Journey of a Lifetime

by Sylvia Farley

Proud Open University honours graduate


Joe asked me to write about myself, which I admit I find difficult as I already know all this stuff and find it boring.  I’d much rather learn about other people and how they come to terms with their worlds. But if others had not told me their stories, I should not have this particular tale to tell. So here goes . . .

I started my life journey as the rather sickly daughter of an alcoholic working man in an impoverished mill valley in the north of England.  My mother fought him bitterly for my chance to take advantage of the scholarships I had won as he saw no point in educating a girl who would develop “ideas above her station”.  With scholarships from several different sources, I still could not afford to accept any one of them until they all agreed to chip in to fund travel, books and uniform for five years at a prestigious High School in the next county.

But by the time I was sixteen I had tired of constant reminders of the unacceptability of my origins.  Mistrusted by most my school peers and the staff because of my family background and shunned by many of my former pals because I was upwardly mobile, haunted by the knowledge of my mother’s sacrifices to enable me to go thus far, I took my 8 “O” levels and my form prize for progress and found an apprenticeship as a gardener in London. But a year at day-release gave me first place in the British Isles in The Union of Educational Institutes examinations and a kindly professor sponsored my application to Studley in Warwickshire where I won the J.G.Gray travelling scholarship which took me to educational and research establishments in Scandinavia for a further two years.

I started my working life as a horticulturist researching light intensity 30 miles north of the Arctic Circle. Later I moved on through purchasing, information technology, management and then landscaping in Africa, 50 miles south of the Equator. Later still, I retrained as a psychologist after spinal injury, to become an executive officer for a national charity promoting the employment of disabled people. After several years of empire-building I was given a golden handshake when they  found out just  how disabled I really was.  I used this to take an honours degree in Psychology with the Open University and began counselling on loss issues and self-esteem in the belief that you are well-fitted to help traumatized people if you have been there yourself, done that and got the stretch marks.

To survive, I also did bed, breakfast and evening meals for lorry drivers and sang on the club circuit whilst raising three lovely children as a single mum.

Life has never been dull !

I retired on health grounds in1989 having had remitting/relapsing MS since I was 14 years old.  But I have always taken the advice of an old Yorkshire doctor who said, “It probably won’t kill you, but it might make you wish you were dead. Go away, forget what’s wrong with you and say “No” to nowt!”

Now I keep active in my local community promoting enabling issues, counselling voluntarily, acting as supervisor of trainee counselors and fundraising for the Multiple Sclerosis Society.  I also help with a wild-flower project staffed by people with learning difficulties and act as secretary to the Isle of Wight PC User Group and their special section “Computability” which provides computers for disabled people.

For fun I entertain my family and friends, paint, write, sing, arrange flowers, sculpt, garden, swim, take gentle walks on beach and in forest, listen to talking books, play with my computer, do word puzzles and make mosaics.  I am competent but rusty in several languages including French, Swedish and Finnish.

Joe particularly asked me to tell you about my sailing exploits.

I started sailing by chartering a yacht for ten days over one Christmas and New Year to take my two sons, one of whom  is autistic, for a different kind of holiday, as I was sick of being lonely at Christmas!

This led to chartering the same yacht for sailing holidays for my disabled clients and to involvement with the Multiple Sclerosis Society’s Round Britain Catamaran relay.  The first year I took part in the North Sea lap which led to national publicity enhanced by recognition for this and other achievements from N.I.C.E., the Open University , Meridian TV and the local Chamber  of Commerce.

Since then I have crewed for the Scilly Isles and Channel Isle laps in spite of being partially sighted and as predictably seasick as Lord Nelson.  My most ambitious and near-suicidal effort was a 750 mile Caribbean sailing challenge round the Windward Isles and my ambition (as I enter my 7th decade) is to crew for Chay Blyth on the Spitzbergen run.

Carribbean Challenge, January 2002.

I went, I swore, I conquered!  Our yacht, the 65foot “Logica “, came second in the Caribbean Challenge having covered over 700nm in two weeks at speeds ranging from 6 to 11 knots.

During welcome delays caused by Customs clearances, shortages of spare parts, running aground on a reef unmarked on the charts, entangling our anchor cable with a boat captained by an incompetent amateur skipper who drifted down on us in the night, and other similar delights, we went snorkelling, explored volcanoes and rainforest, danced to steel bands at beach bar-B-Qs, befriended dolphins, savoured exotic fruits and the night chorus of tree frogs and admired the magnificent flora and fauna of the Windward Isles.

But there were times when I despaired of coming back alive.  The sheer size and power of the  steel-hulled, 85-foot-high-masted Arctic and Global Challenge boat was terrifying, especially when I realised that, far from the balmy, sunlit limpid lagoons of my imagination, we were contending against winds and seas that had travelled unopposed around half the world.

