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An Ode to India – travelling with disability

For me the decision to travel to somewhere new is usually immediate and always filled with excited anticipation – sometimes perhaps with a hint of nervous anticipation. For me the world is large with so many places to visit and so many experiences to have but the world is also small. Nowhere is any more than a few days travel time away. If the world is so small, why not see as much of it as I possibly can in the 80+ years I will spend on this planet?

Everyone is different etc etc, but seriously I don’t get those people who are happy to stay put and never do anything that is out of their immediate knowledge and comfort zone. Seriously, that would be ridiculously boring. I’m guessing, especially if you are a regular reader of my blog, that you feel somewhat similarly.

Now I get that circumstance, personal or financial, can sometimes make having great adventures more difficult or impossible. Having been in the personal circumstance where any form of travel was physically impossible – I get it. I also get just how frustrated I was. I may not have had the ability to do much more than sit on the couch but I still watched travel documentaries – do it via somebody else if that is all I could do.

For me it was obvious that when I moved to India, many (although by no means all) of my friends would excitedly think, ‘Whoooo, whoooo, just the excuse I need! I’m off to India!’,  expecting my friends just to inform me they were coming rather than even waiting for an invitation or permission! Now Colin visited me in October although only for one night – he was here for work. While amazing to see him, I don’t think that is what I had in mind.

The first friend to visit me however was unexpected – well kind of! She has got a just go for it attitude so perhaps I shouldn’t have been surprised when she informed me she was coming on a visit. Her visit however could never have been a spur of the moment decision for her and for purely personal reasons. There was no way she could have just booked her ticket and then thought about the trip later. I can do that, my friend Sarah who I mentioned in a previous blog can do it – but not Gillian! Her decision required bravery and determination.

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Why? Gillian has Cerebral Palsy and this brings its own challenges – walking, balance and fatigue to name just a few. This blog however is not an ode to Gillian – although her bravery and determination indeed justifies an ode to her! This blog is an ode to India.

India can be so unutterly frustrating! It can bring the very worst out in you. You get so frustrated at short-term thinking, false promises and under-achieving, never mind the ‘it’s not my fault’ lack of responsibility taking. Seriously, why I haven’t been jailed for killing somebody in the year we have been here sometimes astounds me!

India however has done itself extremely proud! It can hold its head up as being one of the best countries in the world. Gillian is from the UK, has a German mum and has travelled around Europe and Australia. Without doubt, she says, India treated her better overall than anywhere else she has ever been. Now she’s not referring to the great access everywhere and the smooth pavements – well now she couldn’t really could she, given they don’t exist. She is talking about the people.

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Datta, our driver, is ready and waiting when Gillian arrived

From arrival to leaving she was met by extreme care from friends and strangers. Nobody but nobody on the streets or in shops / restaurants made her feel uncomfortable or made her life more difficult. On arrival in Mumbai, my driver anxiously helped the very, very tired and stiff Gillian into the car in Mumbai. He then spent too weeks worrying that he had touched her because knowing she prefers to do things herself, I had silently indicated to him to give her space. While Gillian will just remember this (if indeed she can) as somebody seeing somebody struggle and doing what they can to help.

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Maggie making Gillian a yummy traditional South Indian breakfast!

My maid, Maggie, the first morning after she arrived went out of her way to tell Gillian that anything she needed at all to let her know and then made her a gorgeous breakfast.

We went to lunch in Ram Krishna restaurant in Camp, the waiter without saying anything or making any form of fuss pulled the booth table out as far as it would go so that Gillian could walk to the seat and not have to slide around. Now Gillian is more than capable of sliding around but that instinctive / spontaneous act was heart-warming.

She wanted to try a pair of trousers on. When she got into the changing room there was no stool but within micro-seconds one arrived – not a word was said, it was just left in the room. Again no fuss. Just a recognition that there was something they could do to make her life easier so why not!

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Rashid sitting as he explains about a temple so Gillian could also sit

When we did a walking tour of old Pune (Chalo Heritage Walks – my lost blog was about this tour), Rashid Ali, the tour leader, couldn’t have been kinder. He constantly found places for her to sit and rest, when she had to take her shoes off to go into a temple, he got down on his hands and knees to put them back on.

There was a really high step into the temple and initially Gillian struggled to get up it. Seeing her struggle, a lady ran across the temple and offered to help her.

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This was the lady who stopped Deborah so Gillian could get by

Later in this same temple, my friend – Deborah (the photographer from my last blog) said that as she was leaving the temple an old lady stopped her so that Gillian could get by. Again, not really necessary but very sweet.

A few days later with Rashid, we went out to Bhigwan Dam which is a nature sanctuary – amazing, if you live in Pune you need to do this. This required the use of a fishing boat. The boatman without saying anything moved his boat so there was an easier spot for Gillian to climb in. When we were required to get off the boat and walk to where we could spot some flamingoes, the boatman first scouted the flamingoes – just to be sure that Gillian wouldn’t walk all the way and not see anything.

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Our very kind boatman

On return, he moved the boat a little further so that she would have to walk less. Rashid jumped into the mud and got himself filthy so that Gillian could climb off the boat a little easier. When her stick made a small section of the boat dirty where she would have to put her hands, Rashid used his own hands to clean the area – again with little thought just spontaneous action.

