Rhiannon Tracey: Creating a Safe Space
Rhiannon Tracey: Creating a Safe Space
[00:00:00] Felicity Cohen: Hello, I’m Felicity Cohen. I’m so excited to introduce you to my Wellness Warriors podcast. For over 20 years, I’ve been a passionate advocate for helping thousands of Australians find solutions to treating obesity and health-related complications through surgical intervention and holistic managed care.
My podcast is dedicated to all the people past, present, and future who have helped shape my journey and continue to inspire me to work consistently to achieve a healthier Australia for both adults and future generations. I hope you enjoy it.
Welcome to the Wellness Warriors podcast today. It’s my absolute pleasure to introduce you to the very beautiful Rhiannon Tracy, welcome, and thank you so much for joining me.
[00:00:51] Rhiannon Tracey: Thanks for having me this Friday morning.
[00:00:54] Felicity Cohen: You’re sporting a very beautiful new hairdo, and I love the colour, you look absolutely stunning.
[00:01:00] Rhiannon Tracey: Thank you very much, it was four years in the making.
[00:01:06] Felicity Cohen: Your life story is so empowering and inspiring. Can we start with, and I know you know, you are so involved in all the work that you do for those who’ve been through spinal cord injuries, having had an accident at the age of around about 20 when you were living in Bali, and you became a C5 quadriplegic, and how you use your voice and how you empower and educate so many others is incredible, and I know that that led eventually to you creating the Next Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery centre, but can we just go back to life before the accident and what are some of your most powerful memories of your early childhood and, and life up until age 20, and why Bali? I think you used to go there a lot for holidays, right?
[00:01:55] Rhiannon Tracey: That’s right. So I was raised as an only child. My mom was actually told that she wouldn’t be able to have children, so I was her miracle baby, which I remind her of every single day and every possible time I can. So, you know, mom and I always had quite a close relationship and it was her and I up until I was about eight years old. But in saying that, we lived with my great grandparents, which were my heart and soul, and I feel like they both contributed quite intensely to the shaping of who I am and my personality, and I even find myself today, you know, in certain aspects of my life, doing things that I do because of my grandfather. So it was just mama, mom, and I really until I was eight when my stepfather came along. School life for me wasn’t brilliant, I didn’t love being a student, which eventuated in me leaving school at the end of year 10, and becoming a hairdresser, which is where my passion for hair and beauty definitely stems from.
But I think a significant point in my life was realising that even though this was something that I enjoyed for me, it didn’t feel purposeful. It didn’t feel like it was really where I was meant to be or what I was meant to do within my life and being an only child, I always had pets and growing up with animals played such a significant part in my life and it, you know, it does to this day. So I actually decided to give up hairdressing, finish my years 11 and 12 through VCAL and then become a veterinarian nurse. So I gave up washing hair for cleaning dog poo out of kennels for the first year of my nursing qualification, but it was something that I just absolutely felt, right? Like it felt so right for me, and I remember that for the first couple of years, I would, you know, I would do the 7:00 AM till 3:00 PM shift and I’d drive home and I’d call my mom, have her on the loudspeaker and I’d just be balling my eyes every day because it was so emotionally taxing going through, you know, losing animals and being there, watching families grieve.
But you know, it really just to be there throughout the nursing process and helping rehabilitate animals and just really being around animals just, was such an amazing experience. And I think for the first time in my life, it was really setting off firecrackers, it made me really think about what I wanted moving forward. And what I wanted was to become a zoologist, I wanted to work at the zoo. I wanted to take care of, you know, all the animals that would tower over me. And I think for me, I’ve just always had this really incredible connection with animals and yeah, I just, I love them. I could talk about animal hours.
[00:04:54] Felicity Cohen: That’s a very beautiful thing to talk about, and I love the idea of pets as therapy as well, you know, here in our clinic at WeightLoss Solutions Australia, we’ve had on occasion, a therapy animal in the clinic, and it’s amazing how it can reduce anxiety for patients to be in a medical space where they’re actually involved in connecting with the psychologists, for example, and I’ve seen that in so many different spaces, how we can actually engage with pets on such a unique level. And they’re so incredible, I love animals too, and love dogs. I know you’ve got three dogs and two cats and I’ve seen how you walk your dog, how amazing is that? How do you get three of them to exercise, and are able to walk more than one? Surely not.
[00:05:41] Rhiannon Tracey: I feel like she walks me! No, it’s quite interesting with Dolly. So just touching back on, you know, how my animals play a part in my life now, so when I was injured I lost the capability of being able to work with animals in the same capacity that I used to. So being in quadriplegic, I lost the dexterity in my hands, which meant, you know, being able to have those fine motor skills that I would need for that job just couldn’t happen at that time. So for the first time, you know, since working with animals, instead of me working towards healing them, they really started to heal me. So, you know, when I was having bad days, I knew I needed to get out of bed because I knew that my animals needed to be fed and they needed to be cared for. And the number of times that my mom would say, “I’m not bloody taking care of all these animals, Rhiannon, you need to get better” you know, it was quite motivational for me and they really did. You know, I think as you said, they, animals are so therapeutic and I think that’s becoming more relevant these days now we’re allowed to take our dogs to work and we’re allowed to do certain things in certain industries. So, you know, they really, really did become such a part of my healing process.
