The Black Dog Returns

There are many different ways to describe a man’s mental health. A few years ago, when I first started noticing that I had symptoms of depression a friend asked me if the “black dog” had been chasing me.

For whatever reason, I’ve always liked that particular description because it represents two things I actually love. Black is one of my favorite colours (as it should be for any die hard All Blacks fan!) and dogs are in my top three of favorite animals.

Truth be told, I love the black dog. When he bites, it hurts, but what he represents is also core to my very being.

Let me expand on that a little.

I believe that we are put on this earth to overcome challenges. Many might look at me and think that the wheelchair they see me sitting in is that very challenge, but truth be told, it isn’t really.

The consequence of the life that was chosen for me is that I will never be able to go at it alone, in fact I can’t even make that attempt because I would need medical assistance within hours!

My success will never be just mine; my failures have a far wider reaching impact than just me, and the choices I make each day will typically rely on a third party to execute in some shape or form. From the moment I wake up until the last moments before I fall asleep, I will always need someone or something else to be my literal arms, legs, and breath.

That’s not why the black dog bites. These are actually realities I had to accept well over a decade ago now. If I hadn’t accepted them, I wouldn’t be able to function, nor write this blog.

2021 Has Been A Great Year

There are always challenges, but by and large, 2021 has been a great year so far. I feel like I’ve really taken my journalism to another level, and for one of the first times ever, I almost exclusively write for professional news outlets who actually pay me!

It has taken a long and hard slog to get to this point, I’m talking the better part of six years of doing it for free. These days, there wouldn’t be too many times when I would say yes to a story without the financial compensation that comes with it.

My writing has also focused largely on rugby, which has been my day job for nearly 18-months at this point, and I’m very much enjoying the challenges of meeting deadlines and learning the craft of finding new and fresh “angles” in my stories.

The truth is I really respect and admire the majority of the rugby men, be that coaches or players, that I get paid to write about. There is a definite level of responsibility that comes with the territory because we live in the age of click-bait and ever-growing tension between the players and the press, so it can be a taxing job at times to try and walk that fine line between me (the journalist/columnist) doing my job and treating those people with respect.

Respect, as I said in a tweet directed at one particular player recently, always has to be a mutual thing. All I can ever do as a journalist and as a man is to conduct myself in the best way possible.

Life, as we all know, should be a balance between work and play. Between the months of January and May (when my beloved Chiefs sadly couldn’t get the silverware) I pushed myself to be as “in the know” about the team I cover as possible. I wanted to be able to give as much information to the public, through my writing, as I possibly could.

I also didn’t shy aware from suggesting that the current Chiefs coach was far better value than the former, and believe me, it would have been easy to hide away from a media session or two after making that suggestion!

This business requires a lot of showing up, a lot of hand shaking, and a lot of building good relationships. My style of writing and interviewing has always had a deepness to it, and that’s been by design. I’m not there for soundbites; I actually want to know and understand what the hell is going on!

This is something that is far easier for me in the late summer/early springtime of year versus what it is in winter, due to my disability. After the Super Rugby Aotearoa campaign ended, I took a bit of a break while still keeping up with weekly columns et cetera.

Why Is The Black Dog Back?

For me, two reasons why I feel the black dog has made a return. Firstly, balance is a big thing and if you get that bit wrong you become a little bit too self-aware. I was too aware of the wrong things, and not aware enough of what that was doing to my mental health.

Those wrong things won’t be a surprise. Social media, for all its advantages, can be a toxic tool to check first thing in the morning. You’re presented with what the competition is doing, what those who don’t know a thing about you think of your work, and just another news story that sets off a chase to find the “angle” and write about it.

I wasn’t that I was doing too much of this, I just wasn’t letting myself warm into the day first.

In other words, a lack of routine. That is something that is going to have to change, and change fast, if I am to pull myself out of the rut. You can’t simply wake up, scroll social media, talk to editors, go to interviews, and then write for the rest of the day.

I did a little bit of that at times this year, and then when I wasn’t, that’s when I started to sleep in until the middle of the morning and would spend the rest of the day trying to make up time.

My partner deserves better than that. I deserve better that that.

A Promise From Me To You

Here is a promise to you, the reader, and to those around me who have been patient and respectful enough to let me work it out for myself.

I’ve embraced the black dog, time and time again. I’m not about to let it beat me down this time. I owe it to myself, my partner, our cats, my support workers, my family, and my professional colleagues, to wake up tomorrow and keep going.

I’m incredibly lucky to be able to write to earn a little bit of a living at this point. I can take that in whichever direction I want to, but I know if I don’t make some changes, I’ll burn out within the next five years with nothing close to the potential that I know I have to show.

I still want to be doing this, not just in five years’ time, but in fifteen or twenty. I will do what’s necessary to put myself in the best position to achieve that.

That’s my promise to you, but I wonder if you could make one to me?

Please, just be kind. If you feel the need to, reach out and talk to somebody, put your arm around them and tell them it is going to be ok. My partner does this for me, and trust me, it helps. Be a friend to people, not just a colleague or a work partner.

Be a good man. The best man that you can be.

I Used To Be Angry, Here’s What I’ve Learnt

As a former public speaker during my mid-twenties, and something of an advocate for people with disabilities,

I often came across as an angry young man. It didn’t start that way, but for a number of reasons, trying to work as an ally for people who were navigating all the same obstacles both within and outside of the disability community was an exercise resulting in frustration at the best of times. 

Truth be told, I was angry and frustrated.

On deep reflection, I had every right to be as angry as I was, but what I didn’t have the right to do was project that anger onto others. 

