Updated: Jan 19, 2022
By Amber Daw
Listen to this here: https://open.spotify.com/episode/1IOw6zsvjGvWk7Y7lNA7ZF?si=f82bbefff24b4145
If you think back to when you were younger I’m sure you can recall countless relatives asking you “what do you want to be when you grow up?”. For the most part they’d always agree with whatever you said, no matter how silly or out of the ordinary your idea was: “you can be whatever you want to be” often being their reply. This belief becomes ingrained in you, the idea that anything is possible if you work hard enough. This idea extends far beyond the world of work.
Something I wasn’t fully aware of until I became disabled.
Before getting ill I was a healthy, incredibly enthusiastic member of my local air cadet squadron, who had their heart set on a career in the Royal Air Force after completing a degree at university. I was enjoying school and countless extracurricular activities. However this all changed when I got ill at 14. Over the next couple of years, as my condition deteriorated, extracurriculars slowly fell away too. With limited energy everyday soon became solely about getting through school. I unknowingly had my last parade night at cadets in November 2017. At that time I was still undiagnosed and was hopeful that one day I would be back, but as the months went on, my condition continued to deteriorate and it soon became clear that this wouldn’t be the case. I was diagnosed with M.E in October 2018, 2 and half years after my initial onset of symptoms.
It was also the day my future was redefined.
M.E is on the list of conditions which prevent you from joining the RAF. The future I had imagined for myself changed in just two words: Myalgic Encephalomyelitis. This hit me hard, my cadet uniform, which had sat untouched for almost a year, served as a constant reminder of where I should have been headed. Yet I couldn’t bring myself to put it away- it was just too painful.
After my initial diagnosis my mental health plummeted. Weeks spent completely overwhelmed by the massive question mark chronic illness had placed over my future. I have struggled with anxiety for as long as I can remember but my diagnosis exacerbated it massively. I had just started sixth form and needed to start seriously thinking about university. Suddenly everything felt scarier, I was overthinking everything, struggling to see a future for myself. I knew my first choice university wouldn’t be feasible given my declining health and this only hit my mental health harder.
It was at this time I started to work with an M.E specialist psychologist. Over the 18 months I worked with them we worked through many different things. One of the most valuable things we did focused around the idea that the future can be something beautiful even when it looks different to the one you initially imagined. This is something that took me a long time to believe, but I’m getting there. We also worked together to process the effect that leaving cadets without warning had had on me and how we could bring closure on that chapter of my life, this culminated in my uniform being put away after over 2 years of it being left untouched in my room. They also supported me through my sixth form journey, answering countless questions about university and mitigating many workload crises along the way. They were such an integral part of my journey of acceptance and I will be forever grateful to them for their support and guidance.
The ever changing nature of chronic illness is something that I think will always impact my mental health to some degree. The unpredictability of flare ups is something that much of my anxiety is fuelled by. The fact that you can do everything in your power to prevent a flare by pacing, resting and constantly planning ahead. Yet a crash can still creep up on you from out of nowhere and completely wipe all the progress you have made. Having to find the mental strength to get back up after a flare is extremely difficult, especially when you are all too aware that another flare will come along. But every time no matter how hard it is, you do pick yourself up, what choice do you have?
Since my diagnosis, with the help of my specialist team, I have come a long way with managing my mental health alongside M.E. Don’t get me wrong it’ll be something I’ll always have to work on but I am now more able to see a future for myself. I have recently started university to begin the journey to becoming an SEN teacher. In the hopes of one day empowering young people in similar situations to myself to know that, as an incredible friend once told me “no matter what your future looks like there will always be joy, so shoot for some joy and see where you land.”
(Originally published 29/10/20)