Saturday, 27 December 2014

Olympia

This is going to be a short post because I'm typing entirely one-handed and it's really slow!

I went to Olympia and, because I was using Sopwith (my wheelchair), we got really good seats; really close to the action.
Like, REALLY close.

We saw some showjumping...
 ...and some driving...
...and the little children with their little Shetland ponies were all very sweet too.
I also managed to get some shopping done, including stuff for my family to give me - some smart clothes for riding (I didn't really have anything before) and a couple of books. There was a great atmosphere, and it was exciting to be so close to everything that was going on in the arena. In fact, the seat was so good that I was sitting next to the official photographer!
Getting around the stalls was quite tricky in my wheelchair, but I wouldn't have managed such a long day with only my crutches. In the evening I randomly started being sick but I won't hold it against the event - it was a great day!
Some day I'd like to ride here myself!

Sunday, 21 December 2014

Some racing, some hospital time, and HOME.

I've been doing an awful lot lately, or so it feels, including (finally!) some rowing! So, here's an update of what I've been up to.

Shortly after learning about my friend's death, I coxed a race in Cambridge. It was good for me to do it - in the past I've found coxing to be a really good way of forcibly thinking about something else for a bit, whilst also getting outside and being in the company of other people. The crew (a men's four) was made up of a bunch of alumni from my old college, including my boyfriend who (like one of the others) had already rowed the full 4.3km course in the morning, before taking on the shorter but not insignificant 3.4km course in the afternoon. We had hoped to represent all our new clubs in our kit, but there was quite a lot of college kit in the boat anyway! I was meant to be representing Staines, but my race number covered up a lot of the 'Staines Boat Club' on my back, and my legs aren't really long enough for the leggings to be seen clearly in photographs.
L-R: Cross Keys BC, Murray Edwards BC, City of Oxford RC, Reading RC, Staines BC. All ex-Peterhouse BC!
The crew was put together very much at the last minute: even about 15 minutes before the race, we didn't really know which boat we would be using (we were borrowing one from another club), and we hadn't settled a crew order until we all arrived at the boat house. Perhaps most worryingly, the first stroke which the crew took all together was the first stroke of our wind for  the race...so we really couldn't have had any less preparation if we'd tried! In contrast, our main opposition (another alumni crew from our old college) had had a reasonably long practice outing earlier in the day, which had in fact been coxed by me. I was tempted to try and sabotage them, but decided that wouldn't be very sportsmanlike. Instead, I used the knowledge of their weaknesses to urge my own crew on!

Over the course, we did reasonably well, considering that two of the four rowers were exhausted before they started (and one of those rather worse for wear, being a few pints down...) and one of the other two began having an asthma attack about halfway down the river. Add these things to the pre-mentioned facts that a) we hadn't had ANY practice and had no race plan and b) we'd never sat in the boat before, and we felt pretty proud to come in seven whole seconds in front of the other crew! Sure, we weren't fastest out of the whole field, but we did reasonably well nonetheless and given that there could have been NOBODY less-prepared than us, I think we were pretty outstanding. :)
It says a lot that this is the best photo of us from the dinner that followed the race. Now in matching blazers!
The next weekend, I had two races in the annual Cambridge Christmas Head – a fun race where people dress up and try to win whilst trying to appear that they aren't taking it too seriously. Firstly I was coxing a women's eight, then I was rowing at bow in a mixed four. The first race went OK, although I was a bit annoyed that my line on the first corner was messed up by a fisherman standing on the other side of it. I'm not annoyed that he was there – I went nice and wide to avoid him, because I have no interest in damaging his lines – but it was a shame that he was on that corner, since they were using that corner to judge for a coxing prize! Never mind; we had a pretty good row despite that corner, and despite the fact that the timer was broken on the cox box, and halfway down the course I got very close to permanently locking the iPhone that my 7-woman had lent me to use as a timer, so I had to give up on trying to find times... It was the first race in our newly-refurbished boat, so that was quite exciting.
Saving energy.
After that, I GOT TO ROW! I was rowing at bow in a college boat – one other girl rowing, two chaps, and a girl coxing. We'd put the two chaps in stern pair and the girls in bow pair, mostly so that I could have the maximum possible leverage for pulling the boat around or helping it go in a straight line (I was by far the weakest person in the boat, which doesn't bother me – I am disabled!). It was also quite good for me to row on bowside instead of strokeside, since until this summer I'd never done that, and it's something I'd like to be able to keep up with. Again, we didn't win but we had a good time and for me it was just nice to get out in a boat and be one of the ones with an oar in my hand instead of just holding the rudder wires (which I do also enjoy, of course). 
Rowing up to the start - I'm furthest away from the camera!
After the race, I came home for Christmas, which feels really good. I can now play with the dog all the time and generally just relax a lot more. Nevertheless, I've done a fair bit of academic work, especially after I went to my Masters graduation a few days ago and learnt how much work one of my fellow first-year-PhD-students is doing (or claims to be doing!). 

Apart from that, I've had two other interesting things happen, one of which is very short and can be imparted very quickly – we have new jackets! In honour of my brilliant coach, the 'Cambridge Para-Rowing'  jacket is now A Thing, and they look awesome. I designed it for her, then realised how much I would regret it if I didn't get my own one. Then that turned into another Cambridge para-rower getting one too, and another coach...so now we will all look spectacular.
Behold the glory!
The other thing is a little longer. I went to see an Ehlers-Danlos specialist in London – an appointment I've been waiting for for about a year! She was brilliant and just understood everything, although I'm now annoyed with myself that I didn't remember to mention a few of the more random things. I ended up having extra blood tests and X-rays done and (I hope!) I am now on a waiting list for some inpatient rehab, which will teach me more about EDS and about how to live with it, as well as giving me lots of intensive physiotherapy, hydrotherapy, and all sorts of other therapies. It sounds like hard work, but definitely something I'd like to do. The rehab is at the Royal National Orthopaedic Hospital, so they clearly know what they're doing. I expect it'll be quite a long time before I move to the top of the list, but it does make me feel more positive that there will be something there to help me cope.