So, to start today’s blog, I want to honestly apologize for that. 

I am sorry for projecting my anger, no matter how justified it felt at the time, onto you. I am sorry that some in the disability community may have felt attacked by things I had written or said. 

Trust me when I say, I’ve spent a lot of time and energy being angry about the state of the disability sector, and sometimes, angry about my own role within it. I am sorry for that too. 

Guess what that anger achieved? Precisely nothing.

Was it justified? Yep, probably, and anyone who was involved in the inner circle and prepared to look beyond what was being posted on social media probably understood that. 

That’s the thing about anger, and why we can often be tricked into having those angry feelings on more occasions than we would probably care to admit. 

Anger comes from two very important things.

Firstly, anger comes from injustice. That actually only clicked with me recently, but it’s hugely important to realize when taking a step back to assess your behavior and mood.

Chances are, if you’re really angry about something, it is coming from a place of injustice that you feel, or have felt for some time. 

You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to work out that there is a lot of injustice that goes on within disability land, and all of that injustice matters greatly.

I’m a firm believer that it’s our worst stories, the worst examples of discrimination, that should be where we focus because those stories are often buried somewhere near the bottom. 

To build better, you’ve got to build from the bottom up. Being angry isn’t a bad thing, but taking an angry action toward the things that you do (both professionally and personally) will likely always have adverse results, especially if you’re on the ground and a part of that building work. 

The second thing about anger is that it is often historical. The things we get most angry about, and the things that result in us using that anger in action, are often things we have historical experience with. 

So, in my case as that angry disability advocate, there was that deep sense of injustice that had historical meaning for me. 

Again, there is nothing wrong with having a deep desire to make some change in whatever community it is that you feel deeply connected to. 

For me, I didn’t just want to make some change, I wanted to be a leader in that change. For a while, that’s exactly what I did, but what I wasn’t prepared to do was be patient. 

When you feel like you’re doing good work, when you have a real passion for how that work can act as a vehicle for wider change, and especially when you’re young and inexperienced, patience isn’t exactly something that fits into the equation. 

But patience, as the great leaders of our time would tell you, is a virtue you must have. Patience, passion, belief, and a whole lot of room to make the small adjustments needed over time. 

There is no playbook to solving the problems that face our disability community. As advocates, and really as a group of people, we need to have a greater understanding of just why people might feel as angry as they do. 

Anger, as I myself continue to learn, cannot be the emotion that drives the discussions we have in this community, but we can’t attempt to just shut it out either. 

We need to accept anger, understand anger, and give people the real support to resolve that anger and turn it into something that can truly aid what it is we are trying to achieve here. 

Don’t just shut them out and label them angry, negative, and toxic people. Don’t just block them on social media. 

As for our leaders? They need professional development, they need mental skills coaches. 

I know now that my anger within the disability sector, something that honestly did consume me for some time, came from a deep place of injustice with historical roots.

I know I am not alone in that, and what I’ve learned from being in that place is indeed a greater understanding of the things that made me angry in the first place. 

The sense of injustice, the terrible history of blatant ableism. All of that, but what is getting angry about it going to achieve? Not much in all honesty.

Feeling Undervalued As A Journalist?

Do you have a shutdown ritual? Do you even know what a shutdown ritual is? According to a blog on mediacurrent, a shutdown ritual is a set routine of actions that you perform at the end of each workday to finalise your day and signify that your workday is done. Many of us need that full stop to end proceedings, and for many of us, it’s also the first step to beginning the next day.

On my phone I have a routine app that features the core daily tasks I have to ‘tick off’ each day. Many of these tasks are personal, things like taking a shower and setting aside 15-minutes for meditation, while other tasks are designed around giving my brain the information ‘fuel’ I need to keep myself updated with the world around me, like reading the news for 30-minutes and checking Twitter.

But one routine focuses on prep – aptly called the shutdown ritual.

Part of my personal shutdown ritual, and one of the core tasks I try to complete each day, is setting out exactly every work task I need to complete the next day. It’s not just the task I write down on a separate ‘to-do list’ app, it’s the exact requirements of the said task.

For example, I frequently write down “write Chiefs feature in 800 words or less” if I have a story due the next day or “research stats on disability employment” if I am preparing to pitch a project to an outlet. If I need to get guidance from an editor or talk through ideas, I’ll write something like “call newsroom to discuss angle X”.

The shutdown ritual also touches on personal appointments or tasks. Does my partner need something in particular from me on this day? I’ll write down exactly what she needs and the steps I need to take to deliver.

It’s all about the detail and the pre-planning is a crucial part of both executing these tasks. It’s also a core fundamental for my own sanity. Almost always, and trust me it happens a hell of a lot, when I don’t have a productive day (or even a productive week), it’s because I haven’t taken the time the day before to list out the agenda for said day or week.

You might read a task such as “write Chiefs feature in 800 words or less” and think that it’s fairly clear cut. But for me, the 800 bit is crucial because it gives me parameters, I now know the ideal word count so can begin thinking about its scope.

My list will also set out the exact time I will submit the story – usually an hour before deadline if possible.

I believe that the same idea can be applied to just about anything you do, whether written down in an app or not.

Want to know why so many people don’t execute on their work or don’t take that next step toward something bigger? It’s not so much that they fail, it’s the lack of attention to the how. For that, I have to give credit to a former mentor of mine and fellow disability advocate Jade Farrar, during our working relationship I marvelled at just how much time and energy he put into the small things that many of us overlooked.

