Storms Don’t Last Forever

A few weeks ago much of the UK was battered by Storm Doris.  High winds and torrential rain affected many areas of the country.

One Thursday after arriving home from a morning out cut short because of the inclement weather; I watched the rain beating against the glass of my bedroom window, observing the dark grey clouds while I lay down on my bed battling the effects of chronic pain ravaging throughout my legs. I lay there wondering if and when this horrible, destructive storm will end.

Waking the next morning, after opening my bedroom curtains, to my surprise and delight I was greeted by beautiful blue skies and glorious sunshine.  It was then I was reminded that storms don’t last forever and that the sun always shines after the rain.

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Furthermore, a realisation occurred to me that it could also be a perfect metaphor for life with chronic illness.  We all will, at some point in our lives, will experience a storm in our lives; a dark point that at the time feels like we’ll never get out of.  But, of course, nothing in life is permanent.  Our experiences and feelings like most things, such as storms are transient, before moving on, and making way for the sun to shine once more.

Of course, the definition of ‘chronic’ is something, usually describing an illness which is persisting for an extended length of time or one which is constantly recurring.  In this sense, living with chronic illness is like permanently living under a storm cloud.  However, although our conditions are permanent, our symptoms can sometimes be transitory, allowing a small piece of sunshine in our days.  It’s like Charlie Chaplin once said, “Nothing is permanent in this wicked world, not even our troubles.”

Symptoms, which are often persistent and loud, can on some days concede, the feelings and their effects being fleeting and mild, letting us have a rare, good day.  Even living with a long-term condition, therefore, doesn’t mean accommodating a permanent storm in our lives.

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Things recently have been difficult, in my own circumstances living with a neurological condition with increased pain and trembling in my legs.   Some days it has been so bad that I wonder how I have managed to get out of bed in the morning.  On the worst days, it has felt like I was living in my own bubble, surrounded by large and dark storm clouds above my head because of the severity of the physical symptoms, I was experiencing and the emotional toll they were having on my well-being.

Despite this, however, I have still found little rays of sunshine throughout my days even through this turbulent times.  Even little things such as enjoying the feel of the sun on my face, especially after spending days inside, or enjoying the taste of my favourite bar of chocolate.  It was also my birthday last week, and although my symptoms did slightly dampen the occasion, it was still so lovely to receive presents, cards and messages from people who took the time out of their lives to think of little, old me!  These beautiful moments are small reminders that although it may not feel like it during this very moment, that storms indeed do not last forever.  Nothing is permanent, and these thoughts and feelings will not last forever.  This too shall pass.

Sitting here, thinking about the storms that roll in when living with chronic illness reminds me of my favourite quote from the author of one of my all-time favourite books, Louisa May Alcott.  She once famously wrote, “I’m not afraid of storms, for I’m learning how to sail my ship.”

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For me, it’s a truly beautiful reminder that the obstacles, challenges and difficulties that any of us face during our lives help us build strength and resilience, and ultimately it is these hardships that teach us how we should be living our lives.  For if it were not for storms, we would never learn how to sail our ships; we would never learn the lessons of strength or resilience that helps us through the dark times.  Of course, this is of little use during periods of distress.

As I continue experiencing this particular, and the often distressing symptoms that they bring, I will try and continue to remember that storms don’t last forever, and I hope you do too.

Or if not, I hope you find ways to create your own sunshine…

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A Chronic Illness Playlist

Last week, I wrote a blog post about the power of music and its ability to connect with us on a personal level.  The ability of music and its melody or lyrics to express and convey emotions that we are experiencing at a particular time.  In the post, I also shared the lyrics that I have been able to relate to from the perspective of someone living with a neurological condition.

But music has the power not only to express such emotions that we may be feeling but can also help change our mood.

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If we are feeling sad for example, then listening to an upbeat song can help lift our mood.  In fact, there is music for every mood imaginable – songs to help calm an anxious or overwhelmed mind, music to uplift you, music to pump you up or just to fill a silence.  They also have the power to take us back to happier memories – for example, whenever I hear the song ‘Brave’ by Sara Bareilles (which coincidentally almost made it into this list) it transforms me back to the amazing cruise I took with my parents around the Canary Islands, and therefore I cannot help feel happy and nostalgic whenever I hear the upbeat tempo of it’s opening bars.

