Writer and poet Stephen Lightbown tells us his story and how writing has helped him heal.
Stephen Lightbown is a poet and spoken word artist based in Bristol. In 1996, aged 16, he experienced a life changing accident whilst sledging in the snow leaving him paralysed from below the waist. He writes extensively but not exclusively about life as a wheelchair user.
Stephen joins us as part of our series based around External Factors and how we can use these to influence our Mental Health. Here he tells us his story and how writing has helped him heal some internal wounds. You can also see him chatting with Ali on our Positive Planner Instagram IGTV page here.
My Last Memories of Standing on Two Feet
The last time I woke and felt excited to see it had snowed through the night was Saturday 27 January 1996. This date was also the last time I went sledging. It was also the last time I walked anywhere. As a sixteen-year-old Saturdays revolved around football, if I wasn’t going to watch my team Blackburn Rovers play, then I was out on a field somewhere with my boots on kicking a ball about. Looking through the curtains that morning in my hometown of Darwen, Lancashire, and seeing snow covered cars, I knew I wouldn’t be watching or playing football.
I’d headed downstairs, eaten breakfast and then started rolling around on the floor pretending to wrestle a dining room chair. I had too much energy to burn so put the chair back up against the table, phoned a few friends and headed out to go sledging. Hours had gone by without incident and as night fell just after 4pm it was time to head home, tired and satisfied. Before that though there was time for one last go on the blue plastic sledge.
For some reason, with fading light, I thought it would be a good idea to sledge backwards down a hill peppered with trees. It doesn’t need much explaining to say it did not go well. I hit a tree and the impact shattered numerous vertebrae in my spine, snapped my spinal cord in two and caused many other significant injuries. I was instantly paralysed. Everything I thought I knew about the world changed in that moment.
A Lengthy Hospital Stay
It would be six months before I returned home. After the accident I was taken to the local A&E to be stabilised. The next day I was transferred to the nearest spinal unit an hour from home in Southport. It was a further week or so later that a consultant sat beside my bed and told me I would never walk again. I needed to hear the words to make it real, but the truth was I already knew.
And then my physical rehabilitation started. Slowly at first being asked to do bicep curls in bed with 1kg weights to build the strength in my arms ready for when I would push a wheelchair. Then building up to intensive sessions of physiotherapy, increasing my time spent in a wheelchair an extra hour each day and learning wheelchair skills. I can’t fault the effort put into my physical health, but looking back, I wish the same attention had been given to my mental health. I was offered sessions with a clinical psychologist, but I didn’t really pay them much attention. I was offered conversations with wheelchair users who had been injured for some time, but I always pretended to be asleep when they arrived. Various charities even made themselves known as outlets of support, though again I never took up the offer.
I wish now I had paid more attention to this, reached out to someone, spoken about what I was feeling. But I was sixteen years old and I didn’t know what I needed. I just got my head down and pushed through each day, literally. Now I look back and remember the tears in the bathroom the first time I had to manage my bowels, watching a Blue Peter appeal for electric wheelchairs and thinking that’s what I would need, taking my first trip to Tesco and believing every single shopper in the supermarket was watching me. And coming to terms with the word disabled. I struggle to recall if I’d ever met a wheelchair user before my accident, or given any thought to what it was like to have a disability or be seen as different. But when I was discharged from hospital I was simply not prepared for what was waiting for me beyond the hospital doors.
Upon returning home each day brought a new discovery. I could no longer navigate the front door step into our house; the stairs up to my bedroom; views of friends and family members who now spoke to me in a sing song voice as though trying to keep my spirits up; my season ticket seats at the football stadium I used to go to every other Saturday that were now out of reach. The list goes on and on. This doesn’t sound like a lot but when you are making hundreds of additions to this list on a weekly basis, then the combined weight of it all starts to take its toll. And it did.
We eventually moved so I could live in a house with a downstairs bathroom and bedroom. On the face of it my bedroom looked like that of any normal young adult. Posters covered every inch of the walls. But they also covered the holes I was starting to punch into the walls with increasing regularity. Likewise, the tracksuit trousers I wore covered a multitude of bruises from where I would punch my legs just to see if I could feel any pain. Punishing them as though my new disability was their fault.
Eventually, in my mid-twenties the rage was replaced by a burning desire to prove people wrong, to prove that I could still achieve things. I channelled this into university, into wanting to move and live on my own, into securing promotion after promotion and into take on increasingly difficult endurance events. By my early thirties I had completed three marathons, over fifteen half marathons, a triathlon and three long-distance, outdoor swim events. Personal bests though did not replace being at my best.
