Our ‘Amazing Animal of the Month’ for March 2015 is Folly, a canine partner to Katy since 2013. Katy was born with cerebral palsy. Below is their story in Katy’s words.
As a young woman, I now feel like I have everything to live for and want to get out there and seize every adventure that comes my way but this wasn’t always the case.
A few hours after I was born I was diagnosed with cerebral palsy and my parents were given a very bleak prognosis. Ever since then my life has been a long series of fights, sometimes even to just stay alive. There is a wrongful assumption that being born with a disability means you accept it as you know no different but I found accepting myself very difficult when I was growing up. This wasn’t helped by being in a mainstream school where I regularly felt left out and my confidence plummeted. This was amplified by difficulties I was facing at home. I became very insular and wanted to avoid all social situations.
This changed when I went to a specialist residential college for disabled people – for three lovely years I had friends, independence and freedom. When it came to leaving my confidence had increased enough to go to live at a university two hours from my home. However, I soon discovered that the bubbled environment I had felt so safe in was very different to the real world.
My first term at university was very difficult, as it is for a lot of young people but in addition I was now responsible for employing PAs and getting the necessary academic and residential alterations made. I was desperate to recreate the strong social circles I had experienced at college but the large majority of students saw me as totally different to them as they could not see past my wheelchair and would choose not to interact with me. I quickly lost my newfound confidence and became shy and introverted once more which created a vicious cycle because I didn’t feel able to start conversations with the other students and they felt the same about me.
I had only a handful of friends and for the most part the only close friend I had was a fellow wheelchair user who shared the frustrations of university life with me. I have always been a perfectionist and threw myself into the university degree as a desperate attempt to prove those who doubted my abilities wrong.
Along with this I was only being funded a few hours of support a day which was causing me to feel fatigued and frustrated.
Every day was becoming the same and I could feel my mood sliding. I didn’t like where I was heading but I felt like I had lost all control over my life and I was losing interest in everything I had previously loved.
This all changed when I went down to Canine Partners to meet a dog they had in mind for me. On my initial assessment I had requested a calm, laid back dog. Looking back, I think this was probably a reflection of the apathy I felt at the time.
It was a very different dog who quite literally burst into the room.
Folly jumped onto my lap and I gazed into her incredible amber eyes and saw so much joy, enthusiasm and possibilities. In that instant she stole my heart and something came alive inside me again.
During my two week residential training course with Folly I laughed more than I had ever laughed before and the heavy weight I had been carrying lifted. I started my final year at university feeling much more optimistic with Folly by my side. I was still determined to do my best at university and worked as much as I could but Folly ensured I remained grounded and had regular breaks through taking her out for walks. If all else failed she would stand at the side of my wheelchair and drop her ball on me from a great height which always made me laugh. I often felt lonely and homesick at university and it was very reassuring to wake up every morning to Folly’s chocolate nose and waggy tail.
Folly also brought about many other improvements. The physical tasks she does like helping me dress, picking up dropped items, lifting my wheelchair footplates, opening/closing doors, along with many more meant I had less pain and fatigue. Through Folly I saw how such everyday things like tugging off my jacket could be fun whereas before they had been laborious tasks. One of Folly’s favourite tasks is emptying the washing machine and she became somewhat of a celebrity in the student laundrette because once she had finished mine she would want to help everyone else with theirs.
Around the university campus I had gone from being the girl in the wheelchair to being the girl with the amazing dog and that was a very liberating feeling. This attitude extended to the general public too. Before Folly people had been unsure about how to interact with me and often played it safe by totally ignoring me. Now when I go out people see Folly before they see my wheelchair and this often provides the bridge for them to come and talk to me.
Folly is an unusual mix of breeds which attracts a lot of attention and answering questions about her has really helped to build my confidence. I had previously done whatever I could to avoid going out on my own as I was acutely aware of my vulnerabilities but now I don’t think twice before taking a spontaneous walk with Folly. Whereas before I would have thought twice about some opportunities due to lack of self-esteem I now seize the moment just like Folly with her infectious zest for life.
It was a very proud moment when I graduated from university with Folly by my side. I had accomplished my dreams and had achieved the First Class degree I was striving for. My next venture was to move out of university halls and live independently. A few years ago it was just a dream to me but it also caused me a lot of anxiety when I thought about it. Could I cope on my own? Would I get lonely? What if I needed help in an emergency? Folly has greatly reduced these anxieties and provided me with the confidence and security to live on my own. If I fall she can fetch the phone for me, she helps me with so many small tasks which make a huge difference and she is great company 24/7.
Folly ensures that my dream of living independently is a reality and brings me so much happiness every day. I couldn’t imagine life without her now.