Nicky Abdinor


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The Driving Philosophy of a Unique Clinical Psychologist – An Inspiring Framework to Overcome the Hidden Disabilities We Each Face

by Kirsten Steenkamp

October 2021

October is Mental Health Awareness Month. It’s not typically an occasion that receives household recognition, but it is here. And the message is clear: It’s okay not to be okay. For this October special, we bring in an expert to share her Story of Hope.

Clinical psychologist and inspirational speaker who grew up with a difference, Nicky Abdinor, is sharpening our focus on mental health this month. Nicky is a fascinating woman and it is a great privilege to be able to illuminate her profound perspectives on how each of us can overcome our psychological limitations.

“So many of us keep busy by doing many things, being around lots of people, and busying ourselves which can make it easier to avoid what’s really going on mentally.” But Covid lockdowns have altered the landscape of our living and deeply impacted the way that people are interacting with their inner worlds.

“When we find ourselves grinding to a halt and no longer able to keep ourselves busy – working, travelling, seeing others, and even exercising – we were faced with the reality of ‘how good is our mental health?’ And many people struggled, people that have never struggled with depression or anxiety before really struggled.”

Just like any one of us can become personally affected by disability, poor mental health is no different. “When things aren’t personal to us, we don’t really take notice.” But having been forced into stillness by movement restrictions, many of us have become more intimate with our internal dialogue; and thus, made us confront repressed frustrations or anxieties. For others, this time has brought us face-to-face with past hurts and existential unease. Equipping us to navigate the unknown territory of our minds, Nicky divulges in her philosophy and potentially life-saving tips for coping in these uncertain times.

“The reality is that everything in the future – everything that we’re worried about – is largely out of our control. We don’t have a crystal ball, so recognising the importance of tolerating uncertainty is key.” Nicky says a part of her role is “to teach people to believe in themselves again.” How can we take advantage of our struggles by improving our mindset every day? Let’s dive into Nicky’s story.

Nicky was born without arms, but was blessed with parents, teachers and friends who embraced the idea of inclusion. With a fiercely bold attitude and a heart full of empathy, she claimed her rightful space in each room she entered! Though her disability was physical, it was in Grade 11 when Nicky first realised the impact of hidden disabilities on our general well-being.

A friend who suffered from depression and debilitating anxiety, in the form of panic attacks, opened her eyes to the dire consequences of struggling with mental health. “I could so strongly recognise how we were both struggling with challenges for our own independence, just in different ways.” Nicky’s realisation was that psychological troubles – perhaps even greater than a physical disability – could hinder your functioning and wellbeing.

Nicky’s disability fostered the compassion to understand the suffering of others – and a growing desire to remedy this hurt. She soon realised her gift to empathise with hardship and after completing high school, she bravely pursued a career in psychology.

Many disabled people feel hopeless; and those who acquire disabilities later in life often think it to be the end of their road. This is why Nicky says she feels a sense of responsibility to share her story and to show other people what’s possible. For those who are non-disabled, the lesson is to understand that we all have disabilities – real and perceived obstacles. Still, with an open mind and a willingness to adapt, we can live good quality and meaningful lives.

With understandable confusion from those hearing her story for the first time, but with strong conviction, Nicky believes that she was at such an advantage being born without arms. Accepting and understanding the obvious struggles from day one, Nicky’s parents could appropriately empower her to combat her weaknesses.

To illustrate this point, Nicky utilises the metaphor of David and Goliath. It’s natural to assume the enormous ogre would be the winner, but because David was acutely aware of his limitations against this giant, he carefully created his weapons and thus, was even more prepared to overcome his enemy.

“I can’t pretend I can do handstand. But I know that if I had to write a list of all the things I can’t do, I would be depressed.” Nicky says that our shortcomings – which she reckons are
mostly mental – are in our hands to change. As we should never ignore what’s wrong, it begins by acknowledging our limitations and facing them head-on.

But perhaps more importantly, we need to learn to give more time and energy to what is right and that which we can change. Nicky recognises that because she has worked hard to focus on her strengths and talents, she has used it to her benefit. For example, she says that from early on, her parents knew that education and her voice were going to be two of the greatest weapons she could ever have. This information better prepared her for the challenges ahead, as well as empowered her to meet her own needs.

The foundation of meeting our own needs lies in “igniting that inner drive that each of us is born with”. Having parents and people in your circle who believe in you is the greatest gift, as it instils the confidence to make you feel that you can, as Nicky puts it, “handle change, challenges and adversity. I needed people to give me a chance in life – to believe in me – which I’m fortunate that they did.”

