From November through to 16 December, the UK celebrates Disability History Month, with a particular focus on this year’s theme – ‘health and wellbeing’. When tasked with writing this piece in partnership with Musicians Union and Attitude is Everything, I spent some time considering what these words meant to me and how they relate to my life as a chronically ill, full-time musician.
I knew, the moment I saw the Spice Girls run into the hotel at the beginning of the Wannabe music video, that I wanted to do that. I didn’t know what ‘that’ was, exactly, but I was certain it was where my life was heading.
It was a shock then, as you can imagine, to find it revolving around twice weekly visits to my local hospital instead by the age of 14. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis, or M.E., turned my young life upside down. Despite the immeasurable love, care and support my family provided, It cost me almost every part of my identity - from school to friendships and everything in between.
The only part remaining was the little girl who stared in awe at the Wannabe music video. Even when my self esteem was at rock bottom and my hope for better times had all but diminished, I still believed that somehow I would find a way to honour her dream.
Music guided me through the most confusing and uncertain years of my life
When I think back to those first years of my diagnosis, music is the one thread that runs through the fragmented memories. I remember lying on the sofa during days – and weeks – off school, flicking through the music channels, or singing M1A1 by Gorillaz in my head each time I passed a sign about Swine Flu (H1N1) in the hospital corridor. I remember the day a fellow outpatient sang a song from Chicago in front of our team of Occupational Therapists and I wished I could've been confident enough to tell everyone I could do that, too.
I remember the winter evening, aged 15, when a session with my Psychologist inspired me to buy a notepad and pen at the Hospital shop on the way out which was promptly filled with endless songs about what I was going through, interspersed with classic teenage angst. And every single spare hour I spent in my bedroom, teaching myself to sing songs by Paloma Faith, Amy Winehouse, Duffy, Pixie Lott and Rihanna, writing the lyrics out by hand because for some inexplicable reason I can’t remember, we didn’t have a printer.
It was music that guided me through the most confusing and uncertain years of my life - offering an outlet to express and work through emotions and a comforting assurance that someone out there understood and had walked this path before me.
Feeling fully represented as an artist
As I emerged into adult life and tried to pretend my teenage years were nothing but a fever dream, I laid on my bed after work listening to Lana Del Rey and composed melancholic ballads on my acoustic guitar. I saved up for a second hand computer and taught myself how to record and produce. But before long, I found myself somewhere else I hadn’t expected to be. Twenty years old and back in the doctor’s office at square one again.
Now, I had another diagnosis to get to grips with - Obsessive Compulsive Disorder, or OCD, and new tablets to take. My identity had shifted again, and so as before, I reached out to music. Figuring I finally had nothing to lose, I began posting demos and covers online, choosing a stage name I had conjured up during a conversation with a friend a few years previously.
Before long, I had built up a small following and started to perform live with the help of a friend. My 2018 release Lucid Dreaming signified an important milestone in my career – it was the first song I felt fully represented me as an artist, and the first time I felt comfortable sending out press releases for my work. It also formed the base for my debut album – a process now almost complete four years after quitting my day job to become a full-time artist.
Learning to love and accept myself for who I am now
It hasn’t been a bed of roses - the music industry, much like school and previous workplaces, was not exactly designed with the likes of me in mind. At times, working so much from home has been isolating, and live performances physically gruelling with long recovery periods. I have felt alienated from endless advice to overwork, overtravel and overextend myself to get ahead, and felt guilty that I couldn’t always go to everybody’s gig, conference or networking session.
But for all the challenges, being a musician has also provided me with the platform to change my life for the better. Through releasing and performing music, I have gained confidence, new friends, unforgettable memories and a sense of fulfilment and excitement that I had struggled to find elsewhere. It has also helped me to process and understand my feelings towards my diagnoses and learn to love and accept myself for who I am now, rather than resent the loss of the person I was going to be.
It was also thanks to music that I felt ready to share a few of these thoughts on stage for the first time during a recent gig for BBC Introducing. As I looked out into the crowd, I could sense there were other people there who understood and felt what I was saying, in whatever way it related to them. I felt empowered and proud to be sharing parts of my story to the soundtrack of songs I had written, recorded and mixed in my bedroom.
I could finally say it – that little Spice Girls obsessed kid would’ve been so pleased to hear of her future. Even if it did look a little different to how she had imagined it.