Where wonder reigns and hope exists

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Where wonder reigns and hope exists…

Every day I woke up on the train with a desire to feel the Sun. Instead, the day offered gray sky with hints of a snowstorm. The peaks of mountains were hidden, the distance made blurry by snow blowing hard outside but I felt irresistibly drawn to its other glories: the purity of the wind, the promise of imminent thunder, the morning whisper of birds. Fields of Canadian Goose. I never knew why the Canadian goose was a thing, now I know that there’s 1000s out there. Flying together in frigid weather.

As we made our way through the long curvy rail-roads of the North of Ontario into the Prairies of Manitoba and Saskatchewan, the scenery reminded me of Alaska as seen on movies like Into The Wild (spoiler, Alaska is one of the 7 states that I’m missing off my 50 visited states list). Eminent mountains, frozen lakes, endless fields and many sightings of wild animals. Out here, I didn’t take many photos. I was content to simply be in the presence of this majestic landscape, treating those moments with the weightiness and value they deserve.

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In every sight, wonder. In every step, curiosity. In every feeling, awe.

Imagine a scene — you’re standing next to thousands of migrating birds in a snowstorm with endless fields as a backdrop. Swans flutter in the distance like rising snowflakes. You feel part of something big, something that you’ve seen only in National Geographic.

What would you do if you find yourself in a moment like that? It takes time to sink in. We need to listen to what these moments are telling us. Standing in the snowstorm, I experienced nature’s intense power, while at the same time, I am reminded of its sublime beauty.

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It made me think about hope, about what hope is and what it is not.

Over the past few years, chronic illness/pain has grinded  me down just enough to feel on the true brink of hopelessness, a good few times. I never really understood hopelessness, until I was there. Where you’d take being dead for being alive, at any moment, because being alive like that doesn’t even feel like being alive. It’s worse than being alive because you’re suffering.  suffering in ways that are difficult to articulate.  It’s like being stuck in between being alive and dead.  A place of purgatory. But the thing about purgatory is that whilst you feel an emptiness. You don’t realize what a dark place you’re in until you get out and you can see again. Change happens. But it can happen literally overnight. Like it did for me. Even though we’re taught change usually comes over time.

Today the train ran 5.5 hours late. I’m not sure how, but I think it’s something to do with freight trains. This meant that we had a knock on effect on how little time we had in other stops. We had a quick stop with surprise wifi in Edmonton. It was just enough time and wifi to quickly post photos i had accumulated on instagram, and a brief update for Facebook and Twitter so my mom knew I was still alive.

As I write on Facebook, a FB memory appears that stops me in my tracks. It really brings it all back. A few years ago today, I was leaving JFK airport after a YOLO road trip. It was the end of summer after gaining a life-changing diagnosis, which i had spent mostly running away from. I still remember this moment with crystal clear precision, what I was wearing, the smells, the reactions. I can play back most of that summer memories like as if on tape. I left the USA thinking I might not ever make it back. I cried. I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t believe it was true.

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But friends banded together across Sandy Island, then the country… and then across the globe! sometimes I was throwing up too much or too weak to talk. But we kept going. Friends donated time, money, connections. Strangers sent mail, hundreds of photos. All in the hope to save my life or at least make me more comfortable and show support.

I told myself that if I ever get through this, that stuff would be different. There was still so much I still needed to see, so much time wasted, so much to do such as i wanna see my friends kids grow-up, and other friends grow in their confidence and careers and homes. I created a bucket list to help.

I wish I could tell you that the 5 years since have been easier. They haven’t. Even just under 3 weeks ago I was in the Emergency Room with suspected clots. Needles, needles, needles, so many needles, fevers, infections, a never-ending-headache, severe mucositis, so-much-pain, anti-nausea drugs that results in weeks of lost memories, teeth issues, corneal damage, a slate of other issues a little too graphic to write about, crazy painful out-of-nowhere leg cramps…

…all bumps along the road. But these past 5+ years have been really good to me (outside of the health stuff).

I do feel more and more slowly ‘normal’ with every year that passes, despite wanting it to come quicker, and gaining newer or older issues along the way, some weeks are really truly crippling bad – but the good out-weights the bad ones now. I’m not sure if I’ll ever get back to my old self. But maybe that’s just as well?

Because here’s the thing,  as Mark Brown said in his lecture on hope: hope cannot be transferred like a credit card balance. The hope that we feel for someone cannot substitute for the despair and grief and anger and sadness that they feel for themselves. (I learnt this the hard way. ) So, to make hope happen we must first understand what it is and secondly understand why it might be absent. To understand its absence we must understand what depletes it, what stunts it, what pours salt upon its roots and what blights it when and if it ever flowers.”

I never would have ever believed that people would have come together for me in the way that they did in my times of need.

I realise that sometimes we need these long quiet intervals when we can drift ourselves away a little bit from the current. To gain some perspective. To see how far we’ve come, because sometimes when you’re in the dark, it’s hard to see how strong the current has been. Plus it’s always the best feeling in the world is coming back.

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This morning as I sat looking up at the sky in the glass carriage, I saw uncountable stars. The wind in the valley murmurs at the approach of the sun and I find myself fixed on the single small spark of Venus as the stars silently surrender to the light. The first light of day finds my eye and we are connected.

Today, standing here with the mountains, the first light suddenly feels like the. first. light. and I breathe it in with both soul and senses. Here we can remake the world by understanding the world in all its messy, horrific, amazing glory.

A couple of years ago I was on a plane from NYC to the UK because I was dying.

Today I’m on day 3 of 4, on a train crossing the Canadian wilderness, a lil bit worse for wear (i need a shower pretty bad and i’m still harbouring all of my health issues) but I feel more alive than I have in a very long time.

( I Wrote this 3 days ago,I’m now in Seattle, WA – USA!)

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The Year of Zinc

I’ve not blogged in ages. I keep reflecting, but it’s stored in hidden word documents on my laptop – sometimes making an appearance at a conference, or on my Facebook – in the safety of friends and not just the internet-public.

But I’ve been thinking about getting to 30. Alive. I really can’t believe it.

