lost my appetite and was falling into a place I didn’t know if I could survive. I got to the point where I contemplated making it all go away – the burden on my family, the pain, the incapacity.  My mind was closing in and everyone around me was deeply worried about my mental health.

And as I look back now and think about the Latin meaning – was I being penalised for my vanity?  At the end of the day this was not a medically necessary procedure (arguably for my mental health and to improve my range of movement) so was the pain and torture to remind me that vanity comes at a price?  But it sounds unfair to think of it in these terms.  Isn’t it our responsibility to do everything in our power no matter how hard or painful to try to get better? And it was ultimately this thought that pulled me out from my lowest ebb.  That what I was going through would ultimately change the perception of myself when I looked in the mirror.  And it did, to a certain degree. It helped start the process of not looking at myself as deformed but as a survivor.  These were my battle scars, the stamps of being a warrior through this war that had been waged on me.

And I think I can pinpoint the moment I knew my husband was the one.  My biggest fear was that anyone who saw my scars would run away horrified.  But this man, took one look at them, understood their significance and made me feel like they were as beautiful as any other part of me.  I think that was the moment I truly accepted that I wasn’t the only one who recognised what my scars mean to me.  And they mean that I survived, and they will always remind me that I did.

Why Me?

My wonderful readers! It has been a little while since my last post as I have been adjusting to my new normal of being married! My husband and I got married in Italy over the summer and had a wonderful time with friends and family celebrating our love.  There were so many special moments that allowed me to reflect on how far I have come and how I could not have made it this far in life without the support of the friends and family who were with us in Italy, in person or in spirit. But, as I enter into this beautiful and magical next phase of my life, with the most incredible man by my side, it is sometimes difficult to not let the burden of guilt around my happiness take hold.

For many years I grappled with the idea of why me? I have referenced this in a previous post, the struggles I had with this when I was in hospital and how my Grandmother’s words helped me through.  Over time, those feelings start to fade away, but they never really leave you.  I was always looking for that moment that made sense of it all, “the reason” that my life took the turn that it did.  However, as I grew older and experienced more of life, I realised I was merely torturing myself trying to find the answers and maybe it was better to just accept that “everything happens for a reason” but “that reason” may never present itself.

But then, as my life started to turn around, I found success in my career and then ultimately true love and I started to truly embrace this idea of acceptance, new thoughts started to creep in.  Do I deserve to feel this happy?  Is this success real?  Will this feeling last?  If I lean into this wonderful new life, what if one day it is ripped away from me like that fateful day in 2003? And then every time I felt the warmth of happiness or the high from reaching a professional milestone, guilt would be followed by a period of deflation sometimes even manifesting in a cold or fever.  I would be having a great few weeks, feeling fit and healthy and then my back would twinge so I was in bed for a few days. And in those down moments I would question it all again – why me? Even if I have accepted my fate, turned the negatives into positives, living my life to the fullest, embracing all the world has – am I always still destined to be reminded of my limitations?

I think one of the most beautiful moments of clarity I had was on my first date with my now husband.  As we sat talking for hours, sharing stories and experiences from our lives there was a distinct moment when we both felt the click of a deeper connection.  I looked into his eyes and I knew that if I had not had my accident, I would not be sitting in front of this amazing man, sharing this incredible bond.  It wasn’t about the accident per se, it was about the recognition in each other of pain and suffering and the resilience to overcome it that cemented a deep respect and admiration for each other.  It carried us forward through the entirety of our dating relationship and I know it will continue to ensure we treat each other with respect and kindness in our new married life.  We both know, such shared experiences, albeit in different forms, are something to cherish and admire and the feelings they invoke are to be nurtured.

But with something so special and a love that has given me so much, the fragility of happiness stirs something within me again.  I am reminded, that at a time when I had graduated from University, celebrated my 21st birthday with this beautiful party, felt accomplished and proud, it was all taken away in a flash.  And why?  Why me?  What had I done so wrong that I deserved to be crushed with such force?

And it’s not just me. I have heard countless stories of good people, doing amazing things in the world, cruelly dealt a fate they didn’t deserve. Why does goodness and happiness get punished? Why do others who go through life stealing, cheating and hurting others, seem to get away with it? Do they not know what true happiness feels like and so they don’t have to be reminded of the fragility of it? That if you can’t feel it, appreciate it or nurture it, you won’t need to be shown what it is like to live without it?

