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People Library

Out of the Darkness

One woman’s journey turning pain into power

Often, we get to choose how we shape our lives and the world around us.  Sometimes though, our lives are thrust into unfamiliar scenarios that we have no control over and how we respond in these moments is a true test of our character. It’s a real inspiration when you meet people who have not just overcome their own challenges in life, but are using their journey to help others facing similar mountains to climb.

Natalie’s world turned upside down at the age of seventeen, and for someone who was young and very active what happened rocked her life to the core. “When you’re young, you think that you’re completely indestructible, and you don’t really worry about your health.” She says, “I played football, I was a keen swimmer, I loved to dance and was really into performing arts and was generally quite happy.”

Describing the moment when her life changed, she says, “It was a simple thing really. I was just getting changed at home and stood up straight. I suddenly felt this shock go right through my body. I couldn’t stand up straight without being in agony.”

She went to see the doctor. “To begin with they just thought it was a sporting injury, that I’d hurt myself at some point without realising it and told me it would get better in a couple of weeks kind of thing… yeah, it never did.” she recalls.

In the following months she describes what life was like. “I could barely walk, sit or sleep without being in a lot of pain. To suddenly go from being a seventeen year old in the prime of my life to having all this pain, it was a real shock to the system. I had to give up all the things I enjoyed.  I just thought this isn’t normal for a seventeen year old, I should have healed by now.”

It took two years for Natalie to get a diagnosis. An MRI revealed that vertebrae in her spine were degenerating and she had several bulging discs. “It’s basically like chronic back pain and fibromyalgia,” she says, “I remember the shock of it being downplayed as a temporary sporting injury, to something that was now going to affect the rest of my life. The level of pain changes week to week, so there’s a lot of uncertainty which can be hard.”

She describes a sense of relief at knowing what was wrong, mixed with fear and uncertainty around her future. “Because it’s my spine it affects literally everything to do with mobility. I had to face things like: Am I going to be able to have kids? Am I going to be able to hold down a full time job? Am I even going to be able to look after myself?”  She opens up with honesty, “You sort of give up on your future because you think If I’m this bad now, how am I going to be in the next ten, twenty years.”

Now twenty six years old, Natalie has lived with her chronic pain for seven years and credits an enthusiastic back pain specialist with her current perspective on life. “I shared with her that I was weighed down by the pain and wasn’t going to succeed in what I wanted in life. I told her about my darkest times when I just felt like ending it. The doctor understood my concerns and she was the first person who really listened to me and made me feel like my experiences were valid. That I was normal. She spoke to me as an adult, not a child.”

The next thing the specialist said to Natalie was transformational. “She told me that I was trapped in a cycle of only seeing the negative. She understood why, but told me that I didn’t need to stay trapped in my own body, that I could still lead a very happy, healthy and successful life as a woman even with my condition. It was exactly what I needed to hear.” 

Natalie explains the shift in her mindset since this was spoken to her; a reminder of the power of our words.  “I think it’s good to not get too caught up in what might be and focus on what you can do in the present. I just take each day as it comes and try to manage what I can, without going back to the place where I felt isolated and defeated.”

Natalie currently works part-time for Made in Manningham which helps people set up community businesses. When she started working there her colleagues and management weren’t aware of her chronic pain but thankfully, through a culture of openness, she’s been able to share her experiences. She says, “Our conversations have made work life much easier for me and I think more organisations should follow suit to create a more accessible and flexible working environment.”

For Natalie, chronic pain has similarities to mental health because it’s not obvious externally what someone is dealing with internally. As a society we’re not really educated about it, and she explains how people fall into this grey area, often unable to perform many basic tasks but not disabled enough to be registered as disabled.

“People will say ‘you look really well’ and think I’m okay without realising that I’m just putting a brave face on it. It puts you in a difficult place in society where your disability/health condition needs to be seen to be accommodated. I want to be involved in creating an open conversation, so that those living chronic pain can be met with compassion, support and society will become more inclusive.”

Natalie is learning that change is possible for both individuals suffering with chronic pain and empathy towards them from wider society. It’s something that she’s been exploring during the pandemic after setting up a project called ‘Pain into Power’ with her sister, an online peer support group for women living with chronic pain in her city of Bradford.

She explains her thoughts behind it. “We wanted to create a safe and accessible platform where women could share experiences, advice and support each other. When someone finds out they’re not alone in their experiences and feelings it’s really helpful, ‘It’s not about saying ‘ just think positively’, it’s about accepting who we are and learning how to thrive despite life’s setbacks.”