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On the periodic table 30  is the element Zinc. Roughly one third of all metallic zinc produced today is used in a process known as galvanization. During galvanization, an object that is subject to corrosion, such as an iron nail, is given a protective coating of zinc. I like the idea that my new decade is started with the year of Zinc: an element that is most useful in trying to stop corrosion.

5 years ago, an event happened that changed my life. Some of you where there, and others have followed the progress reports. But, honestly, i think it’ll take a full ten years for me to understand the impact and outcome of that one event.

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Life in many ways is like a paint by numbers book, where you can colour, one tiny bit at a time but within invisible lines. The whole picture emerges much later. Perhaps Steve Jobs said it best:

“You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future. You have to trust in something — your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever.”

A decade ago, today, if you had asked me today if my life would turn out the way it has done — I wouldn’t have been able to answer that question. In many ways, life has been so much better than I ever really thought it would be!
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Getting to 30 isn’t really big news, but it’s a biggie for me, and ANY of my friends will vouch for me – I never thought I would make it to here. I thought this at high-school. I guess living in abject poverty makes you feel like this – like there’s no future. And this was even before I fell sick. But then when I did fall sick, I would look at what was happening to me and how i felt and thought for sure I wouldn’t be alive by now. At times, I actually didn’t want to live. Like, I just felt like I couldn’t live with this kind of pain – for the rest of my life – without someone understanding what this experience was doing to me with me.

So, I’m really grateful to be getting here.

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Despite this being kinda big news for me, i’m surprisingly anxious about it all too. I still feel 21 in my head. I still get I.D’d for booze at bars & M&S when buying BucksFizz, and if I’m really trying it on, I can still get Teen cinema tickets at the local Odeon.
My life is that of an 18 year olds. I moved back home, have no kids, no pension, basically a few $ in savings, the worst credit history – ever. I’m still a student, albeit I prefer researcher now (PhD). But getting really sick in my 20’s kind of funked things up a bit. I lost time for making and meeting people and things. I lost confidence, and money and I spent a whole lot of it when I got it — YOLOing or trying to find cures for my fatigue (all didn’t work BTW).
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By societies standards, I’m not a success. And I can feel it. I should have *done more* by now. People my age are consultants and own houses, and head-teachers and more. And it’s hard not to compare yourself. But in my own standards (and I think this is what matters) I’m relatively happy with where I am right now.
I mean, I am alive. I do think about that a lot.
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Confronting mortality makes you ask some fundamental questions of yourself and your relationships. It makes you a lot more honest with yourself. It forces you to say no more often, for you know the fleeting nature of life, the minuscule time we have on the planet and what matters is how we choose to spend it. And how you choose to act aswell.
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But 30 years is a long time to have witnessed change and fragility.  Over the past 5 years of ‘illness’, I realised that BEING alive and FEELING alive are 2 different things. And what I’ve learnt over 30 years is what Oprah’s words from her Golden Globes speech encapsulated:

“What I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool you have.”

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I recently read Dr Rod Kersh’s response to Henry Marsh’s guardian article  on the treatment by the legal system and the media, of a transplant surgeon scaring in his initials into patients livers.

And it got me thinking about empathy, and dignity, and teams and Zinc. Rod is one of the most compassionate (& innovative) doctors I know.  I first met him like 5 years ago. It was my 3rd time ever at a hospital appointment. I still hadn’t learnt how to “behave” in these situations (i think i still struggle with what to say and what not to mention even now).  But I still remember our first clinic with clarity, exact words and phrases. He told me how he was going to treat/talk to me (like an equal).  And it properly threw me. I thought about it for weeks afterwards. It was a weird thing to say. But it properly made me feel like I could trust him, that I (my life) was important. This phrase was further backed up by his actions, because in trying to describe what was happening to me, i described it more in how these symptoms was really hindering my life. And he was super intrigued by this. He’s the only doctor (except the ENT doctor this week who was genuinely concerned with my massive hearing loss and my quality of life/future) who seemed to gauge what was important to me. I noticed that when people didn’t hear me out, it made me feel more desperate. (That’s not to say everyone else I see or have seen don’t care… because that’s simply not true at all, but there’s a difference in acknowledging).

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He, and a few of my HCP, inspired me to be the best healthcare professional I could be. I subconsciously learnt what was good care and what wasn’t as good as that. And now everytime I am with a patient, I remember what is important to me when I am in this system. And the differences in actions and languages. And I want to make sure people feel seen and heard. Feel like whatever they’re telling me that is bothering them in their lives, that it matters. That they matter. Despite whatever is happening. Because often people just want to be heard.

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Many forget that it’s a rare privilege to find something you care about so deeply and be able to make it part of your life. For me, I realize that it makes sense that 30 is Zinc.  I am so endlessly grateful. These years have gifted me experiences, skills, lessons, and friendships. I would not be me without them because these people: my friends, teams, colleagues, working together – have acted like Zinc. 

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They have provided me with a coating, that has helped to ease the corrosion of life (from art, to work, to learning, to sickness and more). And in doing so have taught me how to be Zinc too.

You will never regret offering dignity to others.

We rarely get into trouble because we overdo our sense of justice and fairness. Not just us, but where we work, the others we influence. Organizations and governments are nothing but people, and every day we get a chance to become better versions of ourselves.

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And yet… in the moments when we think no one is looking, when the stakes are high, we can forget. It’s worth remembering that justice and dignity aren’t only offered on behalf of others.

Offering people the chance to be treated the way we’d like to be treated benefits us too. It goes around.

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The false scarcity is this: we believe that shutting out others, keeping them out of our orbit, our country, our competitive space—that this somehow makes things more easier for us.

But today, value isn’t created by filling a slot, it’s created by connection. By the combinations created by people. By the magic that comes from diversity of opinion, background and motivation. Connection leads to ideas, to solutions, to breakthroughs.

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The false scarcity stated as, “I don’t have enough, you can’t have any,” is more truthfully, “together, we can create something better.”

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And going forwards in setting the tone to my next decade is just that. To be Zinc: to help, share, collaborate and support. To be compassionate and empathetic.  I will do whatever it takes.