Living with a neurological condition has many ups and downs, and when in the midst of a flare, for example, it can be very trying.  When pain and other symptoms increase, my mood often dips, and I can become quite depressed.  For these times, I have a toolbox that I rely on to help decrease the effect that these symptoms have on my well-being.

And one of these tools is music!

A playlist of positive and uplifting songs that help lift my mood, and remind me of all that is right with the world, and that good times are waiting beyond the current storm.

So, following on from last week’s blog post, I thought I would share my uplifting and encouraging playlist with you all:

‘Fight Song’ by Rachel Platten

This is my fight song
Take back my life song
Prove I’m alright song
My power’s turned on
Starting right now I’ll be strong
I’ll play my fight song
And I don’t really care if nobody else believes
‘Cause I’ve still got a lot of fight left in me

This song has become somewhat anthemic for those facing adversity, especially those within the chronic illness community.  It’s upbeat melody, and inspiring lyrics helps keep us fighting through the darkest days of living with health problems.  It’s a song that can motivate anyone to continue fighting through any obstacles or challenges they may be experiencing, and not give up.  It’s a song, I think you’d agree is hard not to join in with when it’s playing on the radio!

 ‘Hold On’ by Wilson Phillips 

Don’t you know?
Don’t you know things can change
Things’ll go your way
If you hold on for one more day
Can you hold on for one more day
Things’ll go your way
Hold on for one more day

Not one I would have chosen, but have heard this so many times on the radio station that I listen to, that it was hard not to add this to this playlist! It’s an incredibly catchy song that can give hope on a day where you are feeling a little hopeless and lost because of debilitating and never-ending symptoms. Many times have I been in my carer’s car on a bad day, and this song has played, and I have felt a little better and more hopeful for better days.

‘Don’t Be So Hard on Yourself’ by Jess Glynne

Let’s go back to simplicity
I feel like I’ve been missing me
Was not who I’m supposed to be
I felt this darkness over me
We all get there eventually
I never knew where I belonged
But I was right and you were wrong
Been telling myself all along
Don’t be so hard on yourself, no
Learn to forgive, learn to let go
Everyone trips, everyone falls
So don’t be so hard on yourself, no
‘Cause I’m just tired of marching on my own
Kind of frail, I feel it in my bones
Oh let my heart, my heart turn into stone
So don’t be so hard on yourself, no

I love Jess Glynne and her amazing voice, and this is one of my favourite songs of hers.  Living with chronic illness is difficult, and it’s so easy to get caught up with beating ourselves up over what we are unable to do or things we haven’t done because of chronic illness.  This song is such a beautiful reminder that everyone experiences bad times and we shouldn’t be so hard on ourselves.

‘I Don’t Want To Be’ by Gavin DeGraw

I don’t want to be
Anything other than what I’ve been trying to be lately
All I have to do
Is think of me and I have peace of mind
I’m tired of looking ’round rooms
Wondering what I’ve got to do
Or who I’m supposed to be
I don’t want to be anything other than me
There are times that I feel ashamed of the person I am, and the limitations and restrictions that exist because of my neurological condition.  Because of my condition and after being bullied for many years, I often feel that I am not beautiful or good enough, but this song is a reminder that we should not be ashamed of who we are and instead to be proud of the person we have become.
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‘The Story’ 
All of these lines across my face
Tell you the story of who I am
So many stories of where I’ve been
And how I got to where I am
Perhaps not the most upbeat melody of the songs listed on my playlist but is nevertheless a beautiful song with lyrics that make you listen and reflect, allowing yourself to relate them to your own story.  The lyrics above, when listening to them, allows me to appreciate how illness is merely just one story that makes up the overall ‘novel’ of my life.  Chronic illness is a part of our journey and our lives, but is not one that defines us.  There are so many other parts and many other stories that are more interesting for others’ to discover.
Well, there are just five songs that I would add to a playlist of songs to uplift, motivate and inspire during the darkest days of living with chronic illness.
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What other songs would you add to this playlist? Would love to hear your suggestions! Hit the comment box below!

