…Ask before you assume ANYTHING. A person with a disability would always prefer someone asking how they can help or IF they need help, rather than another person (albeit well-meaning) assuming they know better. If you’re unsure what to do — ASK.
As a part of our “Unstoppable” series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Vanessa Potter.
Author, TEDx speaker & meditation advocate, Vanessa Potter looked to science for the answers when in October 2012 she suddenly found herself blind and paralyzed. As she recovered she became curious to understand her brain and embarked upon a ‘consciousness road trip’ exploring 10 different ways to train her mind and improve her life — from mindfulness to psychedelics as part of a ground-breaking study. Her book, Finding My Right Mind: One Woman’s Experiment to put Meditation to the Test publishes on 29th April.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! It is really an honor. Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you share your “backstory” with us?
In 2012 I was a successful 40 yr old married television producer with two small children, when one morning fate turned the lights out on me. I suddenly found myself blind and paralyzed due to a rare neurological illness. During my year-long recovery I devised home experiments designed solely to boost my vision and bring it back online — for one experiment I looked at the same shower gel bottle every day for 6 months, meticulously measuring the improvements to my vision. I re-learnt to walk and documented my experiences. I also used a hotchpotch of meditation to soothe my mind and alleviate the anxiety brought on by the trauma of my illness. When I could see enough, I started researching my lost sight and the inner mechanics of my brain. This curiosity led me to Cambridge University where I worked with neuroscientists on an immersive EEG science-art exhibition in 2015 that allowed the public to see their own meditative brainwaves translated into moving art and music. This in turn led to a TEDx talk, a book and an enduring fascination with meditation and the mind.
Do you feel comfortable sharing with us the story surrounding how you became disabled or became ill? What mental shift did you make to not let that “stop you”?
Yes. Initially I created a pseudonym — Patient H69 — in order to blog about my experiences anonymously. This was a means for me to process the trauma of my illness but also allowed me a safe platform from which to tell my story. I decided very early on that if my illness was going to take away my career as a television producer, then it was going to give me a new passion in life. I have kept that promise to myself. The book I am about to publish, Finding My Right Mind, is a meditation experiment that I pitched to neuroscientists. I would never have dreamt I would do that had I not made that promise to myself.
Can you tell our readers about the accomplishments you have been able to make despite your disability or illness ?
I have overcome much since my sudden illness. Although I have some sight back I am still partially sighted. I had to learn to live a ‘new normal’ where the world didn’t look like it did before. This meant creating new strategies and giving myself new challenges. Part of my mindset was to use curiosity, rather than fear, as a motivator. Becoming curious to understand how and why meditation helped me overcome the trauma of my illness was not just a survival tactic, but a means to future-proof my life. By throughly investigating different meditation techniques I became an expert in the strategies that saved my mind. This opened new doors and has meant I am a published author, speaker and science communicator having written for Mosaic (Wellcome Trust) and publications such the The Telegraph, Marie Claire and Good Housekeeping. I love that I can now provide a ‘bridge’ between the public and science.
What advice would you give to other people who have disabilities or limitations?
Take it one day at a time. I am a qualified coach and my coaching skills helped me see life as a series of infinitesimal small steps, rather than overwhelming big leaps. I looked for what I could achieve in that hour or that day, not in that week. Also, limitations are subjective. I have learnt more new skills and gained more insight and knowledge about my own brain than I ever would have had I stayed in my previous career. Life is full of opportunity. The trick is carving an opportunity out if one doesn’t at first seem obvious. Also, use what you know — and who you know. All of my accomplishments have come through networking and utilising contacts I already had. In my experience, most people are happy to help!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?
I am grateful to my husband Ed and the roster of fabulous women, including my mother, who walked with me every day to help me re-learn to walk. It’s true, you can’t always get where you need to be alone, and it’s far more rewarding to travel a journey (particularly a recovery journey) with friends. If you can understand that asking for help is courage — not weakness, you’ll be fine.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
Just after I went blind I set up a local charity with other parents to build a playground in a local park. My family thought I was crazy taking this on when I was so ill, but I needed a focus — a future plan and I didn’t t want my disability and bad luck to stop us. It took 5 years and we nearly gave up many times, but eventually we raised over £110,000 to build a fabulous, award winning playground. When we see families in that park now my own children are immensely proud of me and I see the real legacy of my illness.
Also, as part of the science-art EEG exhibition I ran a collaborative workshop at my children’s school along with a graduate scientist. This was a hugely educational experience for the children and I realised how important it was to educate young people on the mechanics of their brains. By using art as metaphor and interpreter we inspired children who still talked about the workshop a year later. Since then I’ve run more workshops in schools (for teens) as I feel I have a responsibility to not just talk about resilience but to show what it actually looks like.
Can you share “5 things I wish people understood or knew about people with physical limitations” and why.
- Many illnesses or disabilities are invisible. Just because you can’t see it doesn’t mean it isn’t a very real and debilitating condition.
- Many illnesses or disabilities are impossibly complex to understand. Just because you can’t understand it doesn’t mean it isn’t a very real and debilitating condition.
- Ask before you assume ANYTHING. A person with a disability would always prefer someone asking how they can help or IF they need help, rather than another person (albeit well-meaning) assuming they know better. If you’re unsure what to do — ASK.
- Compassion goes a long way. It just does.
- We’re all born with a voice. Even if we don’t have a voice.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?
“We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking we used when we created them.” Albert Einstein.
We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂
Brene Brown or Dan Harris!