I also have to credit some of the professional rugby players and coaches I speak to on a weekly basis. Their amount of thought and planning on game plans, physical shape, recovery and much more just makes the mind explode when you hear about how it’s all being put into action. A guy like Anton Lienert-Brown is a fine example of that, a deep thinker about his craft and the impact being a man in the spotlight can have on those around him whilst also knowing how to switch off and get away.

Cool Story Mike, So What’s The Point Exactly?

During these ever-increasing times, particularly in our work, it’s crucial that we allow ourselves to check it all at the door but not forget our value by underselling.

This may mean different things for different people, but for me, recent times have really forced a lot of reflection on the motives and value behind what I do, particularly as a freelance journalist. Just this week I went on Reddit and asked other freelancers about their approach to drawing a line in the sand and saying no when you start thinking your hard work is being taken advantage of.

Just a bit of context. The media business is short on money right now. Newsrooms are downsizing not expanding, journalists who were previously employed are now being asked to work as contractors and pitch stories on an individual basis.

It’s a tough industry at the best of times and, sadly, many of those who only care about the spreadsheets are putting editors in extremely tough positions by forcing them to let some of their very best writers go, or at the very least, take a hefty pay cut.

But for me, I didn’t actually understand how much time, energy and effort I was putting into my work for these different outlets until I did a bit of a google on myself. When you google ‘Michael Pulman Journalist’ it should take you to a site called Muckrack which pulls together all the clips that I’ve written for the various mainstream media outlets in the past year or two.

Turns out, I’ve done a fair bit of work. Then I began to think back to the process of writing those pieces that went on to be picked up by outlets and published in print.

It came down to the work, obviously, but it was also the quality of the process that was put around those particular articles. Few of those articles were rush jobs, looking back at my to-do lists from those particular dates showed me that I had taken the time to perform that shutdown ritual where I had the patience to map out, 1 what the task was, 2 when it was due, and 3 what the parameters for it all were.

Being a freelancer in an ever-competitive media space often makes you feel like you’ve got to be on the button constantly, ready to pitch a story at a moments notice and do it before anyone else, then get it written and out the door within an hour or two so it’s timely.

Some of that might be true, but a lot of it is also complete bullshit. Being timely on a piece doesn’t make it good, keeping up appearances might help forge good relationships, but the real work is often done in isolation where the outside influences don’t help deliver the final product.

You deliver the product, nobody else really holds you accountable if you are a freelancer. If you do deliver and hold yourself accountable to everything that’s involved in doing something of quality, you’ve got to understand that there is some real value in that.

When I posted on Reddit I asked a very simple question to some fellow freelancers.

Would you do all this and not expect to be paid? Would you provide that scoop and a quality, thought-provoking read for little more than thanks and handshake?

Sooner or later, you’ve got to flick that switch and stop beating yourself up over the things you cannot control. Speaking purely from the media landscape for a moment – you’ll likely have a hundred doors closed on you before one eventually opens a bit.

Guess how many times I had to work for free before any doors opened? I estimate that I’ve worked for free for well over three of my six years working in the media industry.

The doors started to open when I focused on the story, not the number of stories. As a freelancer, I’ve so often been guilty of focusing far too much on volume as opposed to value. If you’re motivated by volume and nothing else, you have no room to improve. I want to improve, I want to be the very best I can be at what I do, and yes, I want to feel valued by the outlets I write for.

So if you’re out there and you’re in a similar boat to me, please know you’re not alone. If you know you’re doing all you can then there is your value right there. Please do all you can to ensure your work is valued.

Revealed PS5 Controller Signals Sony’s Clear Attempt To Diversify

Sony revealed what they are calling the DualSense wireless controller which will come paired with each PS5 when the console launches later this year.

The controller is busy to look at it, that’s not altogether a bad thing but certainly, it’s a departure from the traditional simplistic look that Sony have traditionally adopted.

Two colours, black and white, with the same blue lightbar visuals that this time are placed on either side of a largely unchanged touchpad.

Prior to the reveal, some speculated that the next controller could forego the touchpad entirely as it was largely unused by a lot of developers on the PS4. Sony has decided to stick with it, and in all honesty, it’s probably the aspect of the new pad that remains the same.

Gone are the colours of the four facing symbols, they’re now clear white/grey and the same for the D-Pad which has a slight, albeit cheaper looking design feel.

The back triggers are where it gets really interesting this time around. The R2 and L2 triggers are both adaptable and will be programmed to work differently with different games, something Sony says will make gamers more immersed in what they’re playing, using the example of the tension felt when drawing a bow to shoot an arrow.

The haptic feedback exceeds just the triggers and takes on the whole controller, providing sensations the gamer can feel in their hands, Sony using the example of the slow grittiness felt when driving a car through the mud.

Form factor and size-wise, whilst they might say it’s designed to feel less bulky in the hands, first impressions are that the controller will be the direct opposite, a big plastic and surely heavier form factor from Sony this time around.

The share button is now called the ‘create’ button and the controller also features a built-in microphone, USB-C port for charging and a slight rework of the analogue sticks.

Is the DualSense Controller Needlessly Radical In Design?

Sony themselves say that the DualSense represents the most radical departure from previous controllers in the PlayStation stable. They aren’t wrong, and whilst this isn’t close to the worst moments in product reveals by Sony, there is a sense of 2005 about all of this.

Remember the infamous boomerang controller originally slated for the PS3 way back when?

In terms of simplicity on the eye, Xbox surely takes the win on the controller battle heading into the next generation.

In contrast, the DualSense looks needlessly radical and points to just as striking a console design when, for the first time, it’s likely that Sony goes with a largely white look for the PS5 box.

If nothing else, what Sony revealed today signals that they’re serious about making all aspects of their new console feel, and look, like a big leap from the current into the future.