I don’t know the answers to any of these questions.  And I am sure I will spend my life searching for them.  But if there is one protection against the delicacy of happiness it must be this.  Appreciate it, protect it, never take it for granted.  And if sometimes you imagine what life would be without it and it doesn’t feel great – make sure everyone who contributes to your happiness knows every day they are appreciated and loved.  Kindness, loyalty, trust are free – but they are the most valuable currency you have.  I know for my part I will always appreciate the fact that I am alive, but I will never forget the people who made it possible.  I don’t know what the future holds, but happiness is precious.  And it’s within everyone, don’t let the fear of losing it stop you from embracing it.  

The Second Mind

When I started this blog one of the things I felt passionate about was how food can help both mental and physical recovery.  I did a lot of research into gut health and when I started 10 years ago there was very little information surrounding this.  Now, it seems the power of the gut is gaining momentum.  For the first time, new research has linked the health of gut bacteria to mental health.  It seems the Second Mind really is in the gut.

The simplest explanation I heard was this.  If the billions and trillions of bacteria in your gut are happy and balanced, they release good” things” (not the medical term!) into the body making you feel energetic, hopeful, positive.  If they are unhappy and imbalanced, they secrete toxic substances into the body, making you feel depressed, tired, ill etc.  Get this balance right and the body can be in a natural state of harmony.

But of course, there are many external factors that can upset the natural balance of bacteria in your gut.  For me it was years of antibiotics and painkillers, plus anaesthetics, infections etc. My system was all over the place and my digestion was so bad at one point, one spoon of food would be so difficult for my body to digest I would fall asleep for a few hours.  I had reached breaking point and I needed to understand what was going on.  But this wasn’t an easy ask either.  Western medicine has neglected the field of gut health for so many years that even the best doctors had no idea how to help me.  Their solution mostly revolved around medicines that I should take, which were the root cause of the problem to begin with. I was disappointed and disheartened and really didn’t know where to start to find a solution.

As with most things in my life, the best moments have come naturally.  Not when I have been looking for them or trying to seek them out but when I had either given up, lost hope or just decided I had to get on with things anyway.  One sunny morning driving in Dubai (where I lived at the time) I was listening to one of the talk radio shows, something I rarely did.  I always loved to have the music blaring, driving around in the sunshine, but on this day I was stuck in traffic and bored of everything else on the radio.  As luck would have it, a Canadian doctor called Heather Eade was talking about how she believed the gut was the most overlooked part of the body and yet it was the key to so many aspects of health.  Well now she had my attention.  Even more interestingly she believed in diagnosis using Western methods but looking at treatment in a more holistic way. I couldn’t make an appointment fast enough, and so started my journey into understanding the impact of digestive health.

It was a bad start. To begin with, Dr Eade tested me for food allergies and intolerances.  Foods are grouped into red, yellow and green categories – red meaning the body was extremely intolerant or allergic and green being not at all.  As I turned each page it was red mark, after red mark. From the usual suspects like wheat and dairy right down to onions, my body was rejecting food left, right and centre. No wonder it didn’t matter what I ate, my body was just in a constant state of inflammation and the balance of my gut bacteria was completely off. She also discovered an unusual underlying thyroid condition. In essence, my body was unable to compute what I was eating and how to digest it, therefore that no matter how little I ate I was putting on weight. This was caused by a small compression of my intestine which had happened as a result of the weight of the lorry on me. No one had detected this before. This compression was also slowing down how my food moved through my intestine during the digestive process.  It sounded awful and untreatable.  However, Dr Eade assured me she could help and so we started on a year long programme of food elimination, herbs and vitamins.  