I just like to take this moment to say thank you to everyone in my life who have gotten me here too (from everything). I love y’all! Keep being awesome!

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Expect anything worthwhile to take a lot of time

Yesterday I went to the Drawing Matters Symposium in York. It was a day of inspiring talks and presentations, all grappling with drawing and its pros and cons. I even met a couple of healthcare professionals (a nurse & a physio) using drawing in their PHDs – as a critical tool too, not just a “wellbeing” tool*

There was a particularly interesting talk from an educator about drawings role in primary education, and how a lack of teachers understanding of drawing and time to do it/teach it (all documented in Ofsted reviews every 3 years) is affecting how people later on in life construct and evaluate knowledge. This then, of course, systemically affects every area we work in – from government policies, to leadership, to how things are designed.

They also showed how drawing also helps bilingual kids learn english. So drawing can help bridge across two different languages, two different paradigms. Enhance collaboration and share practices!

But the knowledge thing got me thinking about the healthcare system.

I’ve been trying to make things to help showcase people’s work within radiotherapy & beyond and I’ve been *secretly* developing  a framework/workshops to teach healthcare students (maybe even staff) to be and think creatively.
The workshops are designed to be facilitate hands-on activities and discussion designed to build 4 essential creative muscles:

  1. Seeing connections between disparate concepts
  2. Developing an openness to new ideas
  3. Building resilience through experimentation
  4. Authentic reflection

These 4 things goes beyond what most people think of when we say creativity (no, it’s not just drawing, and it’s not just being “different”). In business, the creative mindset is highly sought-after because in this time of incredible uncertainty and rapid change, we need agile thinkers who can recognize patterns and interesting adjacencies, who naturally come up with person centred solutions not rigid-1-fits all master plans, and who are comfortable conducting rapid experiments to learn quickly. But it’s not as much appreciated  in healthcare, despite needing the same kind of things as described above.

But alas,  both healthcare and creativity is complicated.

For years, researchers have studied the “bias against creativity” in the workplace. University of Pennsylvania researchers coined this phrase for the tendency of creative ideas – and the people who espouse them – to be systematically diminished, disparaged, and discredited. This is interesting stuff. I’ve personally experienced it at school, across many places I’ve worked, including within the healthcare system too.

In recent work from Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, economists took a novel approach to innovation research by matching tax data to patent grants and applications for almost two decades in the US. They found that children of parents in the top 1% of the income distribution were “ten times more likely to become inventors than those in the bottom 50%.” This is significant, but perhaps not that surprising. The fact that you’re more likely to be successful if your parents have money isn’t the classical narrative of the American dream, but we know it’s true. This data is reproduced across the UK too.

The real surprise in the research was that invention was not correlated with creative ability. Instead, the degree of successful invention was more closely tied to environmental factors shaped by race, class and gender. The conditions children were exposed to at a young age in their neighborhoods and schools were the dominant factor in predicting future success in innovation. In other words, if children didn’t see members of their family or community engaging in non-traditional, innovative pursuits, the financial barriers related to access to opportunity were virtually impossible to beat. It didn’t matter how naturally talented someone was if they had nothing to model.

This makes me think back to the healthcare system and the transformational leadership role and HCP ability to enact change – whatever band/level/experience they have.

“Creativity” may not be the magic bullet – but creative people are. We know that intentionally or not, we are teaching the next generation how to be good foot soldiers, but not independent thinkers. More confoundingly, we know that the things we design (whether policies, products, systems, services, pathways, leaflets, etc) we will use in the future to communicate and convene, work and drive and govern will be built by a cosseted minority who have great access, but may not have the greatest ideas. And even if they do, they will not represent the diversity that they could have.

The experience of engaging in the creative process is profoundly transformative for people, especially young people. Moreover, it’s something where each of us can have outsized impact, just by simply being present.

So how do we do this?

First step: embed it back into education and learning.

Organization design – the attempt to structure systems to produce the outcomes we want – has been an established field for decades and healthcare is an amazing example of this. But here’s the thing – if you step back a bit, putting the two words “organization” and “design” next to each other is actually quite contradictory — the historical rigidity of a typical organization, next to the inherent complexity of the humans in that system, combined with the fluidity of design.

The healthcare paradigm is a tricky thing to navigate. It’s so ensteeped and rigid in empirical  data and conservative methods that it’s hard to move things. Each coupling reveals a tension between chaos and structure; linearity and the non-linear; closed and open systems.  Teaching people to be flexible and open – and fun – will show them their potential and feel more confident is being more critical and open about their world and collaboration around them.

Step 2: We need to Challenge the world around us.

At the 99U Conference, Liz Jackson, founder of the Inclusive Fashion + Design Collective said: “You never see a person on a cycling sign. You see one on a wheelchair sign. You’re saying you can’t use that object unless you are that person,” as she strode the stage with the aid of a cane. “We are disabled not by our bodies but by the world around us. It is a social construct. Disability is nothing more than a brand, the world’s ugliest brand.”

The stuff we ignore, or don’t try and change, creates our world – makes it harder for us to do our jobs, our lives and our patients lives. So by giving people the tools to critically think, to be open, to try stuff, we can literally make a difference. Equally, to repress what makes us unique is to artificially constrain all the potential we have to offer. 

Step 3: Learning different ways of thinking to see from different perspectives

This is where a creative education works. Sometimes we all need to step back—be an artist or a healthcare manager— to find the most appropriate methods or  solutions for the problems. You don’t have to do everything yourself, and it doesn’t always have to be a questionnaire or RCT.   Equally, we need to  increase awareness of our biases (which we have MANY in healthcare) and begin to advocate for change, Norregaard recommends creating a space with your team where it’s okay to talk through our biases.

Step 4: Believe in the learning loop.

We teach reflection well in healthcare, but I’d argue not in a way that’s super conducive to working life and transformation. We know that hospital Trusts that are transparent and have an open culture to mistakes, make less big mistakes overall, and have higher quality care outcomes. This isn’t by mistake. Reflecting upon what you do, enables you to work out where things can be better. But the trick is about making reflection natural, critical, authentic – actually empowering and enjoyable and  not like a chore, it’s tick box excerise for just your license. Creative thinking does this.

