Lauren can’t walk but she can fly
I WAS just 19 when my life took a sudden unexpected turn.
It was an ordinary day in October and a friend had dropped by to ask if I wanted to go for a drive in his sister's new car. Feeling somewhat bored, naturally I agreed, and without much thought we headed out.
But somewhere along the way the car lost control, careening off the road so quickly that I didn't have time to process the sight of the tree coming towards me until we had hit it. As I lay trapped in the car struggling to undo my belt, I tried to move and found my legs wouldn't budge. Suddenly an overwhelming pain seared through my body, and finally I realised: this was not a minor accident. Something serious had happened. I didn't yet know it, but I had broken my spinal cord. I was paralysed from the abdomen down.
After being rushed to the local hospital, X-rays and an MRI scan showed that my back had snapped, and I was airlifted to the Acute Spinal Ward of Sydney's Prince of Wales Hospital. With a morphine drip inserted for the pain, I was laid flat on my back and advised that it would be four days before surgeons would be able to perform the operation. During this
time the morphine gave me hallucinations and paranoia, and because it was hard for me to separate reality from the side effects, I thought the nurses were trying to steal my blood! Everything felt so surreal; as though I were watching a reality show instead of my own life. Soon afterwards, doctors diagnosed me with incomplete paraplegia.
Although I still retained some feeling in my left leg, it wasn't great, and the nerves were so hypersensitive that the nurses couldn't even lay a sheet over the top - let alone touch it. My leg remained that way for four weeks, and while it did settle down and become somewhat easier to manage, it still felt like it was numb in some parts (which to this day is the weirdest sensation I've ever experienced).
During surgery they took a bone graft from my hips (to fix my spine) and inserted two titanium rods with screws, and I also had to wear a back brace for three months before I could sit without it. Eventually they took me off the morphine, and it was then that I had to face the reality of the situation: my legs didn't move, my arms were weak, and the hospital was loud, cold, dark, and lonely. For the first time in my life, I felt true despair.
While confined to the ward, someone brought me a diary to write in - which I quickly filled with scribblings of how much I wanted to die. Every page was the same; large scrawling letters that got neater with time but still said the same seven words: "I hate this, I want to die."
It was difficult to look into the faces of my family because I could see the pain in their eyes and how helpless they felt, but my pain remained the same. From that moment on I tried my best to show less of the darkness I was feeling - but life was still incredibly hard to adjust to.
After a month in the Prince of Wales, I was told I would be transferred to their rehab facility at Prince Henry. I thought this would be great - that it meant I was another step closer to me going home - but as evening arrived I discovered it was far from what I'd expected. Just like the last hospital, it was cold, loud and lonely, and I didn't know anyone.
In total, I spent eight months in hospital, and during this time had to undergo exhausting amounts of physio and occupational therapy, as well as the most important tool: how to use a wheelchair. It took me two years to fully grasp a lifestyle of sitting down.
Once I was discharged, I settled into my own place and decided it was time to start normalising my life again - starting with living independently. The only problem was, the house wasn't as accessible as I was used to in hospital, which just made me feel more depressed.
After some time however, I had a revelation: if I could manage living in a normal house, I could stay anywhere in the world! This propelled me to tackle everything I could (from cooking and cleaning to struggling with a vacuum) until it became second nature. Being able to live like a normal person made me feel so liberated, and for the first time, I realised I truly
could make my life something special. From that moment on I pulled myself out of the dark place I had called my home, and decided it was time to start a new one with a fresh perspective.
I got help finding a job in local government, and with my large group of friends, decided it was time I got busy exploring the world and all it had to offer a person with a disability. With excitement, I discovered that there was still so much I could do and experience, and this realisation took me to places I could have only dreamt of!
I travelled to the Pacific Islands (where I took photographs of as many sunsets as I could), embarked on solo trips to England, Fiji, Vanuatu and Hawaii, skydived over the north shore of Honolulu, studied graphic design, and eventually landed an amazing creative position as a designer for an entertainment centre (where I got to see some of the most inspiring artists perform) I felt I was finally living a normal life again.
After moving to the Gold Coast in Queensland at the age of 32, I decided it was time to tackle a few more of my dreams; the first of which was to set up my own freelance graphic design studio (Hard Knox Creative).