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Rashid cleaning mud off the boat so Gillian wouldn’t get dirty

We saw the flamingoes but they were just too far away for my camera to take a good shot and Gillian was struggling to see through binoculars – this requires balance and good use of both hands! Rashid initially tried to help her hold them but on spotting a man with a huge lens on his camera, I asked him if he would take a photo to show Gillian – he did it with enthusiasm and a great smile!

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Big lens! This enabled Gillian to see the flamingoes a little closer up

In Goa, we walked to a restaurant along the road but we wanted to go back along the beach. To get to the beach however we had to go down some steep steps without a handrail. Gillian got a little scared but the waiter ran over and gently took her arm and led her down the steps. Again no big deal, it was just what you do!

I could list and list and list all day and all night the amazing individual things Indians did to help make Gillian’s trip a success but perhaps it is best summarised by Gillian’s own insight. She compared her experience her to her experience in Australia. In both situations she felt she got the same treatment but the difference was the motivation. In India, she genuinely felt it was instinctive when people stepped up to help her. In Australia, she felt it was because people were motivated by the understanding that you should help people – there was little instinct behind it. In India, she felt Indians didn’t feel like she was any trouble while in Australia she felt people thought she was making trouble for them.

The thing that had worried me most about Gillian’s visit and therefore was the greatest surprise was staring. I had warned her and warned her that she would be stared at and photographed – perhaps even more than I am on a regular basis. It is far from unusual for me to suddenly have blank strangers around me and somebody else taking a photo, sometimes with permission but often without. Gillian is used to being stared at in the UK but I was worried that here it would be too much even for her.

I was particularly worried about visiting the Gateway of India in Mumbai. I had been there only a few weeks early with my friend and it was the most intimidated I have ever felt in India. We were simply sat down and then suddenly there were 20 plus men taking pictures of us and they simply wouldn’t go away. We had to get up and walk away ourselves. Wherever we were around the Gateway people stared and stared at us. This was on a Tuesday, we were going on a Sunday when it was busier – I was worried!

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Gillian in front of the Taj Mahal Palace Hotel. Picture taken at the Gateway of India – nobody is staring! Seriously, nobody!

So before going to the Gateway, I warned her again. I really wanted her to be prepared for it – she even suggested that we didn’t go. I wanted her to see it however so we went. I couldn’t believe it, not a single obvious stare and not a single photograph!!! Indeed, that can be said for the whole trip. Her whole trip in India there was no staring or photographs! Honestly, I was stared at less over the two weeks that she was here than I have ever been. Clearly, I need to get my stick back out – it appears to make you invisible!

I lie, there was one occasion where she was stared at and stared at so badly that she felt so bad that she left. I live in a very expensive apartment block (society). The people who live her are 50% expats, 25% NRIs (so people whose parents were born in India but they weren’t) and 25% very well off Indians. People in this society as a whole are well off, highly educated and highly travelled. Yet, it was these very people who stared so hard that Gillian didn’t want to hang around in our garden anymore! I was thoroughly disgusted.

In my ignorance, I expected the poorer, less educated elements of Indian society to be the starers – well they surely haven’t received the same education about disability or perhaps even the same exposure, have they? The people who stared shouldn’t feel proud and these people shouldn’t hold their heads high – in contrast, they should hang their heads in shame. For they were the only people in two weeks who didn’t do everything they could to make India proud of them.

Gillian’s experience of travelling with a disability in India was just an isolated experience, perhaps she was lucky or perhaps that is just the way Indians are. Somebody did tell me that Indians would look at Gillian with lots of respect because despite her disability she was still here! I have no idea if you are disable or your child is and you travel to India will you have such a hugely positive experience but if you are thinking about it, I would say from my experience with Gillian – go for it! India is not an easy place to travel never mind if you are travelling with a disability but I genuinely feel that you don’t need to fear how people will react to you being here.

India is definitely somewhere to book with excited anticipation (but just a little bit of nervous anticipation!).

Finally, India thank you. Thank you for being a major part of my friend’s holiday of a lifetime. Thank you for consistently showing her what an amazing country and an amazing people you are. Thank you.

I Don’t Think I’m Ready But Perhaps I Should Anyhow

This blog was first written about 18 months ago. I was too embarrassed to post it – too embarrassed to admit I wasn’t strong enough to cope. Since then, I regularly come across it, read it and instead of thinking why was I such an idiot about the whole thing? Why was I too embarrassed to post it? I continue to feel embarrassed – its ridiculous! 

So I have decided to be brave and post this blog. It is well out of date but I don’t think it matters. Perhaps somebody who is having a similar psychological fight as I had will read it and feel that they are not alone. Maybe they will see the ridiculousness in not talking about it and actually speak to somebody! 

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I’m doing something that only one person vaguely knows about – at least they are slightly aware of its existence but they don’t actually know I have started to use it. Not even my husband knows about its existence, never mind the fact that I actually have started to use it. This goes against everything that I have tried to maintain since I first got ill. Since I first got ill, I have always said that being open about what was going on, in particular with my husband, was absolutely key. Not being open might lead to distrust and misunderstandings. I have always argued that it was wrong to do anything that might encourage that feeling.

So what am I doing that is so awful I can’t even tell my husband? What is it that I am feeling so unsure of, perhaps even so stupid for doing it that I can’t tell my husband? I do not understand what makes me feel so embarrassed, I do not understand why I don’t want to share what I am doing with anyone. So what am I doing?

