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How do you find a silver lining?

We have all heard the phrase: every cloud has a silver lining. What does it really mean and how do we find our own silver linings when everything around us seems grey? In my experience, they tend to appear when I least expect it. It’s not uncommon to stand back and take a breath upon finishing something big. Sometimes it is only when we do this that we realise the enormity of whatever it is we’ve reached the end of. Most people would call it taking stock.

That’s exactly what I spent the last week in April doing. I reflected on the scale of the project I had just done, actually allowing myself to acknowledge and recognise how big an undertaking it had been. As those of you who know me are aware, it is not my style to spend time congratulating myself on my successes. Yet when I stopped and considered the entire process from start to finish, with all the phases in between, I realised I deserved a small pat on the back.

Oddly enough, it was a message from an appreciative parent that prompted me to look from a different angle and change my attitude, leading me one step closer to my silver lining. I’m going to quote the text here, as it was so lovely and  I will definitely struggle to paraphrase so many compliments: You have achieved such an amazing feat with the Imagine project. How you marshalled over 100 kids, developed, wrote and directed this project is a mystery. Even a 100% healthy person would struggle, but you did it whilst battling huge health issues. The show was great fun and more importantly it gave so much to the kids in the way of confidence and a sense of achievement. I am really impressed. The message went on to refer to one or two specific benefits her own son had experienced from the project. I don’t tend to look at life that way, but I suddenly realised that I couldn’t really argue with her logic.

On the afternoon of the final performance, Lovelyman was in the audience. As was my mum. Sitting next to them, was a man who had been a Drama teacher at a local secondary school. He quietly remarked after the show, that he thought it was inspiring the way I had managed such a huge production. His words were, ‘I always found it hard enough to do within a single school, so how she has managed it across five is beyond me. And she’s clearly ill as well!’ 

Red rag to a bull (all be it a very tiny bull!)

Once upon a time, these references to my illness in relation to my success with the project, would make me prickle, and that’s putting it mildly. I would be ready to jump to defend myself, and point out that the one wasn’t related to the other in any way. I would want to minimise any reference to my illness, so I could be sure any praise I received was genuine praise, as opposed to being born out of pity.

That may sound ridiculous, but it’s the way I always saw things. Almost two decades ago, the year I sat my A’Level exams, I was incredibly unwell. I had been nipping in and out of hospital throughout the year, experimenting with different combinations of drugs and being investigated and examined incessantly. My head of sixth form took me to one side and urged me to allow her to apply to the exam boards for special consideration.

‘Absolutely not!’ I was very quick with my response. To my mind, this meant that the examiners would assign me a grade based on how sympathetic they felt towards me. All of a sudden, all potential value of any grade I might earn, went out of the window. I was adamant that I would achieve the grades I deserved, no matter what, not the grades pity would afford me. Even after the results came in; I was a couple of marks off an A on my English Lit paper (before the days of A* at A’Level) and my teacher wanted to appeal to the board for a re-mark, taking into account all my circumstances. I wouldn’t let her do it. I didn’t want it. I was satisfied that on the day of those particular exams, considering all factors relating to illness and medication, I had been good enough for the grade I was awarded. Why did I need people to look at me differently in order to mark my work a second time. I was so keen not to be defined by the illness, that I gave myself no choice but to downplay it.

Of course I now have a very different understanding of what special consideration is. In fact, I have urged students in similar situations to take all the help they can get. However, back then, I was nowhere near ready to accept that my condition made my life harder. How could I accept support when I was in denial that I even needed it?

Growing up

These days, I am quite willing to say that life is made harder because of my Crohn’s Disease. In fact, I sometimes find myself wondering how I manage. I am chronically ill, I suffer from extreme fatigue and it is fair to say, I am often struggling with life in general. So how do I manage such a busy life and so many big projects?

I suppose I manage the same way I always have. When there is no other option but to get on with it, I get on with it.

Writing this post, I have to wonder whether my willingness to accept and acknowledge how hard things are, has been prompted by the addition of Nelly. Once upon a time, the rest of the world couldn’t see my illness. To all intents and purposes, up until five months ago, when I said I was ‘fine’ there would be no reason for anyone to doubt me. I have always been so careful to keep the spring in my step and smile through everything. If there’s one thing I know how to do, it’s act, so I think I put on a fairly convincing show of being healthy, well and full of beans.

Then Nelly came along and changed all that. There was no longer any point in answering ‘I’m fine thanks’ unless I wanted to make a liar of myself. The whole world can see the evidence to the contrary, right in the middle of my face. So what options am I left with? I am still never going to be someone who moans about, and publicly laments every hardship. It just isn’t my style. That said, I have been feeling a modicum of relief in being able to be slightly more open about things. My dirty secret isn’t a secret anymore, meaning people have the opportunity to react with more empathy.

Wear it like a badge

If someone had ever told me I’d be pleased to receive a blue badge in the post, I’d have laughed them out of the room. First of all, why would I want a blue badge? I’m not disabled.’ 

That would have been my answer. In fact, as a student, I remember saying almost those very words, only not in relation to a disabled parking permit. In First Year at university (not long after the A’Level refusal of support) I was told by my Personal Tutor, that I really ought to go and visit Disabled Student Support Services to see what I might be entitled to. If I tell you he had a battle on his hands which lasted weeks, I am probably still down-playing my outrage. I simply could not get my head around the notion of the word Disability. I didn’t want to be labelled.

Now, however, I see things somewhat differently. I was genuinely delighted to open the envelope yesterday evening when I got home from work. It felt like such a relief. I am still not crazy about the idea of being labelled disabled, but if anyone chooses to do that, it’s their problem and not mine. The fact is, I do have a disability; one which significantly impairs my daily life, and makes the easiest of tasks feel like climbing Everest. So, if I can have a badge that makes parking easier, meaning I don’t have long walks between the car and my destination, I am going to say ‘Thank you very much!’ and grab it with both hands. 

X marks the silver lining

I may not like the fact that Nelly is sticking around longer than was initially intended, but if nothing else, I have found my silver lining. I have been forced to take a more measured view of my life. I have been prompted to reevaluate certain things, and have found a way of accepting things I have continued to run from up ’til now. I can now accept that I need help sometimes – it doesn’t mean I’m particularly good at accepting it, and I’m even worse at actually asking for it, but habits of a lifetime aren’t likely to change overnight.

I am Emma, and I have a disability. 

Wow. My world didn’t implode and I didn’t spontaneously combust. I guess there really are worse things than accepting our reality. I think I just found another silver lining: Stephen Hawking talks about being disabled in body, not in spirit. I can certainly relate to that. My spirit is impaired in no way, shape or form, and as long as I can say that, I would say I am blessed.



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