July 4, 2013

Rachel Nixon

Nobody ever said life was going to be easy. Nobody can ever prepare themselves for the hardships they will face and the courage they will need to summon in order to overcome these struggles. Since being diagnosed with Ulcerative Colitis/ Crohns disease at ten years of age, young Olivia Di Grazia knows the true meaning of dealing with life’s ruthless hand. To deem what Olivia has told me a ‘life alerting experience’ makes it hard for one to comprehend how this brave young girl managed to pull herself through everything that was thrown at her, having to not only contend with the pressures of her Crohns but also the indifference that resulted from peers as she adjusted to constrains of her manifesting illness.

The crux of my interview focuses on the events that transpired after March of 2012. During a soccer tournament with her team Olivia sustained an injury to her ankle. What was at first thought to be a minor affliction soon grew to be anything but as the pain began to spread, moving from her ankles to her knees and finally her shoulders. By June Olivia was confined to a wheelchair, the pain in her legs and hips now too great to allow her to walk. “I was just sick of being left out” she explains as she recalls the experience. Being such a big sport person one can only try to understand how it feels to have such a big part of their life ripped away. Having to regrettably abandon her commitments to not only her soccer team but her basketball team as well, admissions to The Royal Children’s Hospital took precedence as she was in dire need of medical assistance. Olivia was later found to be suffering from arthritis as a result of her Ulcerative Colitis.

Mother Sheila notes the ordeal as being “emotionally draining” an apt description for any parent watching their child’s life been torn away from them, “you start to think you’re crazy” she says. But amid these struggles, one thing shone through, bringing with it hope and a new found purpose that Olivia latched onto. Harbouring an extreme talent for singing she went about writing a song to help express her feelings regarding her illnesses. Titled Invisible, the gentle ballad guides the listener through the thoughts and feelings Olivia otherwise struggled to express at the time. “I find singing to be very therapeutic” she says when asked about the reasoning behind her writing the song, “I’d never written a song before and I’ve always loved singing, but I really just wrote it to get my feelings out.” “Everything came ease to her” Sheila adds, “It’s made her more confident.” Opening a window of opportunity Olivia would have never thought possible, song writing not only gave her an outlet to express her feelings but gave her the opportunity to bring awareness to her illness. She beams about her performance for the 2013 Good Friday Appeal, in which she raised $1900 to go towards the Royal Children’s Hospital, as well as selling eighty copies of her song.

As I listen to the unfolding travesty that Olivia had no choice but to endure, one can’t help but feel in awe of all that this young woman has accomplished. When at the peak of her illness she informs me of how she felt cut off from the world, requiring large amounts of morphine to be able function and attend school. As well as coping with the strain of such medications, school itself became a battle as friends were unable to cope with Olivia’s illness, “at times nobody made an effort” she says. Struggling to confide in teachers only exacerbated the situation. Her song aptly captures the palpable emotion that her words emit, the lines (When I’m at my worst, you seem unconcerned) corresponding well with this account.

For Olivia, a light is now slowly banishing the darkness that has for so long consumed her. No longer on her daily dose of endone and now able to function without steroids, I question her plans for the future. Her response is of course nothing short of a surprise. “I want to write more songs” she says, as well as hopefully get her existing one on the radio. But amid these aspirations that are surely attainable, it’s the ability to now do the simple things that have truly restored Olivia’s lease on life. “I appreciate walking now” she smiles “and being able to hang out with friends”.  Despite her recovery she is still required an IV for five hours every eight weeks but is a vast improvement when compared to her admissions to hospital. However, she looks forward to returning to soccer which she tells me she has “only just started” but is still waiting to return to basketball.

It’s hard when people don’t understand you and are unable to fathom your desire to be “normal”. For so long Olivia dreamed of being able to fit in, but it is this journey, this battle, that has rewarded her with the courage and strength that many spend their whole lives trying to reach. Despite being pushed away and at times feeling like she was all alone, she states how she would have liked “people to come up and just say hello, to just come up and accept me”. When reflecting upon the journey Shelia admits that although the family had no choice “Olivia learnt so much and we never let the little things stop us. She has always been mature for her age, it was sort of a blessing”.

Having faced such hardship and travesty there is one thing that rings true from this brave girl’s words, that no matter the circumstance, no matter the situation nobody should ever be made to feel like they’re invisible.

– Rachel Nixon

 To hear Olivia go to her website.


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