Picture the scene. Azure skies, shimmering burnt-orange sun, pristine white snow glistening under the sun’s rays. The majestic peak of Mont Blanc as the backdrop. Yes, I’m on a school ski trip.
Courmayeur. Nestled beautifully on the Italian side of the Alps in the Aosta Valley. Beautiful. At 15 years old, I’d never seen anything like it. I remember clearly my first glimpse of the mountain range and how I was struck at the sheer enormity of it. We’d travelled via coach and ferry to get here and, for me, it was totally worth that horrendous journey. So, we’re decked out in our ski-attire, we’ve been fitted for boots and skis, we’ve got our identifying yellow hats with a red bobble – the epitome of high fashion. We’re skiing! First few attempts on the baby bowl went pretty well. We were divided into small groups, attached to an instructor and dispatched to the mountain ski runs proper. My excitement was palpable. I was loving every moment.
So, we’re at the top of a run. The girl in front of me falls and I swerve to avoid ploughing into the back of her. All of a sudden, my skis are pointing straight down the mountain and I’m off on the run that will change my life forever. I knew I was going too fast, I knew that I was no longer on the marked run, I knew I could see too many rocks, I knew I was way outta my league. I couldn’t slow down, I couldn’t get my legs to snow plough. I decided that I’d try to slow myself by sitting down. Big mistake. My skis flew over my head. My poles left my side. I started to snowball through the rock outcrops. I’m head over heels. Arse over tit, as my Dad would say. The mountain tires of its game with me and spits me onto a pile of snow.
I lie there. Motionless. Then I giggle a bit and decide I better go find my skis, poles, boot and dignity. The movement sends the instructor down to me. I’ve covered quite a distance. He’d packed off the rest of the group with another instructor and he came to get me. He was a bit shocked that I was alive. According to him, I shouldn’t have survived. I looked back up to where I’d started and I saw the all the rocks and ice that I’d tumbled through. He said he was about to radio for air-rescue to get me off the mountain when he saw my bobble hat move. He checked me over, saw that I was in actual fact ok, then went to collect my belongings which were strewn over the mountainside. It took hours to traverse back up the side of Mont Blanc and rejoin my group. I was awarded Most Spectacular Fall of the Season and I thought no more about it.
For years I believed that fall caused my epilepsy. In actual fact, it probably just triggered the gene I carry that pre-disposes me to the condition. In truth, I’ll probably never know. I have skied since. I went on a school ski trip a year later. You will notice that at no point did a helmet feature in the story. This was the ’80s and thinking back I can’t remember seeing anyone on the mountain wearing a helmet. It was a few years after that fateful trip that I was diagnosed with epilepsy and the skiing incident became a suspect. I didn’t ski again until I was 29 and in New Zealand. My bf at the time was a very good skier, our friend who was travelling with us at that point had never skied before in his life and then there was me. Nervous but excited. Bf was dispatched to go do his own thing and be free. Friend and me, stuck together and laughed so much. We had great fun. He skied forwards, I skied backwards and we had hysterics. Adrenalin coursed through my body and I felt truly alive. My confidence was restored and I added that day to my list of moments.
I love those adrenalin-filled moments. Every sensation is heightened, every feeling magnified and the sheer joy of being alive bursts out of my being. Fight, flight or freeze. I’m smiling writing this as I think of other moments. My time as a bear-whisperer, hmm, I guess I’ll get to that; the first time I wake-boarded; the first time I drove a speedboat; the first time I jet-skied; the first time I jumped off the high board. So many moments.
Epilepsy, for me, is a life sentence. It will be with me always. I won’t grow out of it and it will be the bane of my life. It makes every one of my moments sweeter and every one of my depressions deeper. But it will not beat me. Sometimes it will win the battle, but there is no doubt in my mind that I will win the war. It is a life sentence, not a death sentence.