Thursday, 28 February 2013

My Hero - My Inspiration : Alison Palmer

Our latest writer in our series of "My Hero / My Inspiration" is Alison Palmer... We asked Alison to give us a brief description of herself... These are her words.

"We all talk about how sport changes lives, well this is how it changed mine. It's personal and its been hard to write, but I felt I had to write it as there are still too many people out in the cold too scared or ashamed to ask for help which is something that simply has to change.  I am passionate about everything I do, I have been lucky enough to work as a photographer for many years which I love, I also have a love for football which goes way beyond the pitch, but my greatest love & source of inspiration will always be my daughter, friends and family."


My Hero: My Eldest Sister, 
My Inspirations? My Five Year Old Daughter & One Outstanding English International Footballer, Kelly Smith.


When I was 17, my sister went missing and our world turned upside down.

The day started like any other day, but when I got home from sixth form college, My mother said "your sister has gone missing."   I remember laughing, thinking it was a joke. But it wasn't; instead it was the start of my sister’s very distressing and long journey with schizophrenia.

My father and my two other sisters, (I’m one of four daughters) started to drive around London, trying to find her, checking train stations and cafes, libraries and shops, but there was no sign of her in the usual places she liked to go.

I think it was about midnight, when we got a call from the police saying they had found her; she had been walking into the sea at Newhaven.  We found out later that, she had gone to Victoria train station and at the ticket desk had asked to buy a ticket to Heaven.  I often think how frightened she must have been that day, not knowing where she was or what she was doing.  

Walking into the sea that day, was one of many attempts by my sister to take her own life, there have been six attempts in total since she first became unwell.  The one I remember most was her taking an overdose, because I was the person who found her.  There were pills strewn all over the kitchen floor and I knew immediately what had happened, My mother who was with me, fell to the floor as I went to my sister.

She survived, in fact survivor, is an excellent word to describe my sister.  She is my hero because I, along with the rest of the family have watched her battle with mental illness for over twenty years now.  She is one of the kindest and most gentle people I have ever known, yet she struggles on a continuous, hour by hour basis with some very overwhelming feelings caused by the illness.  She feels very detached from the world and everyone in it and describes an overwhelming blankness which she can’t penetrate no matter how much she tries, she says she just feels dead inside which is both frightening and exasperating for her and yet, she carries on fighting, hoping and believing in easier days ahead.  She doesn’t give up.

Not only does she fight on, but she now helps other people with mental health problems, running workshops with young people, or groups of nurses to help professionals gain more understanding of the illness, she also goes onto the wards of many hospitals where there are psychiatric wards, some of which she herself has spent time in, to support and talk to the patients and to try to help them with their self esteem.  I honestly do not know how she does it.

My sister has been one of the lucky ones as she has always had my parents and us sisters to try to support her and help her through it, for those with no such support; the chances of survival are slim.  This raises an interesting point as I think the families with loved ones who suffer from a mental illness can often be very over looked in the whole process.  It is exhausting and deeply upsetting caring and supporting a loved one and each family member actually also needs support of some kind.  Our family did not have any support of any kind and it can go unnoticed that in fact other family members at times can also become vulnerable & experiencing levels of stress or depression as they try to cope with the impact of the illness on the family.

This is where I believe there is a crucial link between sport and its therapeutic benefits to mental health.  It is basic biology and most people know that when you exercise, the brain releases endorphins, which has a positive impact on how that person is feeling.  My sister feels relief from her symptoms and so much better about herself if she can manage to motivate herself to go swimming or for a walk.

My father has managed to play golf twice a week for the last thirty or so years and I know it has helped him enormously to cope with caring for my sister and also for my mother (who has had two liver transplants) and is often seriously unwell.  For my father, the golf course, is his time, his sanctuary, it keeps his stress levels down and the walking has kept him physically in good shape, without his golf, there would be no release for him from full time care of both my mother & sister.

For me, I have benefited from sport all my life and feel very strongly about its therapeutic powers & role in society.  My pregnancy with our daughter, coincided with my sister experiencing a devastating relapse with her illness, where she became very unwell again was suicidal and ended up hospitalised for a year.  At eight months pregnant, my sister’s sudden deterioration hit me hard, I was very saddened by seeing her in such a painful state and struggled with the upset it also caused to the rest of the family as we witnessed our loved one again go through hell on earth. 

About six months after Rosa was born, I started to experience the signs of post-natal depression.  I ignored them and refused to accept what was happening, I told myself, that I was not the kind of person who would get depression, I felt ashamed that I could not seem to cope or manage day - to- day stuff that previously I would have taken in my stride.  I refused to accept that I might need some help.

The taboos & the stigma around mental health are still too entrenched in society, at the time I didn’t want to be judged or made to feel like I was on the fringes of society, not really a real or worthy person and so I let the stigma stand between me and help.

