Tuesday, 24 July 2018

My experiences of University with a chronic illness

When I was little, my Dad would often talk to my siblings and I about his time at university. These stories would often include tales of how he and his friends would go for a curry on a Friday evening and put the world to rights. One day, I told my Dad that I didn’t want to go to university. He asked me why, and I told him it was because I didn’t like curry. He laughed and explained that you didn’t have to eat curry if you went to university! As a small child, I had just assumed that it was part of what you had to do there! So from then on, I decided that I wanted to study for a degree (and I soon changed my mind on liking curry too!)

As I got older, my desire to move away to university continued and I eventually decided that I wanted to study medicine. But at the age of 15, my health started to decline pretty rapidly, and I ended up having to drop out of school and have a home tutor. I left Secondary School with seven GCSE’s and, after a year out, I went back to Sixth Form to study for a CACHE Child Development qualification. I soon came to the sad realisation that I simply wasn’t well enough to study to become a doctor, so instead decided to work towards becoming a Play Therapist. I was still determined to do what all my friends were doing and go away to university, even if I was a year behind them due to having to take a year out to be in hospital. So while I was at Sixth Form, I started looking at possible options for courses and universities, knowing that I needed some sort of child development qualification. 

I didn’t really set myself any limits with regards to which universities I was going to look at. My Dad and I travelled across the country attending various open days – from Northumbria and Leeds to Plymouth and Bristol – we really did cover them all! Despite absolutely loving some of the institutions up North, in the end I decided to make Portsmouth University my first choice for studying Childhood and Youth Studies. I wanted to be near enough to home that if I needed my parents or wasn’t well, I wasn’t completely out of reach. 

September came and my family and I headed down to Portsmouth to settle me in to my new accommodation. The first couple of months were great! I met lots of new friends, was doing well in my studies, became a Course Rep, was enjoying the nightlife and joined some societies. But as time went on, I found I was enjoying the course less and less, hated where I was living and my health was getting progressively worse. Coming home for Christmas, and then having to go back to Portsmouth again, made me realise how unhappy and unwell I had become. So, in the February after I started my degree, I decided to call it a day and left Portsmouth for the last time. 

I felt like a complete failure to be honest. I hadn’t even managed a year of my degree and was so gutted that I hadn’t coped living away from home on my own. All my friends were doing so well on their courses and were having a whale of a time, and I just felt like I’d disappointed everyone around me. I was also terrified about my future and what on earth I should do next. I still wanted to work in a medical setting, probably with children and young people, but couldn’t see how I would ever get there if I couldn’t even get a degree. After taking some time out to try and get my health a bit more stable, I started looking into alternative ways to get qualifications. And that was when my parents suggested I look into The Open University. Up until then, I didn’t know an awful lot about it, but after doing some research I found that I could study for a Psychology degree, part-time, from the comfort of my own home. It seemed to be the perfect option, as it also allowed me some time to get hands-on experience working with children: an essential addition to my CV. 

After applying for a few local jobs in nurseries and pre-schools, I was given a part-time job at my old Secondary School, working as a Learning Support Assistant. I was pretty terrified about working with teenagers if I’m completely honest, but it didn’t take me long to start enjoying it. Despite it being hard work, I had a great five years there and it really complemented the studying I was doing. Studying with The Open University was a completely new experience, although having to work from home during my GCSE’s did give me some preparation for it. I had to be incredibly self-disciplined and set aside at least two days a week purely for doing my work. I tried to attend tutorials when I could, as it could get pretty lonely doing everything on my own and it was nice to make some course friends along the way.

Things were going relatively well until 2012, when my health decided to throw another curve ball. I declined pretty rapidly although I was desperately trying to cling on to my studies so I could complete my degree. But it got to a point where I physically just couldn’t keep up or attend the summer school that was needed as part of the qualification. So I made the difficult decision to put my studies on hold, yet again, while I focused on my health. I felt pretty awful, as I just felt like I was failing for a second time, but my parents kept reminding me that I could pick up my course again once my health was more stable (which is the good thing about The OU – within reason you can take as long as you need to finish the modules). 

