‘What I learnt after going blind, what I learnt after paralysis, all the tools, I felt it all when lockdown came in,” motivational speaker Mark Pollock says. He is talking about the stages of grief, as famously defined by psychiatrist Elisabeth Kübler-Ross: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. Aged 44, Mark has been through these cycles twice.
ow, he sees it all about him, in our collective, pandemic-related grief. “With the second wave, I’m seeing an overwhelming amount of denial. We’re back at the start of it again.”
Our ability to deny the undeniable is remarkable, Mark says. “When I went blind, I couldn’t see anything. Total blackness. Yet for perhaps even close to a year, I was going through cycles of denying that it was real. It comes from a place of, you don’t want it to be real. Same after paralysis. Lying in bed, not able to feel or move my legs, get out of bed, get into the wheelchair for four months, in hospital for 16 months; you’re denying that this is the case.”
In 1998, aged 22, Mark lost his sight. He went on to win medals at the Commonwealth Games, and he became an adventure athlete, competing in ultra-endurance races – the first blind person to race to the South Pole. Then in 2010, he broke his back and suffered damage to his spinal cord which left him paralysed, after an accident in which he fell out of an upstairs window while staying with friends.
His experiences have, in some way, prepared him for life in a pandemic. “To an extent, the disabled community at large are in a form of lifelong lockdown,” he says. There are people all over the world doing amazing things, he adds, “But there’s a form of compromise, or lockdown, that we have built skills to cope with, for in some cases a lifetime, in some cases a year or two.”
Mark has developed his own philosophy for coping. He calls it the challenge cycle. “That’s confronting the brutal facts, anchoring ourselves with a sense of control using acceptance, and then charting a path towards a better future using hope. I can’t use my legs, I can’t see, but I can use my arms, I live at a great time in history, in a great part of the world, I’ve got lots of great people around me and loads of great opportunities ahead. So there’s some tough stuff in there, and there’s some great stuff.”
He is interested in philosophy and a quote by Nietzsche stays with him: “He who has a why to live for can bear with almost any how.”
In those first months in hospital after he broke his back, his ‘why’ was boiled down to its most basic. “It was about survival in the short term. So many people across the country now are in survival,” he says, referring to job losses and health issues. “It’s hard in that place. I don’t think that kind of ‘why’ allows us to develop hope for a future. In order to do that, we need to extend timelines, to give ourselves something to go for.” It took Mark six months to be able to think beyond simply getting through each day. Then, he wrote “a five-year statement”, listing things he was going to do over the next five years.
For the first time since the accident, he allowed himself to see a future in which hope might exist. “It gave me a little bit of light beyond the hardship of now.” In all of this he was supported by his fiancée Simone George, a human rights lawyer. His accident happened just before they were to wed. It could have been the rock their relationship foundered upon but it became the opposite. “I was incredibly fortunate that Simone was capable of being by my bedside to care for me. She played so many different roles in those early stages. Simone and I were a classic team.”
The difficult part is, in a way, coming out of the most extreme, early phase, he says. “When you go from this very … sheltered is not the right word, but this very specific situation you’re in, and then life starts to happen, and you re-emerge. We found our togetherness in that [first] phase, and then we’ve necessarily had to establish our separateness and own identities. Her, with her human rights legal work; me, with my speaking and the run; and then our combined efforts on the cure stuff.”
At the moment, it feels as if many of us are stuck in anger, I say. Again, that’s an emotion Mark is familiar with. “I call that stage ‘anger and blame’. When I went blind, at the time, I thought I was going to go into investment banking; this was 1998. I would get the Financial Times on tape a week after it had been published. The levels of frustration … Or I would get some post, and my mum would read it, but skip the ‘Dear Mark’ bit, skip the introduction, just read the middle paragraph. I found that absolutely horrendous. That comes back to me, not being independent, and being annoyed about it, angry about it, and then having that come out of me by being rude, short, snappy with the people who are trying to help me.”
Instead, he says, try to take a moment, recognise and feel the anger, then work out where you’re going to direct it. Perhaps nowhere. He still regularly feels sorry for himself, he says, but he is beyond the bargaining stage – the bit where he hopes for a miracle. Instead, he is grounded in hugely practical work, trying to find a cure for paralysis. This is the focus of his new charity, Collaborative Cures. “When I reflected on the work we had done so far to try and cure paralysis, it was very clear that no one scientist, technologist, journalist, government, investor or philanthropist was going to solve it on their own. [The charity is] fundamentally built on an effort to build trust between disparate groups of people, bring them together, and cure paralysis.”
“I don’t think I’ll ever be over the fact that I went blind or broke my back. But then I don’t think I need to be over it either. I just need to make the best of what happens next.”
Join Run in the Dark on Wednesday, November 18. See www.runinthedark.org. All additional fundraising and donations will support the work of Collaborative Cures, whose mission is to bring people together to cure paralysis in our lifetime
Sunday Indo Living