Kelly Smith : England International
©Olivia&Alison (2013)

It was around this time that I started to read about England International Kelly Smiths’ experiences, trials and struggles and how she faced some very difficult times.  I had a great respect for her openness and honesty as she talked about what she had been through.  I am sure she helped many people from many walks of life, she certainly helped me and was a source of inspiration for me to accept help and start the road to recovery.

I have never looked back, it was around five years ago now and in a strange way, experiencing post natal depression has strengthened my character, has given me more fire in belly to do the things I want to do in life, has given me the courage to speak openly about my families experiences and to make sure people know there is help and support on hand.  It has given me vigour for life that I carry into all areas of my life from being a mother, to a footballer, photographer and simply just being the person I am.

Playing football helped me recover from the depression.  When I would put on my boots and tie my laces, put on my kit and pull up my socks, I experienced a real sense of homecoming, calmness and a peace.  Walking on to the pitch, playground, Astroturf, indoor arena whatever the surface, I switched off from any stresses or pressures that I may have been under in other aspects of my life. As soon as I kicked a ball, I was in a zone and nothing could hurt me or distract me.  Whenever I get to play football, for me it is a sense of freedom, I get to just focus on playing the game I love.

Rosa, my daughter is my main inspiration in life because I told myself that I would show her that she could do anything she sets her mind to even if there are obstacles in her way.  I was determined that I was going to make the selection for the Futsal team last year to go and play in Portugal in the Futsal Nation’s Cup, against some very experienced teams and players.  I had to train really hard and show a lot of focus. Rosa, just five at the time, helped me with my training, told me off if I wasn’t going out running and gave me a hard time if she didn’t think I was showing enough progression!  She even had a whistle and proved to be quite a taskmaster! 

I made the squad and my family and I travelled to Portugal for the tournament.  To see Rosa on the sidelines so excited and leaping up and down cheering on our team meant the world to me and always will.

Experiencing depression was not pretty and not easy, but in some ways, it has partly made me the person I am today.  I never give up.  I see life and experience things on a very different level now.  If there are obstacles in front of me, I know I can overcome them; it has given me strength to live life with more enthusiasm, passion and determination than ever before.  

There are few things I wanted to finish by saying.  This has been hard to write as it is personal and it is the first time I have ever written about my sister’s illness, but I wanted to write it as I believe it is so important for people who may be struggling with difficult things in their own life to know that there is always hope, always help and that you can overcome testing times in life and go on to great things.

1: Never ever feel ashamed to ask for help of any kind about anything at any time in your life.

2: Dreams can be realised, you just do have to work really hard to realise them.

3: If you have always wanted to try something or do something but think it is not possible…. it is possible, but it has to become possible in your head first, then you will find a way of doing it.

4: There are some fantastic organisations out there offering all sorts of help.  For Brothers or sisters who have loved ones who are unwell and could just benefit from someone to share their feelings with & know that they are not alone, check out Sibling Support (click on red link).

There is no doubt that sport can and does change people’s lives.
The more open people are about their experiences and willing to share their thoughts with others, the stigmas and taboos will finally disappear and free people up to get the help they need.


  1. Simon Roberts ‏@simoncroberts

    "Personal stories are not easy to write”

    Photographer @olivia_alison writes candidly about therapeutic power of sport.

  2. Oliver Woods ‏@oliverwoods

    READ: moving account of why @olivia_alison 's sister is her hero atÜ

  3. AFC Phoenix ‏@AFC_Phoenix

    @NoClashOfColour @olivia_alison looking forward to having a read of this! #keepwomenplaying

  4. Luca Sage ‏@lucajsage

    Very inspiring personal piece talking about mental health, sport & being a photographer by @olivia_alison. Respect.Ü”

  5. Sportsister ‏@Sportsister @olivia_alison @wsff @womensporttrust @jobostock @shekicksdotnet @jacquioatley

    Very moving, honest and also inspirational x

  6. Faye White, former England Captain


  7. Ellen White, England International Ladies striker ..


  8. Amelia Shepherd ‏@ameliashepherd

    Great article. Brave, insightful, open and honest. inspiring, Well done! Really connected with final points ref self belief..

  9. Tina Wu ‏@twu323

    Moving article. Great that you are raising awareness re mental health issues & women's futsal #insightful

  10. Polly Courtney ‏@PollyCourtney

    What an inspiring piece: raw, heartfelt & honest. People need to talk about mental health

  11. Faye White ‏@faye_white

    Totally agree sport can be powerful in helping overcome all types of personal difficulties & adversities #makesyoustronger

  12. Ellen White ‏@ellsbells89

    Playing sport can & does transform lives.I have spoken up,as more change needed” #inspiring xx

  13. Sam Paterson-Sleep ‏@SamJPaterson

    This is a great piece, well done for putting it out there. Proud of you xx

  14. suesmith ‏@suesmith8

    So inspirational and I'm sure this will help many people out!

  15. Sarah Palmer ‏@SarahPalmerEdit

    Great piece, Al. Thanks for sharing. X