My health problems were a lot more complex than we originally realised, and I ended up having to spend a lot of time in hospital and trying to ‘recover.’ After two or so years of just focusing on my health, I finally felt ready to think about getting a degree again. By this point, I had had a lot of time to think about my options, and had decided that the Psychology course with the OU just wasn’t for me any more. I was still so desperate to be a doctor, and was finding it hard to accept that I couldn’t do it. I spoke to a few people who asked me what it was about being a doctor that appealed to me, and that I should look at those qualities and see what other professions might meet them. For me, I liked the idea of working in the medical field – I find the science behind it interesting, but I also really like the idea of working with people. So I began to look at other careers in the medical field, and became interested in Occupational Therapy. I did some work experience with a local OT and really loved it, so decided that would be my new focus.

To become an OT, I would obviously need a degree, but to get on that degree course I would need A Levels in Biology, Chemistry and/or Psychology. I had none of these, so decided to spend a year at a local college doing an Access to Higher Education Diploma with Human Biology, Chemistry, Psychology and Sociology. It was a lot harder than I’d anticipated but I also really enjoyed studying again. Whilst I was there, I started to go to open days at local universities, but the more open days I went to, the more I started to realise that my health just wasn’t up to taking on such an intensive course. I’d struggled enough doing my Access course and my health had really suffered – I just couldn’t keep putting my body through that. Somehow, with the help of my parents, friends and tutors, I managed to get through that year and come out with good qualifications in all subjects. But I had also had to make the heart breaking decision to withdraw my application to study Occupational Therapy. I felt at a complete loss – my dreams of working in the medical field had been completely shattered. Some people might say that I gave up too quickly and that I should have pushed through my health problems and given OT or medicine a try. But I knew in my heart of hearts that I would only end up damaging my physical and mental health further by doing that. I knew that I needed to start again.

When you come to the realisation that everything you’ve spent your life working for is wrong, it can feel incredibly difficult to find the strength to carry on. As far as I was concerned, the only thing I had been put on this planet for was to be a doctor. The fact I couldn’t do that, to me, meant there was no point in carrying on. I hit a real low for quite a while – not knowing what I was going to do with my life and wondering if I should just give up now. I desperately still loved the idea of being able to go to university and really didn’t want all my hard work to be in vain. But what on earth was I going to do? I hated the idea of having to settle for second best. I thought about training as a medical secretary, about working in a pharmacy or even looking into Play Therapy again. But none of these were things I actually wanted to do, and I knew if I went down one of these paths I would just feel like I was constantly pining after something I couldn’t have. 

One day, my Dad asked me if I had ever considered doing a degree in Journalism. I must have given him a bit of a strange look, and asked him “What on earth do I know about journalism?!” His reply surprised me a bit when he said: “Loads! You’ve been doing it already for a couple of years!” I didn’t understand what he meant until he brought up this blog, which I had been updating regularly for around two years. It hadn’t even crossed my mind that it was journalism – I thought I was just rambling on my little corner of the Internet (which, to be fair, I am! But it’s still journalism!) This conversation set the cogs in my brain turning, and I began to do some research into local universities that offered degrees in journalism. The more I read, the more things started to feel like they were falling into place. With my two experiences of university so far, I felt like I had learnt quite a lot about what works best for me. I knew I wanted to go to an actual university, because I wanted the social interaction. But I also knew that I needed to live at home for the sake of my health. Two institutions came up as I searched – the college I was already studying at, and the University for the Creative Arts in Farnham. I soon found that the course at the college wasn’t actually what I was looking for, but I went to speak to the Course Leader at UCA and came away feeling like I had finally found the right path.

