A teenager overcomes seizures, brain surgery and hemiparesis

Olivia reflects on the impact that persistence, self-belief and the support of family made as she took small steps towards recovery and realising her big dreams. Despite setbacks and heartbreak, it is the courage to continue that counts.

Aged 16, I had seizures several times a day, most days. By 17 I could only walk down the corridor to class if escorted by someone in case I had a seizure. During this time, early one morning and suffering with insomnia, I wrote: ‘See the fire in my eyes, the hurt, the pain, the loss, the struggle – when the **** will this end?’ I felt lost, angry and trapped in my own body.

This was just the beginning of a difficult journey to the diagnosis of an AVM Arteriovenous Malformation inside my brain that ultimately required brain surgeries to remove. This surgery resulted in brain damage, left sided hemiparesis (weakness of one entire side of the body) and learning difficulties. The neuropsychologists told me I would not be capable of achieving A levels, let alone a degree. The teacher who worked with me thought it unrealistic for me to go to university! I could no longer play the sports that I loved.

And yet, ten years on, I no longer feel so deeply the words I wrote aged 16 – quite the opposite. I feel grateful for the struggles I faced. My joy now feels more real, and I am most grateful for having such a supportive family. I have achieved my A levels, a First Class Honours degree and currently I’m studying for a master’s degree. I found a passion for horse riding and have represented Great Britain in para dressage.

By no means has it been without challenges – I had to leave my first year of university after my seizures caused havoc, and I’m currently without a dressage horse. But what I have learned is that the current reality does not define you, nor will it remain the same forever.

I genuinely believe people’s intentions were good; they sought to protect me when they told me I wouldn’t be capable of achieving my academic, work or sporting goals. But I don’t believe the fear of potential failure should be the focus of communication in such a situation. We should all have hopes and dreams that are seemingly impossible to strive towards, no matter what the current reality is. I think it inspires us to become a better version of ourselves.

A huge driving force for me was having an equestrian coach who believed in me in a way no one else had before. His belief in me during my riding lessons diffused into nearly every other aspect of my life. It taught me the rebellious act of believing in myself when no one else did. We replaced ‘I can’t’ with ‘This is really hard but I’m going to try’. This is something we can all do to overcome any obstacle. To overcome sounds somewhat magnificent; but overcoming is often the accumulation of lots of small acts. Things like getting out of bed and showing up when you don’t feel like it, turning up to class when you feel scared, or simply doing the work that you’ve been putting off. I still tell myself now, ‘It is the courage to continue that counts’.

I love the work of author and lecturer Prof. Brene Brown, who says:

If you’re going to dare greatly, you’re going to get your ass kicked at some point. If you choose courage, you will absolutely know failure, disappointment, setbacks, even heartbreak. That’s why we call it courage. That’s why it’s so rare.’

It takes courage to overcome, and being courageous doesn’t even mean we will succeed straight away. But if we keep choosing courage, and keep turning up, day by day we get a little closer.

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