Not far into the new millennium I woke up with half a numb hand. As a doctor I had always followed the premise that ‘common things are common’, so I put it down to having trapped a nerve when I’d hoisted a heavy backpack over my shoulder a few days earlier and thought it would get better with time. It didn’t. Later, it turned out to have been the first sign that I had multiple sclerosis.
A few years down the track, after a few relapses and partial remissions, and following a long-haul flight back to the UK from New Zealand, I developed numbness from the middle of my chest downwards leaving me incapable, exhausted and terrified of how much recovery I might make. Luckily, most of it retreated over some months, but still left me with two wholly numb hands that felt like they were touching everything through 15 denier nylon, that hideous stuff used to make the pairs of tights which I avoided wearing at every opportunity.
I decided that I could neither risk flying back to Aotearoa (NZ) which had been my home for almost fourteen years and where I had taken citizenship, nor continue being a GP, because - and just for starters - I could no longer feel enough to take a pulse, assess the texture, nature, or extent of any suspicious lump, nor even gauge the necessary plumpness of a vein for taking blood. My whole life needed reimagining.
To begin with, I was stymied. My livelihood had given me so much more than an income. It had defined me, given my life meaning and a huge sense of worth, none of which I had particularly appreciated until they’d gone… very Joni Mitchell. I felt banjaxed by grief and uncertainty. Luckily, I had a partner who was understanding and generous of spirit – as well as highly employable - who quickly got a job, which gave me the time to try to discover or imagine something new for myself. And then, as sometimes happens in life, I was in the right place at the right time and walked into my first new job as the manager of an MS Therapy Centre where I was a client, after the previous incumbent disappeared with stress. That of course should have been a clue that the job wasn’t going to be easy, or very supported. Within a year I had learned categorically that I wasn’t management material and was desperate to escape. The one good thing about it was that I was employed and it’s always easier to find another job once you’re in one.
I saw a tiny ad in the local free paper and interviewed for a nearby charity that was running groups for parents who were struggling with their teenagers. I had experience in groupwork and got the job. I enjoyed the work, the clients, and my new colleagues. It paid very little compared with being a doctor, but I was earning something and contributing to our household income, which was important to me. As well as running groups, I was also learning new approaches and contributing to writing and improving the charity’s very own parenting programme. I’d found another job with meaning. All of this was brought to a swift end however, when the government in its wisdom decreed that only certain accredited parenting programmes were to be used throughout the country and had to be run by ‘Parenting Experts’ in full-time posts. There was no way I could work full-time, even if I’d had any faith in the compulsory one-size-fits-all programme we were going to have to deliver. Then a job in an alcohol and drug agency, running groups for people in recovery fell into my lap. Once again, I loved the work and stayed in that job until I moved to Ireland.
Arriving in Wexford in 2010, I had thought that I might find something in a similar vein, but once I stopped and took a breather, I realised that I was exhausted. My MS had been slowly progressing and paid work felt suddenly beyond me. My partner was still working, and once again she encouraged me to let myself take a rest and consider what might come next. I faced the truth that I was beyond managing to be employed and wondered what might give me meaning now. And I was lucky. I had always enjoyed reading and occasionally entertained the idea of writing. I had the time now and we had washed up on an island where I was meeting women who wrote and where it no longer felt quite so audacious to think I might one day call myself a writer. I began going to writing workshops and joined a small writing group. Our little group approached a local poet to run regular workshops for us, who in turn suggested that we might share our work and start to ‘workshop’ each other’s writing. Then, during one of our early sessions, the piece that I’d submitted got feedback from the group that it ought to be the start of a novel. So, what I’d thought to be the bones of a short story became the first chapter of an exceedingly slowly evolving novel. Part of the reason for the lack of progress was MS-related fatigue and another part of it was that somewhere I doubted that I could do it. I was the sort of person who read novels, not wrote them. I also became suddenly, seriously ill, developing Type 1 Diabetes out of the blue and ending up being treated in intensive care for a few days. This put a strain on my already challenged nerves and muscles, and my MS worsened. Walking became much harder and after a year or so I succumbed to using a powered wheelchair to get around. A little later I gave up driving and became reliant on my partner to take me out and about. The poet stepped away from our diminishing writing group and I could rarely access the remaining members who occasionally still got together to write. Throughout all of this, my novel and its characters kept me going. In my head I had committed to telling their story and I was determined to finish doing just that, which I finally did in mid-2019. Then of course came the brutal business of trying to find someone interested in taking it on and launching it out into the world. I slogged away with the bespoke query emails and multiple manuscript re-formats needed to meet the countless variations in line spacing, font type and length of word count being requested by different agents and publishers. I received a few encouraging, a few less encouraging and a lot of ‘it’s just not for us, but we’re sure you’ll find someone’ type rejections. Occasionally, my hopes were raised by requests to look at the whole manuscript, but ultimately there were no takers. And sometimes, despite my belief in it, I just ran out of the energy, resilience and confidence that I needed to keep putting it out there, or indeed, still trusting in my own ideas and writing. I decided to take a break and try my hand at writing short stories and entering them into competitions.
My first attempt was long-listed for the 2020 International Colm Tóibín Short Story Award and I thought, with great excitement and relief, that maybe this was where I ought to be putting my energy. But since then, and despite entering many more competitions, I’ve failed to court any further success. Taking some distance from the novel had however, allowed me to recharge and to start paying attention to an old idea that I’d had for a Teen/YA book, which just wouldn’t leave me alone. And so I embarked upon my next novel.
In early 2020 Covid-19 arrived in Ireland, with all of the horror, fear and restriction it brought in its wake. For me though, as a lot of people were experiencing unprecedented constraint and isolation, my world was becoming less solitary and opening up. I had more company now that my partner was working from home, and my access to writing festivals and workshops was easier than ever before, because a whole catalogue of events were suddenly available to attend online, giving me equal opportunity to access them along with everyone else. And then the opportunity to apply for the Walls Of Limerick Mentorship Programme for underrepresented writers came along, which was also going to be mainly delivered digitally, through 2021. I was awarded a place along with nine other dedicated writers and matched up with the skilled and generous Fí Scarlett as my mentor, who has already helped me immeasurably. I have had digital access to masterclasses with renowned writers and have been welcomed into the existing Writepace2 writing group which I can take part in via Zoom. The Walls Of Limerick programme is offering me guidance, support, encouragement and a plethora of opportunities to help develop the craft and my self-belief. Keeping company with people who have successfully persevered with their own writing aspirations helps me to trust that this time, I can truly dare to reimagine myself as a writer.