While we were on holidays and I had a relapse, one day we walked back from the restaurant and I clung to my husband’s arm, desperate for his support and to help me balance. It dawned on me that day that if I could find something that would help me maintain my energy levels and support me when I was having a bad day, then that surely would be a good thing.

So what have I invested in? I have invested in a walking stick.

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And look just how fun it is! And its my favourite colour!

The fact that it took me three paragraphs to get to the point says it all. I am not sure I am ready to use a walking stick, walking sticks are for old people or invalids – I am not old and I do not feel like an invalid therefore surely that means I do not need one. I am embarrassed at the thought of using it and I am embarrassed at the thought of being seen with it. Does using one mean I have given in – once again – to this illness?

You could, very rightly, argue that if I am using it to walk further on a bad day then it is assisting me in doing more than I should. If I could exercise myself better then yes, using it on a bad day would surely little by little assist me in improving my health. I cannot however exercise myself better so surely anything that enables me to do more is just increasing the intensity of my exercise? I think I am just looking for excuses as to why I shouldn’t use it, rather than looking for justifiable reasons why I should.

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True for so much of my illness, definitely not true in this case. Being too embarrassed to discuss my need for a walking stick preventing me using it. This was not me being strong but me being a coward. 

It has only been used twice, having owned it for more than a week I bought a folding one so I could have it in my bag to use should I be out and suddenly get an unexpected collapse of energy. I have   carried it around for a week every time I went out to use in just those circumstances. On Saturday when we walked across a field to get to a nuclear bunker (don’t ask), I was finding the surface hard going and thought just how much my walking stick might help me. There it was just waiting for me in my bag on my back. We were with friends however and I was embarrassed. Embarrassed because my husband had no idea I had it and embarrassed because then my friends might look at me as sick girl. I seriously overdid it on Saturday and as a consequence paid the price on Sunday.

20140318-080008.jpgIf I had used my walking stick for the entire duration of our outing, would I have overdone it so much? Would it have enabled me to use less energy by providing me with support, balance and indeed a method of propulsion. Perhaps, but I was too scared and embarrassed to try it.

This got me thinking. If I was able to reduce my energy requirements on an everyday basis by use of my walking stick, would this enable me to live more of a life? Walk further, do more? Would this be a good thing? Would this just encourage me to do more than I should? However, if I am using the same amount of energy but using it to do more surely that is a good thing? Again am I just looking for reasons to justify not using it and looking for reasons to prove my justification is ever so wrong. Perhaps the latter but I really do not know.

On Monday, still not quite having recovered from my overdoing it on Saturday, I went for a walk. A walk that included my walking stick. I deliberately kept to the back roads embarrassed by my stick. Ashamed to be seen out with it. At least this was my initial feeling. My walk to my usual churchyard seat took no longer than 6 minutes.  By the time I arrived, I was beginning to get the feeling that it was helping me. I should have been more tired by the walk given my energy levels. My legs should have begun to feel more pain but they were no worse than when I left. Was this the benefit of the walking stick or was it simply that I had under-estimated my energy levels and over-estimated my pain levels?

On my return, I walked back a different route, a route that touched the sides of busy roads, a road where there were pedestrians: people to see me and possibly make comments and wonder why a girl in her mid 30s was using a walking stick. I was very aware of everyone who passed, straining to hear them comment amongst themselves about me. Perhaps I was lucky or perhaps people just didn’t notice or care but I did not hear what I strained for. Silence.

Today Tuesday, the next day, I have tried again. This time walking further than yesterday. Again I didn’t struggle or feel my energy diminishing too quickly. This time I was aware as I crossed rocky ground that it was given me support and helping me balance. With my walking stick it was easier than it would have been without!

20140429-094815.jpgI am still a walking stick virgin however. I still hold it wrong at times and have to adjust it. I dropped it crossing the road until I remember to twist its string around my wrist so it wouldn’t fall. At times I don’t quite get the propulsion right and it lands on the ground at an odd angle. I haven’t learnt how to balance it when I sit down. I also haven’t learnt how to accept that it might be useful to me.

 

How can a walking stick be useful to a girl in her mid 30s who can walk for just over a mile (with a break half way)? How can a walking stick be useful to a girl in her mid 30s who doesn’t walk with a limp or need to balance against things? That is unless I am having a bad day.

For me using a walking stick is still a big experiment. Will I continue to use it? I don’t know – I hope I will if it consistently helps me. Will I tell my husband? I guess I have to. What will he think? I don’t know but I know he will at least wear a mask of support. I think he will think that if I am finding it useful then it is a great thing to do. I wonder whether he will find it embarrassing to be seen with me? Could I blame him if he didn’t? Hardly, I am not exactly embarrassment free at all of this, now am I?

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Gillian above (with her own walking stick) – my inspiration while I was sick and a never-ending source of support. She would have given me a right telling off if she had known I had a stick and wasn’t using it!

My friend, Gillian, was the first and only person I have ever discussed using a walking stick with. She uses one herself and even offered to lend me one of hers to try it out. I was embarrassed by the conversation – I think perhaps by the very need to have it in the first place. She was supportive and encouraging. She too was young and understood what it felt like to start to use one – she had started to use hers at 18! Her encouragement enabled me to at least buy one. I would like to think that one day I will be as brave as her and see only the positive reasons for using a walking stick. The negative reasons are surely just a matter of perception.

So I did eventually tell my husband who completely unsurprisingly was utterly supportive of me! 

