Differently Able: Tilly’s Story of Resilience

For our first interview in the ‘Overcomers Series’, we’re having a chat with Tilly Awolola. Tilly is a writer, passionate mental health advocate and speaker. Although I knew a little bit about Tilly and her story from conversations with mutual friends, I didn’t quite know the extent of the traumatic journey she has been on.

I recently came across her story again on her blog and boy I was left with tears forming in my eyes and goosebumps breaking out on my skin. It was like a floodgate of questions opened up in my mind and I found myself asking ‘what if it were me? How would I have survived?’

I just knew I had to get in touch with her and share her powerful story with you. She has an amazing story of resilience, survival and overcoming physical and emotional trauma against all odds.

I hope this encourages and blesses you! It sure left me humbled and in awe of her sheer resilience.

Love,

Dammy

Thank you so much for agreeing to this interview! Can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

I always find questions like this a little daunting; I can’t decide whether I’m supposed to give   an elevator pitch style speech that captures the 26 years of my life or keep it simple.  To keep it simple, if I had to describe myself in three words, it would be creative, resilient and self-aware. I am a writer, mental health advocate and speaker. I love to use various forms of art to express my thoughts and to raise awareness on important issues. I recently co-authored a blog on why black hair is a workplace issue to raise awareness on the different standards black women are often judged by in the workplace.

I came across the phrase ‘Differently Able’ on your blog. What do you mean by this? What major event in your life caused you to redefine yourself in this way?

I wrote Differently Able after going through a life-changing health scare which left me with an impairment of my right hand. At the time I was still coming to terms with the impact. It felt as though I was no longer myself, but I also did not want to identify as disabled. I am Nigerian and words carry a heavy weight in my culture. My parents had drilled into me that I must always speak positively and that there is power in tongue.  It also felt like, to use the word “Disabled” would also be tantamount to accepting my situation was now permanent. I believe in miracles and part of me still holds on to a hope that maybe one day God will fix it all but while I wait, I wanted to find a positive approach to accepting my new reality.

Do you remember what your first thought was when you realised what had happened to you and how your life was going to change?

If I’m honest I don’t remember my first thought. I believe the shock of everything that had happened was so overwhelming that I couldn’t really think.

One minute I was living the typical student life and the next I was been rushed into hospital with severe pain and doctors frantically trying to figure out what was wrong with me. After various scans and deliberation with experts, it became clear that I had a bleed from a spinal AVM which had been undetected until that night.

In the midst of everything I was eager to get back to normal. I recall I was working on a group assignment at the time and had called one of my teammates to ask if there was any way I could do the assignment from the hospital, even though I couldn’t even hold a pen at the time.  On reflection I believe I was trying to distract myself form the reality of the situation.

It was only after I was transferred to a rehabilitation centre that I started to come to terms with what had happened. I remember a visit from an old friend, I was desperately trying to keep up a brave face and downplay what had happened, but it was as though she could see that I wasn’t ok.

I can’t recall what she said that triggered the water works but I remember having a proper cry; I think that’s when the reality of everything that had happened began to sink in.

Can you tell us of one incredibly tough moment on your journey to recovery? How did you feel?

My journey to recovery really started once I was discharged and went back home. I no longer had nurses helping me with the day to day activities. My parents and siblings tried their best to support me whenever I needed it, but it was strange.

I recall tying to braid my hair and realising I couldn’t. It takes too hands and there was no way around the fact you have to hold the strands tightly in order to form a good braid. A simple task like braiding became something I could no longer do.

It took a lot of trial and error for me to understand my limitations but with that I also started to observe that I was adapting. I could now do a lot more with my left hand, and there was also a sense of accomplishment with every task that I learnt to do.

Going back to university after a year out was incredible tough, I didn’t want to have to explain what had happened to everyone. The fact that I had now been assigned a note taker to help me with scribing was already suspect. Some students assumed that I was lazy because it wasn’t explicitly obvious that I had dexterity issues with my right hand.

Do you remember the moment you finally thought ‘I can do this? I’ll make it.’ How did you come to that realisation? How did you feel?

I thank God for my family because although sometimes annoying, their positivity and encouragement inspired me to adopt a positive attitude to my new normal.  I felt like I had two choices really, to either allow what happened to change me completely or to continue learning and adapting. I also felt like I was given a second chance to really make the best out of life.

After reading about other experiences with AVM bleeds I realised that God had really spared me from a lot. I have so much to be grateful for and although new challenges crop up from time to time, I have learnt from past experience that once I get past the fear, I am able get through it. 

Where did you get the drive/motivation to continue even when you did not feel physically able to?