I Blog Because…

I was recently received a DM on my Twitter account from fellow blogger John Sennett asking me if I were interested in taking part in a campaign that he created called #iblogbecause, an initiative to spread positive messages around the blogging community.  Here is his original post on the idea for the campaign to find out more and perhaps even to take part yourself.  So here is my contribution on the reasons behind why I blog.

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In my personal experience living with a neurological condition has in some ways stolen my voice and effectively trapping me amongst the same four walls in which I spend the majority of my time.  The pain and torment that the symptoms associated with my condition creates in my life remain invisible to the rest of the world, of course there are subtle signs of a life filled with pain and illness if one chooses to notice.  But largely, the life I live with constant and relentless symptoms remain unseen, trapping me in a bubble that only I am aware of as the rest of the world walks on by.

And so I blog because it gives me a voice.  As someone who is somewhat of an introvert and not eloquent in the slightest when it comes to public speaking, I am unable to use my voice to raise awareness of issues and life with an invisible neurological condition.  However, give me a pen and paper (or a computer and keyboard) and I am able to write as some people tell me quite eloquently and to use this to write what life is like with such a condition as well as issues that affect and are important to the chronic illness community.  To have a voice and say in such matters despite symptoms keeping me from being able to leave the house.

Writing can be a cathatric experience...
Writing can be a cathartic experience…

I blog because it enables me from being able to meet others and making friends with such like-minded people and those experiencing similar realities to myself.  I have read a lot of blogs from others also living with neurological conditions or other chronic illnesses and reading their experiences and thoughts has almost mirrored by own and reminded me that although we have different diagnoses and live in different parts of the countries or even living on different continents there are more that unites us than divides us.  Blogging has allowed me to make friends and meet a wide range of different people, people who are there for me and able to lean on for advice and support perhaps even more than I had in my life before I started my blog and utilised social media as an extension of my writing.  Through writing and this blog I am able to inspire others and in turn inspire me.

I blog because it gives me a focus and escape from being ill, despite that being the focus of the blog.  Writing allows a cathartic release and escape from illness and pain.  Writing, especially blog posts that are planned, rewritten and edited before being published in the blogging stratosphere takes my mind off being ill and from the symptoms that are making themselves known.  Being able to write and have a focus beyond watching a film or a TV show, quietens the symptoms and allows me a creative outlet for everything that bothers me about living with a neurological condition.

I blog because it is something that I enjoy and above all it gives me a purpose beyond that of living with chronic illness.

The things that make me different are the things that make me…

This post is deeply personal and difficult to write, but as I think it will resonate with many others who are forced to live with illness everyday, it is therefore an important one to write.

There are many times that I dislike myself and am ashamed of who I have become.  If I could be anyone else, I would gladly choose anyone else’s life to live rather than my own.  A lot of that is down to the neurological condition that I live with; everything that life with chronic illness has given me, I believe however that it has taken much more away.  The symptoms that I endure, and the impact that it has on my life has stripped away friendships, my independence and ability to provide for myself through meaningful employment that was my aspiration after graduating university and before the deterioration of my condition.  The dreams that I had and the direction that I wanted my life to take was snatched from me and was instead forced to reevaluate everything and take a different path.

I am sure that I am not the only person living with a chronic illness to feel or have felt this way.  To look at others, measuring ourselves against them and ending up feeling rather superfluous in comparison.  When I think of my family and seeing myself through their eyes, I often believe that I must be somewhat of a disappointment to them.  After all I have not achieved anything substantial during my life thus far, rather my life consisting of being stuck inside the same four walls or attending one hospital appointment after another.  These thoughts are not consistent and perhaps are worse during the darkest of days.

However, I came across the most beautifully compassionate and profound quote written by A.A Milne and famously said by his most famous creation, Winnie-the-Pooh.

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Perhaps chronic illness are the largest part of ourselves that make us different but then without it then we wouldn’t be who we have become.  Living with a neurological condition and its symptoms, for many years before being diagnosed, it has shaped who I have become as a person as a result.  If not for living with a neurological condition, I may have become an entirely different person, but then it would not necessarily mean they would be a better person.  I like to think of myself as a compassionate and caring person; someone who is there for others and perhaps this part of what defines me as a person is as a result of the experiences of living with this neurological condition.

