Battling Mental and Physical Health to be Pleasure Positive by Lucy Dawson

My name is Lucy Dawson, I am a 24-year-old brain disease survivor and disabled model – you may have recently seen me swinging my (very jazzy!) stick in the back of the Ann Summers #NightToRemember Halloween campaign. It’s my ultimate passion to increase the visibility of disability through fashion and the media and normalise disabled bodies.

When I was 20 years old, I became extremely unwell over a very short and sudden period of time. My behaviour took a complete turn, and I went from being myself one day, to being a manic robot going from screaming to crying to being unable to speak the next. Doctors immediately diagnosed me as having had a mental breakdown, sectioned me under the Mental Health Act and I was placed in a psychiatric unit for three months. Unfortunately, this diagnosis was completely incorrect – there was no mental illness, instead I was suffering from a rare brain disease named Anti NDMA Receptor Autoimmune Encephalitis. This disease took hold of my body, stopping all my autonomic processes one by one until, on my 21st birthday, my parents were told that I was going to die.

As a last-ditch attempt, doctors administered three rounds of Electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) - and by some almighty miracle, this triggered seizures which somehow reset my brain.

Unfortunately, I then had such a large seizure that I fell out of my bed and onto an open radiator pipe that was beside it. As I was catatonic, I had no feeling in my body and thus I laid there, burning away until it was simply too late. The pipe left a third degree burn which burnt through my sciatic nerve, and – ultimately left me permanently paralysed from the knee down in my left leg.

When I was discharged from hospital, I had to learn absolutely everything from scratch, so for the next two years I rediscovered talking, walking, reading, writing, typing, putting on makeup – everything that once came so naturally to me had disappeared. On top of the pain I was in from my leg and navigating a new life as a disabled individual, the cognitive issues, memory loss and fatigue I now experience from sustaining a brain injury, there has been an absolutely enormous mental health aspect to my recovery. The trauma of such a life changing event more or less brought about the mental breakdown that doctors had misdiagnosed me as having in the first place. Between then and now I have experienced adjustment disorder, PTSD, depression and anxiety, all as a result of the events that took place inside the psychiatric unit and beyond.

The Mental Health Battle to Be Pleasure Positive

That brings me on to the reason that I’m taking part in Ann Summers Pleasure Positivity Project – it’s rare that we consider the affect that our mental health has on either our relationships or our sex life. Mental health is already such a personal topic, and when you combine that with the fact that sex can still be seen as a taboo subject – it is easy to see why very little is ever said in relation to the two.

When I think back to some of my first moments of clarity after my brain disease, I can remember thinking that I would never experience intimacy or a relationship again – why would anyone want to take me out if I couldn’t do fun activities on a date? And as far as sex – could I even have sex now? Would I still be able to do any positions that required some sort of work from my leg? I feel as though these thoughts and the low self-esteem that manifested alongside them for a long time made me feel that anyone who paid me any attention was doing me a favour, and that I should be grateful because I was some sort of burden. Because of this, I would put up with horrific treatment and allow my needs and my pleasure to be completely forgotten about. I realise now that this was internalised ableism – I would never put these thoughts onto any of my disabled friends and peers, when I look at each of them, I see people who are worthy of love and pleasure, so why didn’t I feel that way about myself?

Reclaiming My Pleasure

For a long time, I hypersexualised my behaviour when it came to men, thinking that I was not enough and thus the only way to make a man interested in me was to be excessively concerned with sexual matters – at the cost of actually being comfortable or relaxed. Because of this, I was experiencing painful sex but doing nothing about it as it was more important to me that the man was enjoying himself, in the hope that he would stick around and actually like me. I gave no care or consideration to what it was that I actually liked, and - I'll be honest – because of this, my entire adult life I never experienced an orgasm from a sexual partner!

Whilst shielding alone during lockdown this year, I had a lot of time to think about all these things and come to terms with the fact that the way I was behaving, and the way I was allowing myself to be treated was having an incredibly detrimental effect on my mental health.

The time away from any human contact gave me (and everyone else I’m sure!) time to be alone with my body and remember what exactly it is that I enjoy. I have realised that as an anxious person, I have to really set the scene and be calm and relaxed before I can be intimate – this can mean lighting a candle, putting on a trusted playlist, making sure there are no bright lights and being comfortable. I think sex is often rushed and frantic – which can work in the heat of the moment, but it’s also nice to take things slowly and build up to the act itself.

Disabled Sex Should Be Talked About!

The conversation surrounding sex and disability is often highly stigmatised – the idea of disabled people actually having sex is for some reason confusing and alarming to some people! But I can assure you – disabled people have sex!

Often times, disability is left out of the diversity debate in general, and for a disabled person looking on at notions of inclusivity – we often feel as though we are ‘the last taboo.’ This parallels into the world of sex education - it is also the case that there is a lack of information tailored towards the disabled experience when it comes to sex, and this is where the idea that disabled people are unable to have sex because of their disabilities comes from.

In the majority of cases, disabled people can have extremely happy and health sex lives, but more should be done to encourage and uphold this fact.