Other than that, health has been strange. I'm much more wobbly on my legs at the moment than I have been in a while, and I've had one night of feeling (and being) very sick, which makes my heart go far too fast, which makes my arm ache until it all calms down, and makes me feel dizzier than usual. I've also had quite a naughty left knee, which has now popped in and out of place so much that it's all rather bruised and looks a bit manky now, to be honest! Still, being at home is good for me and I'm doing my best to be sensible and to look after myself.
Recently I've also been to the London International Horse Show at Olympia – it was brilliant, of course, but I will have to save that for the next post as my fingers and wrists are definitely giving up now. I will leave you with a picture of Rosie, who has suddenly discovered that this brown blanket is heated.
Dog beds are so unnecessary when you have a heated blanket with a foot underneath it.

Monday, 8 December 2014

Probably the longest and most serious post I will ever write. It's worth reading, though.

A few days ago, I received some terrible news: one of my close friends from school had killed herself. It got me thinking about suicide and depression, and people's attitudes to those who take their own life. Jo wasn't the first person I knew who had done this, and unfortunately I doubt she'll be the last. The inevitability of suicide continuing to be a part of human life is something that I feel needs to be explained, and I hope that this post (which will, I think, mention neither horses nor boats) will shed some light on suicide for those who struggle to understand it.

The first thing to say is this: unless you have been suicidally depressed, you will probably never understand how it feels. It's not like feeling sad, or hopeless, or lonely, or unloved, because although all those things may contribute the sum of the negative feeling is so much more than the component parts. Rather, you become the personification of all that is wrong with the world, and the only way to cleanse the world and to help your friends and family is to remove yourself from life itself. Therefore my first point is this: if you want to understand suicide, you must either have experienced the sincere intention to kill yourself, or you must accept that, whilst you will try to put yourself in someone else's shoes, you will never quite grasp that last little bit. Acknowledging that learning about suicide and truly understanding it are two different things is probably the most crucial step – too many people put their own values on life into the head of someone who, quite clearly, believes something very different, without appreciating that they may as well be expecting a fish to fly.

So, point one: do your best to understand, but realise that without being there yourself you will never fully get it. If you realise that, you will understand more than those who pretend they do understand.

The second point is a difficult one, and it rests on the idea that suicides can be prevented. After someone takes their own life, it is natural for those left behind to feel guilty, frustrated, and angry that they weren't able to prevent it from happening. People feel that they 'should have done more', or that if only they had made themselves more available to the person in question, then that person would have known they could talk about it instead of killing themselves. We feel that because suicide is a deliberate act it is preventable. We feel that if only we had loved the person better (made our love more known) then it would never have happened. It is our fault that the person died.

Suicide has nothing to do with a lack of love (which I will mention again in our third point below). The person who kills themselves does not do so because they are not loved. Although depression robs you of the belief that anyone could love you, it does not necessarily follow that those who commit suicide have done so because they do not feel loved. The simple fact is that all the love in the world cannot stop the progression of an illness as physically and mentally devastating as depression. We never consider ourselves to be guilty causing death through a lack of love if a friend or family member dies of cancer, or in a car crash, or of old age. Some things in life simply take their toll on the body in a way that no amount of love can reverse. Like a tumour, a traumatic accident, or nine decades of a life well-lived, depression is one of those things. People who kill themselves do not die of suicide, they die of depression. Depression is the cause of their death, and suicide is merely the means. Depression is not cured by love (would that it were!) and it is not caused by individuals. Unfortunately, it is a simple truth that loving someone (even with all your heart) has absolutely nothing to do with whether or not they kill themselves. This is because depression completely and utterly robs you of the belief that you are loveable, to the extent that eventually you simply know with all your heart and mind that no-one could ever love you. Note that this is depression causing this belief, not any lack of love from others.

The other idea that argues that suicide is preventable rests on the notion that if you are with someone, day in, day out, twenty-four hours a day, you will prevent them from killing themselves – basically, if you put them on suicide watch and enforce it yourself. It is possible that if there were someone watching that person the entire time then they might find it hard to go through with a suicide. Practically speaking, however, this is rarely an option. Those who commit suicide tend to do so after quite long thought and deliberation. One final thing might be enough to push them over the edge, but rest assured that it will have been in their heads for a long time. Under these circumstances, it's easy to bide your time until you're away from other people. Only stringent 24-hour surveillance for a prolonged period of time (months; years) can prevent a suicide in this sense. This may sound like a fair price to pay, but I believe that it is ethically questionable to impose that kind of sanction on an individual, however sick they are. So, here we go – you can love someone and you can go for a drink with them, give them a big hug at the end and tell them to call you if they feel slightly bad, but that doesn't mean the person won't go home that night and kill themselves. It's not because you haven't tried – it's because humans are autonomous creatures who have the right to make independent decisions.

'I should have noticed' is another cry from those who are recently bereaved. 'I should have noticed something was wrong – why didn't I ask?' Well, usually, people do notice, but the depressed person doesn't want to talk about it (maybe they just would rather ignore it, maybe they think they don't want to bother you with it, maybe they just feel they've got it sorted in their head already). You can't force anyone to tell you how they're feeling or what they're thinking. Also, you cannot expect to predict whether or not your friend or relative is feeling bad – people with depression are experts at hiding how they truly feel, and the day that you think they're beginning to get better could be the day they kill themselves. In fact, it's often the case that having made the decision to bow out of life the depressed person does behave more cheerfully – just as you would on the last day of work before the holidays, when you know that there is an imminent end to the misery.

Point two, then, is this: it is very, very difficult to prevent a suicide. The fact that suicide is (usually) deliberate does not make it preventable.

I said I'd talk more about love, and here we are for point three: the vast majority of people who commit suicide love their friends and family with all their heart, and believe that they are doing the best thing for them. It's often believed not only that friends and family did not love the depressed person enough, but also that the person who kills themselves cannot love those who are being left behind, or else they would not be able to put them through such misery. This is one of those classic occasions when people who have never felt suicidal try to put their own rationalities into those who are suicidally depressed: 'they can't have loved me or they'd never have put me through this pain.' Here's the alternative view...