We often think of chronic illness as being the defining feature of the negative aspects of our personality and lives in general – the loss of independence, loss of self-confidence and so on but perhaps life with a chronic illness may also be the influence for the positive aspects which what defines us.  If it weren’t for chronic illness, I personally would never have been such an avid user of social media, or the author of a blog for example and as a result would never have found my close friends that I have made since sharing my experiences of living with a neurological condition.  Furthermore, I may not have such a close relationship with my parents if it had not been for the condition that has affected them just as much as myself.

The difficulties faced when living with a chronic illness or neurological disorder are extremely difficult and as a result of living with these for many years we develop a strength and resilience that was not there prior to the onset of symptoms and may not have developed if not for chronic illness.

The people closest to me, can see beyond the neurological condition that I see as being such a big part of my life, and see my value despite the effects of chronic illness, and which I may not recognise in myself.  They recognise the things that make me different from everyone else and yet still love me because it’s those differences that make me and despite me being ashamed of that which makes me different from others.

A.A Milne should be celebrated for not only his profound words and insights of life but also for making those who may feel different from everyone else be proud of those differences and allow themselves to celebrate their individuality.

 

Back in the driving seat…

As I have been enervated by symptoms, almost leading to the feeling of being trapped in a prison surrounded by invisible tormentors.  However, I was not only trapped inside my own body; a metaphorical prison whilst enduring persistent and unrelenting symptoms but these were also keeping me inside my home due to their severity as well as the fear of the possibility suffering another fall in public.  It was as if the symptoms were acting as prison guards, keeping me imprisoned in my home and the same four walls in which I already spent the majority of my time to begin with.  I longed for adventure, to experience activity and excitement, like the characters in the books that had become my constant companion as I convalesced in my bedroom.

Adventure. Spontaneity.  Two words that is not synonymous with life with a neurological condition.  Going on an adventure when living with any chronic illness requires planning with almost military precision, and is reliant on a number of factors such as how you are feeling on the day that has been set out for the planned adventure.  Personally for me, big adventures are also dependent on whether or not my legs are being cooperative on the day, and if they are somewhat weak and the wheelchair is needed then it needs to be a mild dizzy day so the motion sickness does not present itself!  Spontaneity is near possible when living with a chronic illness!

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During a short reprieve from my condition and its accompanying symptoms, I made the decision to make a trip to Hay-on-Wye with my carer on a sunny afternoon in late May.  I say that it was a reprieve, but the symptoms were very much there but the severity of them was not as bad as it had been, so it did feel somewhat of a reprieve but at this point it felt that my condition and its symptoms had been very much in the driving seat dictating everything, from how I was feeling to what I could and could not do and I was tired.   I was ready to finally take back control and be the one in the driving seat instead of being the passenger on my own ride.

Hay-On-Wye is a small market town located in Powys, West Wales is a place that I had been before, but have desperately wanting to return to since.  It’s most famous as being the town of books with an impressive number of bookshops adorning the streets of the quaint little town.  As a massive bookworm myself, this beautiful place is like a little piece of heaven for me, and I was really excited to make a return to this mecca of literature.

The many wonderful bookshops of Hay-on-Wye
The many wonderful bookshops of Hay-on-Wye

The day itself was beautiful with majestic blue skies with a warm gentle breeze.  It was a beautiful start, the only problem being my extremely trembling legs, as unfortunately the place being somewhat unsuitable for a wheelchair, meant that I had to rely on what felt like incredibly unreliable legs.  But even that wasn’t going to stop me as somehow despite how tough things have been, I finally found my sparkle again.  And despite wobbly legs, several near falls and major fatigue I had a great time in this wonderful little town.  I  was able to browse the many quaint and unique bookshops, treated myself to lunch and just sat down and soaked in the sights and a little vitamin D.  It was a great day; probably the best I’ve experienced for a long while.