The Start of Letting People In
2013 was when this all came to a head. It was a surprise it took just over fifteen years. Within the space of a few months my first marriage ended, I was in an extremely high-pressured job involving regular national travel, my Mum’s long-term partner passed away suddenly and I was living in London starting to feel overwhelmed by the city. Added to this, I was starting to experience more frequent injuries from overworking my body from the various events I was still doing and I crashed. It wasn’t a sudden crash, more a slow-build crash that could have been predicted, but I allowed it to happen.
The result wasn’t particularly obvious to anyone but every day I would wake and put on my bravest face. I took pride in showing no visible signs that I was struggling. It was important to me that I maintained the reputation I had of being resilient and able to take whatever life threw at me. Of course that was not tenable and my first action was to seek out therapy.
Therapy is something I have turned to on and off over the years and it is only in the past year or so I have really allowed it to help me. Initially I would book myself in for a few weeks, talk about a problem, think I’d resolved it and then stop going. However, there was something that was suggested back in 2013 that completely changed my life and the relationship I had with my body and my disability. I was advised to write.
Picking up the Pen
Creative writing was something I had always loved at school and I’d navigated myself into a job where writing – speeches, brochures, news articles etc – was a key part of what I did but there was no enjoyment in the words I was putting to paper. So, I decided to book myself onto a ten-week poetry evening class in London. This turned out to be a terrific decision. Within two weeks we had been given an exercise to write an Epistolary poem, a poem in letter form. I decided to write one to my legs. In fact, the poem I wrote is below:
What we once had
It’s time to accept what we’ve known for years.
Things aren’t the same between us. You used
to be strong, you used to stand for a cause,
you used to help me stand tall. But now you
are a shadow of your former self, weak,
beneath me. I remember exactly the day
you stopped feeling. That day will stay
with me forever, but we have to move on.
You will always be a part of me but I fear
only a miracle can save us now.
How dare you. You sit on your throne
like a permanently angry king, as though
it’s all our fault. We spent years carrying you
and then it happened. We had to watch as each
day passed and you got stronger whilst we simply
faded away. We will carry you no more.
Writing this poem had an incredible effect on my mental health. I bought a notebook, carried on writing and couldn’t stop. I was filling pages at pace and what I was writing was all related to my disability. Some were about the bond with my body, others were about the impact on relationships, there were ones about blaming my chair on being single, others on the strange things that people said, prejudices I came across and countless poems on the many ways people with a disability are discriminated against.
I then started to share these poems publicly. Reading them at poetry open mics. Sharing my experiences. And something incredible started to happen, people started to respond to what I was saying. Occasionally someone would approach me to say they too had a disability and could relate to what I was saying, or they had a family member with a disability and what I was saying mirrored their experiences or someone would say that I had challenged their preconceived ideas and made them think differently. Not only that, but my writing was helping me see things differently. Writing poems allowed me to interrogate my feelings, my firmly held beliefs and the way I approached being a wheelchair user. Often, I found the more I wrote, the deeper I dug, and the results were often surprising.
And the more I was approached with positive feedback on what I was writing, the more I would write and share. By this point I was coming up to twenty years of living with a disability, so I wasn’t short of material. A few more years of writing carried on before a move to Bristol. It was this move that really kicked on my poetry career as I was spotted reading at an event by one of the editors of Burning Eye Books, a poetry publisher based in the city. They approached me about submitting some poems with the view to publishing a collection, which I did and my first poetry collection, Only Air, about my life as a wheelchair user was published in 2019. My second collection, The Last Custodian, will be published in June 2021.
Still Finding the Words
I wouldn’t say that poetry and the act of writing has completely changed my mental health but it has certainly helped heal some internal wounds that had been neglected at the expense of healing my physical wounds. And there are still many new issues linked to having a disability that need to be dealt with on a daily basis. But now I have decided to let in my network of family and friends and share with them when I feel the familiar rage and frustration return. I also have my coping mechanisms linked to my writing. And one such writing exercise I’ll share below and would encourage you to also try, you may be surprised by what you write.
Find yourself a blank piece of paper and a pen, set a timer on your phone for ten minutes and write freely, without stopping, prejudice or self-editing using the prompt below as your first sentence:
I am grateful for my body because…