On a Friday night in September 2007, Annabelle Moult was out living her best life at a party with friends.
When the 25-year-old woke up with a headache, blurred vision and a ‘pins and needles’ sensation in her legs the next day, she simply thought she was paying the price for all of the fun she’d had.
But just three days later Anabelle lost her sight and became paralysed from the waist down.
Her husband Danny carried her to the car after she awoke and collapsed on the floor, unable to move.
In the hospital, she underwent a number of tests – but for two years her illness remained a complete mystery.
Finally, she was diagnosed with Neuromyelitis Optica, a rare and incurable disease where the immune system damages the spinal cord and the nerves of the eyes.
Annabelle, from Long Crendon, Buckinghamshire, has been left in a wheelchair – her whole life changed seemingly overnight.
Now 39, she recalls: “I was out with my friends on a Friday night in September 2007, having fun and living life. I had a headache the next day, and this persisted into Sunday. My vision had started to blur too.
“Then the tingling in my legs started. I went to bed and woke in the night for the loo, but my legs gave way and I screamed for Danny to help and we went to hospital.
“I rapidly went downhill, and couldn’t move my legs; I was paralysed. I then lost my eyesight. A brain scan showed swelling, and a doctor told me I’d never see again. But they couldn’t explain it. I was petrified.
“I’d gone from being a hockey-playing, gym-loving, independent 25-year-old who didn’t have to rely on anyone to being severely visually impaired and paralysed, not being able to leave my house alone. My whole world changed.”
At Oxford’s John Radcliffe Hospital, Annabelle was given steroid medication to reduce the swelling in her brain and she also started physiotherapy.
She was discharged in February 2008 and went to live in a converted room in her parent’s garage.
Her eyesight had gradually started to improve before leaving hospital, going from blackness to grey, and then to being able to see a blurry outline.
She’d put on weight, going from 10 stone to 18 stone due to steroids and told her husband she’d understand if he wanted to leave her.
“I told him if he didn’t want to stay with me, I wouldn’t hold it against him. But he gave me a smile and said ‘I’m staying’.
“I went back to work part-time. I refused to let my wheelchair become some sad, lonely prison. Instead, Danny and I went on our planned holiday to Jamaica.
“Danny had to carry me to the pool every five minutes, but he didn’t complain once.”
Following the holiday, Annabelle became determined to learn how to do ‘all the basics’ again, like getting dressed, going to the toilet and bathing.
Her friends and family were very supportive and vowed to help her live her life to the fullest, taking her on days out and trips away.
During this time she was still having tests at the hospital in terms of getting a diagnosis, feeling like a bit of a “pincushion”.
In 2009, doctors finally told her what was wrong – but they couldn’t explain what had caused it or if she’d ever recover.
“The diagnosis didn’t make too much of a difference as I’d already been out of hospital and learning to adapt with my new life,” Annabelle admits.
“But It was almost a relief as it meant I could get further information, help and support without being an unknown entity.
“The weight was piling on from the steroids and I was just trying to cope with this new life of living visually impaired and in a wheelchair.”
In 2011, Annabelle was finally able to stop taking the steroids and says she felt instantly better.
“I just had to get my head down and move forward. Of course, there are still darker days and more difficult days.
“A transfer from my wheelchair can be more difficult or I might have a fall because I’m not concentrating on what I should be.”
She then embarked on a fitness journey, keen to feel as healthy as possible and improve her mental health – which she also did through cooking, journalling and listening to audiobooks.
She’s since found many adaptive workout videos and online classes that have helped make her journey easier.
Annabelle now regularly takes part in Qigong and yoga, pushing laps, HIIT classes, and body strengthening and has lost 8st since stopping the medication.
“Discovering exercise and holistic alternatives has helped my recovery tremendously,” she explained. “It has made me a lot more connected to my body. But it has also given me a stronger mindset too.
“I don’t take anything for pain relief anymore and I’ve been dealing with it by using my alternative therapies instead of medicine.
“I was willing to try anything and everything to help and it’s just been a case of trial and error and finding out what works best for me.
“I’m still in pain every day from my bra line downwards, and sometimes it extends to my whole body. There’s numbness and it’s sort of like pins and needles and a constant prickly pain. Some days can be worse than others.”
Keen to help others adapt and enjoy life, Annabelle is now an ambassador for NMO UK – a charity supporting individuals with Neuromyelitis Optica.
In January 2020, she left her job in operations and started mentoring, helping others how to cope with life changes and empowering them to transform their lives.
She also shares her journey online on social media at @belleswheels_bewell on Instagram and Facebook at Belles Wheels
Annabelle added: “This is a horrid illness and despite it being quite unknown, there are so many people suffering worldwide.
“I want people to believe in themselves and understand that while there will be dark days, learn from them and grow, to become the best version of yourself.
“The key is to have a positive mind and a strong mindset to keep moving. I won’t let my wheelchair stop me so you shouldn’t either!””