 

However, even with all of this – we know culture doesn’t change over night and there will always be people high-up that can not see the benefit in such things. Expect anything worthwhile to take a lot of time, but in the meantime – the artist in me has taught me that if you don’t or can’t get a seat at the table – just bring a folding chair.

Having ideals is like having a compass that always points to your heart instead of your brain. If anybody wants to keep creating they have to be about change. Likewise, if anybody wants to be about change, they need to create.

 

 

(*side note: I believe the arts are incredibly important in theraputics however that’s a whole different debate). 

Small changes

Time slows when the lights are fluorescent and the days are punctuated by the rounds of the medical staff.

My head of studies for my PhD is a woman who is internationally known for her creative-design- person-centred approaches to dementia care. She’s an Occupational Therapist, with a background in art psychotherapy, and a PhD in using Art & Design methods in enhancing care in care-homes.

So I was super stoked when she asked me to be part of 1 of her many projects (some paid work on top of PhD). She invited me to be part of a project where we will design a Dementia friendly eye clinic. In real life.

Yesterday we had a meeting with some service users (I hate this term); a carer and his wife who has dementia. We spoke about all of their experiences of the eye clinic, from everything from leaving home and parking all the way through to leaving at the end.

There were many flaws in their care, some avoidable, some just a mistake, some just part of the design flaw within the pathway.

What I discovered when we looked back at our notes was that the things we could make better for people with dementia – would actually make these things better for EVERYONE who uses the service. How crazy is that?

I remember a few years ago, I had some crazy neurological stuff going on and it really effected my eye sight – I’d get like flashes of white light in my vision and I lost some of my peripheral vision. I had to see the eye doctor a bunch of times.

It was crazy just how unusual and difficult it was to go through that pathway. Eye drops that sort of itched, and we’d all sit staring at a wall, packed in like a crowded bus down a dim dirty coloured cream corridor. You couldn’t see anything clearly, but there was loads of small text leaflets teasing you to try and read them on the walls.  Your eyes hurt from the light. When it was time for anyone to call you, you’d get up and not be able to see who and where they were calling you from. Then the actual examination of the eye is uncomfortable – you have to lean onto some medical equipment – and being small, my feet didn’t touch the floor, there’s no arms on the chair & you’r completely unsteady – and my neck hurt from stretching it out across a small table to sit my chin in the face of the eye doctor.

It felt undignified, and intimate and vulnerable and stupid all at the same time.

Once they made me sign to consent to something I couldn’t even read because of the eye drops.

And then when it’s all over, you leave – by feeling the walls around you – and trying to remember which way was out. When you finally make it back outside – the light is bright. But in an unfamiliar way – and navigating the world through blurred vision enhances a crazy headache of sorts.

That was my experience as a young-un. Someone who has pretty decent eye sight (or did).

Now imagine that experience for someone who struggles to convey pain, or issues. Who is confused? Who has learning difficulties, short-term memory loss. Who can’t read?! 

I can’t imagine how disorientating and how scary and uneasy it must be.

I’ve been missing my clinical aspect of being a radiotherapist recently.

I think it’s the team work and the patients I miss the most. So I’m really looking forward to being part of a team, working with patients and their families, in a clinical setting again – but this time my main aim will be to come up with & test & prototype cool, person-centered creative & critical solutions — whilst at the same time learning some cool new researcher skills. Mostly how to get something you make, and apply it and embed it into the system. This is a skill I am really missing.

From just 1 meeting, I’ve already paralleled some similarities  of things that could change within radiotherapy and the dementia care pathway — there’s just such a long way to go. But, I’m excited!

We already have 4 areas of focus, and ideas to prototype. It’s too early to share or know if they’re any good or useful. But I can’t wait to share with you guys our future work on this!

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(In)Visibility and Art [& suffering]

Today, after 9-10 days of a horrific infection, I found myself feeling human enough to do some actual work. We’re organizing a conference about art and visibility, my PhD friends and I. More info coming soon! So I started writing the stuff we need to move forward today.

But what it made me think about was visibility within healthcare, and illness, and art.

I started thinking about Greenberg ( visibility of the aesthetics of experience), – and then about  the Cubists and other Post-Impressionists perspectives being  particularly poignant for illness and suffering.

But contemporarily, how  are we and can we understand someone else’s pain or convey our own to others? How do we make sense of the nonsensical, whether the chaos of life-as-lived or the inscrutability of dying? How do we answer the questions “Why me?” and “Why now?” when we are diagnosed with disease? How do we paint what we know is there but cannot see?  These are heavy questions which lie sullen at the bottom of every action within my PhD enquiry. Modern medicine, like much pre-Impressionistic art, tried to square this circle by instituting a technical and professional gaze that filters out the ephemera of the individual in order to identify and name what is hidden by opaque bodies (see, of course, Foucault 1994).

But this is not arts aim; it’s not a reductive attempt to discover the building blocks common to all landscapes or buildings or humans or musical instruments. It’s to uncover the essence of a thing, that particular thing, in order to reveal more.

Our representations of disease may actually conceal even as they seek to reveal. We know that socioeconomics and other social determinants (e.g., discrimination, exposure to violence, lack of education and social support, etc.) are tied to health and risk of illness and disease. We also know that socioeconomics and other social determinants affect prognosis and recovery. (Read Michael M’s The Health Gap for more of this)

Although the media love to highlight the enemy on our borders threatening to disrupt our safe worlds insulated from many of the realities of danger and suffering, it is actually our capacity for self-destruction that constitutes our greatest foe: poverty, poor nutrition, lack of access to care, neglect of mental illness, climate change, and war, both declared and undeclared. But far easier to wind up a distant epidemic and see a remote danger to ourselves (while thousands die in a distant place) than address our real threats. Despite many genuine humanitarian responses from wealthier “first-world” countries, it is still clear that we have primitive protective responses (at home and abroad) that largely ignore the real wolves at the door.