And I got Dolly, which is my two-year-old golden retriever, I got her, I think it was literally the week before Melbourne went into our very first lockdown, and I got her not knowing that that was about to occur. So I had quite a bit of time being at home to be able to start training her, and my goal was to have her be my assistant’s dog. And the trainer said to me initially when we started, “you know, we don’t generally work with golden retrievers because their attention span is a little bit, you know, shorter than a Labrador”, and I said, “well, I can relate to that because, you know, I have ADHD, so our attention spans are exactly the same!” and you know, she really became, I guess the dog version of me. And at that time I was also working with a therapist, and we were talking a lot about what Dolly represents to me because when I would talk about Dolly, I would just break down in tears. And I realised at the time that I got her, she really represented freedom, you know, because I would be able to take her and, you know, for walks and watch her run and play. And I don’t know, she just became this like magical thing for me, and she just knew that she, I think she knew what she was doing for me. And she’s always walked under my wheelchair, I think my wheelchair, I’ve got photos of her from like the day that I got her where she’s asleep under my wheelchair or on the footplate of my chair, so my chair became a safe space for her. So when we would go for walks, when she was quite small, she’d walk under my wheelchair, and then as she’s gotten bigger, she actually now walks under my chair, but physically pushes my chair at the same time. And I say, “I don’t know if she knows that she’s helping me, but she is helping me” she’s not an assistant dog because she failed epically but she does assist me in getting around, and yeah, she’s just absolutely incredible.
And you know, I didn’t know how I was going to walk her and I guess it’s great being a part of a community, being the disability community where I can ask those questions and talk to other people who had dogs who were walking in. But I definitely can’t walk three of them! My smaller dogs absolutely suck at being walked, whereas she’s like a queen, she just loves it.
[00:09:20] Felicity Cohen: She’s a very beautiful dog I absolutely adore her, beautiful. So one of your quotes that really struck me is the following, “I was finally treated as if I was injured and not disabled” can you explain why that was such a turning point for you?
[00:09:39] Rhiannon Tracey: I think something that gets really overlooked when you are in a vulnerable situation is the fact that mindset is everything. Like mindset literally dictates your next move and your next thoughts and your feelings. And I think that I spent seven and a half months in hospital being told that I needed to accept and that I couldn’t do this and I couldn’t do that, and this was impossible and that was impossible. And, you know, I think we take for granted our words too often, because when somebody is vulnerable, your words can have such an ideal effect, you know, on their future moving forward.
So it was when I was taken out of the hospital setting and put into this incredible facility, that was just really focusing on the way like they were focusing on their language and, you know, removing those negative words had such a huge mental impact on my mindset, my mindset completely shifted. And you know, the standard practice in hospitals wh en you’re recovering from an injury like mine, is to get you independent enough and healthy and well enough, and then just kind of send you out in the community and what happens next was really controlled by you. So, you know, that meant that the things that I really wanted to work on from a physical sense, weren’t being worked on, just the things that were already showing signs of improvement were being worked on.
And 13 years ago, I couldn’t understand that mentality, now, I somewhat understand it doesn’t need to be changed, absolutely can it be improved? Yes. But then when I was so vulnerable, I just couldn’t grasp, you know, this mentality. So when I was put into an entirely different situation and surrounded by people who were approaching my recovery from a positive aspect, and like I said, focusing on their language, it was, it was using words like an athlete, using words as like injured, as opposed to being disabled. Because when you incur a disability, you actually don’t like to hear the word disabled, it’s not something that you’ve, you know, adjusted to, that takes time. So for me, just being told that I was injured and instead of hearing, you know, “no you can’t”, it was, “we don’t know, you know, let’s work on that” and that just changed everything for me.
[00:12:11] Felicity Cohen: I think it’s so powerful to understand how those words can impact the course of someone’s life and choosing to have positive language can change everything around your behaviour that follows. Something that you talk about that I really think is relevant to anyone who’s been through any trauma, whether it’s physical, psychological, or both is learning how to turn your pain into purpose. And that’s something that you have done so incredibly effective and in a very empowered fashion. Can you talk to me about how the Next Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery centre has become a big part of your purpose and how it’s supported and helped others?
[00:12:56] Rhiannon Tracey: So, for me, I had, well for everybody who has an injury like this, you really have no idea what the future is going to entail. All I knew was that I wanted to become the somebody that I needed when I was lying in that hospital bed, having all these abrupt conversations with everyone, and that was from doctors to nurses, to family members, to friends, you know, I just needed somebody who could provide hope and I just wasn’t having direct access to that. So I just promised myself that no matter what, no matter the outcome of my injury in a physical sense, I was just going to become that person. As my time rolled on both being in hospital and being discharged and trying to find that hope, I was becoming quite frustrated with the lack of recovery options for this injury and for people with neurological disorders. But I was also becoming quite frustrated with how inaccessible it was to even find the answers to questions that my family had. Not to mention the lack of support I was getting directly, but also the lack of support that my family were getting. And when I say my family, it was really just my mom and my stepdad, you know, they had each other and we all had each other, but my mom and stepdad needed somebody to talk to as well.
