For the last couple of weeks the 10 Year Challenge has been sweeping social media, and so far I’ve abstained. It’s not that I don’t like my face now, or my body; I’m happy with those changes. In 10 years I’ve gained a fair amount of weight but love my curves and softness. My hair is still usually short, although a bit thinner and with a lot of white hairs dispersed throughout. I’ve learnt how to use brow pencil. I’ve still not learnt how to pose without looking silly. My personal style is more defined (and still not grown up). But I’ve not been able to post any flashback pictures yet because this challenge holds more poignancy for me than I can summarise in a side-by-side comparison.
This is me in Utrecht in August 2009, on my last day of a month Interrailing on the continent. Four countries, countless cities, stations, hostels, new friends, and one 13kg backpack. Of course, Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome is present from birth, but it would be another few years before my symptoms worsened and became unbearable, and I sought diagnosis. At this point I just knew I was “tireder” than other people, and that my hips and shoulders could come out of place if I wasn’t careful. Pain kept me awake a few nights on this trip, and I had one day near the end when I fainted and had to stay in bed. But I managed four weeks of varying beds in hostels and stranger’s floors when couch-surfing. I walked miles every day. I carried that monster of a backpack. I got a concussion and cured it with gin. It is an experience that I have absolutely no regrets over, but that doesn’t make it any less bittersweet to look back on.
When this picture was taken I was about to start my second year of university. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my degree yet. Teaching ESOL was high on my list, and I bought books about countries like Cambodia, Laos, Bhutan, in the idea of maybe going there after I finished university to teach for a bit. It didn’t happen. After graduation I moved back to London and stayed, and as my health got worse and worse my world became smaller and smaller. Part of this is due to the access issues facing all wheelchair users. When I went on that trip in 2009, I booked my flights, my Interrail ticket, the first hostel and the last one – as well as one night in the bizarre Propellor Island hotel in Berlin. Everything else I played by ear, because I could be spontaneous, and it’s that spontaneity I miss so badly now. Even if I wasn’t too ill to attempt a month of travelling, access issues would come up constantly if I tried to repeat it. Getting to the city from the airport by the hostel’s free shuttle wouldn’t be possible. None of the hostels I stayed in were wheelchair accessible, nor the apartments of people from Couchsurfing or friends I’d made on the trip. The trains and stations weren’t all accessible (none at all in Poland) – and forget just hopping on a train without knowing the precise access details of the destination station and whether the local buses are accessible either. As for the giant backpack (his name is Hamish), I don’t know how that would work now! I’ve travelled quite a bit since becoming a wheelchair user – making up for the previous few years of being mostly stuck where I was – and research is everything. Lots and lots of research. Spontaneity only happens within the confines of the “places I’ve been already and know to be reliably wheelchair accessible” list, and then only when I’m feeling well enough.
The person in the photograph thought they had everything ahead of them, could do literally anything with their life, and I still often find it hard to accept that so much has changed since then. This weekend I was having a small mope about this subject (which has become this blog post). “It’s so different to how I imagined my life at this point” I cried to my boyfriend. After pondering on this for a moment he replied with some words I need to remember when I feel sad about this: “Just because it’s different, it doesn’t mean it can’t be wonderful.”