I met up with the very inspiring Geraldine Lavelle on a sunny Sligo afternoon a few months ago.
We have a mutual friend for many years and so meeting this lady in the flesh felt like catching up with an old friend. In Oct 2013 I was living in Spain when I heard that following an accident while out cycling, Geraldine was now looking at a new life in a wheelchair.
I have been inspired and following Geraldine’s blog (Spinal Cord Injury) since she started to share her story, also the awareness and fundraising of The Geraldine Lavelle Trust and Geraldine’s most recent project Fitness For This Ability , a platform to showcase the inspiring work and stories of individuals with physical challenges in sports. It also shares webinars and online classes to promote and open up discussion around sports and disability. This project received funding from a courteous citizens grant which Geraldine applied for.
I was inspired to talk about the mental process that Geraldine experienced when transitioning through this whole process. How you go from one way of life to another,literally overnight. We also spoke about stigma in Ireland towards people with disabilities, stigma around mental health,the services or lack of them in Ireland and how the changes Geraldine had to work through were way beyond just physical.
This is a very inspiring and empowering person and it really was an honour to talk with her. It is people like this who remind me just how powerful the human spirit can be.
Would you like to talk a bit about how you got through the initial stages of the post accident recovery?
When I was in the hospital after having my accident, I probably wasn’t fully aware of the extent of what had happened. People tell you that you will get better, or that I was a fighter – I don’t think anyone really knew the enormity of the situation at the time.
Even though I had studied science and I knew all about the body and the spinal cord, I guess it was just completely different when I was put in that situation and I had to live it. 48 hours after my accident, the consultant in the hospital came into the ICU where I was with my sister and he just said it out straight “You will never walk again, do you do know that?”.
That was extremely hard- I remember gasping, not even able to lift my head to look over at my younger sister, just wishing her to say that he was wrong.
I think that is what I sought for a long time.I got angry at people who were closest to me; my family. I remember feeling so much anger towards my father, just thinking to myself “how could you let this happen?” – you expect that they are meant to protect you but then you realise it is not their will or their life.
What were some of the biggest realizations you came to during this time? How did you process things?
You are suddenly reminded of how fragile our bodies are. The mind is a lot more resilient – but it takes a lot more time; well it took me a long time for the whole mental side to process what had happened.
To be honest, over five years later and I am still processing it – everyday. In the beginning I would cry a number of times per day. I would get into my bed in the hospital, pull the covers over my head and just cry and cry. You can’t believe you are there in that situation
I was one month and a half in the Mater hospital, 9 months in rehab and I never got to go home during that time as there were not health care services available to do so.
People continued to tell me that I would get better – and they fully believed that. People would bring me religious relics and tell me God would fix it.
How did you find it when people did that, brought spirituality or faith into the situation?
Maybe it was helpful, in a sense.
I think I even started to believe it- but as time went on it would be a challenge. At the end of the day I was the one sitting in the room when Doctors and consultants put metal in my neck and gave me the statistics of how much recovery I would make. I know people meant well and they wanted to give me hope, but in a sense it was false hope. I know that consultant who was brutally honest in the beginning was harsh, but that was the first step . He knew that I had to understand the reality and to keep going from there.
” You are suddenly reminded of how fragile our bodies are. The mind is a lot more resilient – but it takes a lot more time; well it took me a long time for the whole mental side to process what had happened. “
What else do you remember about the different stages you go through?
It is a grief and as time went on you start to latch to different things,
It is like losing somebody – you wake up everyday and you are still here in this situation.
There were easy spells and hard spells, I remember the first time I was able to make coffee by myself again and feeling elated and then thinking “Is this it?”.
The mental process was quite challenging. Anxiety was a major issue as well.
In the hospital I was in a 19 bed ward, we couldn’t have open windows due to body and blood temperature being an issue with spinal cord injuries. Not having your own private space where you can deal with all of the anxiety, the depression and all of the other mental processes that come up when you are just thrust into this unknown world, was hard.
I think if you can get through the hospital experience, you can get through any phase of your life.
One day you are healthy and the next it all changes. I was preparing to go away to Manchester for a weekend with my girlfriends when this all happened, I had said goodbye to my boyfriend and gone out for a cycle before going to work.
You have your whole life set up and then all of a sudden to be just plucked from that and put into this life where you are told you can’t get out of bed, you can’t shower yourself, you can’t walk. It was like something from a horror story.
How did things move forward for you when you let the hospital?
When I got out of the hospital, everything did start to seem a bit brighter. Even though it is was just moving into an independent unit, having my own bed and my own space – all the things we can take for granted- was such a relief. Being able to have my friends visit and stay without a curfew, having that freedom was great.
How did you find it suddenly being more dependent on people, asking people for help more? Did you find that a struggle?