When you are depressed, the one thing that you can be sure of in life is your own all-encompassing inadequacy as a human being. More than that, you are the thorn in the side of everyday society; you make your friends depressed through your own lack of enthusiasm for life; you upset your family by being unable to function properly; you are a burden on others (at best a worry, at worst a millstone tied around the neck of all those who come into contact with you); everything you touch is contaminated by your own lack of worth; and the only way in which you can improve the situation for everyone else is to remove yourself from it.

When you are depressed, you believe with all your heart (and you know in your head) that you are an awful person. You know that you don't have the right to live. You know that you don't have the right to love. You know that everybody you care about so dearly would be immeasurably better off if only you would just die. You love your family and your friends, and you know that your continued existence is agony for them. You know that the only way to ameliorate this situation is to die.

Suicide, therefore, is an enormous act of love towards others. You kill yourself not because you are giving in, or because you are selfishly thinking of your own needs (although I will touch on this aspect below) – rather, you kill yourself because it is the only way you know of making life better for those people you love the most. Please notice that I have used the verb 'know' rather than 'think'. Obviously, you as someone left behind will argue that this person is wrong, and that killing themselves is the worst thing they can do. However, there is absolutely no doubt in the depressed person's mind that they are doing the right thing for other people. Since there is no doubt about it, there is no other option. You are not worthy of life, but the people whose lives you are ruining are. The only acceptable thing to do is to end your life.

So, point three: suicide is not about selfishly ignoring the love of others, or about not feeling love for others. Suicide is an expression of the love you have for those closest to you. If that sounds warped to you, then that's probably because you're lucky enough never to have felt suicidal.

Next, I'd like to argue that suicide is a personal choice, and that other individuals do not necessarily have a right to expect people to live on through immense distress and illness. If a society can accept that euthanasia is, under certain circumstances, ethically and morally justifiable, then it should be able to accept the same thing of suicide – a person's right to die and their choice to die belong to them and not to others. I personally think that, leaving depression aside, it is very difficult for people who are left behind following a deliberate death, because arguably the deliberate death is most beneficial for the person who has died, and more difficult for those who have to continue their lives. Arguably, it is selfish to leave behind a family and to choose the option-of-no-return of death.

However, if we bear in mind everything I've mentioned above – that you are severely physically and mentally ill; that you do not believe yourself capable of being loved; that you choose this option out of love for others, and so on – then it's a slightly different picture; one in which it becomes selfish to expect the person to continue to live. Let me talk about how it feels to be suicidal, and you might begin to agree that these are acceptable grounds for self-euthanasia.

Suicidal feelings very rarely come out of nowhere. The dramatic image of a jilted or bereaved lover being overcome with emotion and killing themselves is nothing like the general wearing down of depression and the reality of suicide. Before anyone kills themselves, there are usually thoughts of death which have been bothering the person for a long time. At first, suicidal feelings may be scary to the individual experiencing them. Over time, however, they may become mundane, and eventually they are a welcome crutch. Most people start their lives with a healthy dose of self-preservation coursing with the blood through their veins. In some people, however, continuous thoughts of suicide gradually wear down the resistance to death. Death ceases to become something to be avoided at all costs and becomes a viable, attractive alternative to a continued miserable life.

But just how miserable is that life? How bad do things have to be to make suicide a genuinely attractive option?

Depression robs you of everything. It robs you of the ability to stay awake when you need to or to sleep when you want to. It robs you of the ability to spend time with others or to cope on your own. It robs you of your personality and of your memories. It robs you of hope. It robs you of the ability to feel happiness, optimism, gladness, gratefulness, contentedness, a sense of community, or excitement. At the same time, you become so numb that even sadness and despair become mere background distractions against an existence in which nothing can touch you, because you're living a life so isolated from all aspects of the outside world that you cannot even perceive them properly. If you are put on anti-depressants, it is likely that you will start to feel things again, yet in a cruel paradox it is almost certainly the negative emotions that will catch up with you first. If you are feeling suicidal, it is highly likely that the positive feelings have been strangers to you for a long, long time – so much so that you wouldn't even recognise them.

So far, so good – most people accept that depression can do this. But there's more.

When you're really, really depressed, you cease even to be alive in any conventional sense. Here's what I mean: you are unable to hear what people are saying to you even when there is no-one else in the room and you are looking straight at them. You are vaguely aware that they are there and that their mouth is moving, but what is said is a complete mystery to you. Your brain is completely unable to process the sound. It's not even that you don't understand what's being said, as if they were speaking a foreign language or as if you were an animal – it's that any sounds made by the other person do not even reach your consciousness.

You look at things around you and you don't know what you are seeing. You look at a table and you're vaguely aware that it has a function, but if someone handed you a plate of food you'd be as likely to place it underneath the table on the floor, or on a bed, or a windowsill, as you would to place it on the table in between a knife and fork. This leaves you with a sense of utter bewilderment as you look around you at the world, not knowing what it is there for.

People might think you look the same and they might, therefore, expect you to function as normal. You are effectively blind and deaf – how can you respond to them? And since you cannot hear or see, how can you express yourself adequately, in the way that they expect? How can you form words in your head when your mind has simply lost the ability to form words even into thoughts, let alone to translate these thoughts into sound? Have you ever experienced your mind being so utterly numbed (literally, depressed) that you could not even formulate the simplest thought? You will forget to eat, and you will be so hungry that you are in agony, yet you are completely unable to eat because you simply cannot associate that pain in your stomach with hunger, and your mind cannot work out that hunger can be alleviated by eating. You'd think that some instinctive drive would kick in to make you eat, but it's astonishing how much these things rely on language and thought processes.