As the NHS looms on a crisis that was caused my a greedy, beaurocratic , irresponsible government, and Brexit heightens tensions, and Donald Trump’s inauguration starts to truly loom ahead, I got thinking.

Thinking about  all of this, I wonder if art is our tool to help both recognize suffering but also help build bridges with communities we have trouble connecting with due to these issues.  If the digital world fosters isolation, what evokes empathy? Which of our personas do we believe in—our social media portraits or our reflections in the mirror? What are the consequences of a digitally-created society in the psyche of the global community? Art *can* cross boundaries, social class, geolocked nations. It exists in between physical, real and the social-digital world.  It links us through history, makes the other seem friendly, it can hold up a mirror when everything else seems shattered and untrue. Art explores the complicated yet timeless questions of influence, superficiality, and powerlessness.

When I was first an art-student, I remember finding and learning all about this activist art history. From Ad Reinhardt creating “communist” comics under a false name and being investigated by the FBI, to more direct examples such as the Gorilla Girls, and PAD-D groups. They made work with a political edge.  It was so exciting! I wondered about how awesome it would have been, to be growing up in such a polarized and politically difficult time and then being involved in such grassroots political activity and art being the tool, or the process.  Almost a license to get it out there and be archived for the future. But that same political drive, was also given to the artworld too – Gregory Scholette of PAD-D continues writing about art and political activism with his artwork representing his ideals and holding the artworld accountable for its Dark Matter, Reinhardt wrote lots of essays – as published in “Art as Art” with his disgust of the commercialization of art.

Of course, now I found myself, in a much different world than 8 years ago where hope resided, and people were less obvious and less aggressive with their hate. Where politically, things all felt relatively stable and fine. I have since lost my political art naivety that I had then, and I don’t feel the same excitement as I did when I first found it —- but what does remain is my gut feeling that art CAN make a difference, and my passion in the use of criticality esp within a political art canon. Art can be urgent and important and poignant.

I wonder about all of these experiences, and lessons. And I think – yeah, it’s our turn to make the invisible – visible. We are traumatized witnesses, some of us accomplices, groping about in the gap between passive outrage and mobilized action. We are both: perpetrators and victims, objects and subjects endlessly exchanging roles.

It’s our turn to show that mirror to those who can’t see a reflection. It’s our turn to help people practice empathy, to feel less powerless, to make people accountable, to stand up for what is right – and I think it’s about time the artworld got out of it’s comfort zone.

I’m not sure what that looks like for me.  Some artists are already doing it. But our Art is about changing the world, rather than study how it is. It’s not just about making things, but making things happen. There is much proof out there that our common community has not been relinquished.

Is art sufficient to the task of unpacking these contradictions that lie within our society – or should it complicate matters further? Such questions are unanswerable, but we shall see and we shall do.

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Love Is Love Is Love: Working To Make Things Better

Around 5 years ago, my life changed in a fatal kind of way. When I was in America, I was given a diagnosis that made feel like I was looking down a barrel of a gun and made me question everything in my life. This crazy plot twist, that wouldn’t have been out of place in a Tramedy, set off a bunch of things in my life. The past 4-ish years have been personally-health-awful, but yet through this difficult time this happened:

Last night I picked up my crazy amazing big prestigious award from the Houses of Commons, like some kind of rock-star. It was surreal, and I’ll probably never get another opportunity to experience something like it. But it was such an incredible evening and I met so many amazing, talented, smart, giving and generous people who work within healthcare,  specifically within radiography and oncology care. We should be so proud to have these people – and people not acknowledged working day in and out within the NHS just like them – and in our country.

It’s more than anyone could ask for and it’s an absolute rare privilege; To be recognized for trying your best to help others. I’ve never really been acknowledged before,  but I can’t help but feel heavy with gratitude to everyone who got me here, as thanked previously in many, many blog posts previously. Because this award is just representative of everyone who got me here.  There is no greater gift than being able to be part of something bigger than yourself, trying to make things better for others. And so the honour of being part of narrative alone is incredible.

Then I got home, back to the north, anxious about the U.S.A. Elections, fell asleep and awoke to Trump president-elect.

When I fell sick, I had so much angst because I felt like there was so much left to do and so much more love to give in life. I’d cry because I felt sorry for myself. And I felt ashamed even more for behaving that way, for being weak. But then on reflection I realized that the tears  flowed because they needed to. Because things were building up instead of me like a pressure cooker, and I wanted to keep moving forward.

I was crying because I wanted to live, because I was afraid of not being here.  And I was afraid of being forgotten.

So having gone through that, and 2015 UK General Election and Brexist Ref vote – I figured we need a hope-of sorts – a plan of sorts. Here’s what I’ve learnt from my few years living invisibly and wanting so bad to enjoy life again. And how Brexit, and Trump and a million refugees stuck around the world make you feel powerless and everything is lost. But

Trust me when I say this time is short & this life is both terrible & beautiful.

Resentment & anger are inevitable & sometimes are important, temporarily,  but it’s important to not take up residence in that place. I PROMISE you deserve better. Even if you voted Trump. You do deserve better.

I promise you there are people who will leave you in life, but that others will embrace you unconditionally in your brokenness.

So you go out & run fearlessly in the direction of love. You are never alone. Your tribe is out there. GO GET IT. And please keep laughing. Joy is salvation. In the darkest, lowest moments, being able to find something, anything to laugh about can save you.

We never stop. We never give up. We fight for each other and protect each other.

Living and giving kindness is the best revenge. 

The most creative challenge of our lives is learning how to approach our own inner darkness with curiosity, empathy, and friendliness.

And that’s where it’s all going to come together.

Sometimes in life, if you are very lucky, you find the grace in having it all blow up in your face.

Our jobs for the day (life): Tell the truth; Be kind & curious; Love all people with all your heart; Don’t put up with any bullshit. 

Love Is Love Is Love, we’ve had a bunch of set-back but that just means we’ve got a lot of work ahead of us but lets keep working to make things better – for ourselves and for those who are voiceless, victimised, invisible or who can’t say it for themselves. There is so much more that what unites us than what divides us.