I didn’t use it all the time but I always had it on me ready to pull out when things got difficult and I used it all day on a bad day. A walking stick categorically helped me! A month or so after I started to use it, I was re-diagnosed and given treatment that enabled me to make rapid improvement – very quickly after this the walking stick was no longer required. 

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In hindsight, I can only wonder why I made such a big deal about using one! Nobody looked at me funny, nobody laughed and in truth I don’t think any strangers actually cared. I should have used the inspiration of Gillian more – she is a girl who just gets on with things and doesn’t allow fear or worry stop her. Perhaps although I am now living in India and while not healthy, a lot healthier, this blog should act as a reminder that sometimes to be strong you need to accept your weaknesses and not let them hold you back.

Dahi Handi – the Yoghurt Pot Festival

It would be fair to describe my last blog as depressing.

I had found myself in what was quite a scary position. I fully understood why I was feeling so bad and I also fully understood just how bad things could get if not only was I lucky but more importantly very, very careful.

It seems I had been determined to forget about the fact that my health had been so bad and to allow myself to heal from the pain and fear that caused. On the other hand, the process of forgetting just resulted in my returning to where I had been 18 months earlier. I think therefore that it is not wise to forget just yet.

I must remain careful without going over the top. Every day / week I must plan my time so that serious and genuine rest is also included. Pacing: the very word I had allowed myself to forget but at least for the foreseeable future must remain a key word in my daily life.

Over the last few weeks, I have spent considerably more time at home but this has enabled me to do some pretty amazing things with the energy saved. It has allowed me to experience India!

The period from September to November is pretty much festival time in India! Over the next few months, I will post blogs about these festivities. Each however definitely deserves its own blog.

syama-krishna_sThe month started off with the birth of Krishna and the following night Dahi Handi. Indian’s love to party and what’s more they love to party with no concerns at all for health and safety. Consequently, Dahi Handi was an incredible experience.

You see Krishna wasn’t necessarily the best behaved boy in the world and he just loved, loved, loved his mother’s Dahi – yoghurt. a3-2So much so that he would at any opportunity steal it off his mum. Well now, his mum was having none of that – no, no she wasn’t. So she did what every parent has done in their lifetime – she hung the yoghurt pot (the handi) up out of her son’s reach. Well now, as every parent also knows: children grow. So week after week, she had to hang it higher and higher and higher! But Krishna was clever and he always found a way to eventually get to the yoghurt and get it out.

IMG_0035This story has led to the incredible spectacle of Dahi Handi. Big pots of honey and yoghurt are hung either from tall cranes or from a rope strung from two very tall buildings. Now, Dahi Handi has been somewhat restricted this year due to the drought Maharashtra is currently experiencing so apparently what I saw was far, far tamer than normal!

IMG_0006Having met up with some friends, we were all ready for our experience of a traditional Hindu religious festival. What we weren’t prepared for was the Bollywood dance music mixed with a rave! 1000s of men all effectively had a massive rave for two hours prior to the commencement of the Dahi Handi – timing of which was somewhat vague.

Of course, myself and Chris being the only white people there made us the centre of attention at times but we have become accustomed to being stopped and photographed repeatedly! Our friends, who are of Indian origin but still clearly look foreign were not short of stares and people whispering about them. It is never aggressive though – just intrigued!

Only in India however could a fight break out in the middle of this otherwise very congenial rave; the police wade in and sort it out; and then immediately be followed by a car driving through said throng so that a Bollywood actress could climb out and walk through the rest of the crowd to the stage. My friend’s husband was very pleased as she was his second favourite Bollywood actress!

Finally, Dahi Handi could commence – the actresses had arrived even if she was very late!

A team of men (age 12 – 30 perhaps) formed a human pyramid of about 8 layers. A tiny kid climbed up the pyramid onto the shoulders of the person at the top – the kid then proceeded to try and break open the handi unfortunately he failed so had to climb down again to get something better to break it with! Finally, he succeeded and the pyramid was doused in gallons of yoghurt much to the crowds delight!

Dahi Handi Pyramid – my video!

Dahi Handi – professional video

11947918_10153021637676820_7850001245742241422_oNormally, teams of pyramid builders compete to get the pot with prizes worth huge amounts of money. To make it more difficult, water is sprayed on the contestants so that everything and everyone gets very slippery! With the drought however this particular feature was banned and consequently some communities choose not to have teams competing!

Of course all of this happened on a public street. Eventually one side of the road was closed but crowds spilled onto the other lanes which were still open and now had traffic going in both directions. Chaos reigned! Young boys still ran around the traffic seemingly oblivious to the dangers! We did venture into the crowd at several points but were very grateful to the wise planning of our friends who had booked a table on a hotel balcony overlooking the spectacle.

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It was a very long and very exhausting evening but so, so much fun! We seem to spend so much of our lives socialising where the expats or wealthy Indians go – it is always a relief in a way to spend time frankly with normal people from all classes and walks of life!

Next year we will try and get out to a more rural occasion for Dahi Handi which apparently is a totally different experience! So, give it 12 months and you can look forward to reading that blog too!

Damn You, Kazza!

Wineglass Bay is considered to be the most beautiful bay  / beach in the world so visiting it during our stay in Tasmania was an absolute must.

