A Gorebridge man fought back from losing his sight and his job, overcame depression and rebuilt his life to become a qualified sports therapist.
In 2001 Stephen Neilson, then aged 29, was diagnosed with a serious eye condition called Macular Degeneration. It was estimated he had the eyes of a 95-year-old. As a result by 2009 Stephen had to endure the devastating blow of losing his driving licence, and as a motor mechanic since the age of 16 this had huge consequences.
The 44-year-old said: “When I got the news I was stunned. It’s a degenerative thing so I have probably had it since my youth. I used to get sore heads a lot but it wasn’t diagnosed, I tried glasses at school but they didn’t make any difference.”
With Stephen’s commitment, and support from his employer he managed to maintain his role with the John Martin Group until 2011 when the Edinburgh Eye Pavilion stated he met the registered blind criteria and regrettably his employment had to be terminated. I knew I would eventually lose my job, it was a tough one to take”, said Stephen.
“I lost my driving licence first which was just after the credit crunch, I thought I would lose my job right away but my work was great.”
Stephen’s identity as a provider for his family and the potential financial struggles impacted on his mood to the extent he was diagnosed with depression and briefly questioned the point of going on.
He said: “I have got a daughter so it was tough financially. Looking back now I sometimes think ‘how did I manage to come through it?’
“Because I had a family to provide for I just had to keep trying as best as I could and that was it.”
At the same time he contacted Dalkeith Citizens Advice who completed a benefit check and advised Stephen of his entitlements. They also put him in touch with the Health in Mind project Men’s SHARE (Suicide, Harm, Awareness, Recovery and Empathy).
By talking through his issues with the project worker Stephen was able to rationalise why he was feeling low and suffering mood swings, which allowed him to manage his feelings, providing self-esteem and hope.
He said: “I felt on my own, but when I started to speak to people I realised there were different doors open to help people suffering from all sorts of mental health issues.
“I’m quite lucky that I realised why I was in that situation. Sometimes people just wake up with it and don’t know they have got it.”
Stephen enrolled in a sports therapy course at Edinburgh College with the long-term view of becoming a sports therapist. He was enrolled in the 2014 sports and exercise access course which enabled him to go on to further studies.
He said: “It gave me something to focus on, something to channel my energy into. I knew it was the only way to get back into employment.
“I was apprehensive at first but once I got into the swing of things it was probably one of the most life-changing experiences I have ever had.”
After two and a half years of hard work Stephen left college with an HNC and HND as an ‘A’ pass student.
Stephen is at pains to point out the invaluable support he received from all the Edinburgh College staff: “The college were great, always making sure I had the information I needed. They did everything they could for me to help me pass the course.”
He also thanked local MSP Christine Grahame (SNP) for her support in getting him onto the course.
As part of Stephen’s studies he had to log 100 hours of voluntary work and provide documentation of working within a team environment.
Stephen thanked his local junior football side Arniston Rangers for giving him the opportunity to fulfil this part of his studies: “I have had so much support, in different ways. Which shows that there are good people out there. The football team greeted me with open arms and that gave me a real confidence boost.
“That role has shown me that there are people in the local community that can always do with a helping hand that could benefit you also.”
Stephen has continued to develop his skill base by attending professional development courses and gaining experience by using the permitted work scheme for part-time employment. Since last November local hairdressers Shear Expressions has provided a room Stephen could use for delivering his treatments.
He said: “It’s actually my wife that runs the shop, so it’s a family business.
“It’s just word of mouth at the moment but I suppose it’s picking up every month.
“For now it’s baby steps, it’s not overnight.”
Among those who have benefited from Stephen’s magic hands is British Masters Judo team member Mark Taylor who has won British Masters, Scottish Masters, Silver in the French masters, gold in the German Saxony Masters and silver in the European Championships in the time that Stephen has been treating him.