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Nicola McDowell’s Blog 17

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

What defines you.

As a child, every day, two certain phrases would regularly ring in my ears. Most of the time it was my dad who would bellow them at me, but occasionally mum also joined in on the act. Both phrases were in relation to my movement, actions and general attitude about how I should approach life. The phrases were most often said after this approach to life had had some sort of disastrous outcome (most likely something got broken). "SLOW DOWN, you are like a bull in a china shop", was generally the first response and this was quickly followed by "What's the rush? You are like a bull at a gate".

I grew to hate these phrases and resented the obvious desire of my parents to slow the world down for me. I was a bull. Life was meant to be fast and I had to make sure I experienced it all. And if that meant that I ended up barging through the gate before it was opened properly, well so be it. It was natural instinct, a part of my personality and I didn't see a need to change it. Of course, this natural instinct may have been fine for my first 16 years, when I did not have an impairment (apart from an inherent clumsiness) that would mean this approach to life didn't actually put my life in any danger.

However, this all changed when the combination of an acquired visual impairment and a natural instinct to approach life at a fast pace started clashing completely. The first time this happened and the first time I almost unwittingly ended my own life, involved a poor unsuspecting truck driver and a busy road. I was attempting to cross the road, but had forgotten that I had a right side hemianopia and could not see to my right (explained in blog 6). As I was in my usual rush to get to the other side of the road (just in case there was something more exciting happening there that I was missing out on), I only did a cursory look to my right before stepping out. The next thing I remember is that I was viciously gripped from behind, as my dad desperately lunged at me and dragged me out of the way of a truck and trailer unit as it screeched past me. Luckily my dad had seen what was about to unfold and had reacted quickly enough to ensure that the massive lorry brushed past me and did not wipe me out completely. This frightening incident was a wakeup call for me and made me realise that somehow, I had to change my natural instinct and my 'bull at a gate' approach to life.

However, as I soon found out, changing oneself is not an easy task. My disability was now a big part of me, but it was not who I was. My personality and way of being had started to develop from the moment I was born, and was ultimately the result of many different life experiences and the genes that had been passed on to me. This disability was an outsider, an intruder in my life, that was forcing me to behave in a way that I just wasn't used to and didn't particularly like. So I decided not to change. I decided to continue being that bull in a china shop.

This stubbornness to recognise that I needed to curb my natural instincts, only lasted until the next incident where the realities of having a complicated visual impairment clashed with the desire to race through life. However, this time it was not only my own life that I put in danger, I also endangered the life of someone else. On this occasion, I was the one behind a speeding quad farm motorbike, helping my dad with some chores over the farm. My dad (who was now growing greyer by the day) was sitting behind me on the right hand side of the bike. As we were nearing the back of the farm, I noticed there was a big puddle in the middle of the track approaching a bridge we were about to drive over. I quickly decided that I did not want to risk getting wet, so in a reflex decision, I swerved to the right to avoid racing through it. As this was my usual rushed decision making process, I didn't consider looking to see if there was enough room on the track for us to avoid the puddle. As it turned out, there wasn't quite enough room and a second later dad saw his feet dangling over the side of the bridge with nothing but air and a two metre drop to the stream below. Apparently, the back right wheel had also been off the ground momentarily, but because of the speed I was travelling the momentum of the forward movement kept the bike from tipping over and landing on top of us in the stream below.

Aside from the obvious lesson that I probably shouldn't be in charge of a speeding motor vehicle of any type, this incident taught me that I needed to be more considered in my decision making. But, after a lifetime of rash decisions, it simply wasn't a matter of resolving to take my time and consider all aspects of an action before launching into it. For a long time, I grappled with the concept that changing my behaviour to meet the needs of my disability, meant that I was in fact turning my back on who I actually was. But then it hit me.

We all have to adapt to our surroundings and if that means changing your behaviour in certain situations to meet the needs of your disability, then that's what you have to do. The important thing is to always remember, your personality and who you are doesn't change, it's just your behaviour that has. You are still you. So now I try to limit my bull at a gate approach to non-life threatening situations only.

Nicola McDowell sustained a brain injury aged sixteen, and for the following seventeen years was unaware that she had CVI. Through a series of blogs Nicola shares her experiences with us.

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