First, I had to eliminate any food that was high in FODMAPs.  These are foods that are high in a particular carbohydrate that is a common cause of digestive issues. The list includes onions, beans, legumes, dairy and wheat amongst a host of others.  She advised me to try this for 3 months and then we would test my intolerance levels again.  As my very supportive friends and family will attest this is a nightmare.  So many foods I liked had FODMAPs in them. Eating out was near on impossible unless I ate steamed spinach and boiled chicken (and even then explaining this in a restaurant was sometimes challenging!).  Getting variety in my diet was also really hard.  I am a foodie, so it was very difficult to manage initially. But as I started to feel better, I was encouraged. And slowly but surely my symptoms started to improve.  I was less tired and bloated and my body started to feel like it was not having to work as hard to digest food.  My mood improved and I had more clarity of mind. And after 3 months my tests came back more positive, less red marks than before but still a significant number.  So I wasn’t out of the woods yet.  Dr Eade wanted me to continue for another 3 months. And that’s when things really started to change.  Slowly we started to reintroduce food groups. It was trial and error supported by Dr Eade and her combination of herbs and vitamins but soon I was able to manage things myself.  I tuned into how I felt when I ate something and kept a diary of symptoms.  Patterns started to emerge of which foods made me feel sluggish or emotional and which ones gave me energy.  And this is how I really began to understand that so much of what I was experiencing beyond my digestive issues, was related to the balance of my gut health.

Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation out there.  Social media stars and those promoting the “clean eating” movement don’t always give the right advice.  What works for one person might not work for someone else.  There might be further underlying issues that mean your body might not respond in the same way.  It can be deflating and hard. The key is to find what works for you.  A lot of what Dr Eade helped me to do was still trial and error.  Listening to and monitoring my body myself and documenting how I felt.  I will continue to share my journey in further blog posts, with a bit more detail about each stage and the changes I noticed. But I know one thing.  There is definitely a mind gut connection and I am going to continue to research and learn more.  And I will keep you posted on what I find! 

Surroundings

In the days and weeks directly after my accident I spent most of my time on the orthopaedic ward. It was a pleasant environment as far as can be said for a hospital and I was mostly surrounded by elderly people having hip or knee replacements. There was a certain comfort in that as they all rallied around me. Some would take their daily exercise to walk to my bed, have a chat and walk back. I was bed bound but seeing the warm expressions on their faces helped me to feel a little better about being there.

After about 3 weeks the doctors decided that I should be moved down to the plastics ward so that I could be closer to the specialists taking care of my soft tissue injuries. It was a much larger ward, 20 beds under the care of the same team compared to the 6 where I was. I was petrified.  What would I see there?  Other people with horrific injuries?  I hadn’t even seen my own injuries to spare myself the horror how would I cope with seeing other people?  I didn’t want to go. I begged my doctors not to take me down there.  I implored my Mother – please do something, don’t let them take me there.

As much as we tried the powers that be wanted me to go, so for the first time in 3 weeks I was moved.  As my bed was wheeled down the corridor, seeing the nurses who cared for me waving goodbye, I felt a sense of despair and fear.  Seemingly it was irrational, there was no reason for my heightened sense of impending horror.  But call it gut instinct because as I entered the ward, I knew I was right. Immediately I was confronted with the smell.  There is no other way to describe it other than rotting skin. I closed my eyes too late, I saw things that to this day I can’t shake.  And then the sounds, people in pain, suffering, with seemingly no relief. It was haunting. Thankfully I was taken to a bed at the end of the corridor where I requested the curtains pulled around my bed, so I was completely sheltered.  I don’t think I stopped crying and shaking for the rest of the night.

I am not going to go into detail about what happened to me for the few days I was on this ward because it is too graphic, heart-breaking and may be too much for some readers.  But I can tell you that no human should ever experience it.  Especially not someone who was already traumatised, young, vulnerable and in pain.  I couldn’t be left alone I was so distraught. Someone had to hold my hand 24 hours a day.  My sister slept on the floor holding my hand through the night.

When people talk about a Mother’s instinct to protect, it’s primal.  Like a lioness protecting her cubs, my Mother decided that she could not see me go through this any longer.  My sister started researching other hospitals with specialists that could help me.  And as luck would have it the leading hospital in the country was 10 minutes from my parent’s house.  So, my Mother requested my transfer.  First there was no answer, then refusal.  Can’t you see my daughter is suffering?  She is deteriorating here! My Mother was desperate to get me out.  It started to feel like we might have to stage jail break.  Looking back, it was almost comedic what happened next, but I will be forever grateful to my Mother for her perseverance and brazen need to do what was best for her daughter.