And you know, we had to fundraise, our community had to fundraise for my recovery, you know, for me to be able to access intensive exercise-based therapy, which, you know, we couldn’t get here. So we found this facility in America, which was incredible. And it did treat me as injured, not disabled, worked on my entire body, and we had to fundraise I think three or four times going back and forth each time. And each time we’d go there, we’d meet other families who were Australians, who were fundraising, but also, you know, it would have small children or kids that were in school that they were having to, you know, like they’d have to move across the world to be able to access this for a family member, and we just thought that was bizarre. And it was upon returning to the Royal Talbot and attending one of my outpatients appoints, having to wheel through the same gymnasium that I’d spent seven and a half months in, I said to mom, just looking at everyone, I was just like, “you know what? This is ridiculous, and we can’t keep fundraising for me, this is not just about me. Like, we have an entire community of people that need this as well. We need to do something” and mom was just like, “I don’t know how we’re gonna do anything”. At that point, you know, we had pretty much sold everything that we could bar our house, which I begged my parents not to sell because we needed somewhere to live, all to fund my life with this disability.
Because again, I had no access to funding, there was no NDIS, and because my injury happened in Bali and didn’t happen here behind the wheel of a car like if I was a drunk driver and had a car accident, I would’ve been set up for life, you know? So it had quite an impact on my family. And again, like they needed support, so we literally just reached out to our local newspaper, which then turned into, you know, a massive story within the Herald Sun, the national newspaper, and we said, “anybody who wants to be a part of this or is experiencing what we are experiencing and wants to make a change meet at this place at this time” and from that meeting, we had about a hundred people plus their families and we just brainstormed. And we spent two and a half years fundraising, having gala balls, and walkathons, you know, I started using my voice because that was something that my mom used to drill into me all the time, she’d say, “Rhiannon, even though you’re paralysed, you still have your voice”, you know, so I could still make choices, I could still, you know, use my voice to empower. And, you know, I would go out and start talking to rotary clubs and explaining, you know, what I was experiencing and what this community was living and just raising the funds.
In 2014 we opened the Next Step Spinal Cord Injury Recovery centre, which we did open as a not-for-profit organisation because we wanted to be able to assist families in fundraising to access what we were offering. And what we do offer is exercise physiology, but we focus on treating the body as a whole. And although what I was experiencing in America was incredible, the mindset training and the conversations that needed to happen to get somebody amped and ready for this, and as well as support them and their families, there was no access to that overseas. So we wanted to ensure that we were supporting the entire support network of the person that was injured and that meant, you know, their partners, their family members, and even their support workers. And my journey had become quite holistic, so I wasn’t, you know, taking the pharmaceuticals and things that I was consistently being prescribed. So we wanted to incorporate holistic modalities like neuropathy Chinese medicine and also rehab counselling. And I became a life coach, so I just kind of fell into taking our athletes and we call them athletes, not patients or clients, taking them on board and mentoring them as well.
So it just kind of definitely just all fell into place. It took a lot of work, a lot of red tape and a lot of very interesting conversations with the medical field, and medical professionals. But it definitely, you know, continues to give me a reason to get out of bed each day, but I think what’s most important, it’s allowed me to understand why people would say to me, “everything happens for a reason” because when people, sorry, I just lost a headphone, when people would say that to me when I was in the hospital, you know, that’s the last thing you want to hear! You know, again, going back to those conversations and the language that we use, it was the last thing I wanted to hear. But, you know, if somebody said everything happens for a reason and one day Rhiannon you might understand that, as I do. And you know, I say it all the time, it happened because I was able to create something that didn’t exist. And I just keep continuing to fill gaps, you know, in our worlds, in our non-inclusive worlds, when it comes to living with a disability and the stigma around disability.
[00:19:47] Felicity Cohen: Absolutely incredible. Is there one particular athlete who’s been through your program or has been attending your facility, whom you have seen and watched their journey, can you share a really spectacular story of someone whom you’ve worked with in your own space?
[00:20:05] Rhiannon Tracey: I think what’s really important to understand is when you have an injury like this, generally and primarily your goal is to want to walk again like that’s the top tier goal. And for me that was, that was definitely it, and for everybody who transitions from hospital to us, that is their primary goal. I think I’ve only really met a handful of people who have just said, “you know what, we just want to get better. You know, we just want to be able to live our lives” and it took me as an individual, probably about five years to understand that, you know, walking or being able to walk isn’t what provides a quality of life. Like you really do understand that it’s the little things in life that you really take for granted. For me, I spent the first five years of my journey focusing on walking again, and I actually lost the gratitude that I’d had previously for those things like, you know, being able to work with animals or really, for me, it was like being able to drive my car. Like I’d bought my RAV4 in March of 2009 and by September I was being told to sell it because I’d never be able to get inside it again you know? So it was those little things.
