This article originally appeared on Climbing
I was born missing my right arm below the elbow. My parents were massively supportive and taught me that my little arm wasn't something that should ever stop me in life.
I was born and raised in Luxembourg with my roots from Pakistan and the UK. I moved to Brussels, Beijing, and eventually back to Luxembourg to study politics and policy-making. As a kid, I wanted to be a diplomat for the United Nations, and I attempted to learn all the UN's official languages (I nearly got there too--I still need to learn Russian). I was fascinated at how people from diverse backgrounds and cultures could come together and sometimes agree. I was also sporty; I did Sri Lankan dancing when I was 4, then swam competitively before transitioning to cricket and martial arts until I was 16.
My childhood was pretty simple. My parents were supported by a charity called "Reach," whose slogan is "It's ability, not disability that matters." My parents were keen on giving me as many experiences and as much self-belief as they could because they knew that one day, I would need to rely on that when fighting my own battles around disability and how it's perceived. They used sports as a medium for this. Culturally, physical difference has a stigma around it, but as a child, it wasn't impacting me the way it started to later in life.
As a teenager, my body started changing, but perceptions of my ability to do things changed, too. I encountered gym teachers who would refuse to teach me because of my arm, or, worse yet, a teacher who actively put me down in classes regardless of how well I did things.
In karate, I was facing similar issues. I was banned from competing in both fighting and artistic forms because of a made up rule. It broke my heart, but I still loved the sport, so I didn't tell my parents. I spent two more years in the class, with a teacher who refused to acknowledge me, let alone correct me. Thankfully, a newer coach saw what was happening and got the rules changed. A few weeks later, with very little competition training, I lost against the Champion of Switzerland in my category, and the following year, I took my first podium position, a third place that I will remember for the rest of my life.
It's a bit ironic that the medium that my parents used to teach me self-belief was the very medium my self-belief was challenged the most.
Around that time, my body started changing a lot, and not for the better. My right shoulder started popping out of its socket, my left thumb followed, then my left shoulder. We weren't sure what was going on aside from the fact that I had suddenly become symptomatically hypermobile. Within a couple of weeks of winning my first podium, I was told by my surgeon to stop karate, and my life in sports as I knew it ended.
Sports for me was my escape from life, it was where I found friends and peace. I still ask myself where I would be today had I carried on.
Life from there got complicated. We didn't realize at the time that I had Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, and that stopping sports was probably the worst thing I could do. The connective tissue in my body is loose and stretchy, so my muscles need to take up the job of keeping my joints and body stable. No sports meant muscle loss, and I started deconditioning very quickly.
At 18, I had thumb surgery. At 20, a repeat surgery. At 22, back surgery. Around the time I turned 24, I was diagnosed with cancer. My relationship with my body became negative. I hated her for failing me. I didn't understand why things kept happening, and I blamed her. I was at a breaking point, after having spent most of my young adulthood unwell, in surgery or with doctors. I was moving into the world of people who are chronically ill, where no day is ever perfect, but I was resisting it as much as possible. It didn't help that a lot of my medical professionals were telling me that I was too young to be in pain, to be fatigued or to be sick. I remember telling myself that I didn't think I could handle another setback. I didn't think I had anything left in me to fight back.
Raising my left arm (my good arm) and keeping it above my head was a struggle, since I had some lymph nodes removed. There's no right hand to take over, so the issues with my left arm impacted my independence. Drying my hair, washing it, putting clothes on a hanger and into a cupboard; there were problems. A friend suggested I go climbing with her as a way of rehabbing my arm and my body. I thought she was nuts. She suggested I might be scared (true!) and that after everything that had occurred in my life, what's the worst that could happen? I remember telling her the harness would highlight parts of my body I'm not comfortable with, and I had no idea how I'd climb with a headscarf safely. Still, somehow, she convinced me to try.
That first session was awful. I didn't get to the top of anything, everything hurt, and I was exhausted after two tries. But there was an element of mindfulness I didn't expect. My body and I had to work together rather than against each other, and that feeling was so refreshing that it was enough to keep me coming back. It reminded me of my life during my martial arts days. Best of all: it wasn't making my joints any worse. In fact, they were getting more stable.
I decided to get a coach. I wanted to compete. I was excited to see what I could physically do after being through so much. That first year I ranked second in the UK in my category. It was a proud moment, but more than that, I had fallen in love with the sport. Climbing became my escape after a long work day and after medical difficulties. Eventually, it became the place I found my husband.
Climbing has given me a purpose that I haven't had in years. Through it, I decided to start talking about the barriers to climbing for people with disabilities and invisible health conditions. I've been talking about the things that we as a society aren't great at talking about, and gaining confidence.
Progress is not linear, not in anyone and it's definitely not linear with me. That's something I've had to learn to accept in order to make progress. Health setbacks will happen, I can't control that. What I can control is what I do as a consequence. Including having a good old wallow with ice cream and chicken wings.
This is me. I have massive plans for the future.
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