Whether that means a controller that will feel good in the hands, and develop games for, remains an interesting scenario still to play out.

Review: WrestleMania 36 Was Pretty Good But Also Terrible

The 36th edition of the top wrestling showcase was always going to be a challenging production for WWE to pull off, and whilst that certainly showed at times, WrestleMania 36 probably exceeded original expectations.

Unlike the usual jam-packed stadium experience with 80,000 wrestling fans in attendance, WrestleMania this year was forced to be held behind closed doors in Orlando at WWE’s Performance Center due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Speculation prior to the weekend was that most of the wrestlers in the company felt that the event should have been postponed, but WWE owner Vince McMahon decided to go ahead.

Some great matches, multiple title changes and downright weird moments will provide a lot for wrestling fans to reflect on.

What You Need To Know From The Biggest Matches

On night one, Braun Strowman defeated Goldberg in a quick encounter to become the new WWE Universal Champion, and to close out the show on night two, Drew McIntire overcame Brock Lesnar to capture the WWE Championship.

Neither of the two matches for WWE’s biggest titles were altogether memorable but provided a well-earned reward for both of the winners, especially McIntire.

Other big moments of the show were the Boneyard Match between the Undertaker and AJ Styles in a heavily edited, cinematic experience which drew a lot of praise from wrestling fans who lauded the return of Undertaker’s ‘American Badass’.

Edge and Randy Orton also had one of the most brutal Last Man Standing matches in recent memory in a match which culminated a nine-year comeback to wrestling for ‘The Rated R Superstar’ Edge who was forced to retire from performing in 2011.

The two women’s championship singles matches were both highly physical, close and entertaining encounters. Becky Lynch retained her Raw Women’s Championship after beating former cage fighter Shayna Baszler and Charlotte Flair defeated NXT Women’s Champion Rhea Ripley to capture that gold.

Kevin Owens finally got his WrestleMania moment, defeating Seth Rollins in what turned out to be a no DQ match, Sami Zayn became the new Intercontinental Champion after defeating Daniel Bryan, and Alesteir Black got the better of Bobby Lashley.

In terms of the Firefly Fun House match between John Cena and Bray Wyatt… god only knows what happened there.

You can read full results from all the matches at WrestleMania here.

Did WrestleMania Deliver Or Did It Flop?

WrestleMania 36 delivered the best show it possibly could’ve given the circumstances.

It was great at times, bad at times, downright weird at times, but most of the talent on the roster got its time in what would usually be a visual backdrop of the biggest annual wrestling event.

There was a lot that wrestling fans could’ve done without, though.

In some ways it was patchy, but this was always going to be the case with an empty arena. It just didn’t feel like WrestleMania, if that makes any sense.

You can hear more of our thoughts on WrestleMania 36 on our podcast where we delve further into all the action and react to the bright spots and low spots.

Quality Sports Journalism In NZ Cannot Be Replaced Swiftly

New Zealand’s media industry is reeling following a dark week which saw two of its biggest institutions shut down.

Let’s take a look at the week that was.

First, it was Radio Sport who stopped broadcasting on Monday after its owner NZME switched the frequency of New Zealand’s only sports-dedicated sports radio station over to Newstalk ZB. 

Hundreds of jobs were lost, and not just the voices you hear on the airwaves. You’re also talking about the producers, the reporters in the field and all the researchers. 

Furthermore, it all happened incredibly quickly, almost faster than the speed in which news breaks on a day to day basis. 

Radio Sport housed New Zealand’s best minds in the sports media business and their departure simply cannot be filled in terms of talent. When, or even if, Radio Sport were to return in some fashion, many of those talents won’t be coming back either. 

Some say that the decision had been a long time coming due to the network simply not making enough money for NZME to remain commercially viable, but that’s not a black mark against the journalists rather the model in which they were working. 

The media business relies on advertising to pay its workers and advertising has all but dried up since the COVID-19 pandemic took hold in New Zealand, just take a look at newspapers recently or tune into the television, the same goes for radio. 

Then on Thursday, the shock of all shocks, Bauer Media announced its closure in New Zealand, bringing with it the death nail to some of the most beloved magazines that have served readers for multiple generations. 

Shortly after, speculation was similar to the Radio Sport closure, that it wasn’t so much because of COVID-19 alone, but the implications of not being able to print magazines during the lockdown served as the perfect excuse to make a decision that had long been in the pipeline. 

Today, the Government has been criticised by many in the media for not helping out Bauer Media with any financial assistance, but the Prime Minister herself says that the company refused to take wage subsidy allowances. 

Whatever the real truth, the impact on workers at Bauer Media makes the losses Radio Sport sustained look tiny. Journalists, columnists and editors for magazines like The Listener, the Woman’s Day/Weekly, and Metro Magazine (just to name a few) are well into triple figures when you put the entire New Zealand branch of Bauer together. 

So, with all this news and the hundreds of jobs lost to the business, where to from here to the New Zealand media? 

Filling The Void, But At What Credible Value? 

We’ve already seen many a social media pundit quickly try to turn the closure of media outlets into an opportunity to fill the void, so the answer about where to from here can be found in that, social media will give the opportunities for everyone to keep sports media going in different forms. 

But despite that, quality journalism for sports and magazine is in grave peril right now. 

COVID-19 and its impact on New Zealand will likely to be the single story for our media moving forward. For the established sports media, it’s a gigantic game of wait and see for the next while. 

Until the sporting landscape gets somewhere close to being back to normal then there really isn’t a sustainable market for it, because the news will quickly dry up and this will expose the flaws of opportunistic tendencies by those who think they can replace and do better. 

