Abi Davis studied for a BSc in Environmental Science, where she learnt about the natural world, environmental conflicts and issues, society’s impact on the environment and sustainable solutions. But more than anything, she learnt about herself, and what she could achieve. For the first time in her educational life, at university Abi received tailored support to help adapt to her conditions; for years she had struggled with undiagnosed mental and physical health issues. At school and college, often too ill to attend, she ended up missing huge chunks of her education. Abi took five minutes out of her day to Skype with NRI Communications Officer, Linden Kemkaran, to describe how she’s now using her experiences to help others.
Throughout most of my life I’ve suffered from Emetophobia – the fear of vomiting or seeing others being sick. It took over my life at 14, and I couldn’t leave my own bedroom, let alone my house. I was paralysed with fear that everywhere had germs that might lead to a stomach upset.
I was so bad I couldn’t even use or hear the word nausea – it would send me into a full-blown panic attack. The school simply had no understanding and threatened all sorts of punishments for my absences. My mental state deteriorated and lots of other health problems then kicked in. I ended up missing an entire year of school.
I began to notice other things about myself that weren’t quite “right”. My sister had been diagnosed with ADHD when she was five, and autism at nine, and I realized how similar my traits were. I was referred to CAMHS (Children & Adolescent Mental Health Services) and eventually got diagnosed with autism and ADHD aged 15. Interestingly my mum got diagnosed aged 49, and we now know that it is a hereditary condition.
I had survived school life by copying others and imitating their behavioural cues, something that’s apparently very common for girls who are autistic. My teachers all had really low expectations of me, but after GCSEs, I went to college and studied a BTEC – the equivalent to A Levels – in animal management, with a view to working in a veterinary practice or a zoo.
My mental and physical health problems made college incredibly challenging for me, and once again, there was no support in place. I learned that all my weird aches, pains and mobility issues were in fact caused by Hypermobility EDS – Ehlers-Danlos Syndromes – one of a group of rare inherited conditions that affect connective tissue.
On a complete whim I applied to the University of Greenwich to study a BSc in Environmental Science. It had the highest entry requirements of all the courses I was interested in and I assumed that with my disjointed learning background, I’d never get offered a place. But I did.
I’m the first person in my entire family to have gone to go to university so everything came as a surprise, as my parents, although very supportive, hadn’t been able to tell me what to expect. The work was hard, but I could do it and all the lecturers were so normal and nice, as were my fellow students!
For the first time in my life I found a support network there for me. I turned up with my truck-load of mental and physical conditions and was supported 100%. There was a series of meetings to discuss my specific needs and an inclusion plan was made.
The university also organised, and more crucially, paid for, a dyslexia screening which revealed that I also had dyslexia, dyspraxia and dyscalculia to add to my already long list!
People say to me ‘you don’t look ill’, which I know is meant as a compliment, but it’s quite wearing. My nature is not to be self-pitying and I try and just get on with life as best I can, but looking back I wonder if that ‘can-do’ attitude has meant that I haven’t always received the help I needed? It’s a conundrum. I don’t want to be defined by my disabilities, but sometimes I just need people to understand that I have limitations.
I discovered that I have a knack for disability advocacy and that’s something I’d be interested in pursuing as a career. A lady from the university called Melanie Thorley contacted me about an organisation called STAART – Support Through AccessAbility Retention and Tuition - and asked if I’d like to become a student ambassador. I accepted thinking it was a voluntary position, but was delighted to discover it was paid!
I was able to properly advise students and reassure them that having a disability shouldn’t hold you back in life, sometimes just a little bit of support and a few adjustments can make all the difference.
Melanie also asked me to visit the Helen Allison school in Kent which specialises in autism. I stood in front of the students and told them that university is an option and they could achieve great things. A lot of them were affected by self-doubt and others’ low expectations of them. I confirmed they could absolutely do it.
In my second year there was a compulsory field trip to Spain. The Emetophobia was getting easier to deal with but travelling had been, and remained, a huge problem for me - I’d never got on an aeroplane or owned a passport. I couldn’t even travel in a car for more than about 30 minutes because of the fear of travel sickness.
I had more therapy for the Emetophobia with CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and I explored in detail what was stopping me from travelling. I decided to visit some friends in Holland as a first step. The plane journey is only about 40 minutes and my friends said they would look after me once I was there. I booked the ticket, utterly terrified at the prospect.
Once I boarded the plane, I was excited not terrified! I liked it so much I immediately went on another trip to Switzerland, completely alone. I’d conquered my fears and overcome my huge anxieties in one fell swoop!
I graduated in 2019 and I wanted to stay on to study for an MSc in Global Environmental Change, but sadly the university didn’t offer it part time. If they ever change their mind, I’ll be back like a shot.
Like many others at the moment, I’m struggling to find a job but that doesn’t detract from what I learnt and gained from my time at Greenwich. For me it was more than just a degree; it was about learning vital life-skills, making friends and helping other students with disabilities and was a hugely enriching experience in so many ways.
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