So, you know, one of the reasons that we named our facility the Next Step, is because the facility we were attending in America was called Project Walk, and just having the word walk in there, somewhat promises a bit of false hope. And that was the feedback that we were consistent, you know, hearing from the medical profession. And I knew somewhere down the track, we would need to like, we never wanted to work against the medical profession, we wanted to work with them. So, you know, I was very careful in that sense of not including those words in the title of what our organisation would stand for, because going into our recovery programs I try and educate our athletes that, like spinal cord injuries are like snowflakes, no two are ever the same. But what we are here to do is provide you with the quality of life that you deserve and help you regain your independence because that is what we need to be able to live you know, and that I think was something that I know I took for granted and 13 years on, you know, I do more now living my life on wheels than I ever could have imagined doing prior to having my injury.
So when it comes to one story, I really don’t have one particular athlete because I’ve watched people who are complete, you know, socially shut down, don’t want to communicate with the outside world, just wheeling to our facility and struggle to have a conversation with me, let alone, you know, their own friends and their family, to then move on to doing things like having relationships and creating families for themselves, or getting back into the community, returning to university and really creating and building lives for themselves.
Have I seen people walk again, post having a spinal cord injury? Hell, I’ve seen people run! You know, and that was something truly incredible, I was on the phone at work and I was having a conversation with a client and then all of a sudden you know, one of our athletes who was a quadriplegic who, you know, had been doing a lot of work with us, just ran, literally ran out the door and I dropped the phone and I burst into tears because that was something I didn’t think that I would ever see with my own eyes. But does that happen for everyone? No, it doesn’t. But does, you know, the only thing we can guarantee is that by the time you leave our facility, you’ll be smiling. Which for me, I think is bloody brilliant, you know, to come from being sad and miserable, because we’ve all been there to being happy and being able to say like, “you know, I choose happiness”.
And, you know, I get asked all the time, would I go back and change what happened to me? And of course, I would, but you know, I think in instances where we experience trauma and we all experience that, I think you were talking about earlier, you know, whether you are able-bodied or living with a disability or an injury or an illness, we all experience trauma throughout our lives. And at that moment, you know, we can’t always take responsibility for exactly what happens to us, but what we can take responsibility for is the outcome. So if we choose happiness or we choose to turn a negative situation into a positive, then you know, that’s what we get to control.
[00:24:57] Felicity Cohen: I think we all want to live a life where we’re absolutely living on purpose through our passion and that we can seek out happiness every day. And I don’t think that’s exclusive to any community, but that to see you empowering people who have been through this whole injury, story, and trauma, to give them that opportunity is just remarkable. And congratulations, because the work that you’re doing is really something to be absolutely applauded for, it is incredible.
[00:25:27] Rhiannon Tracey: Thank you.
[00:25:28] Felicity Cohen: One of the areas that you are passionate about, which is also a passion of mine, I’m a founding director of the Research Institute for Future Health, which is a new independent research facility. And we have a friend in common, Dr Dinesh Palipana, who is absolutely someone here in Queensland who we just all admire so so much. He was 2021, or 2020 Australian of the year. And he’s just the most remarkable human, he’s a doctor here on the Gold Coast at the Gold Coast university hospital and lives as an injured person, also as a quadriplegic, following his trauma and really involved in the area of research in stem cell research at Griffith university.
Can you tell me a little bit about your connection to research and why that’s important and also a little bit about your connection to the very fantastic and beautiful Dinesh?
[00:26:24] Rhiannon Tracey: What a free plug Dinesh is getting today, he deserves every bit of it!
[00:26:29] Felicity Cohen: Absolutely!
[00:26:30] Rhiannon Tracey: You know, I never thought that in my lifetime a cure would be on my cards for this injury if I’m being completely honest. Especially after being in America and spending the time that I did in America and realising throughout my journey, how behind, we are when it comes to medical research here in Australia. And now here we are at the forefront of having a potential cure, you know, in our lifetimes, that just blows my mind, it truly blows my mind and it raises so many questions for me, both in like personally having this injury. But I know it provides, it gives that sense of hope to somebody who, you know, is newly injured as well.
So my facility, really was the first of its kind here in Australia, being that it was created and founded by somebody living with this injury. And we spoke earlier about how much of a change it makes to somebody who has an injury like this when you are directly dealing with somebody in the capacity, being work, be the medical field, or, you know, the recovery journey itself. You share, you have that common interest because you’re living it, but you also have a greater understanding that there is no BS, you know, the person that you’re dealing with is really going to tell it how it is and you know, is doing what they do, because it is their life. Like it is their passion, and I think that’s where Dinesh and I really have a lot of similarities because we’ve gone out, we have, like, we have turned our pain into purpose because we’ve recognised and acknowledged what needs to change for our community. And now we’ve gone heads down, bums up and thrown ourselves into finding that change.