Having been taught the wisdom to focus on that which she could do, control and use, she says “it was never a case of whether or not I could do it, but how”. Upon being asked how she learned to use her feet to accomplish most tasks, she turns the question around to ask individuals with hand dexterity, how did you learn to use your fingers and hands? Her simple answer: “we just learn to use what is available to us”.

Touch typing on her phone using her tongue and making use of her toes to function her computer keyboard, Nicky has learned to use other parts of her body to be independent. She jokes she uses a lot of wet wipes and that she has a very strong immune system!

Parents of children with disabilities want to protect their young ones from stares or judgement. And though it doesn’t stem from shame, the child inevitably perceives that they need to hide their disability: “that something is wrong and it must not be seen”. Because Nicky’s eyes have always been open to doing things differently, she has been propelled to embrace her uniqueness.

She has chosen to be part of society over living in isolation just to avoid the stares, continuing by saying “it’s about how you view things. If I’m in a restaurant and I see someone with purple hair – I’m going to stare at them as well. It’s perspective – you know – this is what Beyonce has to deal with every day of her life!”

It is obvious to anyone who has watched one of Nicky’s talks or has had the privilege to spend time with her that she is hilarious. One way of quickly reframing less than ideal circumstances is to look at the situation with humour, which Nicky says is “a necessary trait when physical and societal obstacles are a daily occurrence. With any kind of challenge, if you can’t laugh at yourself and the world – then you are going to be miserable.”

One tool which has significantly transformed the lives of people all around the world, especially those who experience mobility restrictions, is technology. “I only experienced the impact of technology when I started university, but I can safely say that it has translated into my freedom.” On the topic of mental health, this conversation would be flawed without delving into the impact that limitless access to technology has on our self-esteem, confidence and idealising of others.

A troublesome, but inevitable component of social media is increased perfectionism and comparison to others. “Before (social media) we would only compare ourselves in the classroom or on the sports field or at a birthday party or social gathering. Now people are comparing themselves constantly. You can just open up an app and look at all these people who seem to have this perfect life. And its highly pressurised. But, you never took a photo of when maybe there was an argument at the table, or you didn’t look great, or your hair was out of place.”

The current dilemma of our complex social environment is that in addition to this false depiction of perfectionism, we are experiencing increasing disconnect in our authentic relationships with others.

“You’re spending more time watching lives of people you don’t know than actually connecting with the people you do know and who actually care about you. Sometimes we will know more about a social figure or influencer that we’re following. Do we know as much about somebody we care for that’s in a relationship with us?”

Though social media is a lifeline for some people, we need to probe how its use affects our mood. Even if you only spent 10 minutes online, Nicky encourages us to ask ourselves whether you feel that it added value or inspiration to your life, or whether it contributed to feelings of depression or being hard on yourself. We’ve got to use technology and social media to our advantage; and part of our responsibility is to recognise our emotions linked to its consumption.

“We’re so conditioned to focus on our physical health, but when it comes to our mental health, I think people feel so overwhelmed. They’re actually not sure what exactly is going on in their heads, what’s wrong, how to explain it and they don’t know what the treatment would be. And it’s not so simple – it’s not a 6 week cast that will fix a broken arm. So that’s when people tend to procrastinate or avoid their feelings and not want to talk to someone.”

“A lot of us stay silent about the disabilities we have and don’t realise that if we find ways to compensate – we can actually live such positive lives.” But Nicky emphasises that “if you think you have mental health struggles, to go speak to a trusted friend or a professional who can help you unravel what you’re thinking and what the next steps need to be.”

The simple message Nicky leaves us with is that it’s okay not to be okay. She says we need to put the message out there to give ourselves – and others – the permission to speak about negative emotions and experiences. “We don’t always have to be positive, happy human beings – you know the concept of toxic positivity? Sometimes we’re feeling a great amount of pressure to be positive and to be happy all the time. And the reality is that in order for us to exist in the world – there’s a combination of positive and negative emotions.”

Reach out to others, connect with another person that could maybe help you and know that the emotion, as Nicky says, “is going to move on”. Though “we all have exceptional resilience, we don’t have to wait until we get a Nobel Peace Prize to recognise that we’re doing good – it is about recognising the small things. Happy people aren’t necessarily the people that have everything – it’s people who are grateful for what they have.”

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