The demand took the sisters by surprise and the project is continuing to evolve.  “It’s inspiring because you realise you’re not just in your own bubble anymore, and it helps you out of the darkness.” Recently she’s been collaborating with Bradford-based creatives to put on workshops for members. “It’s easy to lose your ability to express yourself when you suffer with chronic pain, because everything is focused on your pain. I know for me though, that painting was my biggest escape when I started suffering.” She continues, “We’re exploring how creativity can be used as a tool for improving wellbeing. Doing something creative such as crafting, doodling or listening to music can help you express and process emotions which benefits your mental and physical health.”

Her experiences with her work and in developing the peer support project have given Natalie a fresh appreciation for her city. “Bradford gets a bad rap when you speak to people who don’t actually live here, but I love how it’s full of people from so many different backgrounds and a lot of people are coming forward to make a positive impact in this city.”

She often gets to travel across the UK with her work but always misses Bradford. “It’s hard to put your finger on it but I think folk are friendlier up north. There’s a rawness and vibrancy to the people of Bradford who just want to help people and make a positive difference.”

Chronic pain can easily isolate and cause an individual’s life to close down, yet Natalie has found a way to overcome this by seeing the positive, and by having honest and open conversations. The ripple effect of those words spoken by the back specialist are now reaching more and more people. “It’s kind of like an exploration and a journey together, the beauty of this project is that we’re learning together what works and what doesn’t. It’s been like a key to unlocking my own power and hope.”

She continues, “The mental or physical suffering doesn’t have to define you and it doesn’t have to imprison you. It’s about finding people’s potential and their inner power, because that’s what’s important.” It’s powerful lived experience and advice like this that could help many people.

When asked about how her view of success has changed in the last seven years Natalie concludes, “Success used to be getting a degree, getting a good job, earning lots of money and having a happy life – and that’s it. Now if I died tomorrow, and I could say that I’d made some kind of positive impact on someone else’s life or made a positive impact in society, then I could die happy. That is success for me now.”

You can find out more about the ‘Pain into Power’ project here

Story and Images by Tom Harmer

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A Vital Connection

Discovering strength through community.

As you speak with Shaida from Keighley, you quickly get a strong sense of her resilience and fortitude as she shares her journey through the many challenges she has faced in forty years of life. She overcame a debilitating illness, journeyed through twelve pregnancies and now has five children ranging from five to twenty-one years old. She has fought hard to raise and protect her family whilst living within an inner city environment; one which she says has had high levels of drug crime, exploitation of young people, littered streets and a general atmosphere of apathy from many residents towards the local surroundings.

For many people, pressures and circumstances like this would get the better of them, yet Shaida has discovered something she says is “vital to life” – this is the incredible difference that community support groups make to life.

There’s a wonderful wisdom that tumbles out of Shaida as she passionately shares about community; that life is meant to be lived within community, that caring for the unseen in our neighbourhoods is rewarding and that without community her own challenges would have been a lot tougher.

Married at 17 and with her first child at 19, she says “I felt very much thrown into the deep end. I was a young mum and I felt lots of uncertainty about raising my son.” It was during this time that she came across a mums group run from the Keighley Association for Women and Children’s Centre (KAWACC). Shaida found a welcoming environment in which she could build friendships, listen and share. “I didn’t feel alone as a young mum anymore. It gave me this enhanced confidence to face life and it also opened up some opportunities for me.”

Over the next ten years KAWACC became a home away from home for Shaida; a ‘grounding community’ woven together from the rich tapestry of her local neighbourhood. “I just loved being there. I couldn’t stay away and soon began volunteering to help others, which then led onto loads of opportunities for courses – things like hairstyling, reflexology and supported exercise for the elderly. Eventually I ended up on the board where I helped to shape the community work and I was involved for many years.”

In 2004, life took another twist when her daughter was born prematurely and was hospitalised for five months. “Her lungs were not mature enough to breathe,” recalls Shaida. ”My grandma also died only two weeks after she was born. It was such a challenging time for me.”

Her daughter had only been home a week when the health visitor spotted that she was still struggling to breathe and was rushed back into hospital, needing an oxygen mask to survive. Shaida spent a week by her bedside and unknowingly picked up an infection. “I started getting severe pains, but no one could figure out why. I wanted to be strong for my new baby and family but within a few weeks I began losing my mobility and ended up in hospital myself with a spine infection.”

