Sophie Morgan. Image: Camera Press / Rachell Smith
As a teenager Sophie L Morgan planned to study law, but at the age of 18 her life changed forever when a road traffic accident left her paralysed from the chest down. Since then she has taken a different direction altogether, and her flourishing career as a TV presenter has made Morgan a familiar face on our screens. Yet she freely admits she suffers from imposter syndrome and has struggled with the reality of her circumstances, particularly when it comes to the ‘invisible’ aspect of being a disabled woman.
In her Letter To My Younger Self, she recalls painful break-ups, perfect moments, and the feelings of guilt she’s had to work hard to let go of.
Looking back at my teenage self, I remember her being a force of nature, quite headstrong, quite difficult, very fun loving. I loved my friends more than life itself. For the purpose of writing my book, I dug out my old diary. I wrote a lot about wanting to travel, wanting to be in the world, wanting to be what I considered free. Free from my parents, free from school – I was certainly outwardly, hungry for more. And I was quite ‘rules are made to be broken’. I was hoping for a very big life, a fun life, a full life.
I went to boarding school in Scotland. I loved making art, but because I got good grades in other subjects I was encouraged to do law. When I first was injured, when I first came out of intensive care and was rehabilitating, I was hellbent on trying to get into a really, really good university. I was like, fuck it, life is short, I’m just gonna aim for the sky. And for some reason, for about three weeks, I decided I was going to go to fucking Oxbridge. Don’t ask me where that idea came from. I have wondered since what would have happened if I hadn’t had my accident – maybe I would have done my art in the end.
I think at 16 I felt weighed down by responsibilities. My parents, my school, I felt those pressures. But I was also very fun, I had a lot of passion for sport, and for my pals, and I laughed a lot. I’ve heard people say I was quite intimidating, quite bolshy. If I wasn’t interested in you I wouldn’t pretend to be. In the last chapter of the book, I reflect on what it’d be like to meet teenage me and I imagined myself at that age being a belligerent little shit saying to the world, who are you? What have you got to offer me? But I lost that attitude when I lost everything that I knew.
I was never the hot, sexy sporty girl that everyone fancies. I wasn’t conventionally beautiful or anything like that. But I did all right with boys and I had long-term relationships when I was at school, so I was always with a boy. I was sexually active from quite a young age, and I really loved that side of my life. It was all consenting and all very happy and kind of explorative in a really nice, innocent, childish, fun way.
There’s a kind of look men give women they fancy, and I had the thrill of that when I was young. Since my injury I haven’t experienced it ever again. That’s been one of the hardest things to live with. I remember an older woman saying to me, “Oh, you don’t understand, you get invisible as you get older.” And I’m thinking, you’ve no idea – I’ve been invisible since I was 18. That’s one of the reasons I pursued a career in television. Underneath it all is an urgency or a desperation to be seen. It’s impossible to explain what it feels like to go into a room and not be looked at, especially as a girl who used to be looked at. I wasn’t a head turner. But I was tall, I had a presence. And now I’m in this chair, and people look at me and look away.
It took me longer than I care to admit to accept the reality of my new life. I knew that my body had changed. It was telling me that it was paralysed. But I don’t think I believed it. I was quite defiant. I entertained alternative therapies and looked at ways in which I could defy the odds. I sought out headlines about people who had defied their doctors and walked again, I lapped that shit up. Maybe it was years before I started to accept that some things would never be the same.
Did the accident happen at the worst time? There are times I’ve thought yes. I was so young, I had to let go of a lot of plans. But then I thought – and I know this sounds fatalistic – if it was going to happen, why not then? I had no idea what I was going to be next. I didn’t have kids, I didn’t have a partner. I didn’t have responsibilities. I didn’t have a life that I was going to lose. I had a blank canvas at 18. And I had a great childhood, I had had really fun, amazing times, I had had great friends. I mean, yeah, it’s not ideal obviously. But I don’t know when [a better time] would be. I’ve met people who were paralysed when they were 60. I’ve met people who were paralysed when they were 10. And we can all say the grass is greener. But I think for me, I found that, actually, given I was so young, and therefore adaptable, I wasn’t set in my ways. I wasn’t scared of anything.