Rusting hulks of cargo ships deposited on the shore by recent typhoons did nothing to improve the morale of our crew, all, except me,  physically perfect specimens with an average age of 33 years. We were all black and blue, soaked either in sea-water or sweat and utterly exhausted as we stood alternate three or four-hour watches night and day.

I learned a lot about myself and about M.S.  There was a black Saturday when I could have howled, forced to face up to my weakness and afraid I had bitten off far more than I could chew.  Then I realised that fit young men were feeling the same shame and despair.  But I had the advantage.  I am used to psyching myself up to short bursts of effort and resting at every opportunity.  For me, two-hour naps are the norm, night and day. I don’t need an unbroken nine hours of oblivion. I have grown accustomed to delighting in the best and enduring the worst.

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There were some things I could not do.  I could not hold the helm in heavy seas, but I could spell others when winds eased.  I could not use sustained muscle power, but I could throw my not inconsiderable body weight against billowing sails and “sweat in” straining sheets.  I could not avoid wrenching muscle-spasms caused by the buffeting we all received, but my motor nerves soon became exhausted and the muscles relaxed.  Self-catheterisation may be an impossibility in pitching heads, but bladder muscles soon give way to intolerable pressure and blissful ease is achieved without risk of cystitis!

The coffin bunk was ideal for me, strapped in with a lee cloth and my feet up on the bulkhead to try to reduce swollen legs and ankles, sharing the space on an alternate watch basis with a handsome young man, I was secure (it is too easy to be pitched out of the upper bunks) well- motivated to appear at my best and agreeably stimulated by his proximity.

Perhaps I cannot distinguish the lights of distant ships, but it is a blessing to be unable to see heaving rollers through the roof-lights of the galley as the ship does its best to stand on its head and side simultaneously.

So, if I was the first to be sea-sick, I know enough to barf, eat something dry and carry on. I’ve been far worse on a ten-hour crossing to the Scillys.  I was the first with the squitters, the last ashore and the last to acquire a creditable tan, the first asleep, the first up and one of the few crew members who never missed a watch.

Yes, it was tough.  But if it raised some money for fellow sufferers, increased public awareness of our limitations and our strengths and inspired newly diagnosed young people not to give up on adventure, it was well worthwhile.

It gave me the experience of a life-time, rebuilt my confidence and ambition and got me back into the habit of prayer!!!

Now, when I ask the question, "Why do I do this to myself?" I know the answer is, "Because, today, I CAN!"

.My latest venture is to try to put my experience and survival techniques into a form where they are readily accessible to anyone who needs them.  As a counsellor I could only reach a limited number of people.  As a researcher and a writer, I cross the boundaries of too many genres and specialities to be acceptable to any one.  Fiction publishers find me “too realistic “. Science publishers find me “too emotional”.  Life-style publishers find me “too academic.” 

On my own quest I discovered that, to survive, one needs to be bloody-mindedly oneself.  Ego-integrity is the first essential.  We need a balance of a number of different dimensions of development which, for me, are life-SPICES: Social, Physical, Intellectual, Creative, Emotional and Spiritual.  We all need to belong, to be as fit as we can, to learn, to play, to be loved and to believe in something. And we progress through a series of 4-A sequences.  We Assess, Accept, Adjust and then Achieve.  So I teach my clients from an eclectic ragbag of mainly psychosynthetic techniques, to reclaim their whole selves through visualization, meditation, psychodrama, art therapy, icons, mantras, transactional analysis, basics of brain structure, chemistry and function, principles of artificial intelligence, neurolinguistics, whatever is most useful and acceptable to them at the time.  I cannot be bothered with jargon, self-preservation or distancing.  My client is not an enemy to be manipulated nor an audience to be dazzled.  He or she is another ordinary neurotic human being like myself.  We are all doing our best in often intolerable situations and we can all learn from each other.

I admit that everything I have achieved so far has been by standing on the shoulders of the people who were there before me.  My shoulders are broad, and I am happy to give you a bunk up to repay the debt.

So I have built a Self-Esteem net site at The whole point of this site is to help people who, for one reason or another, are hurting and need to find comfort, encouragement, explanations and new directions. Based on my unpublished book “UniQ”, it was funded for a year by a Millennium Award from the National Lottery. Feel welcome to use the material, suggest new directions, print or distribute the information or direct anyone towards it who may benefit.

It is a free service, although after April I shall have to find alternative sources of grant funding to keep it going and growing.  If anyone can tell me how to make good quality sound files, the next stage is downloadable guided meditations, visualizations and brain-wave modulating sound patterns.

Please look at it and let me know what you think. I should be delighted to link to any related sites or to discuss my ideas with interested groups or individuals.

A final gift – a couple of the mantras that keep me traveling hopefully:-

“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood!”

“Dare to dream!”

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Sylvie has raised a family in spite of Multiple Sclerosis, and said "No to nowt", from researching light in the Arctic to building palaces on the Equator; from night-club singer to landlady providing bed, breakfast and evening meals for lorry drivers.  She is now a qualified psychologist. Her free self-esteem website is  at