Our work isn’t done, and we need each other and others less fortunate than us, who are REALLY struggling need us. So don’t wait to be called, because you’re already being beckoned.

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Taming the beast in a complex system

Last week I had my first medium-plus allergic reaction to Shellfish (I think). I didn’t even eat it, I just ate rice that had been cooked with it. The kicker is, I don’t even LIKE Shellfish.

Literally within an hour my face swelled up (not like Hitch style but pretty bad never the less) & my throat became ridiculously itchy & sore, and I became wheezy like when you have an asthma attack. Needless to say, i wasn’t best impressed with this new hyper-sensitive immune system of mine. I hadn’t been to see a doctor in literally months, and i was hoping to keep it that way. Damn.

I had to go to the urgent care center, where I was given steroids, more anti-histamines, and a GP appointment. My GP prescribed me my first EpiPen, and a referral to an immunologist.

Today I picked up my EpiPen. I’ve never seen one up close before.

My GP gave me strict instructions about how to use it, & that I can see the practice nurse to show me how, and that I should call an ambulance if i use it & that I’ll always have to carry it and anti-histamines with me for the rest of my life now “just incase”.

But what struck me was the design of it.

It’s really quite big! And I wonder how smaller people (kids etc) carry their EpiPens about if they don’t bring a backpack? Its design is a bit impractical. They’re reliable, sure. They’ll buy a patient who’s in the midst of a severe allergic reaction a few crucial minutes to make their way to the hospital.

But they’re also bulky. Their epinephrine solution isn’t particularly shelf-stable, and will easily degrade in temperatures that are too low or too high (too cold in a bag in the winter? too hot in a jeans pocket perhaps?) and its expiry date on mine is in about a years time. So not very long.

I had a quick google to see if there was other designs available. In America, there was 100s of news articles on the esculating price tag: apparently a pack of two EpiPens now lists for $608 in the USA. (I checked the cost for the NHS & it’s £23.99 for 1 single dose).

This revealed that there’s a design patent on it until 2025. One company owns the monopoly of the EpiPen. & because of this, the design flaws of it for the user, are the profit for company. If it’s too big to carry, you’re more likely to buy more (in the US anyways) to store in other places or for back-ups.

Accidental injections seem pretty common, and instructions are relatively simple, but, adrenaline is invariably used in highly stressful situations, in order to treat a severe allergic reaction. As the auto-injector was originally designed for use in the military, the users were well trained to manage in these circumstances and the user group generally consisted of healthy adult males. Nowadays the devices are given to people of all ages, and with children suffering more from anaphylaxis than any other age group, the device has to be appropriate for a wide range of user groups.

On the recent BBC Radio 4 programme Dr Boyle highlighted how having to respond to a stressful situation can affect the person administering the drug. In his trial, more than half of the intensively trained parents were unable to correctly operate the devices in an emergency.

He cited some of the common errors associated with auto-injectors: holding them the wrong way round, failing to remove the safety cap and not pressing hard enough. They also discussed how little research into the efficacy of the device has been done because studies can cause severe allergic reactions in test subjects, plus real life situations are likely to occur in public and not in clinical settings. All of these issues have resulted in little drive to improve the devices over the last 50 years, leaving key issues unaddressed. (1)

The very fact that the EpiPen has been dominant for so long makes it hard for challengers to come in with a radically different design.

So, what does all of this mean? Well… there’s a HUGE Challenge for someone to make a MASSIVE difference to 1,000’s & 1,000’s of people, but also challenging in being able to design everything that is needed into an EpiPen (engineering, plastics, drugs, function, deisgn, safety etc) that’s life-style-functional & more cost effective long-term (shelf-life etc).

It highlights that instead of trying to carve out a focused segment of healthcare or a specific specialty of design, we should be re-framing these conversations about healthcare improvement around a set of challenges.

No one person or one organization can take on the whole system, but collectively we can make significant, people-centered change happen. I wrote on my blog last night about ‘critical making‘ – If there is one element that is sorely lacking in healthcare, it’s the ability to prototype, to critically make.

It can seem like a beast of a system can healthcare: its big, complex, and delivering on one of the most complex industries. But I’m trying to keep practicing at staying awake and trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

 

Who knew some Shellfish and an EpiPen  experience would be showing me and putting into practice that listening can tell you who you are. That paying attention can give us the change and the meaning that we so badly seek.

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(1) BBC Radio 4, Inside Health, Wed 7 October 2015http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b06flmg7

other readings:
Adrenaline auto-injector advice for patients, UK Gov.ukhttps://www.gov.uk/…/adrenaline-auto-injector-advice-for-pa…

Adrenaline auto-injectors, European Medicines Agencyhttp://www.ema.europa.eu/ema/index.jsp…

How Mylan tried to keep Teva from selling a generic EpiPenhttps://www.statnews.com/…/2016/08/31/mylan-teva-generic-e…/

 

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Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, & this in turn, changes us: 3.5 weeks of lessons in PhD-kingdom

It’s only been basically 3.5 weeks of being an enrolled PhD student. And what is it teaching me?

Well, I’m being schooled,  once again.

I keep being met with questions of what I’ve done – and I try to justify my lack of products with: “I’ve been doing it for 3 weeks?”… but people want something more concrete, I guess.

At first people  told me I should be reading, and reading lots! Getting together my bibliography. That’s what I should be doing for the first weeks they said. So my first week, I diligently sat in the library and looked up interesting books and downloaded paper after paper from the library gateway on creative methodologies and healthcarec(& spent a hefty time on twitter). Then the second week rolled around,  really quickly I might just add, & other people started saying that I really should focus on the making art bit because, you know, it is a practice led PhD after all and I don’t want to get to christmas and have nothing to show for it. Too right. So I started making some really terrible pieces of parts of work/thinking process (you know, it always starts off that way, so not too worried at this stage). Then week 3 was met with that I *really* should be focusing pretty much on the REF1. which has to be submitted in literally 6 weeks now. Scary AF.