I met Dinesh two or three years ago at the Perry Cross gala ball, and Perry Cross is a quadriplegic himself. We refer to Perry as the Australian Christopher Reeves, his injuries, are very similar to Christopher. And he did work alongside Christopher Reeves many, many years ago, and they shared the same goal, and that was to find a cure for spinal cord injury research. And one thing that’s great about the disability community is that it’s like a family like everybody knows everybody, and there are so many of us that are working together to make things happen for our community. And I think you know, there are that seven degrees of separation as well. And, you know, I knew Perry and through Perry, I met Dinesh and then we’d all have conversations and we all realise, “oh wow, we’re actually all working together for the same cause” you know, I’m stepping in, you know, to provide the recovery component to the stem cell clinical trials that both Perry and Dinesh are working to make happen or to facilitate here in Australia. So we’re all playing a part in providing recovery for our spinal cord injury community, somewhere in the, hopefully not too distant future.
[00:29:45] Felicity Cohen: It’s a very powerful research and I think it’s fantastic to have people collaborating, contributing, and providing those opportunities to extend. And you know, there are no boundaries, there are no limits, and the hope is that there’s going to be that eventual cure. So congratulations on being engaged in that whole research process, it’s really a space to watch and I can’t wait to see the future in all of that research space and what you’re doing to contribute there.
[00:30:11] Rhiannon Tracey: Yeah.
[00:30:11] Felicity Cohen: So I’d like to turn to relationships because you have been really quite open in talking about, you’ve been through the trauma of a divorce and recovery from that. You’ve been really open about sharing how you’ve engaged in using all these different platforms, like Hinge and Tinder. And I think I heard you say that you met one of your best male friends through chatting on Tinder. I love that! And now you have a new partner in your life. Can you just walk us through that whole process from, you know, recovering from divorce and then putting yourself out there and what it’s been like for you in your world to then find a, you know, new love and a partner?
[00:30:56] Rhiannon Tracey: Wow. I feel like he’s not new anymore, we’re about to have our one-year anniversary and I feel like we’ve been together for about 20 years. Look, the reason why I’ve been so open in sharing my relationship journey is that, you know, we speak about trauma and how everybody faces trauma at some point in their life. And for me, my marriage breakdown was so much more emotionally traumatic than having my injury. I struggled so much more throughout that process of trying to move forward in my life after my marriage broke down, because it was completely unexpected, it was completely out of my own control. And you know, it really got me to a point where for the first time and this bit of a trigger warning for anybody who, you know, feels uncomfortable talking about suicide, there was a point, you know, after my marriage broke down where I really did feel like I didn’t want to be here anymore. And that was quite concerning because that was, because of the impact of another person. And there were moments throughout that time when I was trying to mend my heart, that I experienced those lows.
And then I have this absolute godsend of a best friend, and she, I always say that “you know, for all the traumatic things that go on throughout our lives, like the heavens opened up and handed me this angel and said, this is going to be your person.” You know I don’t believe that soulmates need to be lovers, I believe that you know, they can be anybody in your life, and Lauren, for me, we’re each other’s soulmate, we’re each other’s person. And I had this significant moment throughout trying to heal my heart where I just felt completely depleted, and, you know, really I was at my lowest and sometimes, well, no, most of the time being at your lowest is great because, you know, it only means that you can move up from there. And I really felt like I had no energy left for anything, and she said, well, she held my hand at this moment, she said, “well, take mine, like take my energy and take my strength”, and that, you know, that really, that really did make me feel like space was being held for me by my friend so that I could move forward and I could heal.
So for the first time in my life, you know, I was turning 30, so it was a pretty significant time in my life. I was turning 30, for the first time I was on my own, I didn’t have to hide receipts anymore, I could do whatever the heck I wanted, and it was scary, but it was also very exhilarating, you know. I hadn’t really been on the dating scene prior to my injury, because I’d been in a long-term relationship, and here I was facing this scary and exhilarating world as a single woman, but also as a single woman with a disability. So, you know, I had to grasp the online dating scenario, which was so frightening, and I had to have internal conversations with myself about, you know, whether I put on my dating profile that I have a disability, that I’m in a wheelchair. You know, because with me, I’m in a wheelchair, but I can stand and I can take steps. So there are photos of me sitting, there are photos of me standing. So I was like, which photos do I put on there? Do I change it up? You know, and I was dealing with all sorts of human beings, you know, so I was really testing my self-confidence, but also I guess my judgment as well. But it was fun like it was, I was reading every book about being single and what I should and shouldn’t do as a single woman. And I think I had moments where that was really good for me, and then other times it was like, that was terrible. I was consistently waiting for that moment when I didn’t feel lonely anymore. You know, that moment where I could just really appreciate the space that I was in. I had many, many, many moments sitting on my kitchen floor eating dumplings and drinking all of the wine. And I say that to anybody who’s coming out of a relationship, I say, whatever vice you need, you know, like my sister just recently, you know, went through her own marriage breakdown, and I said to her, “you need to just drink the wine, eat the dumplings. Look, if you need to smoke the cigarettes, you do whatever you need to do, because this is your time right now. This is your time” and you know, it really is. It’s a journey like really is.