Absolutely. That was something extremely difficult, and it still is to this day but I have to just realise that I will always have to ask for help. I try to do as much as I can and every single day I try to advance and do that little bit more for myself but that was a big step, I do have to get over it and just ask for help a lot of the time. There was a time when I didn’t even want to ask for help cutting up my food , I would just prefer not to eat.
” I want to create a normality around accessibility in schools, buildings, restaurants, roads and how things are built and how society creates a sense of inclusion for all. “
You seem like you are quite an independent person.
I left home at 18 and I never moved back after that, I was always ms.independent. I hated asking for help, so to go from that to this was hard. I have gotten better with it all, you have to take control of the things that you can do, what you need and then draw up a plan.
I have progressed, every year there is something more that I can do myself.
I’m learning to drive at the moment which is going good. I still need help getting in and out of the car but it is about prioritising different options and solutions – you can’t have it all and it is about just having as much as you can to make you happy and feel as positive as you can, as you are.
At the end of the day, are we ever fully happy with what we have? I know for a fact that I wasn’t fully happy with everything that I had before the accident. Even with everything that I had I didn’t realise how lucky and happy I was.
I guess it is like taking it each day as it comes, as with most things in life?
There are weeks when I am just so positive and I have a great outlook on life. These are the times when I feel I can give back through my talks and my blog to help people out who find themselves going through the mental process that comes with changes like these in your life.
You are doing some great work through talks and speaking with people to raise awareness of the issues that people with disabilities face. How are you finding that?
I was in a school speaking to a group of kids aged 7 and 8. They asked me some of the most intelligent questions I have been asked.
Just honest and direct questions; for example “Did you ever feel like giving up?”. I told them that I didn’t feel like giving up but there were times that I was so sad that I didn’t know how I would keep going.
That is the truth, I knew that I had to keep going because I was still here.
One of the children asked me how I kept going and I explained that these were the times when I reached out to my family and friends.
Another asked me “On a scale of one to ten how how scared were you?” When I told them it was an 8 or a 9 back then, all of the kids faces just sank- but they cheered when I told that it was only a 2 now.
What was the purpose of this talk?
The talk was about inspiration and motivation and the determination to get through life. It was also to give children, or anyone, an awareness of disabilities and maybe people’s attitude as a whole and talk about things that need to progress in Ireland to do this.
It felt like one of the most worthwhile things I have done, talking to the kids.
This is also why I thought it might be a good place to start with the younger generation when it comes to awareness around disability and accessibility. To talk to the future generation of road builders and infrastructure builders and to start from the ground up . I want to create a normality around accessibility in schools, buildings, restaurants, roads and how things are built and how society creates a sense of inclusion for all.
How have you found the response from people in relation to your blog and the message you are trying to share?
In general it has been great, people keep motivating me and telling me to keep getting my message out there. I don’t really get a response from the people who actually have control over the changes that need to be made in Ireland. You rarely get a response unless you go higher and higher up the ladder and it can feel a bit like a cat and mouse game at times, which is difficult.
What have you found with people’s attitude towards people with disabilities- have you found it has changed through your blog for example or what have you experienced in general?
There is a definite stigma around people with disabilities in Ireland. You can see that people assume you have a mental disability as well as a physical one when they see you in a chair. It can sometimes feel that you are perceived as being less than.
I would find myself going into a shop with a friend and people would speak to them and never ask or speak to me directly. I was once taken out of my chair at an airport without any interaction or discussion with me about it.
I found I had to start to speak up and be more assertive. I guess you are adjusting to so many things and taking on so much that you have to learn how to speak up again.
“I found I had to start to speak up and be more assertive. I guess you are adjusting to so many things and taking on so much that you have to learn how to speak up again. “
I remember in a meeting with someone when I was trying to get back to work and I was told that “It wouldn’t be in an employers interest to hire someone with my level of injury”. I just sat there in disbelief. I just thought that this person would go on and say the same thing to someone else in my situation – even though I am the same person as I was before but with a disability.
I have a first class honours Bachelor degree of science and a first class masters in neuroscience with over 500 points in my leaving cert. Then suddenly I felt that due to being in a wheelchair people felt they could talk down to me, it was very disheartening.
Would you have been an assertive person before the accident?
I would have been assertive to a point, I wouldn’t have been confrontational by any means. I didn’t want to make a scene but you also don’t want someone to be talking down to you and want to be treated like a human being.
My confidence would have gone from an 8 or a 9 down to a one after my accident. I detested the way I looked, the way people looked at me – or maybe it was all in my head? But I didn’t want to speak up or draw any more attention to myself .
Where do you think your views on how you looked (in a wheelchair) came from?
Perhaps from societies perception of beauty? I mean how many people in a wheelchair do you follow on social media? We follow what we know, or we all see these unrealistic generic forms of beauty.