The second however, was somewhat bolder. You see, over the past 12 years I had started to regain some more movement and sensation in my left leg, and although I still couldn't stand on it, I found that I could extend it slightly - which made me curious.
I'd heard stories of people with spinal injuries like mine who had managed to get out of their wheelchairs and walk, and I thought to myself: maybe I should see how far I can push this? But instead of going back to my regular physiotherapist, I decided to go a different route; to
try the most insanely difficult thing I could. My reasoning? If I could master that thing, I could do anything. A few weeks later I discovered just what that 'thing' would be.
While walking through the shops one day in 2013, I noticed an aerialist performer hanging from a hoop in the middle of the mall. As I stood there, caught up in the beauty and grace of the performance, I found myself wondering how hard it would be to learn; and then suddenly it hit me: this was what I was going to do! This was the 'thing' that was going to help me get my body moving again.
After being told by various people that there was no way I could achieve my dream, I eventually discovered Tammy Zarb from Industry Aerial Arts, and the rest is history. That said, the first few months were really tough; I couldn't really do anything except sit on the mat. But I worked hard, and over a period of 12 months my legs became so strong
that I was eventually moving both of them around - and with control.
I almost couldn't believe the exercises were actually working. After training for 12 months, Tammy asked if I would like to perform in her yearly student show, and this was truly a defining moment in my life.
In the past I'd never dreamt of performing in public, but after working so hard that year, I decided: surely it can't hurt? And so, with that in mind, I began choreographing a routine for the show. With the help of my performance partner we created a routine based on the diversity of love, and not only was it was warmly embraced by the audience, but it left me
feeling like I had just climbed a mountain. This was the moment I knew I'd discovered my true passion for performing.
After the show, I started a Facebook page to inform other people with incomplete paraplegia on how to get started in aerial work - as well as what challenges they might face - and decided to turn it into a blog (which I named Fitness to Free). To my surprise, six months later I got an email from BuzzFeed asking if they could interview me for a story to be featured on their site. I honestly didn't expect much to come of it, but the day my interview went live I woke up to a stack of messages from friends telling me I was all over the internet. The interview had gone viral! In the days that followed I received so many lovely emails from people, thanking me for sharing my experience and explaining how it had given them the courage to find happiness in their own lives too.
Four years on and I am still training several days a week, but am proud to now call myself an emerging aerial performer who has received guidance and training from some of the most inspiring aerial performers in the world - including Alex Mizzen (international 'Hand
Balance' specialist) and Dreya Weber (aerial choreographer for Pink).
One of my proudest memories from the last 18 months is auditioning - and being selected from a group of able-bodied dancers - to be the featured aerial performer in a music video for Sydney-based band Little Fox. Even better, the exposure opened up more doors for me,
and in 2016 I was approached by the Queensland Government to be a part of their Start Playing, Stay Playing initiative for women in fitness.
Of course, I was only too happy to be involved, and shortly afterwards came on board as an ambassador for their #becauseican project. Since then, I've also been offered a spot in a creative development program with The Circus Corridor, called "The Corridor Encounter".
For the first time in my life I had to get out of the aerial comfort zone and work more on the floor, and through that process I made connections with many incredible artists; most of whom have also, at times, felt they were too diverse and alone (because what they do is so unique). At the end of the day it seems we all struggle to be normal after all.
Today I'm happy to be the Lauren Watson I have become, because every day I look forward to a bright and promising future in the performing arts. It would have been easy to give up on my dreams during those two years in and out of hospital, to believe that my life was over
forever; but I'm so glad that I didn't, because they helped me discover the strength in my struggle, and to keep pushing forward. My hope for the future is that I can one day take this experience and develop it into a workshop; one that can be used as a form of therapy to look at the body in a less clinical environment and help people better understand how muscle memory works. Normality is just a state of mind - we can live a full life and we can make it whatever we want. We just have to be brave enough to try; even if it means running away with the circus.
Lauren Watson is one of 10 inspirational Australians who have shared their stories of triumph over suicide and mental health issues for the groundbreaking book, Reasons To Live One More Day, Every Day, by Jas Rawlinson. For more inspiring stories, and to grab a copy, visit www.jasrawlinson.com.