Speaking out about body confidence and disability as a stroke survivor

Speaking out about body confidence and disability as a stroke survivor

My name is Anna Smith Higgs. I am a stroke survivor, burlesque dancer and activist for disability and sex. I am passionate about sharing my story as a stroke survivor, and becoming disabled after a stroke. We are often overlooked, and our voices go unheard. I am here to change that.

It was Christmas day in 2004 when the stroke hit me. 13 years ago I was 24 years old. Before that, I was an average kinda girl. Nothing stood out about me – I blended in. I knew nothing about strokes, nor did my family.

My son Henry was a month old. The whole family were at my dad’s. This Christmas was to be special as it was Henry’s first Christmas. We were all so excited and looking forward to the day more than any other Christmas I could remember.

We got to dad’s at 11am and started opening presents soon after. My two sisters and all of our partner’s and their parents were there. We all had a few glasses of wine with our dinner and were all in very high spirits.

It was 5pm, and I remember it so well. We were watching Harry Potter on TV and I started to feel dizzy, as if I had drunk too much. I hadn’t drunk the previous nine months when I was pregnant. I said I was going to sit in the garden to get some air, but it didn’t come out as that. It came out like another language.

My brother-in-law brought a coffee out to me and I went to pick it up with my right hand and dropped it. My right side had gone numb. Then I got up and tried to walk, but it was more of a stumble.

My mum took me, Henry and my partner Craig home. She had to undress me and put me to bed. The family thought I was drunk. It wasn’t until Boxing Day, when my sister had come round to see me, that they realised something was seriously wrong. The ambulance came and they knew instantly that I’d had a stroke. My mum and dad didn’t believe them.

I then spent the next five months in hospital, crying every single day because I couldn’t accept what had happened to me. I couldn’t accept that I wasn’t able to walk. Drs told me every day that the chances of me ever walking again were very slim.

I couldn’t accept that my right arm just wouldn’t move. I used to say, over and over again; “move little finger, please just move for me.” I also couldn’t accept that I was now partially sighted in both eyes. I’d developed tunnel vision. I now only see half of the world.

I hated the fact that I had missed five months of Henry’s life. Craig brought him to see me every day, but it wasn’t the same as putting him to bed, making his milk and feeding him.

Getting used to my new life as a disabled woman

I was right-handed before the stroke, but I had to learn to do everything with my left hand. You try strapping your dominant hand up and doing everything with the other hand. It’s so hard.

When I was released from hospital I made sure that I walked to the car. It took everything that I had to do it. But I wanted to prove the Drs wrong – and I did.

The next task was to learn how to dress Henry and change his nappy. I did it with my left hand and left foot. Henry learnt to turn at the right times to help me.

I then spent many, many unhappy years fighting depression and panic attacks. I was always so scared that I would have another stroke. I wasn’t living a life, I was exciting. I was a broken shell and I hated it. Everything the stroke took from me I wanted back.

Moving on a regaining my confidence

Something needed to change. I was going to fight to the death to get a life, any life, just not the one I had.

I wanted a tattoo, so I went out and got one. I decided to start a boxercise class, too. I couldn’t do it, but I loved being with people. I wanted to experience everything.

I meet a rabbi for afternoon tea. Why? Because I wanted to learn about it. I tried abseiling. I hated it.  But I took a class in burlesque. I loved it.

Whip cracking was a new world to me. I’ve now done whip cracking and body burning. I’ve tried pole dancing and I’ve nipple tassled with the best of them.

This is where my love for burlesque really took off. By chance, I met burlesque dancer Sadie Sinner. I don’t know where it came from, but I asked her whether she would help me put a show together for the hospital that looked after me. She said yes.

Anna Smith in burlesque outfit

Being bold through burlesque

That was were my love for performing began. My stage name is Cinnamon Cheeks. For my very first show, I asked my friend Jules if she would help me do a dance. Her stage name is Flossie Fru Fru, so together we are Flossie Cheeks.

We did a dance at the end of the show I’d put together, and nobody knew we were going to. I was in my wheelchair and Flossie was my nurse. The dance was ok, but not one of our best. However, the feeling I got from being on stage was fantastic. It gave me so much more confidence in my body.

I am a plus size girl, so standing on stage and taking my clothes off as fully-abled person takes guts. But to do it when only one arm works and my moves are limited took real determination. I went down the route of comedy burlesque. It’s something I know I can do – I can make people laugh.

But the more I did it, the more I wanted another challenge. So I performed my stroke journey to Lady Gaga’s Till it Happens to You.

I performed it at the Chari Tease cabaret show, which had become a yearly event. I was also asked to perform it at the WOW Festival at the Southbank’s Royal Festival Hall in London.

I also met the wonderful burlesque dancer Rubyyy Jones at this event, and she now teaches the courses that I run for Chari Tease. She inspired me to do this act and has passed on so much of her knowledge.

Burlesque has given me back my life and my confidence. I am now a disabled performer and I don’t care what people think – I’m here to make a difference. I believe my stroke happened to me so I could change the way people think about disability.

If you were to look at me you wouldn’t know that there was anything wrong. That’s why I needed to dance. I need people to see what is wrong with me, what I have to go through and how I have fought for everything.

The dance left people crying with shock, which was exactly what I wanted. I wanted people to think what a stroke can do – what it did to me.

My advice for life and what I live by every day is not to take things so seriously. Love life to the fullest. Enjoy life. Do not let the little things get you down because, before you know it, your life will be over. I personally want to be able to say that I lived my life to the full.

By Anna Smith Higgs

You can read more about Anna’s life on her blog, Just Another Stroke, and you can follow her on Twitter @AnnaSmithHiggs

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