As this process goes on, you become increasingly isolated. You cannot speak to people or even begin to explain how you feel. You cannot even look at them, because you don't know how to: when a person says, 'look at me', they usually mean 'look in my eyes' – but you forget this; you forget that eyes are meant to meet, so even if you could understand them saying, 'look at me', you would be unable to look in their eyes unless it happened by chance (and believe me, when your head aches with depression, raising your eyes is nigh-on impossible). People give up on you because they don't understand and because they get frustrated by your lack of communication – not all people, although you might wish they would. You get frustrated too, yet you're not sure why – it's only when you're feeling better that you wish you could have told people how much you loved them, how the only emotion you might possibly feel was sheer terror, and how you just wanted to make them happy.

As you become isolated, your mind plays tricks on you. It ceases to get sensory input from its usual sources, so it makes its own (this happened to me, but I have bipolar which complicates the picture anyway). You hear things that aren't happening, but you have no way of distinguishing between what is and isn't real because you can't trust your eyes/ears or your mind. You see things which some remnant of logic in your brain tells you can't be right – 'have wardrobes always been able to walk?' – but you're too tired to do anything about those things that don't really make sense – and anyway, who are you to decide what does and doesn't make sense? Gradually, things start to happen that scare you. You hear screams that come out of nowhere, you hear sinister voices that set your heart racing. You see huge objects flying towards you. You become afraid to leave your room or your house. You become even more isolated. Thoughts come into your head that you shouldn't take your pills. Then...thoughts come into your head that you should take all of them. Fortunately, at this stage, those thoughts still haven't really been translated into words, so you go through the motions of what you've always done, unable to make a decision.

Depression robs you of the capacity to make decisions. How can you make a decision, when you are surrounded by so much that is not real, and when those things that are real cannot be perceived any differently? More importantly, you realise that there is simply no point in making any decisions. Nothing changes. Life stays as awful as it always was. What decision could I make?

You might try to struggle against all this. You might try to work – but you'll find you can't read. The words move on the page, they move around in your head, you read them incorrectly and you give up after five frustrating minutes. You decide to go for a walk, but you're frightened by the world around you and you end up back inside. Life ticks on by as you pretend to everyone else that you're still alright. Life ticks on by, empty but for your increasing sense of desperation mingled with something which can only be described as the most profound feeling of emptiness that it swallows itself up, consumes you, and defines you as empty. You are a void in nature. You are nothing.

And then...if you are nothing...why carry on living? Your mind suddenly seizes on this with unusual clarity. Why am I still living? Am I still living? Should I die? Would that be better? It can't be worse?

And, for the first time in a long time, you find a thought which is articulated clearly; which gives you hope – there is a way out. There is a way to feel like a human again.

This hope now becomes a talisman. It supports you in the dark moments, as you realise that there is another option there. It becomes something to cling on to, and in the better moments (which, surprisingly, are now actually occurring for the first time in months, thanks to the introduction of a get-out clause) it becomes something to mull over more seriously.

Most people who are suicidal think about it a lot before committing the act (or attempting to do so) – often for years. The simple fact is that suicide is an extremely attractive option. There is usually something to push you over the edge. It can be different for different people, but here's an example of what might happen.

You've been having a bad patch. You have everything ready to go, should you need it – a bag of drugs, for example, or perhaps a knife. Maybe you've written a letter, maybe you've made some attempt at a will. It's all there in the background, for now, just biding its time. Maybe you'll never need it – but it's good to be prepared just in case.

Then you have an even worse patch. You look at that bag of pills; at that knife; at that bridge over the motorway; and you think 'if only'. 'Please.' 'One day...'. 'I can't take much more of this.' You know it's final; you know it's a last resort. That's why it's such a fantastic idea.

Finally, something happens – an argument with a friend or spouse (although this can be unlikely – if you're really depressed, arguments tend to be one-sided since you can't really form adequate retorts); a terrible day at work; a horrible story on the news. It's enough. You look at your bed, and you contemplate lying down for another sleepless night, and you realise: 'I can't wake up one more time. I simply can't do it. I can't face waking up, turning off the alarm, and having to face the day. I simply cannot face waking up and realising that I'm still here and that things are still this bad. I cannot face waking up and feeling so utterly, desperately and whole-heartedly sick with myself that I physically vomit. I cannot face that moment where I lie with my eyes closed, hoping against hope that I've died overnight, but knowing that when I open my eyes I will still be here, and none of this nightmare will have ended.' Like those who cannot sleep for fear of a recurring nightmare, you cannot wake up in the knowledge that the illness which has made you a mere shell will continue to haunt you through every second of the day. Waking up is your most feared part of the day. Waking up is your most hated part of the day. Waking up alone makes you want to kill yourself, every single day. You realise that you cannot put yourself through it one more time.

I am now running out of words to explain how it feels. I can't say that you feel really sad, or down, or unhappy. You don't feel any of those things. The point of depression is that you feel nothing, for so long that you cease to be a person – and then, is it really death, if you've already stopped existing? Surely the death happened long ago? Like those who care for elderly relatives with dementia, they know that the person they loved has, in some way, disappeared long before physical death comes round. Depression is the same. True, it may be more reversible than dementia. But people with depression have tried. They've been for a walk, they've eaten healthily, they've tried to sleep at regular hours, they've made time for themselves. They've taken the pills, they've had the electro-convulsive therapy, they've sat through endless sessions of cognitive behavioural therapy, and they've promised time and again that they'll stop self-harming. But these things haven't worked.

Depression is unlike almost any other illness, because it completely robs you of the ability to help yourself. You cannot reach out for help. You do not necessarily want to accept help.

Do you remember how I said that you stop making decisions, and that you stop thinking clearly? That thought 'I want to kill myself' is the first clear thought you will have. The decision, 'I am going to kill myself' is the first (and easiest) decision you will have made in a long while. That is why it feels so good.

Once you've made the decision, you feel something close to a recovery – elation, really. Soon, you will be free! Imagine looking forward to the best holiday of your life. Imagine it was a holiday forever, but not in a way that you would ever get bored of it, or wish you could go home – because actually, home was not your home anymore, and never would be. It had ceased to be home a long time ago. You weren't welcome there, and you didn't know anyone there. You hated it there, because everyone there abused you; called you names; said you were worthless. You realise that you don't ever want to go back there, and then you realise – that place isn't home. Not anymore. You're not going on holiday. You're leaving the worst trip you've ever had, and you're going home – where you're loved, and valuable, and safe. You'll be there forever.

