So last Christmas 2017, December 23rd and 24th I was sat at home with my mum, dad and brother around the fire in the lounge. We were catching up, talking and watching our all time favourite Christmas films. I always struggle around Christmas and New Year because it always makes me think “what have I actually achieved this year?” I know logically I’m alive and stable which for me and my situation is a massive achievement in myself but you still end up comparing yourself, (no thanks to social media and all the ‘perfect lives’ we see or think we see more like) and thinking to myself I haven’t got a career (I can’t work due to my illness and all its complications), I haven’t got a degree or gone to uni, I haven’t got married or had kids, I haven’t climbed Mount Everest or raised a million pounds for charity or done something incredible or inspirational (I think) and just six months ago I split up from my 2 and a half year relationship. My main achievement, as basic as it sounds, was and still is surviving and fighting this illness as whether in hospital or at home it’s a 24/7 battle to just stay alive, stable and keep functioning on top of trying to live the life you want and that’s then all dependant on what your body is doing/feeling that day, week or minute. That’s not easy both physically and mentally and I know even while writing this I’m being so hard on myself, it’s one of my less favourable traits, but it’s so easy to say ‘oh don’t be so hard on yourself!’ than to actually believe it and put it into practice. But I’m working on it and that’s all anyone of us can do in life.
With all of this in mind though I still wanted to make a goal, an achievement for this year, I just needed to be more realistic and kind to myself in what I choose. I’ve always loved public speaking, I did it a lot when I was younger and before I stopped working and I thoroughly enjoyed what came with it especially when talking to children and young people. So then I thought how about I combine all those skills and what I’ve learnt and had to overcome in the last five years? I could do talks to children and young people on disability, being different and inclusivity. Specifically talking to younger children, primary school age as I know some charities speak to young people on disability but that’s in high school 11+ not below (I may be wrong don’t quote me on that) and I believe we should be talking to kids about these subjects much, much earlier. So I said to dad on Christmas Eve that next year in 2018 I wanted to do at least one of these talks, these ideas. That was the plan in my head but could I really pull it off? For real? It had been so long since I’d done a talk I wasn’t so sure but one of my close friends Lou gave me the boast and push I needed to be confident and make that first step.
So in late February after a very up and down six weeks with my health I made that first jump by calling Girl Guiding UK (thought brownies and guides were a good place to start) and putting myself out there (which is always a tough thing to do for anybody myself included especially when you suffer with anxiety on top but I took a deep breath and reminded myself what I live by “Feel the fear and do it anyway, no regrets. Treasure every moment and take what oppitunuites you can and always make a difference where possible.”
The last line always stands out to me as when you live with life threatening illness you never know what’s round the corner, let alone tomorrow or even in an hours to a minutes time so grasping oppitunuites and living life to the full is motto’s I really try to live by, as well as ‘just keep swimming’ of course.
Within minutes of speaking to someone on the phone I was put at ease and they immediately said it sounded like a great idea and they would welcome me with open arms to speak to their girls. Unfortunely after saying they would contact me with more information they didn’t and then another hospital admission meant it got put on the back fence for a little while but then one day mid March something unexpected happened. I was walking Willow in town and as I was looking around one of the shops a young girl came up to me asking if she could stroke Willow, I thanked her for asking, explained Willow was in training and then allowed her to say hello. As she was doing this her mum came and spoke to me and after a few minutes the conversation went on to what I did and of course I explained about my illness, training Willow and then said how I was looking into doing local talks to children on my story and disability but before I could even finish she interrupted me all excitedly saying ‘I’m one of the leaders for the 5th Brownies just round the corner, I could speak to my other leaders and see if you could take a session next month, what do you think?’ I was shocked/over the moon/half keeping an eye on Willow at the same time as I just nodded and went ‘that would be incredible yes please!’ The rest of my brain going ‘okay now you have to really knuckle down Ruth! You need to put together a full hour and a half session for 20+ girls. This is getting very real! But also very exciting!
So that’s how it all started and that next month I did exactly what I said I’d do (and my lucky stars were on my side that I avoided any major health complications those weeks) I planned out what I wanted to do and made together a session for the girls, it was specifically brownies so 7-11 year olds. The biggest thing I found helpful was breaking it down, not putting too much pressure on myself and doing a little bit every day or every few days when I felt up to it. One tip I’ve found useful is doing 20 minute bites so setting an alarm on my phone for 15 or 20 minutes and then putting all my focus into what I’m trying to do and being allowed no distractions from Willow, (unless alerting me to anything), social media or my phone. Then once the time is up stopping, putting the laptop down, having a break and doing something else for a bit whether that’s resting, sleeping or going on to something different, for me it helps doing just a little at a time as I can’t focus for too long or do too much because of my pure exhaustion, brain fog, cognitive difficulties, pain, sickness and everything this illness brings with it. But it doesn’t mean I can’t do anything it just means it takes longer than most and at times it can be so frustrating but it also means that when you do finish things it is so much more of an achievement because you know how much it’s taken to get there and you don’t ever take that for granted.