The hospital in Sussex were ready to accept me.  The hospital in Cambridge refused to let me leave or provide an ambulance for me to be transferred.  Fine my Mother said and hired a private ambulance for the 2 hour drive down.   In marched the 2 paramedics, loaded me on their trolley and wheeled me out. “I will follow you” I heard my Mother say, “but there is one more thing I have to do”.

She needed my medical records.  With nobody willing to help she found the room where my records were being kept.  She explained the situation to the attendant there.  Together (and against the rules) she took my files and ran. Literally ran out of the hospital like a fugitive.

The double doors opened, and a flash of light hit my eyes.  I felt fresh air on my skin for the first time in a month. I couldn’t open my eyes as the light was so blinding having been inside all this time. I couldn’t appreciate the sky or things around me, but I felt the sunshine on my face.  It felt like freedom, at least for now.

The journey down was tough.  Painful, bumpy and felt like an eternity.  I was in and out of consciousness but all I could think of was that those awful few days were gone.  And as I entered the McIndoe Centre in West Sussex and lay down on this amazing water bed designed to ease my pain, I suddenly started to feel better.  There was still a long road ahead, but this felt like I might just be over the worst.  And it was true, at least for a little while.

Reflections

Happy New Year to all! As I start the new year I wanted to reflect on 2018. Firstly thank you to everyone who has been reading my blog. What started as a way of sharing my story has ended up touching people in ways I hadn’t imagined. Some people have connected with the thoughts and feelings I have expressed in relation to their own lives and others who were a part of my life during these tough times have maybe understood more about me. Whichever one it is, it has strengthened the bonds of those close to me and led me to empathise, understand and expand my own horizons of the struggles people face.

And then there are the new people who have touched my life. In particular, my husband-to-be whose unrelenting support, love, kindness and protection has enabled me to finally shake off the shackles I had put around me and follow my dreams and passions.

It has been hard for me at times to understand as I move forward in life how to isolate feelings and reactions. I often ask myself – am I facing these things because of what happened? Or is it a normal part of growing older, maturing and gaining life experience? I don’t want to see everything as a consequence of my accident, PTSD or the physical injuries but it’s hard to know whether it is something I will always be influenced by or if there will be a time where it doesn’t define my thought process. One of the things I have always been adamant about was the fact that I never wanted to be defined by my accident. But can significant moments in our life – death, trauma, illness – ever really just be a moment in time no matter how long that moment lasts? On the one hand, in trying to keep positive and work through negative setbacks I look at life as a chain reaction of events. One thing has a knock-on effect and sets off a reaction, which takes you to where you need to be. But if I always think this way in an effort to stay positive and make the best of every situation does that mean that the starting point is always the most traumatic event? But then what’s the alternative? Everything happens for a reason? It’s comforting to think that but is it a solid enough proposition?

In hospital the idea of “everything happens for a reason” got me through some dark days. I guess the same way religion or belief in God helps people to believe there is a higher power guiding their lives and keeping their faith when things are tough. I don’t think it is possible to know the answer. But the responses from people to my posts has shown me that in some form or another my experiences resonate. Which means that it must be a bit of both. Growing pains and life experience but also shaping our future based on our past. It sounds obvious but it’s nuanced and complex. They say the past shouldn’t define our future but can we learn if life doesn’t throw us a curveball every so often?

2019 is going to be an exciting year for me as I embark on a new phase of my life. My plan is to help others who struggle with mental health issues and raise awareness about the impact it can have. So watch this space to find out more! I am also keen to hear from anyone who suffers from stress, anxiety or PTSD related issues so please get in touch through my blog.

If there is one way in which I hope my experiences can mean something it will be through helping others.  And if I can change just one person’s suffering then I know it would have all been worth it.

Friendship

This week I have been thinking a lot about friendship.  I think there have been friends over the years who were probably left confused by my actions or approach to things but if there is one area of my life I find the hardest it is this.

The reason is fairly simple.  Every close friend in my life at the time of my accident abandoned me.  They are no longer in my life.  It started with my childhood friend who I had known since I was 5 years old.  We went to the same school, when we went off to University we spent the summers together and I honestly thought she was someone who would be my friend until we were old and grey.  About a month after my accident, I had the energy to call her and tell her what was going on.  She sounded concerned and shocked, took my hospital address and said she would come and visit me as soon as she could.  I never heard from her again.  With my two best friends from University I can’t pinpoint exactly where it went wrong but they are no longer in my life.