That's how it feels. A bit. Any attempt to put this into words will be inadequate, but hopefully this explains some of it.

So...maybe suicide isn't so selfish. As I've said, most of those who commit suicide will believe whole-heartedly that they're such terrible people that the world (and, most importantly, their families and friends) are better off without them. Equally, they are escaping a world and a life which have just become unbearable. It is very difficult to argue with that.

In this post, I have tried to explain the truth (as I see it) behind some misconceptions about suicide. It leads us here: suicide is not selfish. Suicide is not caused by anyone. Suicide is almost impossible to prevent. Suicide is a positive choice, chosen not as a last resort but as an attractive option. Despair comes into it, but so does hope – suicide is not driven by despair, but by the hope that things will get better if life ends. This is very, very hard to understand if you haven't felt suicidal, but it is true. People see suicide as despair and say how sad it is that the person felt that bad. Yes, it is, but they felt better once they realised how fantastic it would be not to feel terrible all the time.

Finally, there are the religious beliefs. You can believe what you like, but I believe in the salvation of souls – even of those who 'commit' suicide. That gives me, as the person left behind, some comfort. My friend is safe and content at last.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Three good things

Over the last couple of days, three good things have happened:

1) The twitch that I'd had in my left eye for a month has finally stopped.

2) I picked up my new (well, second-hand, but new to me) bike and went for a little ride on it. I rode along the river, which was beautiful (if VERY cold!) and spent a while just waiting, watching a heron do his fishing.

3) I did an erg. It was only 35 minutes, but that still makes it the longest erg I've done in a while. I aimed to keep my heart rate low and to listen really carefully to the feedback from my body (I had hoped to go for 1 hour, but that was probably a bit optimistic). I waited until my left ankle and hip were ready to give up, pushed it a little further until my hands were ready to join them, then stopped. It wasn't, therefore, a massively difficult work out, but it was still better than nothing.
A cold evening on the Reach.
I can feel that I might have overdone it a bit down my left leg, but I don't care because I still managed to achieve something, even if it wasn't fast or especially technical. My body feels better for having moved about a bit, and my mind definitely feels better for it. In other words, I think today has started well. Hooray!

Tap tap legs and away we go!

Right, time for some positive posts. These ones will be from my alter ego, Bendy Rider.

The last two sessions I have had at the RDA have been brilliant (three weeks ago I was awful and lost the ability to steer, but we won't dwell on that). On both occasions I've ridden a lovely little cob called Rolo. He's completely different from Victor, and although I love Victor dearly it has been quite nice to ride such a responsive steed!
Rolo
The first time I rode him, I was lucky enough to have effectively a double session, since there was no-one else waiting to ride him. This meant that I rode for about an hour, which gave me a good opportunity to get used to him. I discovered that he is always very keen to get moving, and often slightly less keen to stop. I felt quite sorry for him, because as well as me getting used to him I was also attempting to get used to a different set of reins. Initially I tried some which had a loop across them, that I could hold with just one hand, then I tried ladder reins with a series of bars across them. The bar was definitely the best solution, because the tension created by something solid meant that I didn't have tension build up in my right arm (the one controlling the reins). However, it definitely took me a while to get used to them, so poor old Rolo had some confusing instructions coming his way at times!

At the end of my first session, I had the chance to go for a canter, which was brilliant. This was my first canter at the RDA, but I was more excited than nervous, and I was glad it was with Rolo (who is quite short!). What he lacks in height he makes up for in speed; he was like a little rocket hurtling around the ring. It felt so good to be in control and I just had this huge grin on my face as we slowed back down to a trot (well, it wasn't really that much slower because his trot is also unbelievably fast, but that didn't stop the grin). Although I hadn't actually done much to get him into canter and to keep him there, it still felt like an achievement and it was really exhilarating.
One day!
The second session I had with Rolo didn't involve any cantering, but it did involve another skill that I haven't used in a very, very long time - jumping! Before we got to that, I tried another set of reins which were different again - they were more like normal reins than the ladder ones, but they had a loop on each side that you could put your hand through to help you to keep control of the reins. I hope that sometimes I will be able to use these reins (they make controlling the horse easier than bar reins), but when I tried them the other day I still didn't quite have the function in my left arm/hand to make it work. On the plus side, my arm does seem to be improving (touch wood, hoping I haven't just jinxed it) so with any luck I will be able to use the loop reins from time to time.
Loop reins
The jump I did was quite small but it was exciting nonetheless to take off for a moment. It was also quite fun to try jumping one-handed! Hopefully in future I'll be able to do even more. For now, I'm just really enjoying riding, and hoping that the grading ('classifying', in rowing) process goes smoothly and gives me enough time to enter an event in February.

p.s. if you were wondering about 'Tap tap legs and away we go', this is what the instructor I had when I was about 7 used to say. My older brothers had the same lady teaching them and it became a bit of a family catchphrase. I still like it!

Friday, 21 November 2014

Not rowing (finding motivational animal cartoons instead)

WARNING - quite a bit of this post will be me complaining. If you're fed up of reading that (and who could blame you?), please scoot down towards the bottom, or just to my next entry, which will be following very soon.

Since Nat Champs, I've struggled to get out in a boat. In fact, I haven't held an oar at all, although I have been coxing a couple of times. This is mainly because at the moment I'm not really safe to go out sculling, since the grip in my left hand is still very unreliable. I would be tempted to ignore it and have a go anyway, but that would be really irresponsible (Cambridge is now COLD and the river especially so!) and I'm not interested in doing anything that will make me feel worse.
I coxed a race, and looked OK for some of it...
It does lead to quite a lot of frustration, at both myself and the system. The two are very much intertwined. In rowing, the only way to measure success is by winning races - by being faster than everyone else. There are no competitions where you win points for having beautiful technique, or being able to do jazzy exercises. It's all about speed. That much is fine: that's just what the sport is about and that's the focus of every training session - more strength, more power, better technique, so that the speed is faster.