So I’ve sat and stared at my REF1 form on word for about a week now, feeling the pure weight of re-framing, of patching up the holes of my research proposal, maybe even changing it slightly, of finding out an extensive and integral and good literature list.  Of finding artists to reference and draw from, of figuring out where I sit – art? design? healthcare? sociology? anthropology? (it’s obviously all of those things, but hot damn) —  trying to get my head around my potential methodologies and the pitfalls that they entail, and figuring out how long everything *should* take me to create a plan of sorts, and lets not even talk about my issues of ethics – and my potential plans in place whilst I endure a long ethics procedure — all of this needs to fit into 1000 words. No joke. And I have insane imposter syndrome that it’s not even funny.

My head of studies told me I needed to take a few weeks to just play, to knock down these boundaries I’ve learnt/built up during the past few years. To reflect upon all of the things I’ve experienced, and frame them. To see the tensions that lie within the frameworks of healthcare methodologies and artistic/creative methodologies – how these paradigms work. How they oppress and close discussion or the opposite or even offer more opportunity.  I wrote quite a few reflections, maybe I’ll share some on here in due time.

I applied with a proposal for my first symposium talk in London(combining art and healthcare together – more info soon) and got it, showed folks how to use drawing as a research and reflective tool at the IPE conference at SHU, and I’ve got the radiotherapy annual conference in Jan to present my other design research from earlier this year. All of which I’ve started to pull together over the past 3 weeks too.

I’ve drank a lot of tea, I’ve sat and stared at the walls in my studio. I’ve moved into my city center apartment/flat.

But mostly what all of this has taught me is that when the ground shifts, the next chapter begins. Here’s what I’ve been thinking and learning and trying to tell people when they’re super confused about why I’m using artistic practice-led work to create healthcare change.

Making things can expand one’s understanding of what it means to be human. Finding the vehicles for exploring the edges of your experiences can be really, really scary but it’s a great way of transforming thinking into practice. Change is inevitable, adaptation is optional.

Every transformation that we are witness to changes the world, and in turn, changes us.

‘Making’ is a process. In comes from ‘doing’. Doing something. ‘Making’ can bring you face to face with your own agency. ‘Making’ has some of the qualities of an echo. It can travel in space and time and come back to you in the form of a feedback loop.   It helps to make something that you don’t necessarily understand. And even if you think you understand what you are making, the act of making it will change your understanding of it and you will feel yourself get bigger.

I have been exploring my own tracings, teachings, drawings, wanderings and wonderings, feelings, thinkings, questionings and assumptions ever since to better see what can happen when something opens and something else falls… out. And like all ‘critical making,’ it attempts to create a context to make tangible some of the possibilities that can drive passion and engage spirit by striving to go beyond the things we know and towards our own reckoning.

‘Critical making’ can remind us that even when we act alone—as an artist, as a designer, as a healthcare professional, or as a hermit—in isolation, we are part of a larger community.

Seeing is a reflexive process, and like an echo it can find its way back to you. Of course, it all depends upon listening. Everything depends on listening. Listening is different from hearing. Hearing can tell you which way to go. Listening can tell you who you are.

I’m having to re-learn to be diligent, and teaching myself to be better with my time, and my work. I’m practicing at staying awake and  trying to be attentive to what is elusive, fantastic, contingent, different and barely there.

I said that i was going to take every single opportunity I get as a PhD student. And I’ve attended nearly 75% of everything open to me, talk wise within my free time.

I plan on paying attention to everything. And remembering what Linda Sikora said when I feel crazily over-whelmed with all of the above.

She says that, “It’s more important to keep paying attention and to follow your attention wherever it goes, than it is to think about meaning and content, because meaning and content come from paying attention to the world.”

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A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world.

A long view of time can replenish our sense of ourselves and the world.

I’ve been thinking about it for weeks. Every so often when campers know I’ve been pretty poorly over the past few years, they ask me how everything is. I reply with that it’s the most “normal” I’ve felt in 3-4 years.
But it got me thinking: on Returning to Normalcy … What Does that Even Mean?
The last time i worked at Sandy Island, properly, My life was in a state of mental whiplash and I barely even realized it. In barely a few years I’ve gone from being in a death spiral to staying up super late drinking wine with friends, climbing icelandic waterfalls, running for late buses. I went from planning out my funeral to doing radiation oncology and beginning to start a PhD. I’ve gone from thinking I’d never step foot at Sandy Island again, to working my longest summer contract here.
But it’s taken me to get to this summer to look back to see just how far I have come, compared to even just last year. Even in January this year. Even April.
Before going further I have to share how profoundly grateful I am to everyone. I can’t even write these words without gushing tears.
So the thought of a return to normalcy is like a warm embrace: to feel like the last few years were a mere aberration that has been rectified. I can’t explain the joy I got when my brain could feel bored and my body wanted to live again. I have about 4–6 hours a day that feel like they did before. The thought of getting to blend my social passions with community and art and social change immediately sets me to problem solving and creating again. Or the thought of unlocking a new meaningful lifestyle that I can plan for has me losing sleep piecing it together while I should be sleeping. I tweeted the other day that I’m already overwhelmed by the projects I’d like to work on now. It made me so happy to tweet it, to feel like I could be back to normal.
But how can I expect life to be normal? I’m still on a small doses of medications to help with everything from pain, to swelling, to hormone balances, to immune function stuff. As much as a return to normalcy seems the obvious goal, I’m definitely not normal now – so much pain & fatigue, still, and it just hit me I have no idea what was so great about normalcy before.
Being in the USA, seeing friends, being at Sandy Island with friends (staff and campers) has been incredible because these friends are all hard chargers, both professionally and personally. They’re exciting to be around because they are making the most of all parts of their lives and doing so thoughtfully. One of them asked what the projects were I was referencing in my above tweet, and in full imposter syndrome mode I stumbled at trying to explain what I was going to professionally do.
I constantly share that my biggest life insight is that while you have the time, optimize on the meaning you find in life.

