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A journey together

In 2013 Rachel Drury moved to Australia to make a fresh start, but unexpected illness altered the course of life, and love. She talks to Ciara Galvin

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Des and Rachel pictured in Australia in 2017

Des and Rachel pictured in Australia in 2017

Des and Rachel pictured in Australia in 2017

sligochampion

When 'I' is replaced with 'we' even 'illness' becomes 'wellness', and that is certainly the case for Rachel Drury.

In 2014, while in Australia, the former engineer turned writer was diagnosed with Ulcerative colitis, a long-term condition that results in the inflammation of the bowel, and in her case led to numerous hospitalisations and drastic weight loss.

She has written about her experiences in coping with the condition, what it has taught her, and the support her fiancé Des provided her, in her newly-released book, 'Powered to Fall, Empowered to Rise: A Journey in Love, a Journey Together'.

An identical twin, Rachel moved to Sligo with her family aged 16. The family moved from Dublin to her mother Catherine's native county and she and her sisters, twin Michelle, and older sister Claire completed their second level education at the Ursuline College.

Taking up the chance of a lifetime, Rachel moved to Sydney in 2013, just before her thirtieth birthday, and, while working in the well known Irish Bar - PJ O'Brien's, she met Roscommon man, Des Flanagan.

Being so far away from family and getting diagnosed with an illness is never easy, and, Rachel tells The Sligo Champion just how much she had to lean on her partner.

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Rachel and Des after they got engaged at a vineyard in 2017

Rachel and Des after they got engaged at a vineyard in 2017

Rachel and Des after they got engaged at a vineyard in 2017

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"In Sydney it was just the two of us, I didn't have Mum or my sister, you just want family. I wasn't really up to seeing people, you don't want anyone to see you."

Rachel explains how the diagnosis came about, and, how it became worse.

"I knew with the symptoms it wasn't exactly a pleasant thing to have. Before the tests it was flagged this is what it could be, either Crohn's, Colitis, or nothing. I was waiting to hear which one. It was said Colitis is less severe than Crohn's. It's [Colitis] not nice, it's inflammation of the bowel."

Rachel says she knew very little of the condition before she was diagnosed and it did not run in her family.

"I knew a friend in college, he had Crohn's, I knew he'd been through quite a difficult time," she says, adding that she was under the impression her condition would be easy to manage with medication, but this was not the case.

"When that [medication] stopped working and the flare [symptoms] came, I was surprised how quickly the weight loss can happen. All of the sudden I was not able to go to work or keep a job, it took a hold quite quickly and was aggressive quite quickly."

Explaining just how severe the condition can be, Rachel says sometimes she could not participate in daily life, or go to work.

"Forget about work when it's bad. I kept my job but had to have time off. You're housebound, you're confined to bed and near a bathroom. You don't participate in daily life. You try manage with medication yourself."

However, when medication fails, hospitalisation is the next step, and, for Rachel, over the course of her illness, she endured up to five such visits due to the severity of it.

With her weight at an all time low at one point due to the condition, intervention with IV [intravenous] fluids was required.

"At some point there was talk of feeding via a tube, I never accepted that. When your BMI can go as low as it can, it can be quite scary...I had five hospital visits, two of them were particularly bad, what I weighed in at was very, very low. Two times I wasn't able to hold any type of food down. The treatment they have to go in with is a combination of steroid and immuno therapy," says Rachel, explaining that the drugs she had to take to help her, also had harsh side effects on her body because of her weight.

With some ups and downs along the way, a romantic engagement in a vineyard, and a subsequent short-lived parting of ways in 2019, Sligo, and Carney to be exact, is where Rachel and Des now call home with their two dogs, Jack and Cora.

For Rachel, 2020 was the year she "turned a corner" with her illness, and says it can be put down to emotionally healing.

"By 2020 I got into the mindset, I said I would not go near hospital, I couldn't go through another flare for myself or our relationship. We turned that corner, we're in it together, please God it is behind me."

Now, she lives near her grandparents' home in Drumcliff and even gets to hear stories of them - Michael and Margaret Cullen, from farmers in the area.

"That means a lot, hearing stories. I feel very connected to my granny here."

Rachel has spoken about the toll her illness had on her and Des' relationship, something which resulted in them briefly taking time away from each other in 2019. In a way, Rachel thought she was holding her partner back, with a cancelled Italian wedding due to her illness, and plans put on hold, she took the time away to grieve. She says she grieved the life she thought she was supposed to have - marriage and children by a certain age.

Now, these are the things she has written about in her book, lessons she has learned from her illness, and, how love helped her through, even if that love wasn't the type portrayed in a fairytale.

So, how did the idea for the book come about?

"In 2020 it hit me, I had a particular book in my head about lessons. I'd say I typed it in three weeks, what I've learned in the last three years. I had all the time to reflect."