The problem comes when your body completely refuses to get stronger, fitter, and more powerful; when it starts introducing movements that you cannot control that completely ruin your technique. At that point, you start going backwards, with no guarantee that you'll ever get back to where you were a few months before. This isn't a case of me not training enough, or not pushing through pain. How can you stop a movement that is involuntary? How can you hold yourself strong in the core and sit up tall when you're so dizzy that you can't see? How can you improve your fitness with a tough session on the erg when your heart is going nineteen to the dozen simply trying to roll over in bed?

...and slightly more demonic for other bits. Still, this face also usefully sums up the way I feel about my own rowing!
I hate my body for this, and I hate the way that it is stealing away the sport that I really enjoy and that used to make me feel better about myself. Now, when I sit on an erg, all I see is terrible splits despite huge physical effort. At best, my body is slow and unresponsive; at worst, my legs leap around when I want them to be still and can't be forced down when I need to move them through the drive. Even trying to row technically (instead of powerfully) is difficult, because my mental focus has gone too. After just a few seconds, my mind drifts off, probably because if you've blacked out to the extent that you can't see the numbers on the screen then there's not much point the mind wondering what they are and how they could be better.

I used to take some element of self-worth from the fact that I trained every day - I was stronger than I'd ever been; fitter than I'd ever been; the exercise made me feel good and provided a perfect antidote to sitting hunched over books for the rest of the day. Now that I can't train every day (and that when I do, it's disappointing) I feel lazy and sluggish, and that there's nothing interesting about me anymore.
Work-wise (academically), I find that without the boost provided by invigorating sessions, my brain has stopped ticking over, meaning that I spend hours covering the same amount of material that previously would have taken much less time. It's as if my body has stolen so much from me - the sport I loved, the benefits I got from rowing, and now my ability to work well; to challenge intellectual material and to grasp new skills and concepts.
Lovely - but what does it all mean?!
Perhaps most worryingly, all of this has changed my psychological outlook. Before, I could pretend that being ill and in pain all the time wasn't an issue, because I was still training despite it. Now, I don't really have that reasoning, and on top of the pain and weakness I have a mental slowness which frustrates me and makes me feel depressed. I desperately, desperately want to get back into training, but it's not as simple as 'just do it'. Whenever I get angry at myself and shout, 'JUST DO IT!' internally, I end up being even more disappointed as I attempt to perform at something approaching the same standard as before and just fail utterly. I know that something is better than nothing, but there is a point at which the 'something' gets so small and insignificant that it's almost insulting to myself.

Also, I'm just reminded each time that although my mind feels like mush it isn't really a mental weakness that's holding me back, but a physical one. If you physically cannot hold an oar handle, stop your leg from spasming, prevent your heart from racing after twenty seconds of light paddling, keep your head and vision clear or lift your arms up, then there's very little training you can do no matter how mentally tough you are (I know this. I'VE TRIED. It usually ends with a big thud).

What can be done?

Firstly, I'm going to try to keep coxing. It's a good way to be involved in the sport and at least it gets me out of the flat. Apart from that, I've always felt that the only way to proceed with all this is just to keep on keeping on. I recently found an excellent blog which puts such sentiments into cheerful graphics, as well as reminding me that it's OK to feel that things are difficult, to express that feeling, and not to feel guilty about it. They can express the mental side of how I'm trying to feel better than I think I can by myself, so here we're just going to take a quick journey through the fantastic world of Emm's Positivity Blog.

There were so many amazing drawings that I've had to work really hard to be selective. Hopefully, with the drawings, I can show how I'm feeling better than the rather miserable account I've given above!

I get so tired that...
 I really want my friends to know that...
 I feel bad when I complain, but then I remember...
 I also remind myself of this:
 ...and then this seems like good advice.
 When I'm struggling to get through an erg, this jellyfish has the answer :)
...and this fox has all I need to hear.
 It's also important to remember this:

and this:

and this!

...and although I'm never actually going to 'recover', this is still relevant.

I'm trying to get my body to say this to my head a bit more often...

...and for my head to say this to my body.

And while we're talking about strength...

Final summing up begins with this bat...

...continues with this elephant...

...and is also expressed by these penguins.

However slowly I'm moving, I need to remember this:

...and finally, as a lucky talisman, I will take this giraffe wherever I go.

That's all for now.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Riding for the Disabled Association - Eastern Regional Conference

The day after Brit Champs I was riding at the RDA's eastern conference, which was held in a fantastic new venue called Houghton Hall, just outside Huntingdon in Cambridgeshire. For several weeks, we had been practising a 'quadrille' during our RDA sessions - a musical ride made up of four sets of rider + horse.

Riding is such a lovely activity! I was really looking forward to this part of my weekend, especially after the rowing racing was cancelled. I like being with the others, and with the horses, and it's such a supportive atmosphere that I feel confident and comfortable even if my body isn't working properly. On the horse, I can ride with one hand and he doesn't mind. If I tried to row with one hand the boat would just tip me in! Also, it's easier for the instructors and volunteers to help us out than it is for anyone outside the boat to help you in a scull. I find that the riding challenges me without making me feel frustrated and helpless when my body won't work the way I want it to - instead, it's easier to find ways around difficulties.

Another thing about riding which is quite nice is that you actually have to make an effort to look good, which I don't spend much time on either whilst rowing or in everyday life. However, in honour of the occasion my mum plaited my hair - this might sound small but it's something I can't manage myself because of my awkward hands, so it definitely felt a bit special!
Fancy (ish) hair - next time there will be ribbons ;)
Anyway, my mum and I arrived at the venue the night before the main event so that we could all (horses and riders) have the opportunity to get used to the setting and to run through with full costume. The horses soon adapted to the strange echoey space they were now in, and didn't even bat an eyelid when all of the parents and carers who had come along were instructed to go round flipping all the flappy seats to make a lot of noise!
Me with Victor and our support team!


