Jill Glenn meets Kitty Gould. At the age of 18, Kitty was just starting university, a good education behind her and her whole life ahead. A dose of tonsillitis laid her low for a few days. Nothing to worry about. Shake it off and move on.
Fast forward ten years…
Kitty’s wearing green. And purple. And charcoal grey. Plenty of accessories: a scarf dramatically thrown around her neck, huge earrings, an enormous ring. Her hair’s wild, her eyes bright. She looks every inch a creative dynamic woman. The only hint that all might not be well is her build. Skinny. Very skinny. Kitty laughs when I point this out; it’s difficult for her to put on weight, but she’s now a stone or so heavier than she was at her lightest, and proud of it. Kitty has incurable bowel disease, and a story to tell, about how you can endure some terrible things and still come out bouncing.
It all began with that dose of tonsillitis…
She had chosen to study Business at Manchester. (Really she wanted to be an opera singer, but she was trying to be sensible… a ‘proper’ degree, and then maybe a postgraduate singing course.) The tonsillitis came, and went. Then there were stomach upsets, one after another after another. Kitty’s quite open about this now, but, as she observes, when you’re 19, making new friends and 200 miles from home, it’s a different story, and seriously embarrassing. Her health deteriorated to the point that she had to withdraw from her course and return home. Virtually house-bound, with all her old friends off leading new lives, she waited to discover what was wrong and how to cure it. Possible diagnoses were suggested, abandoned, replaced with others. It took six months before a deceptively simple term – ‘bowel disease’ – was applied. Kitty’s condition is not unlike Crohn’s and Colitis, but has anomalies all its own, and, although treatable, has no cure.
Kitty glosses over how depressing this must have been, how lonely and frightening. She does recall how ‘you go from being involved to watching, you’re an observer…’ but as far back as ten years ago she began to develop the philosophy that has seen her through: be who you are, and become confident in your own skin. She learned to take pleasure in the simplest diversion from her daily routine – ‘a night out was incredible!’ – and to manage her condition. Eventually it stabilised, and university beckoned again. This time (never one to shrink from a challenge) she went even further afield, to Lancaster, and reverted to her first love: the arts. She was, she says, ‘utterly terrified’, but determined: ‘It just felt right to go to a place I’d never heard of, that looked like a car park.’ She describes her degree as ‘three years of playing drama games’ (I’m sure there must have been more to it than that…) and burst forth onto her own personal stage at the end ready for…
… a serious downturn in her health. At the age of 23 she had some of her bowel removed ‘by a fantastic surgeon’. The surgery, such an invasive procedure, was traumatic, but it improved her life for some considerable time.
She was able to work, creating a portfolio career that included marketing, copywriting, teaching singing, working in children’s theatre. By freelancing, she could dip in and out of jobs as the demands of her health dictated. She left her Chorleywood home and moved to a London flat.
Earlier this year – busy with work, happy with life – she made a bad decision. And paid for it. Despite knowing that the disease was no longer under control, she ignored it. Ignored the inflamed aching joints; ignored the red, itchy eyes; ignored the stomach problems. Eventually she admitted defeat, made an appointment to see her doctor the following day, and curled up on the sofa to wait it out. Then she felt worse, bad enough to call an ambulance, and to ring her brother who lived nearby. Her body began to twitch, her speech became incoherent, her legs and arms became paralysed and she collapsed. She even tried dialling 999 again with her tongue. ‘I wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for my brother,’ she observes. Andrew, 25, alarmed at the sound of his sister’s slurred speech on the phone, chased up the ambulance, raced to her flat and went with her to Charing Cross Hospital, where she needed resuscitating. She’s very lucky to be alive, and she knows it. It was days before she could manage any movement at all, and there were a couple more ‘scary episodes’ over the next month or two. ‘My family put me back together again,’ she says, along, of course, with a team of superb health professionals.
All very dramatic. The whole experience changed her life. Nobody would wish to live through Kitty’s last ten years, but to be empowered to know, without question, what you want to do, and be able to achieve it, is a gift, however you come by it. Her gratitude to have her life ‘for however long’, and her refusal to be defined by her illness, drive her on.
‘I’d been such a shy child, and drama really brought me out,’ she explains. Now she wants that for other children. To realise her dream of having her own theatre company, she came home, bought the franchise for Stagecoach Chorleywood, and puts 136 youngsters through their paces every Saturday. Most of them don’t know about her health issues, and she can worry about them instead of herself. When I arrived she was determining the best jazz shoes for a child with difficult feet. She loves the job, loves inspiring her pupils, wants them to have all the self-belief and purpose and passion she’s learned. ‘I have no fear of failure now.’
Over the years Kitty has developed resilience and fortitude, along with a million ways to pass the time, including reading and sewing tapestries. Quiet, respectable, untaxing pursuits. Now, though, she has the opportunity (and energy) to explore other hobbies; she’s joined a rock band, enjoys cycling and ice-skating (‘very good for stress’), visits vintage markets to rummage for costume jewellery and hoovers up new experiences.
Her intentions for the next ten years are straightforward: to expand her vision for the school, to manage her health (‘I have to do that; people rely on me now’), to visit South America, and to make sure her family know she loves them. Simple plans; no more drama – apart from on stage, in its proper place.