By Ibraheem Iqbal

Hi everyone, my name is Ibraheem, but you can call me Ibz. I am proud to be one of VICTA’s Young Ambassadors. I have been given the opportunity to write an article about mental health in this issue. I will begin to outline what is meant by health and fitness then I will talk about my own experiences and lastly the importance of maintaining a healthy lifestyle and tips towards achieving it.

Before I begin, I would like to make the reader aware that this content may be sensitive to some people. If at any point reading this makes you feel uncomfortable then I would advise you to stop reading. In addition, you will find some useful contact details for anyone struggling with mental health related symptoms at the bottom of this page. Remember that you are not alone in this journey of yours and there are people out there who are willing to listen and help.

What is Mental Health?

Our Mental health consists of a few combined factors such as our: psychological, emotional and social wellbeing. It has a massive influence on our behaviours and cognitions, having an effect on the way we think, feel and act. Mental health plays a vital role in our ability to manage stress and to make rational decisions. Thinking, mood and behaviour are all affected by mental health related issues.

Psychologists and mental health professionals do not know a specific cause as to why some of us experience issues with our mental health, but are aware of some contributing factors which include:

  • biological factors such as genes and brain chemistry
  • experiences in life such as trauma, abuse or a stressful situation
  • a family history of mental health problems

What is Fitness?

Fitness is a broad term which has many components to it such as:

  • flexibility (e.g. yoga, stretching)
  • muscular endurance (e.g. how many times a person can perform an exercise such as push-ups, pull-ups or sit-ups)
  • muscular strength (e.g. how much weight can be lifted in repetitions during squats, bench presses and dead lifts)
  • balance (the period of time one can hold themselves in a specific position during planking, standing on one leg or standing on an unsteady object)
  • speed (how fast a person can move from one point to another such as during a 100m sprint)
  • body composition (how much body fat a person has in relation to skin, tissue, bones and muscle)
  • overall fitness (to what degree someone is at their optimum health)

The fitness mentioned above only covers physical fitness, there is also mental fitness which in broad terms is having a healthy and stable mind resulting in better mental health.

Introduction – my personal experience

I have two eye conditions: Kerataconus and Bilateral Retinal Dystrophy, leaving me with little to no vision in both my eyes. My readings are 1/60 which means what I see at 1 metre, the average person can see at 60 metres. The best way to describe my vision is to close your eyes and imagine you are in the bathroom and have just stepped out of a hot steamy shower. You look out of the double-glazed window and all you can see is a misty blur and when light approaches, it takes over the majority of your visual field leaving you with the image of a big cloudy smudge.

I began to lose my vision at around the age of 12/13. I felt extremely isolated, not because I had no friends or family, whom I am very fortunate to have, but from not having another individual to relate to. When I was younger, I was a very happy, mischievous and confident child, then as I moved into my teenage years, I started to become more independent. Once I started losing my vision all these characteristics came crashing down and I was left feeling hopeless like a newly born baby.

I used to love playing sports before losing my vision. The adrenaline you feel is unexplainable and the rush of emotions is absolutely thrilling. I also loved the social side of sports – I used to play football for my school team and I made lots of friends there, most of whom I am still friends with now. Once my vision deteriorated, it inhibited my ability to play sports with my sighted peers, leaving me extremely discouraged. This is a feeling I had not felt before and I cannot put into words how devastated I was. Imagine yourselves exceeding in something you are passionate about and then of no fault of your own, this experience is stripped away from you, along with all the positive emotions and enjoyable moments that came with it. As dark and gloomy as this seems, I want you to feel how I felt at this moment in my life as it will help you understand my story.

I was left thinking my life was pointless, I could not participate in the things I loved anymore! I spent a lot of my time isolating myself from other people, if I did not meet up with people then I would not know what I was missing out on, so I thought. This was most definitely the darkest period of my life. I like to use the analogy of a thermometer and a thermostat. A thermometer reacts to the environment as it can only tell you what the temperature is currently. This is an example of how I felt; having very little control over my life, just as the thermometer cannot control the environment. I let blindness get the better of me and because of this it impacted my ability to remain happy and pursue goals in my life. In comparison, a thermostat controls the environment, whatever setting you put it on, the temperature will be roughly this. I aspire to behave like a thermostat where I am the controller and I have full control over my life. With this attitude, I can set my own goals instead of allowing my sight-loss to be a barrier, affecting my achievements.

I am nowhere near perfect; personally, I don’t believe in perfect, but I do believe in progression. Now, I set goals in my life and I don’t consider my sight-loss (this is to an extent – I won’t be driving on a motorway anytime soon!) and I do this with a more positive mindset. I will go to university and earn my degree, I will go running and cycling. I will cook, travel the world, become more independent and so much more! Do not let your environment or situation rule over your life, be in control like the thermostat. It most definitely will not be easy and you will face challenges, some harder than others. It is likely that you will face a barrier and have to take an alternative path to get around it. You may reach a totally different destination to what you had imagined but, it was you who initiated the process and ended up reaching your goal. This feeling of accomplishment I cannot put into words, but it is something I have felt and I want you to feel it too!

The Spark

As I mentioned briefly above before losing my sight, I was a very active child who loved to play sports. Following the loss of my sight, the last thing I could imagine was being able to play sports again, but I did.

