Better days will return

Sage advice from Ian Whitehurst

In these unprecedented times I know that people will be feeling things that they perhaps haven’t experienced before. Financial insecurity, the sense that the rug has been pulled from beneath their feet. These are things that I, like most disabled people, live with almost constantly, and as such, if my experiences can provide some guidance, support and reassurance, then now is the time for me to finally speak out. Does this sound condescending? I hope not as it’s meant with good intentions.

This is an article that I never thought I would write. Talking about myself is somewhat of an anathema to me – I will talk about most things, be it football (mighty Stoke City), politics, the quality of the canteen at Liverpool Crown Court or who is going to be the next Recorder of Preston – but nothing about my personal life and disability.

I think most people who know me are aware that I am disabled. It’s no secret, but I rarely let people know the details and the effect this has had upon my life and my practice.

I’ve had my life and practice halted completely out of the blue several times over the years through serious infections and I’ve had to start on occasions from scratch all over again. So, when I say I know how you are all feeling at the moment, I’m really not kidding.

I was born with spina bifida with all the joyful physical complications that flow from it. My prognosis wasn’t great. My mum and dad, aged 18 and 19 respectively at the time, were told by a doctor that, if I survived infanthood, I would be a ‘retarded dwarf’. The doctor who operated on me in my early years used pioneering techniques that were so novel he subsequently went on a US tour to lecture on the work he’d done on me at the time. I can’t count the number of operations I have had, or the hours I have spent recovering from them. My childhood was decimated. Most important milestones were celebrated in hospital. Quite often the surgery I needed was so complex I was placed on adult wards which was often frightening and confusing. Death was a constant presence.

Five years ago, after years of battling countless infections in my right leg, it finally gave up on me and was amputated – quite a simple decision really either lose the leg or lose your life, said the doctor. And I thought I was blunt in conference. 

Throughout my professional career at the Bar I estimate that I’ve had around seven years off work through illness. I have experienced frustration at not being able to fulfil professional commitments countless times. I have spent hours awake at night wondering how I am going to keep afloat financially. 

One of the lowest points for me was when, after being called to the Bar, a time when I was full of energy and ambition and pride in myself at having fulfilled my ambition at having qualified as a barrister, I developed serious problems in my ankle. While the new friends I had made at Bar school were starting their pupillages, I returned home to Stoke where I sat on a sofa in my parent’s front room for 18 long months. I signed on the dole when my friends’ first cheques for court hearings were beginning to roll in. My dad was also out of work at the time, so at least I had a lift to the dole office.

Of course, I know I am not unique in having had challenges in my life. I know also that everyone deals with catastrophe and stress differently. But for me, the key to surviving these times is remembering that nothing lasts forever. Accept it. Stay positive. Stay active physically. Most importantly for me, stay mentally sharp.

When I look back on my childhood, I remember reading endless books and watching BBC 2. I’m still that child in many respects. Long periods of incapacity have made me curious about new areas of law and in these trying times it may be a good opportunity for people to draft articles or explore new fields, either out of academic interest or to develop the area in practice in the post-crisis legal world. Take the opportunity to do some pro bono work.

It’s not difficult to work out that my work ethic is based on the fear which grips me in the middle of the night  how I am going to survive financially? I know that I am by no means alone in this. However, Covid-19 has undoubtedly heightened these fears for most, if not all of us. My best advice to conquer this is to fight. Fight that fear in any way you can – speak to your friends and colleagues, seek advice where necessary but fight. We are lawyers and we fight for others fearlessly but when it comes to ourselves there is a modesty about us that can inhibit us.

Take every advantage of the unknown. Plan for the future, readjust your life and how you work. Take every single positive out of this situation. Personally, I have enjoyed doing video link hearings to far away courts rather that having to catch the ‘milk train’ to exotic places like Teeside, Ipswich or Canterbury. Like many others, I’ve baked bread, worked in my garden, enjoyed being with my children. I enjoy the odd drink. Sometimes you will feel overwhelmed. Sometimes you will feel like you can’t carry on. Sometimes you will feel like you don’t want to put a brave face on things. That’s all OK. I am scared, like you are scared, but I also know that better days will return. It’s happened for me time and time again, and I know that being a resilient bunch, it will happen for you too.

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Ian Whitehurst

Ian Whitehurst is a barrister at Exchange Chambers (Liverpool, Manchester and Leeds)