If anything, what COVID-19 should teach us is how important professional competitions really are to the business of sports journalism. 

If you break it all down, the news isn’t just what happens on game day and the fallout from it, the news is really about the stories within the sport, player transfers and injuries, what franchises are doing or not doing, etc etc. 

Don’t discount the importance of contacts that some of the sports journalists keep either. 

Social media pundits can and will successfully be able to keep the sports conversation going within their respective bubbles but without legitimate access to sources and the knowledge of journalistic practices, the value of their respective mediums will be low. 

If six years of doing this sports journalism thing (semi-professionally before transitioning into the mainstream) has taught me anything it’s that the story always matters, not the chatter. 

You don’t have a story without the sport and the access to it, what you have is chatter. 

That’s not journalism, it doesn’t require that hard work required to verify fact from opinion, the ability to be able to meet deadline multiple times per day, or to go back and re-write or re-produce content to meet the quality required for mainstream publication. 

The biggest test that’s about to face the business on these shores is ensuring that when sports media does return to what it was before COVID-19, it maintains the talents it had to ensure the quality and substance remains. 

Such Is Life 2.0: On The Brink Of Death In Order To Survive

The following is the first in a series of blogs called Such Is Life 2.0, the self-written story of Michael Pulman by the man himself. Please note, some names have been changed to protect the identities of people and their families whilst trying to tell an accurate a story as possible.

Our story begins in November, 2004.

“Hello Michael?”, he asks, “hello Michael can you hear me?”.

Visions of my dream fade, a bright light appears. I start to wonder if this is indeed the moment where I’ve met my maker. All the signs of such are there, including this mysterious voice.

I don’t even know if my eyes are open when I hear that same voice once again.

“Michael”, he says, “Michael can you hear me?”.

I’ve never heard this voice before, but he sounds friendly. As I open my eyes I notice that the bright light I had visions of is in fact real. It’s one of those medical light stands, sitting directly above my face I can feel the warmth the lightbulbs omit onto me.

My eyes finally open and I see the man behind the voice. A man, somewhere in his mid-twenties, smiles at me. Next to him are a group of others, two down by my feet on the right side of the bed, writing down notes, and two doing the exact same thing on the left side.

I turn my head to the right and I see a familiar face. It’s Jason, the surgical assistant.

“Hey buddy”, Jason greets still in his blue uniform with a mask around his neck, “we are all done here my friend”.

I close my eyes and start to notice the sounds of a machine whirring underneath me, it sounds like a generator of some sort and its consistent noise makes sleep impossible.

It’s at this moment that I realize that the surgery is done. I don’t know how long I laid there in that room, the next thing I remember is being moved into a larger area than the one I had been confined to upon awakening. Two big doors electronically open, Jason swipes his card upon entry, and then the next thing I know curtains are being drawn around each side of the bed.

“Righto Michael”, another voice says, “I am going to get you all hooked up here”.

An Indian lady starts pulling cords, which I immediately notice are connected to different parts of my body, and plugs them into machines that are on stands next to the bed. The pull of the cords hurt my skin, I can feel plastic tape pulling hairs out of my arms and legs.

As it would turn out, that’s the least of my worries.

“Now Michael”, she says, “I want you to have a drink please but you must only take a sip okay Michael”.

Water never tasted so good, I’m so thirsty. I can’t cough, my throat is sore and the water is soothing. I want to ask for more, she obliges, but then I want more. She places the cup on the bedside table but it’s off-limits, I guess.

This would be a lesson that would serve me well in the coming years. Here is this cup, with water I want to drink, but it’s just out of reach. Sometimes the things in life that you want, the things which hold value to you, are always just out of reach.

“Oh my god” another voice cries, “oh my god is he ok?”.

I know this voice, it’s my sister. She sits next to my bed side, tears are streaming down her pale cheeks, she holds my hand and sobs quietly. Mum is there, Dad stands right behind her, all of them are in tears.

“It’s all done now mate”, Mum says, “we are all going to be right here next to you”.

Sleep is impossible that night. The pain comes and goes, each time I get close to drifting off I’m woken by the Indian nurse who constantly checks the machines I’m hooked up to. Not only is that getting on my nerves, but I’m not allowed to move much at all.

Each time I ask to be turned over, there is a reason why I cannot.

Since waking from surgery my back has felt heavy. My whole body is numb but I can oddly still feel all sensations.

Mum tells me that I look swollen, sister keeps on crying, and Dad does what Dad always does, he’s just there.

It turns out that the body requires a lot of adjusting when titanium structures are put into it. This isn’t just any old titanium, I’ve now got two rods fused into my spinal cord which run the length of my back, from my neck to my pelvis. All the body wants to do is reject these changes, and that’s where the pain comes in. For the first time, I am being moved around with these new parts of my body.

The pain levels were so intense that I cannot describe them to this day. Because your body is close to shutting down, it takes a long time for everything to get up and running again. Much of those little developmental milestones you achieve as a toddler are now lost, you’ve got to learn them again. Realizing you are going to the toilet without knowing it, being unable to eat, or vomiting mid sleep really rams home the reality that this is indeed a new beginning.

I did a lot of sleeping that week. The alternative was hell, it felt like every time I so much as twiddled a finger, I’d be in a world of pain and my body was reacting in ways that I couldn’t control.

The ceiling becomes my best friend, because it’s the only thing that doesn’t hurt or change my body’s behavior.

“You must have counted every bloody dot up there”, Uncle Gary laughs when he comes to visit. Gary is exactly right, I did indeed count every last one of them, and looking back, I can say I knew them all in very intimate detail.

