Writer Margaret Halliday, who has multiple sclerosis (MS), tells Disability Horizons about how writing has helped her to cope with personal and health changes in her life, and allowed her to carry on reliving her travel experiences and inspiring others.
I was born August 1949, in the south of England, with green fingers and itchy feet. As a teenager, I spent a lot of time gardening, both at home and doing neighbours’ gardens for pocket money. At 16 I left school to begin a year’s training in Hastings Alexandra Park.
After that, I began a two-year horticultural course at the West of Scotland Agricultural College in Glasgow. Moving to Scotland, where my sister had been living for a few years, was a huge change of lifestyle. Not only that, but I also became pregnant and so could not do the second year of my course. I became an ‘unmarried mother’, as we were known then, in both name and also stigma.
I ended up living in Edinburgh where I changed career and became a laboratory technician, studying to be national certificated as one. When my son was three I married a fellow student and we had a daughter after one year. Later, I obtained an MSc and PhD.
My life turned upside down
For fifteen years I was happily married and very busy with my family, studying, working and doing my garden. My itchy feet were still there and were soothed by camping trips to Europe.
Then a bombshell happened. My husband confessed to having an affair and our marriage broke up. He left me to live with her and ten days later I developed strange sensations – a kind of numbness but hypersensitivity in my fingers, which spread to my lower limbs.
I went to the doctor, who tested my reflexes, but found nothing. After about four months, these symptoms did abate. But as a precaution, I was given a lumbar puncture, which is a diagnostic test used to determine whether a patient has MS.
The test showed high protein levels in my spinal fluid. With this result, a common occurrence in MS sufferers, the doctor told me that I probably did have MS, but he couldn’t be certain. I was horrified.
I spent the next twenty years in denial. I was able to walk, which meant no one really would have guessed that there was anything ‘wrong’ with me.
However, I knew that there was a problem. When I got stressed or caught a cold my fingers and feet would feel funny. I would also often get very tired. Gradually my condition worsened, partly due to the MS and an increase in the symptoms associated with it, but also because I had osteoarthritis, and was getting older. This resulted in stiff and painful joints.
During this period, however, I continued to satisfy my love of travel and adventure. I first took up teaching in Turkey, Hungary and Syria. I then travelled around India – three times, in fact! This was followed by flying around the world and lastly working as a WWOOFer (Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms) in New Zealand.
In 2009 I finally had to decide to change my lifestyle. I had to face the fact that I did indeed have MS and it was not going to go away. Ignoring it was no longer an option and I had to instead learn to live with it.
Turning to writing
Although I could no longer travel like I used to, throughout my life and various adventures I have kept diaries. I did so with the faint idea that, one day, I might write a book about them. After accepting that I needed to slow down and give up my full-time active travelling existence, it seemed like the perfect time to do it.
It began slowly, writing first some short stories about my Indian journeys. These were later expanded into the book Prana Soup, an Indian Odyssey, which I self-published in 2013. The process of writing this book plunged me back in time as I relived my Indian adventures. It also distracted me from my growing health issues: my increasing difficulty with walking, an overactive bladder and chronic back pain from arthritis and bad posture.
Not only did writing act as a form of escapism, but I also hoped that it might inspire other people with MS to get out of their comfort zone, as I had, and see the world. MS does not mean you have to stop living and following your dreams.
Continuing to write, I chose also to focus on my time as an unmarried mother in Scotland. Looking back, it’s an interesting account of how different things were in those days for single mothers. Good Vibrations: A Story of a Single 60s Mum was again self-published in 2014.
As well as enjoying the writing, creating local publicity, including newspaper articles and appearances at book festivals, has been great fun. My experience as a WWOOFer was then written about in WWOOFing North and South.
I loved writing my three autobiographies, sharing my experiences and showing others how I have dealt with both positive and negative changes in my life.
But I have always wanted to write some fiction, too. So, two years ago I did an Open University course in creative writing. I surprised myself by producing a few fictional short stories, one of which was printed in the Sentinel Literary Magazine.
Another of the short pieces has recently been published in the Federation of Scottish Writers Anthology, entitled Landfall (November 2017). I have also written my first novel, The Belly Dancer, which is set in Turkey, mainly Istanbul. I am trying to find a publisher at present.
The pleasure of writing
My writing has given me something to focus on, apart from my grandchildren. It is also my legacy to them and they will learn a great deal about their grandmother when they get older (assuming they read my books!). It has also been a way to continue my adventures whilst not letting MS stop me.
I still have more to write and plan to start a book of short stories about my life soon that are stranger than fiction. As well as prose, I also write poetry. I recently started a blog, Traveller’s Tale blog, where I write about my current travels and experiences as a disabled person.
I hope that I can still travel some more in the future and that I am able to continue to improve my writing skills. Whether someone has the same medical conditions or has gone through the same lifestyle changes as myself, I want my writing to inspire people in similar situations to get out there and explore.
By Margaret Halliday