IMG_4645 My first blog post from Australia was entitled: Not a Kazza in Sight! That turned out to not exactly be true. Kazza definitely came along for the ride. We managed to keep her in abeyance a lot of the time but we couldn’t help her coming to the fore from time to time.

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You see climbing up a mountain(ish) pass (to Wineglass Bay Lookout) and down the other side (to the beach itself) is hard work for a girl with a breathing problem but even worse for a girl with a competition problem. I constantly compete with myself (and some would say others too) and consequently get quite frankly pissed off with myself if I can’t do things. Which we all know is of course ridiculous!

IMG_4674So getting upset that I struggled to walk up a steep hill when I could barely walk to the end of the road this time last year is crazy. Getting upset because I was exhausted at the end of an 11km walk is also ridiculous but I just can’t stand to fail. I can’t stand to admit that I am not invincible which of course is how we got into this stupid mess, September 2013!

Australia was spectacular and was without doubt a holiday of a lifetime – I will always remember pretty much everything we did over those three incredible weeks. Every day brought a new adventure and a new sight that was unforgettable.

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The consequence of this incredible holiday from a health perspective however is that I returned exhausted. My week off to recover afterwards barely touch the sides of my exhaustion (largely because I filled it with activity everyday!). My week off rather than constituting doing nothing, constituted doing lots just not running! That, I convinced myself was a week off.

I had begun to recover and had even done a successful yoga class when our shipment arrived. This involved two solid days of hard work lifting and carrying and packing of boxes. Without leaving my house, I managed to accrue the guts of 20,000 steps a day and burned about 4000 calories! This was not what my body needed. We won’t even get into the psychological impact of lots of wedding presents getting smashed!

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Of course mixed into all of this was more issues with our washing machine which I of course had to deal with while still trying to direct hundreds of boxes to vaguely correct rooms around the house! Exhausting both physically and mentally.

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Note water gushing over the top!

Of course that washing machine repair failed (shock horror) and so it required, a few days later, another fight with a plumber over the course of three hours that water shouldn’t be dripping out of the hose pipe that, unlike what he claimed,- this was not ‘normal’. Every failed attempt to get me to agree that the leaking hose was fixed led to a phone call to his boss and every conversation started with him in Marathi / Hindi explaining that, ‘mam says there is a leak but there is no leak’ quickly followed by my saying (in English), ‘don’t say there is no leak when there is a leak!’ His boss seemed to inform him each time to fix it again! We got there in the end but it did take three hours! Once again, mentally exhausting.

Now that little adventure was followed by my deciding I would get a guy in to clean my windows inside and out. They were beyond filthy – still covered in the construction dust from when they were built a year ago. In places, it was difficult to even see out the window! I agreed to a price and when he would come. I didn’t on the other hand grasp the fact that it would take about 6 guys and about 9 hours of work (over two days) inside in the house and another 2 days to clean the outside of the apartment (on ropes from the roof!). Why would I ever have considered that it would take this long?! Sure our apartment is big but good lord it’s not that big!

While the guys are here, you have to hang around – I can’t exactly leave them unsupervised but it means you can’t really rest. I feel too uncomfortable with having people in to do such jobs to lie on the sofa and watch TV or with them moving around the whole time – go to bed for a few hours. So I continue to potter about, convincing myself that unpacking those boxes or carrying that heavy load is ok when really I am doing exactly the thing I shouldn’t be doing!

These adventures of course are unusual. They are in addition to the everyday challenges that you are faced with here. Where can I buy fruit? Where can I buy vegetables? Where can I buy meat? When will these places be open? When will I have the car to go and get them? What price am I willing to buy the rickshaw driver who is trying to rip me off? Where can I get big black bags for the dustbin when all I can find are little ones? Where do I find cat litter that isn’t vile and disgusting because the cats are hating what I got for them!? Where? When? How?

Over the last week therefore I can categorically say I have begun to feel again the way I did 18 months ago. I am reminded again about the difference between fatigue and tiredness. I am not really tired, I am seriously fatigued. A blog, many months ago now, talked about how I had to walk the tight rope between doing too little and doing too much. Too little and I would make myself too physically unfit to deal with my illness and psychologically do damage by isolating myself from the world but equally doing too much would make me physically more ill and make it harder for me to psychologically deal with my illness (my brain gets tired just like my body does).

cropped-20140318-0801571.jpgThe tightrope is back and once again nobody has given me any safety ropes. While I feel I am in a much better position than I was back then, it does without question scare me. This feels like the worst relapse I have had since I seemed at least on the outside ‘to be better’. Just like I coped before I can cope again.

And here, far more than back in the UK, will help me recover. Here, I have lovely Maggie who comes and cleans my house. The weather is warm and that always helps. I don’t have the pressure of trying to return to work. I can cheat and buy my meat from a 5 star hotel and order my vegetables online (even if the price and quality isn’t the same as buying them elsewhere). I have a driver so I don’t have to worry about not being able to drive or getting the energy together to use public transport. There is also an incredibly supportive group of people here that will help me to look after myself (just like I had back in the UK).

So, rather than seeing my current state has something traumatic and worrying, I see it rather more as a warning, a reminder of where I have come from and where with very little trouble I can go back to if I am not careful. So I will be careful (well, I will at least try).

I didn’t write this blog to worry people but more as my way of saying – ‘Please, those who have been on Karen Duty in the past, can you return to your posts’ and ‘those who are new to Karen Duty, can you please look out for me and be bossy and tell me off for doing too much and understand if I don’t do as much as I was.’