I remember being asked about dating and I spoke about putting up pictures of myself in my chair and getting no responses, compared to when I put up pictures of myself not in the chair and the response rate rose to a standard amount.
Is it just that we don’t like things that are different? Do we not find injuries attractive? Do we not like challenges or something that is perceived as different?
Have you found that your confidence has grown over the past few years?
I wouldn’t say it is where it was before the accident. I don’t care anymore if people look at me or don’t look at me – there was a time I was too afraid to go out or to go to nightclubs but now I don’t care.
You have to keep going and keep on living.
If people stare that is their problem and there are lots of people who don’t stare.
It is definitely something that that I need to be more aware of, what we are saying or how we are acting and how it can be perceived by others. Have you found that to be something that you have addressed or that you are comfortable explaining to others?
It is a good topic to address- you don’t want to insult people and people don’t want to insult you but sometimes they just don’t know how to react. The bottom line for me is to just act the way you would with me irregardless of being in a wheelchair or not.
I did have a lot of anxiety when I was meeting people again after the accident. I didn’t want them to act any different towards me than how they did before. I suppose that was the sad thing, lots of people who would have had fun with me before, now felt awkward and I did loose bonds like that.
For example with my brother, he is your traditional quiet guy and he didn’t want to say anything to upset me so he’d nearly say nothing, which is worse. You go from the usual tomfoolery between siblings to that and it hurts.
You have some fantastic ideas and plans to explore and share this more. Do you want to talk a bit about that?
I applied for a courageous citizen grant and if I get accepted I hope to create webinars and give talks to companies about disability and access for disability.
It seems to be something that comes up time and time again. My blog does reach people but I wonder if people see things about accessibility and switch off because if it doesn’t relate to them and so they may not engage so much.
You won’t notice these issues until you are pushing a chair or a pram and how much it affects you in society. This is why I want to work with companies and people and create more understanding about it in our day to day lives.
I worked in two universities and I never came across anybody in a chair. I worked in a multinational health care company and I was the first person in the company in a wheelchair. This is an issue.
“You won’t notice these issues until you are pushing a chair or a pram and how much it affects you in society. This is why I want to work with companies and people and create more understanding about it in our day to day lives. ”
(**The day after this interview Geraldine called to tell me she had been given the grant and has since gone on to create a fantastic platform to raise awareness around accessibility and issues faced by those in wheelchairs, online classes, webinars, forums – as well as offering a space for others to come together and share their experience, work and inspiration around over coming challenges and incredible determination, creating positive change and making our society a more inclusive place for all. Check it out : Fitness For This Ability)
When did you get to a place of being ready to open up and share your story?
I came to Sligo in 2014, I started work in Abbott in September of that year – working for 6months in an equality role. I then got a position as a health care and physiology tutor I.T Sligo, so that was more related to what I studied and I had that job for three years until the funding ran out.
Throughout that time I was writing for local papers and talking on small radio shows. This got me thinking about sharing more and I had had so many hours in the hospital with all of my thoughts which helped me to process everything that was happening.
I either had it written down or stored in the back of my mind and so as I started to write and share it online.
I felt silly and didn’t think anyone would want to read it but I got so much support and positive feedback about it that I continued to write more.
I saw the instagram pictures and posts from people in wheelchairs and that I wasn’t alone and so I kept going. Knowing that I could help others by writing about my experience helped me a lot.
I have found through my own writing it helps me to refine things in my mind and process what I feel or what I want to say. Do you find something similar write?
Yes, definitely. My background is science and so I was never a major lover of English or reading/ writing but I have just found it was so therapeutic. Especially when I get such a huge response from people who really felt that they gained something from it.
We all use some medium to process things – whether it be art, writing, sport or otherwise and I think it is a great stepping stone to help keep you motivated during the darker days.
Talking about the darker days, what was your process before your circumstances changed and how have they – or have they- changed after everything you have gone through over the past few years?
I am definitely mentally stronger now than I was before, even before my accident. I don’t know whether that is due to age and time but I know that my coping mechanism was not as strong before as it is now.
I would probably have considered myself a weak person a few years ago and I have really surprised myself with how I have dealt with everything and what I have come through.
I guess what choice do we have? I could lie in bed and cry all day but where would that get me? Life goes on.
Do you remember the point when you made the decision or when you moved on from the inital ‘grieving’ process that came with the adjustment?
I think it was a natural transition, nobody ever said anything to me as no one knew what to say.
No one ever told me to stop feeling sorry for myself as I think they still felt sorry for me in a way. I had to snap myself out of it.
It is a natural thing that happens and an accumulation of the various experiences and reactions I had endured that I just thought “to hell with this!”, no one should treat anyone any different to anyone else – especially when it comes to something so minor as your outer shell; Which at the end of the day that is all we are.
