Mary’s incredible journey to a full life

I  was a toddler when my mother, sister and I survived the bombing and loss of our home and everything we owned in the London blitz during World War II. We became camp followers.  Wherever my father, a captain in the Royal Artillery, was posted in England, we followed, staying wherever my mother could find a billet.

I have memories of the woeful pulse of air raid sirens mixed with snatches of damp air raid shelters, a cupboard under the stairs that smelled of molasses, and tiered bunks in London subway stations.

All of these provided a refuge for us as the squadrons of planes droned overhead.

I remember my mother’s anguished face as we heard the sounds of the distant thud of bombs hitting their targets. But equally, I remember so clearly, the amazement and joy of finding silver-foiled wrapped chunks of chocolate lying in a laneway.  The Americans dropped food parcels and these spilled treasures had obviously been part of one these. I was six or seven and had never tasted chocolate until then.

Because of the war and our gypsy lifestyle, my schooling was non-existent until the end of the conflict, when life became more predictable.

At 15, with just six years formal education, I left school to do a shorthand-typing course. I was a poor-second secretary to many unwitting employers until at 20, my mother saw a half-page ad in the paper – air hostesses required — and encouraged me to apply. The list of qualifications needed was excessive – high school certificate, two languages, first aid certificate, catering certificate, lifesaving certificate.

The only qualification I had was “un peu” schoolgirl French. So, on a wing and a prayer, I applied. I could not get a silly smile off my face for days when after three interviews and jostling with hundreds of outrageously clever and gorgeous-looking girls, I was one of the chosen few who made it.

Air travel in the late ’50s and early ’60s was a rarefied thing and air hostesses were seen as minor celebrities. My picture was in the local paper with an over-the-top, local-girl-makes-good success story.

This era was considered the golden age of flying. It was the time before jets when passengers had plenty of legroom to enjoy the trappings of the luxury service and were still allowed to smoke on board. On long hauls to Africa, we would do the flight in two or more legs, stopping at a suitable destination to spend the night in some exotic hotel before boarding the passengers early next morning to fly onwards.

I loved every second in the sky, every new destination. But sadly, it was the days when the airlines only wanted single women so with marriage came the end of my glamour days in the sky.

My first symptom of MS occurred when I was 22. It was a paralysis of the muscles on one side of my face in my first pregnancy. At the time it was diagnosed as Bell’s Palsy, which I had for six months.

Throughout my second pregnancy, my left arm and leg were numb with frequent muscle spasms. Doctors hypothesised that these symptoms could be attributed to severe morning sickness and/or the baby possibly lying on a nerve. 

The symptoms of numbness and weakness continued more aggressively as did muscle spasms, headaches, slurred speech and double vision. 

My daughter Jo was 13 months and son Neil two weeks when my husband was killed in a light aircraft accident. 

The shock and grief coupled with the responsibility of being a single Mum who was not in the best of health, created the perfect storm for an illness to take a rampant hold. My body, already exhibiting signs that something was amiss, bore the brunt of this tragedy.

Eventually, the clusters of symptoms peaked and at the age of 26, I was diagnosed as having an aggressive form of multiple sclerosis. Doctors said I would be wheelchair-bound within months.

I was convinced that shock, exhaustion and unresolved grief were the key factors in my illness so I rejected the diagnostic label and saw my illness an emotional and physical breakdown.

Today I realise that my rejection of the diagnosis was the first vital step in my recovery.   I acted on a powerful intuitive voice that suggested I undertake a strict daily program of creative expression – to plan, create or do something I had never done before.  Throughout my recovery my intuition guided me, sometimes imperceptibly and other times with a determined strident voice – understanding how my life needed to change, finding the silver lining in my situation and the ultimate epiphany that I was to focus on planning and the joy of doing something creative every day. 

It did not have to be too big or too complicated it just had to be something I had never done before. I never questioned the logic or if it was a recovery path, I just planned and completed a new creative project. 

Just over a year after my “road to Damascus” message, the same two neurologists who had diagnosed the disease declared I was in remission.

That was more than 50 years ago.

I have now written my book, A Journey of Creative Healing: My Story of resilience, remission and recovery through daily creative projects in which I list six steps that were crucial in my recovery but the most significant is that I listened and acted upon my intuition. 

Recent scientific research now supports the six-step program. Many times I had tried to explain to others the steps that were important in my recovery but it was obvious that my story was seen as inspirational but of no consequence as there was no science to give it credence. 

I learned to zip my zealous lip but within the last decades, I became aware of exciting medical scientific frontiers opening up. I started to research all I could find that correlated to my six steps of returning to health.

With solid scientific evidence showing the wellbeing benefits of a creative practice meant I could no longer ignore the little insistent voice of my intuition: “write the book, Mary, now.”

And I did.