Laughter is the best medicine: Comedian Francesca Martinez on cerebral palsy
Award-winning comedian Francesca, 35, has starred in Grange Hill and Extras. She lives in London with her boyfriend Kevin Hely. She says:
I don t like labels, which is why though I have cerebral palsy I prefer to describe myself as wobbly . That sounds much more cool. Apparently I didn t breathe for seven minutes after being born, but I wasn t diagnosed until I was two.
Then a doctor stamped me with this charming label, but also announced to my parents that I was mentally retarded . My mum and dad could see I was perfectly responsive, so chose to ignore the doctor on this last point. And a second opinion from another doctor proved them right. Though he did say that I would never lead a normal life .
My early childhood was idyllic. My parents and Spanish grandparents, Yayo and Yaya, did such an amazing job of lavishing me with love that my confidence soared to ridiculous heights. I felt I had no limitations physical or otherwise and loved to perform in school plays.
The only fly in the ointment was when my dad would try to get me to do exercises to improve my speech, writing or mobility. I rebelled against them vehemently why did I need to do exercises? I felt normal . To agree to do them would be an admission that something was wrong.
My time at high school was awful it was an all-girls school where the obsession with conforming and fitting in really came into play. And of course I did neither. Not only was I wobbly but I was also the goof who wore uncool clothes and had unruly, frizzy hair.
It got to the point where I was pretty much friendless and self-doubt really set in. Then, when I was 13, as I grew taller, my walking grew less steady. Up until then I d been able to get around pretty fast albeit haphazardly. Now with less balance, I began shuffling around like an ancient, three-legged tortoise.
I hid my growing unhappiness from my family. If I didn t voice it, I could try to pretend it wasn t happening. I started to live two separate lives: at home I was happy, surrounded by the love and acceptance of my family, but in school I was beginning to define myself by how the girls there saw me unattractive and abnormal.
Then Grange Hill rescued me.
A teenage Francesca (right) on the hit children s show Grange Hill, which she was in for five years [NC]
When I was 14, I got a part in the drama after a teaching assistant suggested I audition. It was a dream come true and I enjoyed five years of bliss. Not only did I get to miss lots of school but I was also surrounded by people who accepted me as I was.
But the first time I saw myself on screen, I was shocked. It may surprise people to know that a lot of disabled people don t actually feel disabled at all so when I saw myself as others see me, reality hit me hard. I was looking at a wobbly girl who walked and talked differently.
The camera had stripped away all my self-delusion. I stopped watching myself whenever it was on. As the years passed, I devised elaborate ways to conceal my disability. I d go to parties and not drink because I didn t want to ask for a straw.
I d stop in my tracks if someone was walking towards me, hoping they d think I was normal (though there s nothing normal about a girl suddenly standing still and staring intently at her feet). I became riddled by paranoia. I d hear a running commentary in my head every time I left the house, telling me exactly what people thought of me how rubbish I was at walking or how glad they were that they weren t me.
When I was 19, things came to a head and I had a panic attack, convinced I was about to die. It was then that I poured out all my feelings to my parents. With their enduring love and patience, they helped me see that brain damage was not something to be brushed under the carpet. It took time, but I eventually changed the way I thought about it.
I decided to like myself as I was and to see positives in my wobbliness. It got me out of doing the dishes and housework, after all!
Discovering comedy also helped me change. I d spent years feeling that the only way to be accepted was to hide my differences. But on stage, I found that if I was open and relaxed about who I was, acceptance naturally followed. It felt incredibly empowering.
What also drives my comedy and is a reason behind writing my new book is that my ideas might have a positive impact on other people. That s a really thrilling prospect.
Disability isn t going away it s always going to exist. So I d like to see a world where it s accepted and where people aren t defined by what they can t do, but what they can.
Cerebral palsy: the facts
– CP affects one in every 400 to 500 babies in the UK. It is usually caused by lack of oxygen at birth- CP can result in muscle stiffness, spasms and problems with balance, walking and speech.
– Treatments include physical and speech therapy. Some medications can help to relax stiff muscles.
Francesca s book what the **** is Normal. is 12.99 from the expressbooks.co.uk