But yep, I got online and I worked out what worked for me. And I say having this injury gives you a really good BS filter because I had people coming and going from my life in the early days of my injury all the time, so I have pretty strong intuition and I can tell what a person’s like, you know, just from the first kind of opening line of a conversation. You know, I did meet people online and, you know, one particular person that I met became my best friend, you know, like we dated and we realised that, you know, we weren’t great for each other, you know, as partners, but as friends, we were amazing and he was moving to Sydney so we built quite a strong friendship over FaceTime. I’m actually going to Sydney next weekend to see him, he is absolutely one of my best friends in the whole entire world! But having him in my, I guess, a team of support, trying to heal my heart because he’d also gone through a similar scenario to me, it was great getting that male point of view and the questions that I needed answered. He was there to answer them for me as well. So, you know, like, he was doing what I was doing, but he was, yeah, he was providing support that nobody else could provide, you know, just as a mate, as a buddy, which was incredible.
[00:37:18] And then in January of last year, I think it was January of last year. So I got off the dating apps, I went, I got that out of my system. I met people and, you know, I did whatever I needed to do, but I, you know, I shut that down because I realised that, you know, for me, if I wanted to meet my person, it was probably going to be out in the real world because my personality is quite strong and I need somebody to vibe with me, you know, in the real world. But Lauren, my best friend, would come down to Geelong and we would have our wine nights, and during our wine nights, we would think it was quite funny to reopen the dating apps and start conversations because we’re girls and when you get two best friends together and a bottle of wine, all kinds of crazy stuff happens! And we started talking to this one guy who seemed kind of interesting, but then the next day, you know, I said, “look, I don’t usually use these apps. I’m actually going to shut it down. If you want to keep talking, like, here’s my number or let’s move to Instagram or one of the things”, and this guy and I, we continued talking and then we worked out that his cousin was actually a client of mine at the Next Step.
[00:38:40] Felicity Cohen: Oh wow.
[00:38:41] Rhiannon Tracey: And so I freaked out and I shut it down because I don’t mix work and pleasure. I have pretty strong boundaries when it comes to that, and because my work is actually like my family where I’m so close to every one of my athletes, as well as my staff because we’re all going through this journey together. So I just said, “look, I don’t think it’s a good idea. I don’t think that we’re vibing”, he called me out on that quite a few times and I just said, “look, respect my boundaries” and then, unfortunately, this particular athlete, his cousin, a few months later passed away. So Rohan and I first met in person at his cousin’s funeral, which is a very weird story to tell, but it’s our story.
And I don’t know, like we just, we both knew each other was going to be there. We both kind of had a moment where we saw each other and just kind of knew that there was something, and we hadn’t been apart since, so yeah! We’re like I said, we’re coming up to our one year next month or in July, we don’t really know. Like we don’t really know, do we say it’s where we became Facebook official? Do we say it’s when we first met? We don’t know, but we’re gonna say it’s like next month, and yeah, it’s been great.
And I think that now I have an understanding of why people say that you need that time on your own because you really do need to experience, you know, life on your own, but you need to grow. And for me, during that time, and especially coming out of my marriage, I educated myself on compassion towards other people because my marriage broke down because of my ex-husband’s mental illness, and even though I was grieving and I was retaliating to things that were happening, I needed to come back and realise that, you know, like I needed to have a sense of compassion and empathy for what he was going through because he had a mental illness and I needed to take all of those considerations into whatever would happen for me moving forward. And I’m the type of person that, as I’ll learn from everything you know, I don’t have any regrets in my life whatsoever, you know, from diving into swimming pools too, you know, marrying high school sweethearts, I don’t have any regrets because I’ve learned from every single aspect of everything that happens within my life, and I use that in everything moving forward. So, you know, I was able to learn, really learn and understand what it was that you know, I needed to move through. And I still had a lot of trauma from even pre-injury, but also needed to have knowledge and understanding of, you know, my partner’s potential trauma from their past, or, you know, their wants and their needs and their desires. So here we are, we’re in a good space.
[00:41:53] Felicity Cohen: Thank you so much for sharing, it’s a beautiful story and I think one of the lessons for all of us in a healing process of any kind is just creating space and giving yourself that opportunity and time to heal and don’t rush the process because you know, life’s a journey for all of us and I think you should be celebrating this beautiful relationship at that one year mark for that whole month, you deserve a month-long celebration! It’s really spectacular, congratulations.
[00:42:22] Rhiannon Tracey: Oh, thank you.
[00:42:23] Felicity Cohen: So you’ve also got a really holistic view around wellness and around health and that translates not just in how you manage and look after your athletes at Next Step, but also how you view your entire lifestyle and in May of this year, you decided to take on board a masters in herbal diploma, herbalist?