I went to boarding school so my parents and I didn’t even live in the same house half the time. I was an independent young girl in my mind. So to go so suddenly from that to my mum being there every second of every minute of every day was totally unusual. But it was exactly what I needed at the time. She sorted me out. I leaned on her huge strength and that got me out of hospital a lot quicker. We got really, really close. Then as I started to find my feet again, I went off to uni and we’ve remained very close ever since. But I also think I’ve felt an underpinning sense of responsibility to look after her because I felt so bad about what I had done to her. She is a lifeline for me but that puts a huge strain on us. She has this expression; if you get cut, I bleed. I understand why she says that – she saw me nearly die, no mother recovers from that. But at the same time, it made me think, what have I done? I’ve nearly destroyed her. And I felt guilty about that.
Not long after I came out of hospital I was asked to be on a BBC show and I realised then the power of telly for shifting people’s perceptions. But I didn’t think of it as a way of earning a living – there just wasn’t enough opportunity. It wasn’t until I got offered presenting the 2016 Paralympic Games [on Channel 4] that everything changed and I realised there could be a career in it. But doing that job was terrifying, I can’t tell you how much, the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done, broadcasting live to millions of people.
I still get very nervous doing telly. I suffer a lot with imposter syndrome. Layer into that the constant reinforcement through messaging – subliminal, implicit, explicit, either way – that disabled people are lesser than or not as good as others. It does give me anxiety. At the same time, I’m starting to work out my worth. Somebody said the only way you can get rid of your self-doubt is to just outrun it, keep proving yourself wrong. So I’m trying to do that.
A few years ago a boyfriend I was madly in love with broke up with me. It was a very difficult break-up with lots of friends involved. Then I had another sort of secret relationship that also ended really badly. Then I fell into a relationship with a toxic arsehole, an awful narcissistic man. I was the lowest I’ve ever been in my life. Then Covid came and I didn’t know if I had to shield because of my disability. I was terrified. For about three years, I’d been getting this TV series off the ground, an amazing adventure of driving around the world on a motorbike. We’d just started filming when Covid hit.
I lost my job. I lost all these friends because of all the break-up repercussions. So much had gone wrong, and I could not work out how to go forward. For the first time in my life I was suicidal. I thought, I just haven’t got it in me any more to do this. All I could think about was the things I couldn’t do. And that wasn’t like me at all – my coping strategy had always been, just think of all the things you can do, I loved discovering new places I could go. I had had an appetite and it had gone. The whole process of writing the book was agony as well – it opened up a massive can of worms, it was absolute torture, so that didn’t help. I’d love to go back to myself then and say, you will get through this and be better for it. What you need is just to be by yourself and do what you do best, which is create. You are gravitating towards the wrong type of man and not looking after yourself. But I’m looking after myself now. I’m out the other side and I’m thriving on my own.
If I could have one last conversation with anyone it would be my grandma, my mother’s mum. She died when I was about 20. She was so worried when I had my crash. We were very close and I think my injury was devastating for her. I’d love to let her know that everything’s going to work out OK. And I’d love to spend a day with her just laughing – she was so funny. I picture me and my mum, and my auntie Dawn sitting around the table with her, smoking cigarettes and eating scones. Both my parents worked, so I was with her a lot when I was younger. And I remember it very, very fondly. She lived at the end of a row of houses and she loved her garden, this little garden with a greenhouse full of tomatoes. I always remember the smell. It was so distinctive, that and her Rothmans. And she baked too. She was a proper, proper grandma and I loved her and she loved me. I’d love to have one more day to be with her as an adult now and have my mum and my auntie there too, drinking coffee, making pies, eating scones and telling stories.
If I could go back to any moment and live it again it would be in 2008 when I was travelling through Australia in a rented camper van with a boyfriend. And we didn’t realise it was tornado season, this crazy time in Australia. We had no idea what we were doing. We were just completely oblivious. We were driving through the outback, in the middle of nowhere, no one else around, in hurricane season. It’s a really dangerous thing to do, we hadn’t a clue. But we were just two idiots in love. I was so happy. That holiday was just so fun and silly. And we didn’t have a care in the world.
I remember sitting in the desert, a really isolated, weird environment. There was absolutely no one around. It felt like we were the only people on the planet. And for me, we were anyway – I was so wrapped up in the relationship. We got out of the car and he picked me up and put me on this rock and we sat there together just looking around, taking it all in. The sun was setting, the night was coming down. We took some pictures of ourselves; I’ve still got those pictures. I didn’t feel disabled. I didn’t feel anything really, other than just pure – free and liberated and in love and seen by somebody who I believed really loved me back. I’d go back to myself then and say, enjoy this moment. Because it’s probably the most in love you’re ever going to be in your life.
The paperback version of Sophie L Morgan’s book Driving Forwards is out now (Sphere, £9.99). You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.
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