In some rush towards normalcy and wanting to make the most of said normalcy, I find myself leaping to my old life – a life where I didn’t see my family, I made excuses not to see friends so I could just work or do less meaningful things. I told myself that I was going to do loads of things at Sandy this year, and I didn’t – as much as I wanted to. I should have spent more nights with Julz and Katy. I should have visited Anya more. I should have drank with Chris more. So many shoulda-woulda-coulda’s. Instead, I spent a lot of time trying to catch up with online stuff (such slow, at times non-existent, wifi). I spent quite a bit of time in bed – fatigue. I spent time that I have no idea where I spent the time?!
So there, Sandy Island: I‘ve been racing to get back to normalcy, racing to shed my death shroud, and I’m on the verge of disrespecting what I’ve been living through just to feel “normal.”
What is so great about normal?. Many of the years of trying to work as a freelance artist were financially crippling. The past years working freelance and undertaking clinical placement whilst feeling ill were exhausting.
Am I sick or am I better? Is a return to normalcy my goal or my loss? How can I maintain this profound sense of gratefulness for life, if I queue up in the same old lines?
Is my death shroud an exoskeleton I can to pull myself out of, instead of dragging it along?
This summer has given me the time to reflect upon this, and think out what’s next, and Sandy Island people are helping me figure this new chapter out, and reminding me just how lucky I am. I’ve never felt so loved in my life; and I am so grateful to be.
Special friends have showed me just how normal love looks. It’s not always a mad-dash to the airport, it can just be a heartfelt hug for you feeling better. It can be an incredible gift like a personalised book full of love and wisdom to help guide you when you’re not super sure what’s next. It could be a cool turtle dove as a reference to your most favourite movie ever (friends for ever — home alone 2!).
The gratitude i feel for all of this is completely over-whelming.
A pilgrim is said to carry all their back-path with them as they move forward. It is the back-path that brought us to where we are now. Without it, we cannot enter the path that lays in front of us.

So i’ve been asking myself: Can I make a future of the unknown and still be myself? Can I ever return to normal? And why do I want to?
Thanks for reading this far if you have.

Much love always, your friend – smizz x

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learning to lean in

Words are  often a poor substitute for imagery.

One of my Doctors: “So Sarah, why do you want to work in healthcare – even though you’re an artist?”

I spoke about my own experiences & the opportunity artistic practice can offer to enhance care and services – the ability to use a different perspective to make a difference.

He turned to me expressed his heartfelt regrets and said: “Art gives you, like flying, something that other people don’t have.”

It was as if he was saying, what you lack in a functional immune system, you make up for in other unique ways.

And with this, a few days ago I found out that I passed my radiotherapy & oncology BSc Hons degree with a 92.6% First-class degree!!!

I have a fully-funded PhD scholarship offer bringing together 2 of my passions together (art & healthcare) that starts in October, and I leave for the U.S.A in 5 days times for a good couple of months. I genuinely can-not-believe it!!

Not too shabby for the working class kid with no science background or previous healthcare working experience.

I am humbled, and most of all feeling extremely privileged to have shared this crazy journey with you all. I wasn’t sure I was going to make it to this day, in all kinds of ways, and for this reason this achievement feels incredibly important and special.

For a long time, I had made who I was by being a work-horse. I could totally juggle 8 things at once. I could totally stay up til 3am in the morning working on hopeful-kick-ass projects/ideas/gigs – and then get up at like 9/10am the next day — no questions about it.  My mind constantly buzzed with all the cool things we could do. I’d sleep with a notebook and jot down cool ideas in the middle of the night. If you needed something doing – I was the person! But Nothing prepares you for the day when you can’t do what you do any more.

I didn’t feel like myself. I felt broken. I loathed who I had become.

There I was, hopeless – barely there. Not feeling alive.

I cried. I felt sorry for myself. I didn’t believe it was happening to me.

I’ve spent the last couple of years searching for the Old (younger) Smizz. I’ve looked for her all over  —But there’s no going back to my old life.

I am broken. There’s no protocols or discharge instructions to guide people back to their lives.

But I am alive.

I do think about that a lot.

 

This degree course allowed me to gain some control, it gave me some much needed (if not too much) structure and helped me to try & hopefully make a difference. After all, what is the point of saving a life if the life isn’t a meaningful one?

And the friends I’ve met whilst doing it – all with their own personal stories – have helped to inspire, and alongside all my other friends, they’ve helped me to carve this new path for myself.

It highlights the fact that I’ve never actually accomplished a single meaningful thing by myself, and this is included.

The past few years has taught me that reading the fine print of your mortality is a great sifter of rubbish.

In the chase for the extraordinary we can sometimes forget to embrace the ordinary moments. It’s about embracing our vulnerabilities and learning to ask for help. We also need to invest in others without expecting returns – because that’s real love.

And it’s about realizing that your time is valuable — what you do with it, how you spend it and with whom.

 

It’s picking yourself up when life knocks you down and finding beauty in your bruises. But this might take years and years to do, it’s not an overnight fix. We are all damaged & broken & traumatized & mistake making in some way or another. But it doesn’t define who we are. So don’t be so hard on yourself. And Don’t be so hard on others.

3 years ago, I literally couldn’t get out of bed. Today marks a HUGE milestone for me. I got out of bed each placement morning (1000’s of hours of free labour) (i wasn’t happy about it lol), I ground myself down, I gritted my teeth and pushed through most of the fatigue & pain, and some how completed 3 years clinical education. Super early mornings, physical lifting, lots of moving, emotional distress, stress, deadline after deadline, many naps where ever I could find them, doritos and a 2 year long headache. And somehow I got here.

Whilst I still live in deep pain, and still haven’t learnt my fatigue limits, and I’ve lost feeling all on my left side, and a headache that often leaves me crippled to the floor. I’m proud of how far I’ve come. Recovery is hard. I don’t think we give enough people credit for that part.

I Never, genuinely – hand on heart –  would have believed any of this would have been possible.

So thank you to YOU ALL.  My mom, my bro, my nan, my amazing friends – old & new, stafff, lecturers, my twitter fam, my internet friends. Anyone and everyone.
Without your advise, support, jokes, cleaning, food, tears, stories, knowledge and just being there and accepting I take 7-10 business days to return a text/email – I’m not so sure this would be the blog update it is today.

I plan on using all of my time allocated.

And I can’t believe I’m here.

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