[00:42:47] Rhiannon Tracey: Yeah.
[00:42:47] Felicity Cohen: Is that, I don’t know if I’ve got the right terminology, but how herbal medicine can impact our lives. What led you down that path and what are you excited about in that space?
[00:42:58] Rhiannon Tracey: A couple of things, actually. So obviously throughout my recovery process, again, coming back to the knowledge and understanding of pharmaceuticals. So when you have a spinal cord injury, keep losing this headphone, when you have a spinal cord injury, you are prescribed what I refer to as a shopping list of drugs and medication, and because I had a nursing background, funnily enough, a lot of the medications we would give to animals are human medications, so things would kind of raise alarm bells for me when I was, you know, about to take a certain medication or being prescribed something, particularly when I was experiencing these emotional lows and to fix those lows, I was being prescribed antidepressants or quite strong pharmaceuticals. I questioned everything! You know, I realised that a lot of these pharmaceuticals were actually contradicting what I was trying to achieve within my own body. Like I was on all these nerve blockers and like medication for nerve pain and I never had nerve pain, you know, I’m one of the few people who hadn’t experienced that, and I actually asked my doctor, I just said, “you know, why? Like, can I go off this? I don’t have nerve pain” and he said, “oh yeah, you don’t” and it was as simple as that, and I was like, oh, that’s, that’s really interesting to me.
Anyway, so, you know, my mom sought out a naturopath pretty early on into my recovery and she was prescribing me just, you know, different kinds of herbs and creating concoctions, but also explaining to me why I needed them. On my last visit to America, I actually experienced something quite, quite frightening. My whole body shut down and I entered back to ICU, but in America, because I was exercising three hours a week for like five days a week, but I was also in America and eating all the wrong foods and not getting enough sleep. I had no knowledge about what I actually needed to fuel and support my body while I was putting it through this huge, you know, exercise recovery program. So my body just shut down, and it was then that, you know, being diagnosed with all these ridiculous things by these doctors in America, I was on a prednisolone drip because they said I had MS. As I came back to Australia and my GP who’d been my GP, you know, my entire life and my naturopath who would work together turned around and said, “no, you don’t have any of these things, you’ve got a spinal cord injury and your body’s healing from trauma” you know, “and you are somewhat fighting it because you are feeding it all of this new information while it’s still trying to heal from this massive trauma” so, you know, that for me, I became super intrigued. Everything that I put in my body needed to serve a purpose, if it wasn’t fuelling me, then it didn’t serve me. And then I’ve always had digestive issues, so all the women in my family have digestive issues, my mom has Crohn’s disease.
So I became plant-based, probably, I gave up dairy and in like 2017 and then from that stopped eating meat, I’ve just slowly started to reintroduce chicken back into my diet. So, you know, just becoming a plant-based eater just changed everything, you know, from my skin texture to the way my body would function, chronic fatigue is a side effect of having this injury, so, you know, I needed that little bit of extra fuel to get going. But I also still have a spinal cord injury, which is a full-time job, as well as running a business, and wear about 20 different hats. So, you know, I need all the extra fuel I can get to keep me, my body running at optimal health. And you know, it was learning about the things that I was putting, like when I became plant-based, I started making so much more of my own food, as opposed to just, you know, buying things off shelves. But every time I would make something or create a dish, I was learning about the ingredients that I was putting in there, which really, I don’t know, I just became super interested in it and found myself sharing these recipes with friends or the athletes at the Next Step.
But then during COVID, in the lockdown, I did what many did and created a veggie garden because I couldn’t access things. And while I’d spent time in my garden, I’d have these flashbacks, these memories that I had when I was like a small child being in my garden with my pop, my grandfather. So, you know, I would get out in the garden because it would take me back to those happy times with my pop and it actually made me feel really close to my pop because I had moments, you know, throughout my recovery where, you know, I’m quite a spiritual person, so I had moments where I felt his presence and his encouragement. So being in the garden yeah, really made me feel closer to my pop and yeah, again, like I’d be planting something and I’d want to know like, I’d want to know why I need to plant this, what it’s going do for me when I needed to plant it, what medicinal properties that this food has. And I actually really wanted to become a naturopath, but it’s about a five-year commitment and I just don’t have the time really, my life is quite full.
So yeah, a friend of mine is a herbalist and I got talking to her and I said, “well, maybe this is what I need to do” and yep, I just bit the bullet and realised that you know, time is just time and if it’s meant to be, it’ll be, and I’ll fit it in somewhere, and you know, if it’s something that you enjoy, then it’s not work, is it? So yeah, and I’m loving it! I’m about two or three weeks into it. So I’m still like at the introductory level, but I’ve already planted, you know, little calendula seeds and I’m already mixing up different teas and things for friends. So it’s fun and beneficial!
[00:49:30] Felicity Cohen: So good, and it’s so important and such a powerful message that what you do fuel your body with is important every single day for your body, for your mind, for everything, for how you function as a human. Every single day, what you fuel yourself with is so critical.