Dress from Chi Chi London

However, in typical Jenny style, a week or so before I was due to start at Farnham, I had a massive wobble. I told my parents that I couldn’t study journalism – I was desperate to do something medical – and that I wanted to pull out of the course. I’m so thankful that they talked me out of it and told me to at least give it a go. I remember my first day at UCA – everyone else was a lot younger than me (yay for being a mature student!) and I was convinced I wouldn’t fit in and that I would hate the course. I really hadn’t gone into it with an open mind and was just waiting for everything to fail yet again. 

But gradually, over a few weeks, things began to change. I realised I was actually enjoying the course – finding things I thought I would hate fun and actually enjoying being able to write and produce my own content in a variety of styles. I was also getting to know the other people in my group, and finding they were accepting me for who I was – my age and disability didn’t seem to matter. Our first Christmas break came, and for the first time in as long as I could remember, I was actually excited to get back to university in the New Year! Don’t get me wrong – over the last three years I’ve definitely had times when I’ve wanted to quit, when my health has got so bad I’ve struggled to carry on and have wondered if I’ve made the right decision. But not once have I felt like I’ve settled for second best, and that’s what I was most worried about. Instead, I just feel like I’ve found an equally good but different path to go down. Sure, I still have that wish of wanting to be a doctor, but it doesn’t make me feel so sad any more. I feel like I have something I love just as much to take its place – something I can work around my health problems but not something I feel I’ve had to compromise on. 

So why do I think that, after ten long years, I’ve finally been able to complete a university course and come out with a degree? I think it’s probably a whole mixture of reasons really. Firstly, I found a degree topic that I have actually enjoyed and that has kept my interest for three years. I also worked out that living at home worked best for me, and I chose the right university for my needs. Classes were small, so I got to know my course mates and lecturers really well (and they got to know me and understand my needs). And most importantly, I was able to ask for help when I needed it. I don’t want to go into all the support I received from the university too much, as I might do a separate post about Disabled Students Allowance. But I had a great support worker and a fantastic mentor, who have definitely made all the difference to my time at university. 

Sitting in The Royal Festival Hall a few weeks ago in my graduation gown and hat, waiting to collect my certificate confirming I had received a First Class BA (Hons) in Journalism, felt incredibly surreal. I had honestly reached the point where I thought I would never get that degree I wanted so badly. But I guess with this post I want to show that, with the right help and the right circumstances, it is possible. And that it doesn’t matter if it takes you three years or thirty years to achieve what you’ve been dreaming of – it’s still a massive achievement. I also hope it shows that you don’t have to have your whole life mapped out in front of you by the time you finish school. And you don’t have to do what all your friends are doing – instead, find your own path and take your own time. I know this is only really the start of my journey, and now I need to work out what I’m actually going to do with my degree. But finally graduating has given me a confidence boost that I can achieve what I set my mind to – it will just be in my own time.

Have you been to university with a chronic illness, or do you have another goal that you’re trying to reach? Are there any other university related posts that you would be interested in reading?

Sunday, 8 July 2018

A Day with Royal Caribbean on The Independence of the Seas (AD)

As a relatively small blogger and YouTuber, I don’t get many serious e-mails from brands wanting to work with me. So when, a little while ago, I opened up an e-mail from a lovely PR at Melt Influence asking me if I would be interested in working with Royal Caribbean on one of their cruise ships, I had to read it a few times to make sure it was actually legit! And, after weeks of planning, last Saturday I was invited down to Southampton with my parents to spend the day on The Independence of the Seas. It has recently had a multi-million pound makeover and has just re-launched with some its most popular routes, so I was excited to see what the ship had in store for us. We had absolutely glorious weather for it (if I shut my eyes I could actually have been sailing round the Med!) and were treated to an amazing time on board. I thought I would talk you through our day and also tell you a little bit more about Royal Caribbean and the Independence of the Seas.

I have never been on a cruise before and, up until fairly recently, the idea hasn’t appealed to me at all. I experienced a really awful ferry crossing over to Bruges when I was about 14, and ever since then I have hated the idea of going on a boat or ship. But recently, on ITV, there was a documentary style series called The Cruise. My Dad and I watched it, and gradually my opinion of cruises began to change. I realised that they are very different from a ferry crossing and that, most of the time, you don’t even realise you’re on a ship. So when Royal Caribbean asked me to spend the day with them on the Independence of the Seas, I thought it would be a great opportunity to finally experience a cruise ship for myself. 