Above all I learnt just how much control I allowed my condition to have on my life, yes, some of this was because I had no physical control over this such as the severe weakness and trembling in my legs.  However, I let myself believe that because of the severe symptoms I was not able to do anything at all.  I thought this was my reality, when in fact it was only my perception of the situation.  On the day I discovered determination and strength I never knew I possessed. It felt like pain had my legs trapped in its vice-like grip, but determined to sought out lots of books, I carried on.   Yes, my legs were weak and uncooperative, ready to give way in a blink of an eye, but there are plenty of ways to still an enjoy a day out.  The use of a wheelchair, for example, or by taking regular breaks as we did in Hay (and the perfect excuse to enjoy a hot chocolate!). We may not be able to enjoy a long day out, or a day out like we used to but with appropriate accommodations we can still enjoy a day out somewhere special.  Are there any perceptions regarding your condition that you think to be reality?

Admittedly, I perhaps overdone things that day given the fatigue and amount of pain I experienced days after but even that cannot tarnish the memories and the experience of the day.  And above all it felt brilliant to be back in the car, even if I’m not always in control…

 

Diagnosis is not the end of the story…

Recently, after another hospital letter landed on the doormat, it was time yet again for a visit to the consultant neurologist, whose care I am under in the attempt to shed some light on the medical mystery that feels has become my life.   The beginning of the appointment was the benign initial chat on how I have been feeling since the last appointment (a really short time to cover a year in just a few minutes!) and the regular neurological examination, including testing of my reflexes, a not so favourite as it always produces the most violent of spasms, increasing the trembling in the legs ten-fold and increases the weakness in them.

After the standard neurological examination was completed and the consultant thoroughly reviewed my extensive notes, which almost resembled the length of a novel and eventually came up with a diagnosis – Functional Neurological Disorder.

For those, who may not have heard of this condition before, functional neurological disorder is a condition in which a patient such as myself experiences neurological symptoms such as weakness, movement disorders, sensory symptoms or blackouts.  Patients exhibiting signs of a functional neurological disorder however shows no signs of structural abnormalities but is rather a problem with how the brain functions.  It is a problem with how the brain is sending or receiving messages.  If we imagine the brain to be a computer, then conditions such as MS or Parkinson’s Disease would be a problem with the hardware, whereas functional neurological condition is a problem with the software.  Just as a computer crashes or becomes extremely slow due to a software bug, neurological symptoms arise when there is an interruption in the messages being sent or received by the brain.

There is much debate on what exactly causes the dysfunction of the nervous system.  Some suggest that there is a psychological component which manifests itself in a physical manner, but is merely a theory to why these symptoms occur.  I suppose that this is one of the most frustrating aspects of being diagnosed with this condition; yes, it’s a label that explains the experience in terms of my physical health, however there are so many questions that cannot be answered.  Reading the literature on this condition there are words such as possible and probable and no definite answers or explanations for the development of this condition.  As I read more and am left with no real answers to my questions, I often wonder if the acronym of FND should really stand for ‘For No Diagnosis’.   And with no such answers, how can we as patients be confident of the diagnosis?  Is it a merely a label that doctors grasp at when they cannot find a definitive explanation of our symptoms?  In my experience, the consultant almost pulled this diagnosis out of thin air.

Interestingly most of the anecdotes from others diagnosed with Functional Neurological Disorder describe how their symptoms often started out of the blue, like being struck by a bolt of lightning after which realising life will never quite be the same again.  However, this was not the case for me, as what started off as minor symptoms slowly became more and more severe, as well as the introduction of new symptoms which was progressive in the same way as the original symptoms.  And there is the big puzzling picture of the early days of my life when the doctors thought there was something wrong with me after I was born, leading to a brain scan at two days old.  Growing up, I always complained about my pains in my legs which was worrisome to me but this was brushed away with reassurances they were merely growing pains.  Surely, these must be important pieces of the puzzle that surrounds my symptoms?

Sometimes a diagnosis can lead to more questions than answers
Sometimes a diagnosis can lead to more questions than answers

 

So what now?  Well, once again I have been referred to specialists for vestibular therapy to help with the dizziness and vertigo.  A therapy that I am no stranger too having been through it several times before.  I am not sure how I feel about this, initially I was reminded of the famous quote by Albert Einstein, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”    Do the doctors think that now I have a label, therapy will magically work when in the past it had no effect on my symptoms?  But, although I am initially sceptical I will always try my hardest and will try anything for even the smallest of improvement to the debilitating effects of dizziness and vertigo.