It’s November, 2004, a month before my 13th birthday, a birthday I would spend in Starship Hospital. Eventually the pain subsided, the recovery concluded, and if nothing else, I had banked some wonderfully graphic memories of what it feels like to come to the absolute brink of mental sanity.

Trauma is something that I had to learn about and respond to at a very young age. Looking back on that time, I am thankful for it. Whether it be surgery required in order to survive, a choice you have to make in life, or the decision to start anew at something, you run the risk of facing considerable trauma.

November 2004 would be my first big experience of it, and it wouldn’t be the last.

Climbed Over At All Blacks (Diaries Of A Disabled Journalist)

The Diaries of a Disabled Journalist, Edition One.

It’s Friday, June 10th 2016 and I’m about to get climbed over at my first ever All Blacks press conference. 

Eden Park’s glorious grandstands are completely empty. It feels like a ghost town as I roll across the hallowed turf in my wheelchair. We come out of the west side tunnel and negotiate our way to the middle of the field. It’s just me, an NZ Rugby official and a couple of overseas journalists, presumably here covering the Welsh tour.

Wow, I think to myself, I’m actually on the field at Eden Park.

It starts to rain so I retreat under the stands and it’s not until I’m parked that I discover I’m actually in the players’ tunnel. This time tomorrow, All Blacks players, television crews and security will be everywhere and I won’t be allowed anywhere near this close to the action. I decide to make the most of it and take a nervous look around.

Unlike tomorrow, there is nothing here right now, it feels just as lifeless as it did out on the field. A few cables line the green matted floor, to each side of the tunnel there are two long corridors which lead to the respective dressing rooms where the All Blacks and Wales rugby players will preside.

Wales are already here, but only just a couple of their kickers and an assistant coach. I say to hell with the rain and head back down the tunnel and out onto the field. Dan Biggar, the Welsh first five, is taking practice shots at goal so I park next to the sideline and take a few photos and one poorly shot iPhone video of his routine.

Then it’s time for the first interview of the day, with the Welsh assistant coach.

It’s about 11.00 am, I’ve been up since 6.00 am and in work mode since around 9.00 am. The 90-minute drive up the Waikato expressway from Hamilton is spent writing my first story of the day on my portable table, lodged between the front of my wheelchair and locks which hold me in place.

Today’s first story is a preview piece focusing on how Wales will go against the All Blacks. By the time I get to Eden Park, all that needs to be added is quotes from the impending interview, and as expected, the little that the Welsh assistant coach actually says doesn’t derail the tone of the story and force a total rewrite.

From there, the few of us journos who bothered to show up are then directed into an underground holding room back on the west side of the ground. Inside it’s cold, empty and certainly no sign of food or hot drink. This doesn’t go down well considering it’s the middle of winter and very cold.

I take the nearest available desk and begin scrolling Google Images for a decent photo of the Welsh assistant coach we just spoke to.

Unlike my counterparts, I don’t work for a mainstream media organisation so I don’t get the benefit of accessing the library of professional photos that were just taken from the practice session we just saw. I find the most recent and best-looking image I can find, add the quotes into the WordPress article draft and hit “submit for review” where I hope an editor in the US or Europe finds it quickly.

That hope is disappointed, the story doesn’t get published until later that afternoon, well after my mainstream media peers have already had theirs go live. Oh well, I think to myself, their work is probably going to get more views anyway and this is really an opportunity to practice my craft.

It’s now around 12.30 pm and we now have to wait for the big event of the day, the All Blacks captains run where we get to interview the new skipper, Kieran Read.

The term “holding room” to describe where the media contingent was placed is indeed accurate, and after nearly two hours of work and the occasional stop for chatter, we all begin making jokes about being animals locked in an enclosure until feeding time.

The feed we seek, of course, is that big interview with the new All Blacks captain and we all have a list of questions we all desperately hope to fire at him.

Another hour goes by, and finally, we are let out of the enclosure. The All Blacks are on the field, training intensely. Most of us have our eyes locked on that, but a turn to your left and you notice that the stand is scattered with members of the public who’ve been given the opportunity to come along and watch the final practice before the match. This scattering features kids, parents and a whole lot of sponsors. A Japanese group is lucky enough to have even closer seats to the action, they’re down on the field with us and currently huddled around Sam Whitelock as he practices some scrum work.

Julian Savea, the powerful All Black winger who has so often been compared to the likes of Jonah Lomu, runs over to retrieve a ball that lands close to me. Bloody hell, I think to myself, he’s a bloody big unit but his intensity in the face is about as confronting as his physical stature. He doesn’t take his eye off the ball for a single second as his ranging arm comes down and scoops the ball up. I smile and nod at him, but he doesn’t notice. Just looking at those eyes you can tell, even at training, he’s in the zone.

I see little of the training on field because the media contingent, now sizeably bigger than before, has set up shop with their cameras and I don’t have a hope of wedging my wheelchair into the line. Balls are flying everywhere, the kids in the stands are yelling and cameras are flashing. It’s an absolute hive of activity.

“Hey Joe,” I say, “can you please let me know when Kieran is coming over so I can get in position?” I ask quietly to the media manager. He smiles, “sure mate I will let you know”.

Joe, being the man responsible for setting up the media conference and the guy who brings the All Black captain over to us journalists, doesn’t let me know. Out of sheer luck, I spot Kieran walking over and race toward where he’s headed. I park at the front of the media pack, directly behind all the microphones that are already set up.

Kieran walks over, smiles at me and says hello, then the interview begins.