The journey and getting onboard

Having never set foot on a cruise ship before, my parents and I had absolutely no idea what to expect. Our journey down to Southampton was a little stressful due to traffic, but apart from that it was really straightforward, with parking at the docks being incredibly easy. The Independence of the Seas was hard to miss – it literally towered over the other buildings down on the waterfront! Getting onboard the ship was similar to boarding a plane; apart from a lot less waiting around. Whilst I don’t mind flying, I really like the idea of just being able to drive down to Southampton, get straight on the ship and begin your holiday before the ship even starts to move. You’re also able to take a lot more baggage than you can on a plane – great for an over-packer like me!

Once we’d been through security, we headed up the ramps and onto the ship. One thing that I immediately noticed was just how friendly the staff were. Every person we saw was smiling and only too happy to help with anything we needed. Even going through security we felt relaxed, as members of staff chatted to us and made us laugh. They genuinely seemed happy to be working there and that rubbed off on the guests too.

Looking around the top decks

Our first stop was up in the lift to Deck 11, where our guide, David, said we could go and have a wander round to check out some of the things the ship has to offer. Coming out onto the deck, we were greeted by what I can only describe as a child’s idea of heaven – Splashaway Bay. We were on the ship with a group of bloggers – some lifestyle/travel bloggers from Southampton Bloggers and some parent bloggers from South East Bloggers Circle. It was brilliant seeing all the children experience Splashaway Bay for the first time. There were mini waterslides, a huge yellow bucket tipping water and plenty of cool water jets coming up from the floor. If it had been for adults too, I seriously would have considered hopping straight in to cool down! 

Next to Splashaway Bay was Fish and Ships, where guests can treat themselves to some traditional British Fish and Chips or a Chip Butty (or, if you’re feeling really indulgent, a deep fried chocolate bar!) After we’d spent some time taking in the awesomeness of Splashaway Bay, we decided to explore some more of the higher decks. As well as the children’s area, there are also a number of Jacuzzis and pools for adults to enjoy. There’s even a huge screen by one of the pools, where you can catch a film while you swim. 

A quick ride up in the lift brought us to Deck 12, where we found a jogging track and plenty of sun loungers for enjoying that holiday sunshine. I can’t see there being any problems with finding yourself a lounger on this holiday! The views from the ship over the Solent were just spectacular – you could see for miles and with the weather as good as it was, it felt like we were a million miles from home. I can only imagine what a brilliant view you must get when you’re sailing around the Mediterranean or Caribbean. 

We ran out of time to see everything, but on the higher decks you will also find a crazy golf course, rock climbing wall, sports court, FlowRider (where you can practice your surfing), The Perfect Storm waterslides (which can be seen from the car park!), Sky Pad (where you can wear a virtual reality head piece and bounce your way around a game) and an Escape Room. Believe me, you are never going to run out of things to do on this ship, and that’s only the top decks!

Laser Tag

After enjoying a bit of time exploring the top decks of the ship, some of our group went to play a game of Laser Tag. Unfortunately some people couldn’t join in because they had open-toed shoes, but luckily I was able to give it a go! I’ve never played Laser Tag before and it’s something I’ve always wanted to do. I wasn’t able to get my wheelchair down there, but I had my stick and just took the steps slowly. The game is actually played on the (covered up) ice rink (yes, the ship has an ice rink!!) and consists of a huge inflatable maze, which glows in the dark. We were all given our vests to wear and guns to hold, and were then split into two teams – the aliens and the robots. In order to make the gun work, we needed to hold it with two hands. But I was finding it impossible with having to use my stick as well. The staff quickly realised it was going to be a problem and organised for my gun to work with only one hand – I was so impressed that they spotted an accessibility problem without me saying anything and sorted it out so quickly. The game was a lot of fun – my team lost the first game but won the second game, so I was pretty happy with our effort, even if my arm couldn’t stop shaking afterwards!