My family is incredibly supportive. I have frequent conversations with my husband about my fears. He is an incredible listener; we pray together whenever I feel overwhelmed. He constantly reminds me of what I achieved in the past and reinforces the message that I can do anything I set my mind to. His kind words and the vision we have for our family really motivate me to keep trying and never give up.

We hear a lot these days about finding ‘our tribe’ or a support group of sorts that stand by us through thick and thin. Who would you say have been in your tribe and how have they supported on your recovery journey?

Without naming names, I have incredible friends who are supportive of me and have been there at different stages of my journey. With different phases in life my tribe is evolving but I am incredible blessed to have a group of positive, caring and empowering ladies by my side.

“Human ideas of good can be incongruent to God’s idea of good” TillyJoanAdams

How do you reconcile the physical and emotional trauma you have experienced with the knowledge that God is good?

I find that the human ideas of good can be incongruent to GOD’s idea of good, so I don’t tend to dwell on that per say.

My relationship with God at the time of the incident was not great, and I recall feeling like God was punishing me for being disobedient but over the years I have reconciled that feeling with Jeremiah 29:11 “For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the Lord, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.”

The Bible is very encouraging, whenever I feel overwhelmed by negative thoughts I turn to God for help. Philippians 4:13 reminds me that “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me”. The thing is I don’t blame God for what happened to me as I believe there where lessons I needed to learn. As a result of what happened to me, I have a greater sense of empathy towards others. I am also a testament to the fact that resilience is sometimes built through adversity.

How’s life now? How would you describe this season of your life?

Life is great! I still have moments of upset when a new challenge occurs, but I have a healthier and positive outlook on the future. I have less anxious days than before and I’m generally excited to see more growth both personally and in my career.

Tilly and her husband, Toyosi

Based on everything you have been through, in your own words, what does it mean to be an overcomer?

Being an overcomer to me means “thriving despite the odds.’’ I had many reasons to give up but I’m glad I didn’t. It’s hard to quantify the mindset that is developed after having to deal with an unexpected trauma, but it has given me an interesting perspective on life. 

Being an overcomer means ‘thriving despite the odds.’

Tilly Awolola

I know you are very passionate about mental health and getting people to have real, honest conversations about this. How did your physical health affect your mental health?

Trauma can negatively impact your mental health in many ways, for me it manifested in social anxiety, because I struggled with many activities, it started to impact my confidence. Things like going out for meals with friends was a difficult experience for me because I couldn’t hold my knife and forks properly and felt like all eyes were on me even if they weren’t. I was overthinking a lot of things as result this led to further anxiety.

I noticed that I started to feel better about it when I began to express my feelings. My now husband was one of the few people I felt comfortable speaking to about it whilst at university. Talking really gave me a sense of relief and sometime made me realise that some of my worries were just a figment of my imagination. 

I am currently co-producing a mental health documentary focused on mental health in the Black community to encourage more healthy dialogue on the subject. Talking is an inexpensive and widely accessible tool that can prevent the deterioration of mental health.

What two strategies can you share with readers on how to look after their mental health particularly in these uncertain and unprecedented times?

Always take some time out to do some self-evaluation. Really reflect on how you have been feeling so that you can identify if you need to make any changes to support your mental health.

Lately, in the hustle and bustle of working from home, many of us have developed bad habits of letting work flow into what used to be our personal time. It’s important to create boundaries that allow you to reenergize and switch off from work. If that means having a hard stop time for logging off from work, do so.

Exercise! Exercise! Exercise! You don’t need to do rigorous exercise; this could just be a light jog or skip in your home. Regular exercise is proven to have positive impact on depression, anxiety, and ADHD. It also relieves stress, improves memory, helps you sleep better, and boosts your overall mood. With the high level of uncertainty we are currently facing due to the pandemic, it is important that we actively focus on activities to promote a positive mental health.

There is nothing normal about what we are facing right now so give yourself grace to adapt and don’t put pressure on yourself to have it all figured out.

I’ll also add that you need to try and focus on the positive. I was reflecting on the impact of the first lockdown and found that there were so many amazing things that I did during that period. Focusing on the positive can reaffirm that whilst things are not as they were, there are still many great things happening around us.

Finally, if you could tell your 18-year-old self anything, what would it be?

I would say, do not trade your uniqueness for anything else. It doesn’t matter if people don’t like what you do, you owe it to yourself to continue as long as you still have an interest in it. Trust your gut; it’s more than an intuition it’s an invisible road map for your future.

A massive thank you to Tilly for letting me share her story with you. You can follow Tilly and her amazing work on mental health via her:

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