I have also been referred to a specialist neurological hospital in London for a second opinion and to see if the consultants there can come up with any answers and more importantly ideas on how to treat or even manage the symptoms that more often than not run the show of my life!

Through my experiences however I have learnt that even after getting a label, diagnosis is not the end of the story…

 

A New Chapter Begins…

It’s been so long since my last post.  In the time during my absence, a notable change has occurred – the end of one decade of my life and the beginning of another one, yes, since my last post two months ago I have turned 30 years of age!  Of course, the occasion was somewhat low-key, opting for a spa break consisting of being pampered instead of a large party with family and friends which could only exacerbate new feelings of fatigue, and which flashing lights and loud music would be intolerant for the dizziness and vertigo that are already problematic.

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It’s funny that when on the precipice of such a milestone is the reflection, not just on the past thirty years of one’s life but a reflection on future plans and the possibilities that lie ahead for the next thirty years.  Then there is the barrage of questions that people pose on such occasions, such as “How do you feel?” or “What are your plans now?” It’s as if people view these birthday milestones, such as turning 30, 40, 50 as a beginning of a whole new chapter of our lives.  The past finished within the pages of previous chapters and we are reborn as whole new characters in the story of our lives with endless opportunities that awaits us in the big wide world.

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When living with a neurological condition, or other chronic illnesses, however, the view is very much different…for us, these milestones are not the precipice for change and unfortunately are not reborn with a new future and endless possibilities awaiting us.  Our bodies are still very much broken and the symptoms that tormented us during the previous chapters that are the story of our lives still very much exist.

Pain, fatigue, dizziness amidst the other symptoms that I live with was unaware and didn’t care that it was my thirtieth birthday and they still made their presence felt on a day that was mine.  And even since, my thirtieth birthday the promise of a new beginning and chapter has proved to be unfruitful, and the symptoms have been unrelenting as ever.

This has especially been true regarding the pain and trembling in both of my legs.  Recently, I read a book that described the pain as a universal human experience.  Whether the pain is a physical sensation or through emotional turmoil, pain is something that we will all experience during our lives.  And I totally agree, but although we are all united in the shared experience of pain, isn’t it funny that when we are in the midst of experiencing pain, it feels like an entirely lonely place? This was the case during our recent spa break, when I found myself, in the early hours of my birthday, in excruciating pain while sharing a twin room with my Mum who was sound asleep.

Preparing to start writing a new chapter
Preparing to start writing a new chapter

 

Trapped in a body where the pain is ravaging my legs, in unfamiliar surroundings and during the early hours of the morning where everything was still and silent,  felt completely alone as if I were the only person alive experiencing pain.  Of course, I am not and visiting social media sites such as Twitter and reading the posts from others emphasises the realisation that I am not alone in the fight against chronic pain and that there is an unwavering amount of support from those who understand and live with pain themselves.

It was not just the pain however that has made me feel lonely and isolated as of late, but also the severe trembling of the legs that has often rendered me unable to venture far from wherever I am at the time.  More time being spent lying on my bed reading or watching TV programmes or films on my iPad.  Even going out, more time is spent sitting in coffee shops enjoying the warm, luxurious taste of hot chocolate while talking with whomever I’m with or spending some time reading.  Anything but traipsing around shops as legs often feel like they are too weak to support my weight.  This has been particularly emphasised by the number of times my legs have collapsed from under me leading to some rather embarrassing falls in public.

The pain and trembling it seems has made my world smaller once again.  Perhaps that is why I have found myself reading more books in recent times, as the stories that I am reading is able to take my mind to new places when my body is limiting to the places that I can physically visit.

In our lives we find that a lot of chapters close and new ones begin, waiting to be written but certain elements within our personal journeys remain, such as living with a neurological condition, chronic illness or disability as an example.  However, that is not to say that they have to dictate our narrative, or that the narrative cannot change. It just means that we need to take over the reins of the journey and find ways to take back our control and new ways to cope with the obstacles that are in our way.  As the esteemed writer, Nora Ephron famously said: “Be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”

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And as I wave goodbye to my twenties and enter a new decade of my life, I hope to become the heroine of my own story, to look forward to the future and the new possibilities and opportunities that lie ahead…