As you come out of Studio B, where the Laser Tag took place, there is an art gallery with all sorts of different pieces up for auction. I particularly loved the Disney pieces (surprise surprise!) but there were so many beautiful works of art. They felt right at home in the regal interior of the ship. Everywhere you look there is marble, glass or pretty lighting – I soon forgot I was even on a ship, as it feels just like an incredibly luxurious hotel.

Lunch at Chops Grille

By this point in the day we had worked up a serious appetite, so were happy when David told us it was time to experience lunch onboard the Independence of the Seas. I assumed guests might get a bit bored of eating at the same old restaurants every day on their cruise, but believe me when I say that is very unlikely to happen! On the ship there is a restaurant or cafĂ© to suit every taste and occasion. There’s Johnny Rockets, an authentic American diner; the Main Dining Room serving multi-course meals; Giovanni’s Table – an Italian restaurant offering rustic dishes bursting with flavour; Windjammer, where you will find dishes from all over the world for breakfast, lunch and dinner; Sorrento’s, where you can get a delicious New York style pizza; or 24-Hour room service so you can get whatever your heart desires day or night. 

As well as the large selection of restaurants, there are also various pubs and themed bars, so you can enjoy a pre-dinner (or post-dinner…or any time of day!) drink or two. At the Dog & Badger, an authentic British pub, you will feel right at home, or if you’re looking for something a bit more luxurious, you can enjoy a glass of fizz in the Champagne Bar. There’s also Playmakers – a sports bar where you can watch your favourite team play whilst devouring a burger and ice-cold beer; Schooner Bar, where you can take part in one of the regular quiz nights; Boleros, a Latin-themed bar, which apparently serves up the best mojitos at sea; and Vintages Wine Bar, which hosts wine tasting evenings.

With all this choice I was excited to see where we would go for a bite to eat, and when we were led into Chops Grille, the fanciest restaurant on the ship, I couldn’t believe what a beautiful setting we would be eating in. Chops Grille boasts the first dry-age steaks at sea, serving up succulent cuts of meat alongside fresh seafood, delicious sides and tempting desserts. I’m not usually a big meat-eater, but decided I would try the steak with it being a steak restaurant. I started with the mushroom soup, which was honestly the best mushroom soup I’ve ever eaten. It was creamy and full of flavour – I would have been happy to demolish another bowlful! My Dad went for the Colossal Shrimp Cocktail, which came beautifully presented and according to him was absolutely delicious! We all had the filet mignon for our main, and it came with a selection of yummy sides including asparagus, potato bites and mac & cheese. The steak was one of the best steaks I’ve ever tasted – the only one it matched up to was a steak I ate years ago at The Waldorf Astoria in New York! It literally dissolved in your mouth it was that tender. I couldn’t eat the whole thing, as it was huge, but I made a good attempt at it! 

As well as the food being delicious, the views from the restaurant were amazing. There were huge windows down one side of it, and I can just imagine sitting there eating your evening meal whilst looking out onto the ocean. As we left Chops Grille and came out through Windjammer, we were greeted by the biggest cake I have ever seen! My Dad went over to get a piece for us to share – it was so good! Light and fluffy sponge with a tasty buttercream icing. I really can’t imagine you could ever go hungry on this ship!

Tour of the ship

After lunch, some of the group went off to do their own thing, but we decided to stay with David and have a bit of a tour of the ship. With the ship being 1112 feet long and 185 feet wide, we were never going to be able to see everything, but it was nice to be taken round some of it to get more of an idea of what a holiday with the Independence of the Seas has to offer. We were taken through Playmakers bar, which looked like a great place to be for anyone interested in sport or arcade-style games. This led on to Casino Royale – I’ve never been in a casino before, but I felt like I was in the middle of Las Vegas or something! With slot machines and roulette tables everywhere, I would definitely be doing a bit of (sensible!) gambling if I were on a cruise! 