One journalist literally climbs over the side of my wheelchair in an attempt to get closer to Kieran. “Excuse me mate”, he says as he manoeuvres himself over me. He stands directly in front me after that and all chances of getting a decent photo and video are gone.

A second journalist does the exact same thing a minute, and then a third. It’s more than a little belittling, but I’m so caught up in the moment that it didn’t actually register how disrespectful and downright discriminatory that was.

I have it on good authority from NZ Rugby that up until that point they’d never had someone in a wheelchair as part of the media pack before. It is just as much of a learning opportunity for them, and as much as something like that would enrage a lot of disabled people, I take it on the chin and make the best of the interview with Kieran that I can.

In fact, I even manage to ask a question of the man tasked with arguably the toughest job in New Zealand sport. It made the early rise, the ordeal of sitting in the holding room and the frustration of being climbed over, all worth it.

After that, I’m back in the van and we are heading back down the expressway to home. But work is far from over. My laptop is open and I am doing two things at once as we hurtle out of Mt Eden and greater Auckland.

Firstly, I plug in the recorder and begin listening back to what Kieran had to say, typing quotes into a word document. After I’ve picked four quotes, I begin writing the story. At the same time, I’m on Twitter posting photos and quotes from Kieran onto my timeline, looking at what other media outlets are doing just in case I’ve missed any crucial details, and I’m also texting a New Zealand-based editor to see how quickly he can get the story online.

By the time we hit Mercer, a small town south of Auckland, the story is done and ready for editorial.

Two stories, check, but a third is yet to come. I need to turn both these stories, the Welsh angle and the All Blacks angle, into a column that needs to be online tomorrow morning. We get back to Hamilton just before 7.00 pm, I quickly go to the bathroom and then eat, before opening up another word document and typing that crucial third story.

I finish writing at 10.00 pm. Sleep isn’t just easy, it’s automatic.

Paula Tesoriero, Disability Rights Commissioner Interview

The following is a full transcription of an interview with New Zealand’s Disability Rights Commissioner, Paula Tesoriero.

Michael Pulman: How are you feeling coming into 2020?

Paula Tesoriero: Well, I think we’ve got a huge number of challenges for the disability sector and in an election year, as always, it’s an opportune time to be talking about those in the public sphere. While we’ve got a number of challenges, I also think it’s a huge year for opportunity and so I’m feeling energized.

Mike Pulman: In 2019, there were some negative headlines, but it was a positive year in some ways with free public transport in some parts of the country and then Robert Martin. What was your reaction to that news?

Paula Tesoriero: Oh, I was just delighted to wake up to the news. I think that it’s been a real boost for the disability community. I think it’s also thoroughly well deserved. I think it really highlights for other disabled people, for the New Zealand public at large and internationally, actually, about what people with learning disabilities contribute to the world. It’s a really significant deal for obviously, Robert, but also for our community.

Mike Pulman: Yeah definitely, and I guess moving into perhaps a national discussion about disability, something like this is good to help inspire that?

Paula Tesoriero: Yes, I agree completely.

Mike Pulman: Moving into this year, an election, hopefully, there will be a lot of focus on this sector because it desperately needs some help. What are some of the areas you want to focus on this year?

Paula Tesoriero: I think that there is, as you know, and the people listening to this know, the list of things that we need to deal with as a country around disability are really significant so it’s always hard to narrow it down to a core group of things, but that’s the only way we make progress, I think. So the key things that I’ll be focusing on this year and in no particular order are the education reforms, as we know our education system is not inclusive and it continues to be a key area that disabled people and their families talk to me about so I’m going to continue the work that I was heavily involved in last year and continuing to make numerous submissions and hopefully influence the government to really use these reforms to deliver an inclusive education system. So that’s one area, the second area is that there’s a range of things that sort of set what I call loosely in a health bucket that I think this year we critically need to make progress on.  One area is far better supports for people with neuro disabilities. Last year, I did a lot of work with fetal alcohol spectrum disorder community and really started to learn much more about the significant challenges faced by people who face day in their families and how that group who are not eligible for disability support services by virtue alone and having it face day fall through the cracks at so many stages. So, we’re doing some work together and with the Ministry of Health to try and address that, also with the Minister for Disability, she’s also in that package as is the system’s transformation work. There’s also the funded family care and changes that I hope we’ll see this year that vote on last year. Then there’s the level of funding for supports disabled people. So there’s not the total sum of issues in there and the health backup. We’ll be finalizing an independent monitoring mechanism. Our report to parliament in the lean on New Zealand’s examination in relation to the CRPD date. And you know, we’ve done a lot of work in the second part of last year, numerous hui around the country with disabled people and so I’m really looking forward to finalizing that in the first part of this year.

Mike Pulman: What was the general sense around the country in terms of what we are doing in that CRPD space?

Paula Tesoriero: The overwhelming take on the report is that yes, of course, there’s been some improvement in some areas and the government have announced some reforms across particular portfolios that impact the disability community. But by and large, there’s still quite some way to go across almost every article. It was pretty humbling to hear people’s experiences and get a sense of how frustrated they are while also acknowledging that there are some good things happening. Violence and abuse also, this wasn’t a topic that I made a priority when I came into the role but it’s become a priority for a number of reasons. One, I’m not satisfied that, with the current reforms underway, there is enough of a focus on disabled people. Secondly, I commissioned some work last year to pull together the information that we know domestically and internationally about violence and abuse towards disabled people. One of the key issues that disabled women raised was violence and abuse. So I then commissioned some further work right at the end of the year, which I’ve now received, making some recommendations about what I can do in my role to impact this. And then look, finally, it’s going to be a year with not only the election but the referendum on the end of life choice. We know this is something that I have talked a lot about. And, you know, I sort of welcome discussion on this. I’ve been very clear. I hope that my views about the safeguards and particular issues relate to this bill. So, you know, I think often the debate becomes whether or not we should give an assisted dying regime. And that’s not really the issue here. The issue here is this particular bill. And finally, and this is the real finally, there are a number of reviews that we made submissions on last year. So, for example, the mental health review, the Health and Disability System Review, Child poverty, etc and I will continue to be monitoring those and also having ongoing.