I Can Hardly Believe It Myself

Ok, so it must seem like quite a long time since I wrote a blog: you are wrong. I’ve written lots of blogs recently.

“What?” you say, thinking how could such an avid follower of What Will Happen To Me have missed said blogs. To be honest, I have written lots of blogs, I just haven’t published any of them. Our life has been such a tumult recently that each blog posting I wrote just didn’t feel right so I would walk away, to return to it again with fresh eyes. On returning however, I would realise that what I had written now felt even more not quite what I wanted to say so I would begin another and another and another. In the end, none were published. At this moment, I have every intention of publishing this blog – through hell or high water. Let’s see.

On Friday, I move to India (crikey!) – my husband has already been there a week. Who would have ever considered that possible? Only 12 months gujarat-leicesterago I was limiting myself to a few thousand steps a day at best and was spending at least 18 hours a day in bed. We had no idea whether my health would ever improve – although improve it eventually did. Now, 12 months on, I very shortly will be living in India. It is a miracle that I will always remain astounded by.

Re-reading old blogs recently, it was obvious that within the genuine positivity and determination to find a way out of my ill-health there was also a desperate voice whispering – “what if, what if, what if it will never happen?” The reality today is that I am still finding my way out of my ill health and perhaps will continue to do so for many years to come. However, re-reading my old blogs also showed an absolute determination to grab life and experience as much as I possibly could. I wrote about how I had no idea about where my life would now go or what I would now do but how that didn’t frighten me but rather filled me with excitement and pleasant anticipation.

Back in those days of new found enlightenment as I began to emerge from my illness, I certainly had no concept that one day (very, very soon) I would be packing up my bags and moving to the other side of the world. Although, to be honest, the idea of moving abroad was nothing new. Myself and my husband had discussed it for many years. I had slowly been inculcating him into the cult of ‘expat’ – we just hadn’t done anything about it – then I became ill.

I returned part-time to work in October 2014 and slowly worked my way back to full-time in January 2015. Being a teacher is the hardest work, there is no time to sit back and catch your breath (just a little important for a girl who suffers from Dysfunctional Breathing Syndrome). You get caught up in the job and the students and silly Ofsted requirements and it gets hard. Really hard. Especially if you are still not fully healthy. I probably should never have gone back to work full-time but how was anyone to know that until I gave it a try? Long before India came on the scene, I was struggling and not willing to really accept that I was.

The opportunity to move to India therefore could not have come at a better time. Six months earlier or six months later probably wouldn’t have worked. Six months earlier I wouldn’t have had the chance to return to teaching and see if I was right, that I had completely lost the love of it. I would have walked away from a career that I had been in for 12 years without knowing whether I really wanted to walk away from it. Six months later, I would possibly have worked my way back into ill-health or learnt to hate my job so much that I failed to give the students what they needed most – a decent education. I would consequently have possibly moved to India under a dark cloud of failure.  If indeed, I was even capable of making such a move.

India, therefore, came at the perfect time. I had returned to teaching long enough to know that I was no longer willing to buy into a lot of the nonsense that surrounds it. I had been back long enough to know that the only reason I liked teaching in the first place was being in a class full of students.

For the first time in my adult life, I am completely unemployed and while that feels strange and slightly uncomfortable, it is also a relief. My time is my own, I no longer have to dance to somebody else’s fiddle. I am no longer in a job I had, cropped-unemployed-not-happywith the exception of teaching classes, grown to hate. I am now in a position to walk comfortably away from a career I had for such a long, long time loved. Six months ago, walking away may well have broken my heart – today I simply miss the people I worked with and the children – nothing more.

My headteacher (a remarkable woman) has been kind enough to release me in the middle of a term so that I don’t even have to continue until May half-term. She was smart enough to realise that the stress and physical demands of moving halfway around the world made working impossible. Her kindness has allowed me to start my husband and I’s new adventure more or less together. Her kindness has enabled me to start once again to really take care of my health so that I will get 100% better.

So, this blog (which is definitely getting published) is the start of my adventure. If you want to know the details – where I am going, why I am going you are just going to have to subscribe to my blog via your email address or WordPress account. You can also follow my twitter @kironside78.

I hope to regularly blog again – I will have no excuse – I will definitely have the time. My aim is to (just like I did when I was ill), simply reflect on my experiences: the joys and the challenges of living in India. If it helps somebody else about to make such a journey or simply provides an interesting read over a coffee, I will be happy. 

What Will Happen to Me? Living Life

For the more observant amongst you, you may have noticed that my blog title has changed. It is just subtle but it represents a fundamental change in my life. No longer does it feel appropriate to host a blog entitled, ‘What Will Happen to M.E.?‘ but rather it is now the slightly more appropriate title, ‘What Will Happen to Me?‘ The subtle omission of those two simple dots may pass by unnoticed by some but for me they’re deletion is a cause of great celebration.

In two weeks time, my husband and I will go to spend another weekend with his family: celebrating his father’s birthday. 12 months ago, this very birthday weekend marked the very beginning of my illness. An illness that was to throw myself, my husband and my family into a brand new and unexpected world of uncertainty, pain and fear. The gradual and then sudden disappearance of this world over the last few months is still a source of amazement and at times shock.