Once I had finished organising the session for the upcoming talk I did a brief run through with mum but by the end of it we both agreed something was missing, what could it be though? WILLOW! We both exclaimed! I have a gap I need to fill and what better way to fill in than Willow? So I went back and edited what I had done so far and then added in the new section which would be 20 minutes on Willow, Dog A.I.D. the training she’s doing (now fully qualified but not at the time) and showcasing some of the wonderful and practical tasks she does for me. Now it’s complete, we both said smiling at each other with Willow sprawled across me sleeping not realising she would be the star of the show but if you know Willow you know she’s always happy to show her skills in the limelight!
So to give you a little overview of my talks this is what an average session can look like:
Firstly I introduce myself and Willow and explain why we’re there. We then play a fun game of ‘spot the difference’ with both leaders and kids but with my own special twist on it! I then tell my story (a brief version) of my disability, what happened and how I got to where I am today, this includes photos, some of my sporting medals/achievements and questions and answers which the kids all get involved with, throughout the session there’s always lots of interaction and things for the girls take part in as I believe it’s really important you don’t just sit and talk ‘at them’ you include them and make it as fun and interactive as possible. Throughout the whole session I’m always going back to my three aims and talking points which are disability, being different and inclusivity. After this there’s a short five minute break where the leaders do a game and I bring Willow in setting up for her demo. Before Willow does her demo I talk about how her training is going, who Dog A.I.D. are and what assistance (and other working) dogs can do. Willow then does her thing and she loves it, she gets so excited as she just loves showing her tasks and getting her favourite rewards (in chicken value normally!) We show her helping me get undressed, taking the washing out, fetching my phone, keys, alarm and medical bag and lastly we show what happens when I collapse, Willow going to fetch my phone/alarm and finding or alerting the nearest help.
As well as the tasks I also go on to explain to the girls that although it is amazing what she does and it is of course, she’s still a dog and like all working animals, she’s not a robot and yes she is training and when fully trained is at a very high standard of behaviour and tasks but she is not 100% perfect, no dog is (no human is either). She has good days and bad days just like you and me but it’s about how you handle that as an owner and as much as it’s about her helping me I have to look after her too and notice if things are getting too much or she’s having a bad/off day, most importantly we take care and look out for each other. After this it’s getting to just over half way through and normally by this point the girls are getting restless so to counteract that it’s the perfect time for a game! Bring on volleyball, two teams, a net and a few soft balls. Firstly we play normal volleyball for 5 minutes on a timer and then I shout ‘stop!’ I change the rules and explain that we’re now going to play sitting volleyball. This is a fun game where they’re active, having to work as a team and at the same time learning a little of what it’s like when you can’t just get up and run, ie. their bottom must always be touching the floor at all times. This is a really interesting activity and the kids always learn a lot as well as having lots of fun. By the time we finish the volleyball it’s near to the end and we have one last discussion before home time, talking about what they’ve learnt, enjoyed and are going to take away from my session. But instead of just saying it out loud I get them to draw, colour, stick and write it out whatever way they want, being as creative as possible is the aim! I do this at the end of every session and it’s wonderful to see their answers both from my point of view, theirs and their leaders. Then it’s home time and we’re done, session complete! Take a breath out and relax, you’ve done it and a really proud moment too, all the hard work coming to an end. Yes I can’t change the world, I can’t make a difference to everyone but if I’ve helped to inspire, teach, make a small difference to just a few or all of those 20 children then that’s something and something I am definitely proud to have done and will continue to do so.
Since that first talk I have done five more as well as my first one to guides which is girls 11-15, similar session but with more depth and discussions as well as all the fun, games and Willow of course. It’s now October 2018 and I said last Christmas to dad I wanted to do just one talk and I’ve already done five, now if that isn’t an achievement what is? I can sit here and say ‘Oh I could have done more or this and that’ which I often do being so hard on myself but I’m trying to get better at acknowledging everything no matter how big or small and not comparing as all our lives and situations are different. But this is my life, this was a goal I set myself and I’ve done that goal and more so I should be proud and I really am.
A few of the quotes from the children I worked with:
‘THIS GIRL CAN. I can do this. It is possible’.
‘Anything is possible if you try and help each other’.
‘Adaption is the key’
‘Dogs can save lives’
‘I’ve learnt that your dog Willow can open washing machines, find phones and get help when you collapse’
‘I’ve learnt that it’s actually quite hard being disabled but it doesn’t mean your life is over’.
‘Sitting volleyball is fun!’