Mike Pulman: Sounds like a busy year ahead and I’ve got a number of questions about this. This work in violence, is it just in terms of relationships?

Paula Tesoriero: No. I think that one of the really important impacts for disabled people is that it’s not just about angles of domestic violence. It can be admitted into settings, community-based care settings, violence and abuse more broadly.

Mike Pulman: I guess part of a national discussion about disability, and the real benefit of that, is hearing from sections of the community that we haven’t even seen or considered?

Paula Tesoriero: I absolutely agree. I think that fetal alcohol spectrum disorder community is one such community. It’s a hugely dedicated group of people who advocated for years toward changes. We have a real opportunity through early intervention, through getting in and providing support for young people and the families to hopefully change their trajectory. I think that this is an area which, again, New Zealand doesn’t talk about the alcohol spectrum disorder in the way that we should. To date, there has been some focus on prevention. But actually, what we critically need in New Zealand now is a focus on support that people will get. That’s what I’m trying to support the community to do, to really focus the government’s mind on support for these people. But you’re right, we have a big opportunity to talk with different groups in our community and make sure that we all have a really good understanding of disability right across our sector.

Mike Pulman: I want to ask you about the End of Life Choice Bill. What would the percentage be between people you’ve heard from who are against this bill versus those who might support it?

Paula Tesoriero: I can’t really gauge that in terms of the general population. But in terms of disabled people, the people who have communicated with me by far overwhelmingly are against it. Very, very few people who have identified themselves as being disabled have contacted me saying they disagree with my point. I think what I continue to encourage people to do is really get to grips with the contents of this bill because my worry is that we will have a discussion this year about whether or not we have an assisted dying regime. Actually, that’s not the question here. I think it’s really important for the disability community to understand the specifics of this bill because if we are going to have some kind of regime in the future then we need to have one that is really robust and really safe. One where we have a way of guaranteeing that there won’t be wrongful deaths.

Mike Pulman: How did you feel going out an advocating so passionately against this? What was the experience like for you?

Paula Tesoriero: I think, you know, this role is a role where, you know, I do feel a weight of responsibility and that there may be times that shows. It’s a privilege to be in this role and so I take every opportunity I can to influence better outcomes, but this particular debate was hard. This seems to be an issue where people are not afraid to make quite personal attacks. My view on when you resort to making personal attacks is that it’s a way of not really engaging in the issues, so I had to just put up with the fact that there were some personal attacks coming my way and at times, as you know, on social media there can be some fairly brutal ones. I really see that those sorts of attacks are just people’s inability to actually debate the issues.

Mike Pulman: Ok, but what’s the plan if the bill does pass? What then?

Paula Tesoriero: I’m still working through exactly what I’ll do. I certainly intend to be part of the conversation. I will continue to say much of what I’ve said before around my concerns, around safeguards and the way in which this bill operates. I’m really focused on trying to enable disabled people to live good lives. All the challenges we’ve got this year, the end of life choice is a really significant issue for New Zealand. But ultimately, it will be one issue, one part of a series of things I work on. I’m looking forward to the public debate. I just really hope that all New Zealanders, and in particular our community, can focus on the substantive issues and not let this become a personal attack on people, because it’s not a way through this.

Mike Pulman: What was your reaction to the NZDSN report in late 2019?

Paula Tesoriero: I’m sure like many in the disability community, I’m really concerned. I think we have a really, really serious issue in New Zealand where a whole lot of things come in a way for disabled people that doesn’t enable us to leave these lives. If you look at the poverty stats, you look at the employment stats, you look at the educational outcomes, the housing situation, and then the issues around funding for sports, we’ve got a real issue in New Zealand where we need to support disabled people better. I think that that report really highlighted some quite significant issues. So like you, I was pretty concerned, I’ve read the report a couple of times now, and it’s something that, you know, we need to continue collectively working on.

Mike Pulman: Were you at all concerned that the voice of disabled people was missing in that report? Was there much consultation from disabled people because there were suggestions that it was very much presented in the interests of providers.

Paula Tesoriero: I don’t know in terms of specific consultation. I know that in my discussions with NZDSN have always been driven around outcomes for disabled people. But there’ll always be that tension and service providers can’t and don’t speak for disabled people.

Mike Pulman: Last time we talked, you said that we need to have a discussion and cost out what it’s going to take in order to develop a system that delivers. Do you feel we are any closer to that?

Paula Tesoriero: I think that we’ve got some way to go in having the EGL principles truly embedded across government. I continue to listen to disabled people’s experiences and I welcome people sharing those experiences with me. I think that what I saw, particularly last year was the coming together of a number of really significant disability-related issues in New Zealand. I think we’re at a point in time where there’s a far greater awareness across government of the issues. I’m not convinced there are solutions by any stretch. These are the issues facing disabled New Zealanders. Here is the evidence. Here’s what we understand. So actually, there’s an onus on the government to ensure that they are adequately addressed.

Mike Pulman:  Yep. I totally agree. All right, well we’ll leave it there Paula. Thank you for joining me. I appreciate it. We’ll talk soon, I’m sure.

Paula Tesoriero: Thanks, Michael. See ya.