Where previously my blog title represented a sense of confusion over my future – a sense of loss, my new title represents an awareness that I am now in a position to do whatever I want. I have no idea what is going to happen now. I have no idea where I will end up living; what I will end up doing.

What drove me in the past, for the moment at least, no longer drives me. I no longer care if I become a headteacher, I no longer care if we live in a fabulous house, I no longer care about my husband’s career progressing as quickly as possible.

Without being melodramatic, in the last year I faced being bed-bound or at best housebound for the rest of my life. It is only by a combination of a miracle and my determination that I no longer face this. However, if I was to face this again, would I care that I’d become a headteacher if it meant that myself and my husband hadn’t spent much time together so that I could do the job? If I was to face this again, would I care that my husband had a brilliant career and earned lots of money if I knew it had made him miserable?

I have been returning to work on Monday afternoons for the last few weeks for staff training. Last week, we had training in a program called, Shut Up and Move On (SUMO). This program is all about how to be logical and balanced in your emotional reactions to events. One thing that was said that I felt clearly reverberated with me was that most of us live our lives on auto-pilot.

Day to day, week to week and year to year we live our lives without thought. We rarely stop and consider what we are doing, why we are doing it and whether we really want to do it. Prior to my illness, I would probably have denied that I lived my life in such a way. A year in which I stepped off the treadmill of life however has allowed me to reflect on the reality of what I was doing, why I was doing it and whether I really wanted to do it.

This year has allowed me to realise that I was living my life on auto-pilot: that much of my dreams and aspirations were ill-thought out or not thought out at all. Some of the things I did previously reflected perhaps a high-moral point of view – it was acceptable, for example, for me to work more than twice the hours (32.5) I was paid for a week because it meant the students got a better education in a better more secure environment. While the moral value of this, i.e. the desire to put others before yourself is incredibly admirable – is it still acceptable? Is the value of what I gave students by working more than twice what I was paid to, worth the fact that it was having a negative impact on my own life?

I recently heard a teacher talk about the self-sacrifice being worth it for the benefit of our students. It made me want to scream. While I have no intention to become self-centred and inflexible, the idea that your life and your health is worth so much less than that of your students is not an acceptable way to live. If nothing else, my self-sacrifice contributed to 300 plus students over the last year not having an English Department that supported them as it should have.

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My life and that of my life with my husband, family and  friends  is incredibly important. Consequently, this life must come first. I am proud of what I have achieved in my professional career so far and I am sure that I will be proud of what I will achieve in the future. I am not however prepared to put my career ahead of myself, ahead of my husband and ahead of my family anymore.

This illness and my recovery (which I’m incredibly grateful for and amazed by) has released me to live my life no longer on auto-pilot. It has given me the freedom to do anything I want. It has also given me the freedom to enjoy the little things in life. The little things that make your life more rounded and whole and that are ultimately significantly more important than what we normally consider to be of more value: educational achievement; career; money; things; house.

Yesterday, my husband and I went for a 2.5 mile walk through the New Forest. A walk I have done a million times. Yet, this was the first time in a year I had been able to do it. I suspect unless you have been ill or have had your future or your ability to do even simple things put in question, you will not be able to understand the simple joy doing such an ordinary thing as going for a walk gives you.

I do not think such achievements as walking or climbing up a hill or reading your book for an hour or socialising with friends all afternoon are new joys. I don’t think they have gone from something of limited significance to now being hugely important. What has changed however is that I can now recognise that they are achievements and recognise they bring me joy.

If these little things can give me a sense of achievement and joy, then there is only one other question. What else is there out there that I have yet to do that can bring me equal if not even more joy or an equal if not even greater sense of achievement?

I was never somebody who was afraid of a challenge, I was never afraid of change but I have learnt that I am stronger and I am braver than I thought and that I can do anything I want. To not, therefore, go out and try and do new things and face new challenges seems an incredible waste of a life.

So last weekend, I went cavern trampolining in a slate cavern twice the height of St Paul’s Cathedral. It scared me so much, my legs shook and for much of it I clung to the net terrified but I achieved all I set out to achieve. I ran several times across the trampolines, I climbed up a scary ramp that required both emotional and physical strength, I went down a slide that scared me. Every time I was scared, I repeated to myself, ‘I can do it, I can do it.‘ Why? Because I could, I got through last year, I can get through anything.

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Every where I look I seem to see challenges just begging me to do them. I have never climbed Mount Snowden so why not? I have never been on the longest zip wire in Europe so why not? I have never driven across Australia so why not? Part of the SUMO concept is to ask yourself several questions so that you can put your fears in perspective. One question is on a scale of 1 – 10 where 10 means certain death how bad is it or could it be? For the three challenges above perhaps a 1 or 2. Although a venomous snake may climb into your car in Australia which may well mean a 10 but seriously what are the chances of that?

While I have yet to learn whether this illness will have left behind any permanent physical limitations on my life (certainly I wasn’t quite physically ready for the intense aerobic nature of the trampolining), I do know that I will always do my best not to emotionally or practically limit my life and how I live it.

The reality of adopting such an approach to life does mean that I cannot predict where we will end up living, what we will end up doing and whether or not I shall stay in education. The other reality is, ‘I can do it‘, I am brave and I am strong. There is nothing I cannot achieve.

The even more observant amongst you will have noticed my blog subtitle has also changed. This required some thinking. How did I reflect what is in my blog prior to my illness, what is in it now and what I hope will be in it in the future? I settled on, ‘Living Life‘. For this is exactly what I intend to do. I intend to live my life not just experience it as a by-stander. So I do not have the answer to the question, ‘What Will Happen to Me?‘ but isn’t that exciting?