I stopped being an engineer and I was looking to do something else, a new chapter and that's when I started writing, my thoughts, lessons of illness, looking at what it taught me," explains Rachel.

She adds, "It [illness] was hard at the time and testing, it took a lot from me, but I got to a place and asked myself, 'was there anything it taught me', something positive I can take from it. Is there a way I can help others who are in the middle of it?"

Though Rachel admits English was never her strong subject in school, she thoroughly enjoyed pouring her thoughts onto the page.

"The writing was easy, but then it was three months cleaning it up, putting some structure and flow into it, and categorising it".

The book is broken into chapters such as health, wealth, love and happiness. In each chapter there is a story.

"The idea is, you can read one chapter and it's not linked. You can put it down, it's not a heavy book. I wanted to add something that is a bit uplifting and remind people what they're made of - hope or resilience or whatever it is what gets us through."

She says she ended up writing the book because of illness, and love, but says it doesn't have to be physical illness people are going through to read it.

"It could be a break up. You're meant to read it and feel better. The idea at the end is I talk about my own personal journey...and love is the final chapter."

Asked how her partner felt about discussing their relationship publicly, Rachel assures that the book talks more about the lessons she has learned, than their private life, and says Des supports her in everything she does.

And what does she hope to achieve by sharing her experience with readers?

"There is a way out. If it worked out for me, maybe it can work out for you. Maybe you have to go through a difficult patch."

Rachel is audibly delighted at where she is in her life. "I'm through the worst of it. I've got weight back on. I function now, I have regular habits. My health is as good as it can be, it's my main priority."

Now, she hopes to get into writing full time, but, more importantly, she just hopes her book helps people.

"I hope it helps young people. Wherever the book goes, I hope it helps. My motivation is for it to reach younger people through the years of 17 and 24. Looking back on my own life, if someone gave me this book at 22 it would have helped in some way. Even if five young people say I really got help from it, that will feel like everything I've been through has been for a reason."

 

A love story that captured the nation's hearts

People across Ireland were holding their breath listening to Rachel Drury's story on The Ryan Tubridy Show recently, as the 37 year old documented her battle with long term illness and the impact it had on her relationship with her now fiancé.

Rachel met Roscommon man, Des, while working in an Irish bar in Sydney in 2013.

"He had lovely blue eyes...I just fell for him straight away. I knew I wanted to get to know him," she told Ryan.

The relationship progressed, but, diagnosed with Ulcerative colitis in 2014, soon, Rachel's illness was taking its toll on the relationship, despite Des' unwavering support.

"I wasn't long with Des, and all of the sudden I had to look to him to look after me in every way, financially, emotionally, take on everything and support me through that and that was quite difficult, we were young...He was amazing."

Rachel says Des was patient and "just loved me" throughout the worst times of her illness and in July 2017 in Hunter Valley, he popped the question.

They had planned to get married in Italy in October 2018, but just three months before the nuptials, Rachel's condition deteriorated and the wedding had to be cancelled.

In 2019 and after another hospital admission Rachel wanted a break from the relationship and "to give him a break from me".

"I just wanted to stand on my own two feet and try to heal on my own."

After three months apart, and admittedly going through dark and lonely moments, a text message on the morning of St Stephen's Day from Des changed everything.

"It said 'Six years ago Sydney time we first said hello to each other'."

In that moment Rachel knew her heart was still with him and knew his heart was still with her and she got into her car and drove from Wicklow to where she had lived with Des in Sligo.

She knew she was going home, she knew she was ready to start again with Des.

"I let go of the sadness and guilt around not getting married or having kids. I still have all those hopes, but I'm not putting myself under any pressure to have that by a certain age."

And her priority is staying healthy, and looking forward to progressing plans for working on future writing projects.

"The priority was keeping me well, and building myself back. From there we got a lovely home in Carney, we got an extra dog. We've found joy and we're very happy with our life. It will happen when it happens.

"We are committed to each other, the focus is about keeping me well and keeping me out of hospital.

"Des did help me through it with love, there is a love story there for people, he loved me when everything faded away. I felt what love was and I was grateful for that, and found someone who could love me through it."

Rachel is a firm believer in the power of love and that comparison is indeed the thief of joy.

"Love can heal. We do need people around us. We compare ourselves to others, college friends getting marriage and having kids but you're not getting anywhere by comparing yourself.

You have to trust your path is different and maybe my timing is further on. Just because I'm 37 now, that doesn't mean that you have to be married and have kids by a certain age.

She adds, "Accept what was and what is."

Now, Rachel is busy following the launch of her self published book - 'Powered to Fall, Empowered to Rise: A Journey in Love, a Journey Together', which is available to buy now at buythebook.ie or on kindle from Amazon.


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