Now this is not about blame.  They had their reasons and I may never know them but I don’t begrudge them.  It did however leave a gaping wound that I have found hard to heal, even now.  The impending sense of doom that every friendship will end this way challenges me and when friendships, as they inevitably do, go through ups and downs my natural instinct is to expect the worst and shut down to protect myself.

Even as I am writing this and looking back at the friendships that have come and gone or those that have stayed it is a hard analysis.  I know I haven’t been the perfect friend and that sometimes it is hard work with me, but I am thankful for the friends who have been patient, called me out when I haven’t been present and understood me.  And sometimes I think ironically, given the experience I had during my accident, I actually have higher expectations of friends.  I am loyal and want to give myself in friendships but the tiniest blip and something triggers.  I tend to swallow things that don’t sit well with me just in case it upsets the apple cart or I simply cut off instead of expressing myself.  

Ever since I was a child I was never part of a group of friends.  I always did better with one on one friendships and much to my Mother’s dismay (who always encouraged me not to put all my energy into one person) always had one “best friend”.  And maybe that was too much.  At the end of the day, friends are random people we meet and form a bond with and maybe its too much pressure.  Or maybe no matter how hard I convinced myself that I would rather throw myself into something 100% and get hurt than only give some of me and it didn’t matter what the other person gave,  ultimately we do want relationships that live up to our expectations.

The funny thing is that our emotional response is far quicker than our thinking response.  It’s where the phrase sleep on it comes from.  Because in the heat of the moment you are reacting emotionally and not thinking.  By allowing that to pass the brain can process the thinking response.   And this is heightened when you have experienced trauma.   So I know that when I feel fronted I have a heightened emotional response and in the cold light of day I can put things in perspective.  But it takes me time and sometimes maybe too much time.  And in that expanse of time, some people get fed of waiting for me to come back.  And I get it and it’s my cross to bear.

I don’t have the answers and am still learning how to be a better friend, but when I look at the people in my life now there is one constant – they see who I really am, even if sometimes I don’t see it myself.

#Love

When I sat down to write my blog last month on the 15th anniversary of my accident, little did I know the impact that day would have on my life again. I wrote about a new phase beginning and the sense of a cycle finishing but by the end of the day I would truly understand the meaning of what I was feeling.

August 17th was always defined by the day of the accident.  Some years, I reflected on the past, other years I just let it pass by without ceremony.  This year felt different for some reason and I couldn’t quite pinpoint why.

I had given up hope of ever having a great love story.  With everything that had happened to me, I had shut off whole parts of myself in order to deal with the emotional challenges that came my way.  I was hardened and didn’t want to let anyone in, to ensure that I could stay strong for myself.  But it was tiring, emotionally draining and lonely.  Trying to stay strong when sometimes I just wanted to curl up in bed and cry myself to sleep.   To keep going, because if I started to break I worried I wouldn’t be able to pick myself up yet again.  I had begun to question my ability to bring down my walls, to really open my heart and let someone in.   But ultimately the right person, with patience, understanding and love can do just that and in the end it wasn’t hard at all.

So today I am writing this blog post dedicated to the love of my life. The man who completed the final piece of my puzzle, who helped me find my way and who understands me in a way I could never have imagined.  But this isn’t about love completing me.  Or love being the answer.  This is about acceptance and allowing myself to feel something.  To stay in bed when I feel down and it be ok.  To give myself a break when it all got too much and to focus on how far I had come instead of how far behind I felt at times.   We are a team, motivating each other, lifting each other up and more than anything having a lot of fun along the way.

And if anything is representative of why this man is perfect for me it was his understanding of the significance of the 17thof August and why it was so important to him to change what that day meant to me.  So on the 17thof August 2018, I said yes.  Yes to my one true love, yes to changing what this day means forever and yes to the next, exciting phase of my life.  At last I felt like I had stopped holding my breath and could allow myself to let true happiness flood the darkness.

And so this post is dedicated to you, My love, My One.  I am not sure I can ever truly express how much you have touched my heart (and my family’s) but I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with you, making sure you feel as loved as I do. X