“It was such a tough time for me. In the hospital, I struggled to get to my daughter’s ward and couldn’t even lift her in my arms to comfort her. I remember this real feeling of guilt for that. I felt like a child again, I was helpless.” 

Fortunately they both recovered, but she remembers being exhausted on returning home with all the responsibilities of motherhood to a newborn and her other kids and simply wanted to stay home and sleep. “I suppose there was an element of denial and embarrassment about what I’d gone through, so I just carried on without opening up to anyone.”

With limited adult contact, her health visitor became a highlight of the week and it was during one of these visits that Shaida was encouraged to try a Sure Start parent group held locally at the Highfield Community Centre. This ended up being the life-line that Shaida needed, a connection to other mothers within the community and providing much needed help and support during that time.

Also, around this time a women’s community basketball group began and Shaida found herself being drawn to it. It ended up becoming an essential part of her life and recovery. “To begin with I was a bit cautious. They used to play like it was rugby and I feared that I’d damage my spine, but I grew in courage and it soon became a highlight of my week. I loved going, it was ‘me time’ away from all my responsibilities.” That group of women continued to play together for over ten years.

Reminiscing, Shaida says, “When we choose to be open about what we’re going through, it opens up dialogue and allows others to also share their feelings. That connection with the community always leaves me feeling replenished.”

This ‘open dialogue’ is something she also witnessed through a Near Neighbours scheme – an initiative that brought together Eastern European, Asian and White communities from her neighbourhood to discuss problems they faced. “In such a mixed group of individuals it was wonderful to see how people began sharing openly. We soon realised that we all cared about the same things, we all wanted to see drastic change in our neighbourhood.”

The local drug culture was a common problem for people. “You could see exchanges openly happening in our streets,” says Shaida. “There were gang rings in the area, helicopters constantly overhead and kids were being groomed into those gangs, but there didn’t seem to be anything we could do apart from stopping our own kids from getting involved”

The other shared issues were litter on the streets, a lack of activities for youth, no work opportunities and a feeling that no-one cared for the environment they were all living in. This led to several litter picks throughout the area, and a greater unity and understanding between the different communities. “Sometimes it’s scary to talk, but unless people speak up the bad things will continue to happen,” she explains.

One of Shaida’s fondest memories of community cohesion was when she attended a two night multi-faith rural retreat to a bunkhouse in Malham. Individuals that would never normally meet shared activities, meals and cleaning rotas. She recalls that “getting out of the inner city into the countryside and working alongside people from different backgrounds and faith opened up so many barriers. We had open discussions about our differences and the whole thing emphasised womanhood over religion. There was such a calmness there which really nurtured me.”  Over the years, Shaida’s involvement at the Highfield Centre has moved from firstly accepting support, to then volunteering and she’s now working part-time as a staff member.

One area she really values is working alongside the elderly. “It’s sad. A lot of the elderly people are undervalued, they often don’t feel like anyone cares or their opinions don’t matter anymore, but they’ve got so much wisdom and experience to share. I find that I can relate to what they’re going through, I understand pain and what a feeling of helplessness is like. The isolation they often feel, how they may not want to leave home or get out of bed. I guess I have compassion for them because of what I’ve gone through over the years.”

Her experiences have led her to being a massive champion of community work and its benefits to all involved.  “We’ve recently set up a gardening group on Wednesday afternoons in a local council owned space, where we bring the young and old together. We’re going to turn an overgrown space into a garden with flowers and vegetables. I want us all to be able to sit around a table one day and eat a meal with some of what we’ve grown…the conversations are brilliant, it’s so therapeutic gardening together.”

For Shaida, community has been a place of refuge, a sanctuary in the midst of the challenges of life. It’s become home, a place where friendships are formed and lives are strengthened through connection. “I’ve personally felt so much compassion, care and value within groups I’ve been involved in,” she says. It’s these values of care, compassion, empathy, listening and valuing that Shaida continues to model through her work today.

Over the years, Shaida has witnessed the situation with gangs improving and there’s now a real drive on clearing litter within the community – so there have been lots of positive changes. “Bradford is a beautiful place,” she says. “There’s some horrible stuff that happens on the side but there’s a lot of good. The help I’ve seen communities provide through COVID has been incredible.”

She ends with this thought: “I find at the centres I portray myself as more confident than I am at home. I tell the ladies you are strong, beautiful, you can do this. By hearing and saying it to the others, it reinforces it to myself, like a ripple effect.” It’s that ripple effect of value, strength and compassion that we all need in our lives. And it starts when we step outside our homes and unite with others to build community.

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