We then went past the Royal Theatre, although unfortunately didn’t have time to go and look inside. I just think it’s crazy that there is a whole theatre on a ship! Guests can enjoy Broadway-style musicals in the Royal Theatre, with Broadway’s hit musical Grease taking to the high seas in a brand new, never seen before stage production. I would book a cruise just to see that! Past the theatre, we found another of the ship’s restaurants – Izumi Hibachi & Sushi, where chefs will cook your Asian-inspired dishes right in front of your table. We spoke to some of the staff working there, and they were so excited to tell us all about the restaurant. One place that I really wanted to check out was the Royal Promenade, but unfortunately the day just wasn’t long enough! I’ll just have to go back so I can see the Jewellery Boutique, Sugar Beach sweet shop and Luxury Shopping Outlets!

The Staterooms

I’ve heard a lot of stories about having really cramped, dark bedrooms on cruise ships, and so I was interested to see what the staterooms were like on the Independence of the Seas. With 1929 staterooms altogether, guests are certainly spoilt for choice when it comes to choosing their accommodation. The Interior Staterooms aren’t huge, but they definitely weren’t cramped and dark like I’d imagined. There was space for two beds, a sofa, coffee table, desk and TV, as well as a bathroom, with some even having an ocean view. We were also able to look at the Balcony Staterooms, where I decided I would have to stay if I went on a cruise! The rooms were larger than the interior ones with a large Royal King size bed, TV and telephone, fridge or minibar, private bathroom with shower, vanity area and hair-dryer. They felt really roomy and the private balcony would be perfect for watching the world go by as you cruised around the seas. 

We were then taken to the Royal Suite, which was something else entirely! You could just hear a chorus of ‘wows’ as we all came into the suite. If you book one of these rooms, your journey starts with a personal welcome from a senior officer, as well as exclusive invites and luxury treats. You get your own lounge with a grand piano, dining table, television and bar; a huge bedroom with a Royal King Size bed, vanity area, bathroom and walk-in wardrobe; and a large private balcony with a table and chairs and a hot tub! This suite provides some serious luxury.

Ice creams and having to leave

By the time we’d finished our guided tour, it was time to head back up to Spashaway Bay for a much-needed ice cream. There was vanilla and chocolate ice cream on tap, so you could go back for more whenever you needed cooling down! Some of the kids were still having a whale of a time in the water, and I was rather jealous sitting melting in the heat. By this point, guests had started to board the ship to head off on their holidays. Although it was busy and noisy with excited holidaymakers, it didn’t feel too crowded and there were plenty of places to go and relax away from the children’s area. 

All too soon it was time to leave, and we were taken back down the ramps to security so we could collect our ID’s. It was quite nice seeing all the guests getting on the ship – excited about their upcoming trip around the Mediterranean. I only wished I could be joining them! Despite having a jam-packed day on board, there was still so much I wanted to see and do – the waterslides, Escape Room, Sky Pad, Royal Promenade and the theatre were just some of the things I wish I’d had a chance to experience. But it’s a good excuse to go back someday!

After feeling quite unsure about cruise holidays for a long time, I had a brilliant day onboard the ship and can honestly say I would be happy to book to go on a cruise with Royal Caribbean. For someone like me, who struggles to travel much due to my disability and chronic health conditions, I feel like it would be perfect. There’s no stress of having to fly anywhere, you’re on your holiday from the moment you board, there’s plenty to do but there’s also plenty of space to do nothing, and mostly, accessibility for my wheelchair was brilliant. I love the idea of being able to cruise the world from the comfort of my own room – I think it would be a fantastic way to see more of the world without the stress of making lots of little trips. I’m now seriously considering making a cruise one of my next holidays – I just need to start saving! And if it’s something that interests you too, you can check out even more about the Independence of the Seas here.

Have you been on a cruise before or is it something you would like to do one day?

*This post was sponsored by Royal Caribbean and I was kindly given a complementary day on the Independence of the Seas. However, all views are most definitely my own and I had a brilliant time!