Once the horses felt happy we started our run-through, which went pretty well - and even better when the music was the right volume! We did one run-through with leaders, then tried it by ourselves, which actually turned out to be easier. The horses were all well-behaved and we left it feeling pretty confident that all would be well in the morning.
Finishing circles, getting back to the middle line, before coming from the four corners to converge as a 'box' in the middle.
On the Monday we arrived at Houghton in plenty of time to get togged up and mounted. At this point the nerves crept in a tiny bit but we all stayed pretty calm and focussed. There were a lot of people watching, but it felt like a really friendly audience so we just wanted to do well and to reflect the effort put in by all the volunteers at the group. There was another musical ride before us with much younger children taking part - they were really good as well so we had quite a big act to follow!

We began by just walking quietly around the edge so that the horses could get used to all the pairs of eyes on them. It definitely helped that they'd grown familiar with the environment the previous night, and to be honest they seemed pretty unfazed by the crowd. Once we had been introduced, and the horses were suitably relaxed, it was time to start and put all the hard work into fruition!

We began with a salute...
...then walked to the long sides before cutting across the school and meeting up again at either end...
...after some more manoeuvres at walk, we kicked on into trot and trotted round on a 20m circle in the middle of the school...
...we slowed back to walk and did some wiggly moves across the school in an S shape (which quite possibly has a proper name, but I don't know it!) before going back into trot to do a serpentine from one end of the school to the other, following each other...
...finally, we came back to the middle of the school and saluted again - then it was all over! We all felt it had gone really well, and it was quite exciting to be the subject of so many photos afterwards - for example, my mum got the one below, and we were also featured in the Cambridge News - fame at last!
Us in all our glory!
The rest of the event was an opportunity to see what else the RDA has to offer - including carriage driving, western horses, showjumping and, perhaps most exciting, a display from three-time gold medal winner at the Paralympics in dressage, Sophie Christiansen (OBE!). I was particularly excited to see her ride - I watched her on TV in the London Paralympics and was impressed by her control and her joy at doing so well. When I went to Royal Holloway to study a postgraduate course, I found that Sophie's golden letterbox was on campus, and that she had been a Masters student at RH too. Watching her ride was just fantastic. I'm afraid I don't have any pictures of her riding because I was too busy just watching and drinking it all in, but since she's such a high-flyer there are plenty of other places you can go to find videos or photos of her riding. I would recommend it!

Afterwards, we had the opportunity to go and meet Sophie and her beautiful horse, Janeiro 6. Sophie was very friendly and we chatted about our mutual interests of Royal Holloway and horses - she even posed for a picture with me (*star-struck*).
Janeiro getting involved too... sweet horse!
It sounds clich├ęd, but it was genuinely extremely inspirational to meet such a talented rider who is also such a lovely human being. Hopefully Sophie will have lots of success in Rio too, even if the Janeiro part of her partnership may be retired by then.
Beautiful but slightly suspicious horse...
I went away from the day feeling really positive and feeling full of admiration for the horses and volunteers who make the opportunities at the RDA possible. At the moment it's a small part of my life in terms of how much time I spend at the stables, but I'd love it to grow and I really hope that what I've done so far is just the beginning of a much larger experience. After our ride, we were each given a rosette and a medal. It felt as if our efforts were appreciated and recognised as well. I was also pleased to see that our reserve rider, Claire, was given a special mention and was introduced to the crowd for her own round of applause.

The RDA is fantastic at getting people involved and at making them feel that they are achieving things - something which, in my opinion, is lacking in adaptive rowing. The RDA's motto is 'it's what you CAN do that counts', and I think this says a lot. Adaptive rowing can be seen as something to help people recover from serious illness or injury, or as a means of dealing with a lifelong condition, but ultimately you receive no reward of your achievements from anyone unless you win a race. Under the current level of classification, the most disabled inevitably lose out under such a system. I don't think it's a problem with the para-rowing community, but just that all but the very biggest regattas (the national or international ones) you win nothing for coming second. This means that if you do win something you can feel rightly proud, but to be honest I feel no more proud of the prizes I've won for rowing than I do of the medal and rosette I was awarded by the RDA for taking part in a non-competitive event. To me, both types of award represent a triumph over disability rather than over other disabled people. I will treasure my RDA medal and rosette and can't wait to earn more: and I specifically mean earn more and not win more; winning is all well and good, but you don't have to beat everybody else to be deserving of recognition.
Earned - by all four of us (and four quadrupeds...but they don't have anywhere suitable to keep such things).

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

A day out at the British Rowing Championships

So, at the weekend the British Rowing Championships were held at Holme Pierrepont, a watersports centre with a rowing lake in Nottingham. I was really excited (and really nervous!) because it was my first opportunity to race on the national scene, and I was determined to win a medal. After a rather shaky start to my career as a para-rower (what with immense flooding along the Thames taking me off the river for half the year, then a lot of illness and injury challenges), I'd been hoping that this might be a good way to round off year 1 and look towards year 2. I knew I wasn't feeling particularly healthy but I felt reasonably confident that I could give it a good go.

The para races weren't taking place until the Sunday, so I arrived in good time on the Saturday and prepared to stay overnight. I saw some pretty amazing rowing, including the fastest men's coxless four, featuring one of my heroes of rowing, Moe Sbihi. Once racing had finished for the day, I had the opportunity to head out on the lake for myself.
Heading out and feeling small...
Well, it was pretty windy! Holme Pierrepont is notoriously windy (probably something to do with the fact that races run from the north-east to the south-west, which is basically straight into almost every prevailing wind England ever has) and I got an opportunity to experience that for myself. To be honest, I didn't row very well to start with - I was pretty tense and although I wanted to relax and get into the swing of it a bit more I was a bit worried that I would just flip it (there were some exciting waves catching my blades). I was also really struggling to go in a straight line, because there was just the slightest amount of cross-wind pushing me over. Anyway, after spinning my lovely coach decided I should do some practice starts - argh! The first few didn't go too well; I rushed them out of panic and they were quite messy - but this is why we have practice. The last one I did was much better, and I finally started to relax and paddle reasonably well. The last little bit of paddling was pretty good, and I left the water a lot more confident than I'd felt when I first got on it.