At the time, I was receiving support from Blind Children UK, a charity who aimed to support families going through visual impairment like myself. I was informed about the charity West Bromwich Albion, upon hearing the name I automatically thought ‘football’. Why was I being told about a football foundation club if I couldn’t participate, I thought. It wasn’t until I was told that they have a blind football team that I instantly became interested. This was a lot of information to take in, football for blind people but how? It seemed impossible; how would I locate the ball or know where the players are? All these questioned kept running through my mind until I was given a brief explanation of the game. There is a bell in the ball so you can hear it and players say the Spanish word for ‘I go’ which is ‘voi’. I had the gleamiest of smiles upon my face; I had not felt so content in almost 2 years!

I remember my first football session, distinctly and clearly. My Dad drove me to the football ground which was only a 2 minute drive. Throughout the drive, I felt a combination of many emotions; excitement, happiness, fear and anxiousness. I walked into the foundation ground and was greeted by both coaches who were very friendly and comforting. I also met some of the players who were training too! One of them overheard me asking the coach lots of questions (I’m known for asking too many) about the game and insisted “the best way to learn the game is to play the game”. This was a massive leap for me as since losing my sight, I had not participated in any physical activity, as the thought of it was unimaginable. On this day, I was about to play football once again. I was handed a blindfold which is worn by players to assure fair play. My feelings of anticipation increased as I placed the blindfold over my eyes, the very little light perception and misty vision I had was now covered. I was in total darkness. I was positioned as the defender at the back at first just so I could get a feel for the game. At first, I was extremely confused not having a clue to what was happening. We then went on to do some basic football drills such as dribbling and penalty shootouts.

I cannot explain the excitement I felt having a football at my feet again and it came naturally to me, I was dribbling all over the ground. I lost the ball a few times but I found it and continued to dribble. At this point all my feelings of anxiety, fear and that churning gut feeling had vanished. I was left with an abundance of adrenaline; I was still scared that I would run into something but I was even more elated about the fact I was playing football once again. I started the day with very little hope and a negative mindset and ended the day with an abundance of positivity. At that very moment I knew this was the start of a new beginning.

I went on to train intensely. Previously, I saw myself having no future but I was reassured with the thought of having football! I aspired to play for England. In my back garden at home we have a large grass lawn, not a day went by, rainy or sunny that I did not train on that lawn. On one side of the lawn I turned what was grass into a lawn of mud. It is still there today and reminds me of the determination I had and still have. This newfound determination is one of the key factors that keeps me going in life. Football gave me back part of my life and from this I gained so much confidence.

The football foundation was doing a charity walk from Anfield to West Bromwich Albion and asked if I wanted to join. A few months earlier, I would have replied no, thinking it was impossible but instead I said yes without hesitation. Nothing was going to get in my way now! We had a mini gym in our garage back home so I asked my family to support me in learning how to use the equipment. Each day I would train religiously. When I ran on the treadmill, I felt free just like a bird who has been released from a cage. I was once the bird and I was allowing my sight loss to be the cage, inhibiting me from doing the things I loved. Once I came out of the negative spiral of feeling trapped, I felt like a free bird. During this time period, I also developed a huge interest in food and nutrition and changed my diet completely to support the demands of my new fitness lifestyle. I also wanted to be a much healthier person in general. My friends and family would comment on how good and in shape I began to look, these positive comments motivated me to train even harder.

However, soon after I started to get comments that I was losing too much weight and it was causing difficulties with the people closest to me. At first, I assumed they all had little understanding about diet and maintaining a healthy lifestyle in comparison to myself, which was partly true. This was a difficult time for me because just soon after I thought my life was getting back together, I was being told that I was over-exerting myself! I took no notice of everyone’s comments because they made me feel angry and frustrated. I continued to train and maintain my diet as usual. This caused arguments within the home as my family thought I was taking this ‘fitness thing’ too far. This made me sad because at the time I thought I was making progress; my coaches were happy with my fitness and I was getting complemented by everyone on the improvement of my physique, skin and wellbeing. People would even ask me for tips on how they can improve their own wellbeing. This led me to believe the approach I was taking was absolutely fine and those who thought negatively of me, simply had little understanding of a healthy lifestyle.

After this, I became ill very easily, often getting colds and my asthma was getting triggered more frequently too. I also became very tired but was unable to have a good night’s sleep. I won’t go into too much detail but I am sure you can gather from this that my mental health worsened but at the same time I avoided believing that there was something wrong. To add to this, I would occasionally get blackout vision where for a small period of time I would get a headache, not being able to see even light; the pain was unbearable. I was in this big dark hole full of mixed moods and unhealthy habits. It wasn’t long before my friends were pulling me to the side and asking me if everything was okay? It was lovely to know that people cared about me but it made me angry that people were just assuming things. I would get delusional thoughts for example, thinking that people were just jealous that I was fit and healthy and wanted me to be fat. Coming from an upbringing where ‘big boys don’t cry’ made it extremely difficult to express myself openly to others. Instead, I let my emotions, feelings and the thoughts in my head build up, which of course had many negative effects on my wellbeing.

The turning point for me was finding my passion for sport. Without sport I would not be the person I am today. Training hard in the gym made me hungry so I would eat more than I used to. The feeling I get when I partake in any sort of physical activity such as running or cycling is exhilarating. I cannot even put it into words. Before I found my passion, I made blindness my cage and I trapped myself in it until I found the key to open it, which for me was sports and nutrition. I felt freedom whilst partaking in sports. Every little bit of built up emotions and feelings I could release whilst cycling, playing football again and even swimming. Everyone who knows me and meets me, knows about my passion for sports and exercise. I always emphasise to them the abundance of benefits a healthy lifestyle brings and the positive impact it has on their health and wellbeing.

If you are feeling inspired about getting into sport or improving your wellbeing, here are some organisations who may be able to help:

British Blind Sport
BEAT – Eating Disorders
Anxiety UK
Guide Dogs