Black and white portrait photo of Jenny, with long dark hair

“Do something you love. Disabled or not, it’s good for the soul!”

Jenny Brownlees is a freelance fashion journalist and stylist. She has ME, and went through a lot of tough times to get where she is now. One thing she found helped her was to follow her creative heart. Here she talks about her experiences.  Jenny on holiday - standing on a balcony with the blue sea behind her

I was 16 when I became unwell. Enjoying life and school, becoming unwell in my teenage years hit me hard. I was very creative both in and outside of school. Happiest in art and textiles classes when doodling, making a mess, sewing, designing, I was obsessed with ‘making’ in all its forms. I loved every aspect of fashion and art. It meant so much to me, and was a huge part of my personal identity.

In the years that followed me falling unwell, I dealt with an ‘invisible illness’, many misdiagnosis’, followed by an 18 month wait for the right diagnosis that was filled with anxiety, panic attacks and depression, as well as feeling so poorly that I can’t even begin to put it into words.

I found I was suffering with ME, and quite severely too. I could list all my symptoms, but I would need the entire content of this blog to do it, so I won’t! After such a long struggle for the right diagnosis came six years of suffering, where I was bedbound for months on end, then housebound for years that seemed to both last a lifetime and pass in minutes. I felt utterly terrible, both physically and mentally.

I, like most had a plan, a path I thought my life would follow; do well in my GCSEs, do well in my AS and A Levels, go to university then get a good job. Easy, right? This didn’t happen as planned, and to say I was devastated would be an understatement. I now write for a living but words fail me when I try to convey my feelings about those years to others.

There is a piece of advice I will always remember from this time, trying to get through a school day I’d forced myself to go into (which as usual had ended up with me having to being taken home.) A lady who was a carer for disabled people, seeing my distress told me “Everyone has their own path. There’s not one right way. You will get to where you want to be, you just might take a different route, and that’s ok.” At the time I found it very hard to believe, now looking back, nearly 10 years later, it sticks with me. Hindsight is a funny thing.

The thing I love most about art, as well as its broad spectrum, is that creativity has no bounds, it can’t be measured. If you make something, in any capacity, you’re an artist.

What you’re creating doesn’t have to be a masterpiece. A love for card making could mean once a week flicking through a craft magazine and thinking about something you may try and make one day, or not! Still, you are engaging in something you love and I think that is a must for everyone, disabled or not. It’s good for the soul!

Photo of a model wearing pressed flower brooches on her coatBeing creative gave me something to get up for. Flicking through a fashion magazine kept me in touch with a world I loved.

My health, I didn’t have. But time, I did. Time I couldn’t use exactly as I wanted, but if I was adaptable and tried to manage my expectations (I’ve always been a perfectionist and hard on myself) I could feel proud of my days ‘work’. Even if it’d been a single scribble on a pen pad. Due to feeling constantly exhausted, I would say things took me double the time but that would be generous, more like five times as long. I read a quote recently that summed this up perfectly: “So what if it takes you ten years, ten years will pass anyway whether you do it or not, so start now.”

I’m not saying it’s easy. The skills I learnt were built upon slowly, over six plus years, and I’m still learning now, but it gave me something other than my own plight to think about! Of course there were days, months even when I did nothing but lie in bed, but as soon as I did have a slither of energy, I tried to put it to good use. Even if you can do a tiny thing each day, a creative hobby, or whatever you love, it can really can give you a sense of purpose and worth.

I began thinking about what I could do with my time. I had always wanted to try photography, I was actually booked onto a course to do it in my free time outside of school, but had to cancel this when I got unwell. Photography was something I could do literally from my bed, I would photograph objects in my room at first! And this wasn’t with an expensive camera, just a standard point and shoot I’d had for years. I didn’t do it every day, but it progressed. I would take photos out of the window and eventually in the garden. Whenever I felt well enough I’d read online about DSLR cameras, and (over years) learnt to understand and operate one long before I bought my ‘real’ camera.

People always comment now, when I go for jobs or discuss my illness, that it doesn’t matter that I didn’t go to university, or do this and that I had planned, they can see I kept up what I could and that shows my enthusiasm. We are so lucky in this day and age, learning doesn’t mean having to go to a course or even go to the library to search and gather information, which takes time and energy I didn’t have.

The internet (once I built up my tolerance to working on the computer) was a huge saviour in my illness, information is so easily accessible. You can learn by simply asking Google! Youtube is an amazing learning tool, you can learn just about anything on there, and replay the video 300 times if you need to, stop and start and take it at your own pace. The same for free online tutorials. I played around with Photoshop for years, nothing formal, just trial and error, and now it’s such a great skill I use all the time. The same with my photography. The irony is if my ‘plan’ had have come true and I never got unwell, as I wished so many times, I may not have learnt something I now love!

I tried to keep up a few ‘hobbies’ so if it wasn’t a photography day, it may be a writing day. I wrote about how I was feeling, read online forums, The Fashion Spot, was a favourite. I didn’t even contribute by commenting, I just read the forums comments and felt involved, listening to others opinions was my way of keeping engaged with the goings on at magazines etc.

After many years, and many ups and downs, I began to feel better and my energy levels improved. I did some free writing work online for blogs and a few small magazines, volunteering to do this meant no scary deadlines if I wasn’t feeling well, but most of all I enjoyed it. Writing about fashion didn’t seem like work for me, even if it took me a long time to write one article. I kept up my photography and added my skills to my CV.

Pink t-shirt hanging up with lots of coloured beads suck to the frontCraft turned into career for me, I now write a weekly DIY column for an online magazine, where I make an item, then photograph it. I also write fashion and lifestyle articles for a number of different magazines. I know this is rare and I am so lucky to be at a place where I can do this, but it didn’t happen overnight. I think it shows though, anything is possible, disability or not.

I would say to people reading this that everyone is good at something. Everyone. Try things, don’t let yourself tell you you can’t; yes there’s a million reasons you shouldn’t do something, but listen to the one that says you should. Find your heart’s desire, and incorporate it into your life in some way.

I would suggest watching TED talks, they are so inspirational! Zach Anner on Youtube will make you laugh – ‘Milestones’ is a favourite video! Read Dr Viktor Frankl’s ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’, he will make you feel like you can do anything. Surround yourself with positivity. Don’t give up.

Feeling inspired to get creative? If you would like to see what I’m crafting next, writing about or creating, and a lot of pictures of my dog, you can follow me on Twitter and Instagram as @jennybrownlees.

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