But.......

It wasn't to be. The next day, the wind had picked up a bit. I arrived at the lake a bit later than intended, but saw a fellow para-rower also getting ready to boat. We exchanged words of excitement and lots of 'good luck!' before wheeling off in different directions - her to get changed and me to find my coach and get in the boat. I spotted my coach from a little distance away, standing near some Cambridge lightweight rowers she has also been working with, who were just boating with their 8+s. She walked towards me and then just said, 'I have some really bad news...your race is cancelled.' They weren't even running a time trial for para-rowers - the wind was too strong, and it wasn't safe to go out.

I have to be honest here, before I am fair, because my initial reaction was not a positive one - but there's no point me writing about it at all if I'm not honest.

Unfortunately, and embarrassingly, once I realised that my coach was serious my first reaction was to start crying. Now, I don't really like crying at the best of times, and I can't remember the last time I cried in public. This is mainly because crying is not a good look for me - in terms of both aesthetics and my own (perhaps silly) sense of pride, but mainly the aesthetics. As I sat in my wheelchair, surrounded by other people who were getting their boats out onto the water and going off to race, I was just so enormously disappointed that a huge amount of effort had gone to waste - not just my efforts on the water and in the gym, but also effort from my coach, from my mum (who had driven me up to Nottingham, booked - and paid for - a hotel, stayed with me, helped me get about, and so on) and from all the other para-rowers who had put in the same effort to come and race. There is also a lot of mental effort that goes into race preparation, which was really draining for me. I was already fighting a huge part of me that said I shouldn't really be rowing; that my body wasn't up to it. I had prepared myself to shove that part of me away until I had at least completed the time trial, and it had been a huge mental hurdle to make that decision and to take away the option to back out. Now, though, the decision had been made for me and it was the opposite of what I wanted to do. There are so few opportunities to race against other para-rowers that I had really cherished the thought of competing at the national championships, with world and Olympic champions at the same event. I'm not sure I'll be able to compete next year - my illness may have progressed too much. That was why I was so bitterly disappointed - this weekend might have been my only chance, and after a huge amount of effort and stress it had all ended in an enormous anticlimax. Luckily, Rosie (my border terrier) had accompanied us, so I picked her up, put her on my lap and sat and gave her the biggest hug in the world until I could control myself again to stop crying (I'd just like to repeat - HOW embarrassing).
Having a cuddle on a different occasion, when I wasn't upset!
Obviously, there was nothing to be done. Once I'd got over the initial shock and disappointment all I wanted to do was go and watch the Cambridge lightweight boys in their race - we share a coach, a trailer and a university, after all! Going round to the other side of the lake to watch the time trial crews was a bit bittersweet - it was amazing to watch some world-famous rowers racing for their clubs, and to be able to cheer on the Cambridge boys, but I was gutted that I couldn't be out there too. However, even just a bit further down the lake than from where I would have boated I could feel that the wind was very strong, and looking down the lake you could see that it would have been extremely challenging to take a single out. There was a strong headwind which was made even stronger by immense gusts. My boat is very narrow (narrower than my bum when I'm sitting perched on the seat!), I'm not hugely experienced (especially compared to some of the other rowers) and I do have trouble with grip and balance. I was precisely the kind of person that was being protected by the decision not to race, as I would have been one of the most vulnerable. My disappointment was still strong, but at least now I knew that I only had to be disappointed that the weather was bad rather than that the decision had been made - it was, without doubt, the right decision.

After watching the time trials, I met up with a couple of other para-rowers, who were equally disappointed but also pragmatic enough to agree that the decision had not been taken lightly by the race organisers, and that it was definitely the only decision that they could have come to. Going out on the lake in those conditions would not have given us good racing - I, for one, would primarily have been attempting to survive, and only secondarily attempting to race! As more and more crews were blown inside by the blustery weather outside, we could see that the entire event was under threat of cancellation - and in fact, in the end, there were no more races after the bigger boats had finished their time trials.
Spotting an Olympic/World Championship medallist - photobombed by (hopefully) a future Paralympic medallist!
Since we couldn't race, I was still keen to make the most of the day. I was already spotting some famous rowers (see Alan Campbell above!), and a bit of retail therapy at the rowing trade stands also made me feel a bit better, as did a good natter with other para-rowers. My lovely coach had kept my numbers and my competitor badge so that I could still have some memento of the day that proved I had entered and intended to race - I will keep them, as a reminder of what I aim to achieve.
My race number - complete with cute little pictures of safety pins!
So....yes, it was a disappointment that we didn't get to race, and it was quite tough to see other crews being awarded medals on the basis of time trials when we didn't get to do one. However, we all agreed that the conditions just weren't safe for us to go out. Any frustration that I felt (and perhaps still feel) is in no way directed at the race organisers - they had to make a horrible decision, which must have been tough for them, but it was the right choice and I am grateful that our safety was always more important than running a race. In a sense, it was not a decision made by people but rather one made by the weather gods - the people in charge had no other option. It's unfortunate, but there was nothing else to be done, and (if I'm honest and rational) it was just a race. There are far worse things in life than a rowing race being cancelled - ranging from flipping your single because you're out in conditions that you couldn't really cope with (which would have been a distinct possibility for me) to losing your home or even your life in Hurricane Gonzalo, as has happened in the Caribbean. What I'm trying to say is that wind is a bugger, but if the worst that happens is that your race is cancelled then you can't really complain.

I still had a good day. I'm not sure if I'll be able to race next year, but for the time being I'm going to focus on events that are coming up shortly; events that I can do - including indoor ones which hopefully will be weather-proof! I also need to write about what I got up to after leaving the rowing lake - riding in a quadrille for the first time at the Riding for the Disabled Association Eastern Regional Conference. But now I should probably do some work for my PhD...