(This is a piece I wrote for Chris Graham, as part of the Promotion for 'Taking Steps' in 2016). Link at Bottom!
'I have always loved words! As a child, I would flick through the dictionary, and try to learn the meanings of whichever word my little fingers found first.
It may seem like a strange hobby for a little girl, but I had realised very young that I was different from other children.
I was born with Cerebral Palsy, which means I cannot walk or stand unaided. Whilst I did go outside and play in the garden with my sister, (and later cycle around the neighbourhood on my beloved (specially adapted) red trike, there were lots of things I could never be part of so I felt left out, and often lonely.
At age eight I made a small decision to try and raise awareness of disability – to help people understand what it can feel like, to try and turn negative into positive, and to ensure we were treated as equally as we should be.
Of course, being so young there was no way I could understand how much that ‘little decision’ would become even bigger. It was just something I felt I could and should do –and that has stayed with me ever since.
I gave assemblies and talks about my disability, throughout my school years – after my parents moved me from ‘special’ to ‘mainstream’ school. I made friends, but was always aware I was different (in some ways, at least) and there were times when I struggled to accept myself. I still do.
I sought refuge in that love of words. Within them I found a freedom that would become increasingly important as I grew older and began to suffer other ailments -including a lifelong battle with clinical depression, which began after multiple surgeries, and a nearly four month stay in a hospital (over a hundred miles from home), when I was fourteen.
During that time, I had to learn to walk from scratch – undergoing daily, painful physio in a bid to keep me out of full time wheelchair use, for as long as possible.
It was during that long hospital stay, that the idea for (what was eventually to become) ‘Taking Steps’ came to me. I wanted to keep raising awareness of disability in a creative way, but I never wanted it to be JUST about that – and it isn’t!
The idea was to show that there was to be positive and strong, but real at the same time. At this point, I had already been writing poetry for a couple of years, so it became a big part of the book.
As I grew up, the book grew with me – but the idea remained the same. The final version contains a bit of everything from poems, short stories, and some ‘commentary’ type pieces. As such, I guess it is difficult to categorise! One reviewer called it a ‘gutsy miscellany’, and a friend called it ‘Helen, -with a bright pink cover’!
It is. It is everything I am.
I hope it is informative, entertaining, and funny in places. Writing the short stories was the thing I enjoyed most. I think if I had to choose my favourite pieces they would be a short story (written for children) called ‘Christmas is off’. I had great fun writing the dialogue!
Another favourite, (on a much more serious note) is the initial poem of the book. It’s called ‘Please’, and it is very special to me. It was written when I had only been out of hospital for about seven weeks. When I came home I was terribly depressed and overwhelmed by everything. Readjusting to school, keeping up, pain, continued daily physio, loss of friendships
There were times when I was suicidal then, but I’m proud, because even at my worst, I managed to end that piece positively. Later that year, it won a local ‘World Aids Day’ poetry competition.
The book covers many serious issues. Aside from disability (and associated ‘activism’), there are pieces about mental illness, and my continuing struggle to accept childlessness. You’ll find some feminism in there too – but there are also some very light hearted ‘everyday’ observations. Some are in poetry form, some are not.
There have been many drafts of the book over the years, and many attempts to get it ‘out there’. It has become even more important to me since 2010.
People with disabilities and illness are in a far worse situation than we were before then, and. I’m watching the cause I love and believe in, go backwards!
I’m angry…Government have destroyed lives, and not just via cruel and unnecessary social security sanctions which have indirectly (and directly) been responsible for the deaths of thousands and thousands of disabled and ill people, but through loss of independence and self- esteem.
My own mental health has suffered further as a result of us being labelled ‘scroungers’. We are not ‘scroungers’! We are not just numbers on a page! I think that fact is getting lost, amongst the rhetoric, various lies, and negative media coverage. I hope the book counter-acts a lot of that.
It’s been a long hard slog, (of over twenty years) interrupted by my (continuing) battle against ill health, but it is here now. It’s real and something I can hold in my hand, and say ‘I did that’.
My life isn’t easy. I am in constant pain, suffer chronic insomnia…the list goes on, but I’ve been so lucky in so many ways – and apart from raising awareness of some important issues, I’d like the writing to stand for itself.
Taking Steps has been a ‘labour of love’, and although it probably sounds corny, I hope you love it as much as I do.
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