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Oh I think I have it too! Heee, heee!

Opps this is a long one 🙂

Twice in the last month good friends when I told them I had M.E. had never heard of it. Fair enough English isn’t their first language. When I then said sometimes it’s known as Chronic Fatigue Syndrome* thinking they may have heard of that, they responded with, “Oh I think I have it too! Hee, heee!”

The other day my curmudgeonly neighbour said to me, “I hear you’ve been ill.” “Yes, I have M.E.” “Have you had a few weeks off work then?” “No, I’ve been off for four months!” “It’s not that you can’t be bothered going back to work then, hee, heee!”

When I first went off work after two weeks I tried to return, just doing two hours a day. I had heard that some people had been bad mouthing me, saying that, “we’re all tired, she should just go to bed earlier!” One lady completely blanked me, I purposefully said hi and she walked on by me. She was disgusted with me for being so lazy! Yes, those that know me – lazy! I only used to work 11 hours a day having cut it down from 12+ as I didn’t want to burn out!

The first three people were just examples of ignorance. How many people you know could tell you what M.E. is? My two friends are fabulous and would be horrified if they knew that their comment made me feel quite raw. The last example is also ignorance compounded with plain rudeness!

Ignorance about M.E. is to be expected. It is the hidden disease that rarely shows it’s face. If you’re meeting somebody with M.E. outside of their home, you’re meeting them on a good day and you possibly wouldn’t even notice that something was up. On a bad day, I can only drag myself to the sofa, on a really bad day, I can’t drag myself out of bed!

I’m lucky that I only experience mild to moderate symptoms – I’m very aware that there are people who suffer significantly more than I do. There is a scale for assessing the severity of your M.E., I think I’m roughly 38% as active as I used to be pre-M.E. and this is a huge positive – I could be 37% worse!

So how does M.E. affect me: fatigue, headaches, muscle pain, joint pain, appalling sleep, pins and needles, frequent urination, stiff and painful joints in my hands, pain in eyes and blurred vision, sensitivity to noise, back ache, neck ache and random others that come and go for no apparent reason. I don’t get all of them all of the time and they are not always debilitating, sometimes it is just a dull pain in the background.

By far the most debilitating aspect is the fatigue – this is definitely moderate to severe always. Do you recall a night out that probably started at lunch time the day before – you drank, you walked miles to different pubs, you danced all night? Do you remember waking up the next morning, feeling so tired you couldn’t get out of bed? You doze all morning and yet you wake up feeling no better? Well that’s me or M.E. I’m not that bad all the time but it does always feel like that languid hangover dullness and exhaustion to one extent or another.

There is a fundraising campaign at the moment for an organisation called Invest in M.E. There is a group selling t-shirts that show an empty petrol gauge and the slogan ‘running on empty’.** It feels like I’m never able to get that gauge above empty yet I still need energy for my pure existence.

If I don’t pace myself and plan out all my activities for the day the consequence of that gauge running completely on empty is really frightening especially if I’m not at home.

Last weekend we went to Cardiff just for the Saturday night. I hadn’t really left the confines of Stratford since early January and was desperate to see a different world. We thought we were being careful. We broke the trip half-way to get breakfast so I didn’t stiffen up too much; I rested when we got there; we went out for a coffee and a little walk around (20 min walk with coffee and various other stops); I then rested for two hours before we went out for food at 4 p.m. We ate dinner and then decided to go to the cinema. This was going to be the longest I had without being able to rest for months – 4 hours out of hotel.

About an hour into the film I began to feel the usual signs that I’d done too much – a fog descends and pain levels increase. I was a fool and stayed, it was the first time we had been out like this for months, it felt like a date and I didn’t want it to stop. By the end of the film I was in a state of near collapse.

Under normal circumstances the hotel was no more than a 2-3 minute walk from the cinema – it took us at least ten minutes. I needed to stop every couple of steps to get my breathe back and rest. My entire body was in agonising pain and I was fighting not to burst into floods of tears. Chris effectively had to hold me up. We always joke at this point that others must think I’m absolutely drunk out of my head and at only 8.15 as well!

We eventually returned to the hotel and I went to bed, aware that my poor pacing would now lead to a four day recovery pattern – these days it’s always the same. Day One – collapse and get to bed; day two – in bed all day (though this time we had to drive home too – fun!); day three – out of bed but not able to do much but sit on sofa and make basic lunch; day four – able to leave the house and walk to town (0.3 miles) have coffee then struggle home and then on sofa for rest of day. By the next day I’m back to normal whatever that actually is!

This is probably quite shocking for people who know me or people who know nothing about M.E. but remember I’m one of the lucky ones. I get to leave the house at least 4 days out of 7, I’m not bed bound, I don’t need crutches or a wheelchair, I can wash myself and dress myself, I can feed myself.

I wrote this not to get attention or have people feel sympathy for me, far from it. I simply want people to know the reality of M.E. I want to unearth this hidden disease, I want to reduce ignorance about it so that at least you the reader never make a throw away comment to a sufferer that hurts them through ignorance.

* yes! I know that some people say it’s different but the Canadian Consensus Criteria doesn’t.
** to buy a t-shirt go to http://www.mamachill.moonfruit.com