I don’t know about souls, energy or the after-life but I do think that we have some sort of energy about us – a driving force – and I guess we have to keep going with what we have.
My blog is around yoga and exploring faith/ practices/ mental processes and what drives people. Do you or did you have a faith or belief system? Has that ever been something that has come into you life that may have helped you at all.
I was brought up in a catholic home, I wasn’t overly religious. I don’t know what I believe in any more. I suppose people do find comfort in many things and maybe people find comfort in religion or spiritual practice during hard times, personally I didn’t find comfort in these things.
I just wanted to rebuild my life, I wanted to get down to the nitty gritty – things like how to get from a to b, how to re-engage with friends on a social level, how to get back to work.
However, perhaps I do have my own form of prayer. I speak to my deceased granny. I had an experience when I was in the hospital and I swear I could see her sat next to my bed, in the same arm chair that she sat in and wearing the same clothes and with her rosary beads in hand.
I don’t know if she- or her spirit, or my memory of her- was letting me know she was there or if that is just the human mind latching onto something to pull us through? A way for us to cope?
Yeah when we are pushed into situations like these, at times it isn’t even logical things that we use to get through the tough times.
Yes. With things like depression or anxiety, you can be so far inside the fog that you don’t even know that you are there. It may not be until you get to the other side that you can see where you were and be so grateful that you got through it.
I wrote an article about anxiety. I spoke about when I was in college (before my accident) and how I went through a very dark time. I was extremely stressed and I had gone through a break up .
It was only when I wrote the blog that I could see that I had gone through depression during that time and I could recognise that I had built up a coping mechanism because of that.
When my friends read about it they were astonished to learn what I had gone through all those years ago , as they never knew. Is that another coping mechanism? We try to hide it, we don’t want to show how we are feeling because there is a stigma. Why… why don’t we ask for help?
Perhaps we are afraid that it is considered a weakness, or that we don’t want to be a nuisance on people or we don’t want to recognise it in ourselves as there is such stigma around it?
Clair: Even though this is actually the human condition. To suffer, to feel down, it is normal – everyone feels it.
Yes, everyone feels it. We are all human. We are just flesh and bones, we are so fragile. In any given moment anything can happen.
Clair: Yes, I think that so much of our anxiety and depression can stem from that, that deep knowledge that at any given moment everything can change .
If you think about it too much you can drive yourself crazy worrying about things that could happen and usually it is the least thing you worry about that comes your way to challenge us.
Ger: Definitely. I met some amazing people in the hospital, everyone had gone through a loss in there and in the end it was the spirit of everyone and how we all kept each other going through it all.
And lastly, what are the lessons that have been something that you have learned or things that have really helped you over the past few years that you may like to share?
Not to care too much. We care too much what people think of us, just get on with your life.
Enjoy your life – that is a major thing.
We can so easily just forget to really enjoy things. Be it sitting down having tea and a cake with your mam or meeting up with your friends, enjoy every minute of it. We don’t enjoy things enough until we are looking back and seeing that we should have.
“We are all human. We are just flesh and bones, we are so fragile. In any given moment anything can happen. “
We worry too much about having enough money, or focus too much on material things. I don’t even think about that now (beyond the bare minimum to get by), I just live my life as much and as best I can.
Appreciate the people you have. They could be gone before you know it, life moves on and people move away – appreciate them when you have them.
Dont give up.
How about you, have you any advice as you have progressed ?
Clair: Similar. I remind myself that I have a healthy body and to nourish and appreciate that as you never know what can happen.
I make sure to appreciate friends, family and to let go of people and situations when it is time. To not try and hold on or force things or to try and fit in. Trusting myself that ifsomething isn’t right- then move on.
We are inherently good as humans but sometimes we get caught up in nonsense. Staying around people who make you feel better, because life is hard enough as it is, and we don’t want things that make us feel worse as we can be hard enough on ourselves.
Ger: I remove myself from negative situations, negative energy and I just keep myself around positive people – I look for the good in people and there is so much good in people.
Please follow, share and engage with Geraldine continued work and platform for change and inspiration – On Facebook you can follow The Geraldine Lavelle Trust.
You can follow and work with Geraldine’s work Fitness For This Ability and create a more inclusive and aware space where you work or live through talks, engagement and education.
You can support The Geraldine Lavelle Trust and help Geraldines continued effort to support independent living and having more services available for those facing spinal chord injuries in Ireland.
You can also read and follow Geraldine’s blog Spinal Chord Injury where she has shared so much of her journey with adjusting to life with a spinal chord injury in such an honest, open and real way. You can also follow Living with a spinal chord Injury Support Group.
I am so grateful to Geraldine who took so much time out of her day on an extremely sunny Sligo afternoon to chat with me by the river. Geraldine was patient, so open and honest and a real inspiration!