A bust of William Shakespeare sandwiched between a graduation cap and diploma, and a university building.

A New Life

I was diagnosed with AS in 1999 and told I’d never work again. I went on full benefits – I was even allowed to apply for a car. I felt so ill at the time that I wasn’t even sure if I could live with AS. The fatigue alone was crippling. I dreaded going to bed and I dreaded getting up and I dreaded the endless days. I became depressed. I felt like a failure. As a father. As a son. As a husband.

My wife, Teresa, was studying to be a nurse. She was destined to become the breadwinner. But before she could go to university to study for her BSc in Nursing, she had to gain her A-levels. Neither of us had done well at school. School to me was about two things. Football and trying to make the girls laugh. That was it. I remember looking back years later and realizing I hadn’t a clue what I was supposed to be doing in school. It never occurred to me that I needed to learn things so that I might do better later on. I can honestly say, not once, in all my years in school, did I think I was there to learn. That the only reason for being there was to learn. It seems inconceivable now. But I swear it’s the truth.

The bug for learning

But then something remarkable began to happen. Teresa would come home after a hard day at college, and we would eat our dinner with the children and then it was bath time and story time and eventually, bedtime. Soon after we would head out into the little wooden conservatory on the back of the house to have a cigarette and talk about our day. And that’s when I got the bug for learning. Teresa was studying Othello and she shared the text with me saying she couldn’t make head nor tail of it. I took a look. Same. No idea what Shakespeare was banging on about. It seemed to us like it was written in a foreign language. But we didn’t give up. We determined to master this bloody stuff even if it killed us.

Over the coming weeks we tried everything. Reading it alone and then discussing what we thought had just happened. Reading it aloud. Playing different roles. I quite liked the bits where I played Othello and Teresa played Desdemona. Not the last scenes though. But the affectionate scenes that come near the beginning of the play, were fun – even if we didn’t really know who was saying what and why.

Then, one day, Teresa said she had been given a one-off bursary of £200. And so, after we’d danced around the conservatory, and I’d sang "It’s Raining Cash!" by the Weatherman, we sat down, rolled a cigarette, and talked about how we might spend the money. Something for the kids, of course. But then what? Eventually, after I’d suggested we buy matching cowboy outfits so we could rob the nearest stagecoach, Teresa said –

"We should go and see Othello."

"Is he still alive?" I said.

She ignored that and said.

"We should go to see the play at the RSC, in Stratford-Upon-Avon."

I wasn’t so sure. I’d never been inside a theatre before. Correction. I had, but it was as a kid many years ago in Margate, to see the Christmas pantomime.

I remember thinking The Royal Shakespeare Company might not let us in. Didn’t posh theatres employ specially trained staff to sniff out working-class oiks, and ooof them out of it before the curtain went up?

Despite my unreasonable concern that we would be cruelly exposed and evicted, we went ahead and booked two tickets for an evening performance. We also booked a one-night stay at "The Falcon Hotel" which still exists if ever you fancy a visit to Stratford.

We nervously set off

With my mum taking care of the kids, Teresa and I nervously set off. Even staying in hotels back then wasn’t as relaxing as you might imagine. Imposter syndrome was never far away, lurking about at reception. At the door of the dining room. At the bar. But we soldiered on and that evening, headed out in search of Shakespeare and his mate Othello.

The auditorium of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre is one of the most magical places I have ever visited. I fell instantly in love with it. Long before the play started, I was transfixed. The sounds and size of it. The people milling around. The lighting. The furnishings. The colors. Everything. My fear of being expelled evaporated. I could have happily sat there the entire evening and just watched the people coming and going.

Soon a little bell rang out and a voice came over the speakers and asked the audience to be seated. And so, slowly at first, everyone settled into their seats. And then the lights dimmed, and the curtain slowly rose up. And the stage appeared, and the play began. And the most astonishing thing happened. The actors spoke and moved about the stage. And for the first time, having only been able to read the words on the page, the story of Othello the Moor came to life. And coming to life with it, came the language. And most important of all, the meaning. Finally, we understood! There it was, all along, waiting to be heard. To be seen. That was the key. Shakespeare’s plays were not written to be read. He had written them so that people might witness them.

I barely remember breathing during the entire performance. And when it ended, and the curtain came down, we sat for a while and stared at where the actors had moments before taken their bows.

Something ignited in me during that performance. At the ripe old age of 40 I came alive in a way I hadn’t thought possible. A door inside my head that had remained unopened all these years, appeared, and slowly the light shone in. For me, that was it. When we got home the following day, I knew what I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I wanted to learn. I wanted knowledge like I’d never wanted it before. Like I’d never understood it before. I was going to drown myself in learning. And so that’s what I've tried to do ever since. And I owe my continuing love of learning to one thing. And one thing alone. If I had never been diagnosed with AS, I would never have sat down to help Teresa, and I would never have visited that theatre. It was the AS that set me on that new path. Lifelong burden that my AS is, I owe it for giving me the chance of a new life.

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