I know another area that you are passionate about is, is fashion. And you’ve mentioned a few times on your socials, specifically calling out brands that do embrace inclusivity. Why do you think Australia is so far behind other countries when it does come to being inclusive and within fashion, or, you know, in general? So what is it about fashion for you that’s important to empower others as disabled individuals through fashion as well?
[00:50:17] Rhiannon Tracey: Well, I think that fashion is a representation of ourselves. So, you know, we generally dress how we feel or how we want to feel. And, you know, there was a significant moment when I was in the hospital, and when I was injured, it was the era of the skinny leg jeans, and I had a nurse tell my mom and me that I wouldn’t be able to wear skinny leg jeans again, and this was like, while my mom was literally like trying to pull my completely paralysed body into a pair of skinny leg jeans. And you know, I spent so many of the years that followed living in like, you know, jeggings and leggings and tracksuit pants and never felt feminine, never felt confident, didn’t, you know, like I just didn’t feel, I didn’t feel happy like, but I guess that was also a representation of where I was within my life as well as we’ve spoken about the quality of life. So, you know, I started integrating colour and, you know, I had this internalised battle with the fact that and I still do have this battle, this body image battle all the time, when I’m sitting down versus when I’m standing up, I’m two completely different body shapes, you know, and I’m also a woman whose weight fluctuates all the time. So, you know, I would really, really struggle with clothing and with the way that I looked and could present myself because it wasn’t just about how the clothing would fit, but it was whether I could actually put that piece of clothing on myself without assistance. Couldn’t do up buttons, couldn’t do up zips, you know, and that was just another frustrating aspect of having this injury.
But I started to find items of clothing that worked, that would kind of, that would tick the list, that would make me feel feminine, that would make me feel pretty, that would make me feel confident, but also that I could access easily, and that I could put on completely independently. And then, you know, social media became such a huge aspect of my life. It was something we created this space for my journey while I was in the hospital, which was, I think a public Facebook page that then turned into Instagram and I started sharing, you know, I started sharing the fact that, you know, I was struggling with clothing, I was struggling with this, that I couldn’t access these things. And then I’d have brands message me and say, “Hey, try this and report back on this” and I thought, “whoa, this is great. This is good fun. Like, I’m enjoying this. I get to get dressed for free. But I get to also share this with our community” but then that would open up more conversations.
You know, and it’s bizarre, and I don’t have an answer to, you know, why we are still so far behind because it’s something that frustrates me daily because the disability community is actually the largest minority group in the world, right? So it’s bigger than, you know, every other minority group and I’m not going list them, but it is still the one that’s the least spoken about. And I think it is because of the awkwardness around those conversations. So again, we come back to the conversation, we come back to language and it’s something that I really am putting my heart and soul into, opening up these conversations with whoever wants to have them. And I think everybody needs to be having them because, you know, you could be driving to work and you’ll see a billboard that’ll have a disabled person on it and it’s generally, you know, a workers compensation, legal team, you know, advertising that they’ll, you know, they’ll fight your legal battles for you, and then that’ll be mirrored by a person in a wheelchair or with a mobility aid looking sad and depressed. So that’s the image that’s portrayed to everybody, you know, that having a disability means that you are sad and depressed. I go out all the time and I have people say to me, “it’s so wonderful that you are out and about” and I think, well, what’s wonderful about it? Like, you know, I’m still human, you know, and that’s what I say to brands now, I say, “you know, like, just because I have a disability, it doesn’t mean that I don’t wash my face, brush my teeth, use beauty products” we are still using all of the same things that the able-bodied community are using. But the issue is, is we’re not seeing ourselves replicated in your marketing or in your branding, and we’re seeing ourselves being marketed as sad and depressed. And that just, I say to people, “you haven’t experienced being out and about with somebody until you have been out and about with somebody who’s living with a disability, because excuse my French, but we just don’t give a shit that we’re disabled” you know what I mean? Like, we’re still here to live our lives and to have a quality of life and to rock the hell out of a nice pair of boots or a nice shade of lippy or whatever it is. So why isn’t that being portrayed? Because it’s actually meaning that all of these brands are missing a great deal of financial gains because they’re leaving out an entire community.
So, you know, yes I call people out and I call brands out, but I also celebrate the ones that are doing it right. And like, to be honest, nobody’s doing it a hundred per cent right yet, because there are so many pillars when it comes to doing it right. It’s what happens behind the scenes, so like, we’ll talk about a scenario, which is, you know, well, yesterday I spoke with the Target group and that question got asked, you know, “who is leading by example?” and I said, “well, nobody at the moment”. But people are taking steps in diversity and inclusion, but it has to happen behind the scenes in the head offices, then it has to come down to the education and etiquette of the staff that you are putting on the floor of your stores, or, you know, just in your company, they need to have an understanding about disability, education and etiquette, and then it comes down to the layouts and the fit outs of the stores, but then it comes down to the piece of clothing as well. So there are quite a few pillars, but it starts with the conversation. And I think unless you are directly or indirectly affected by somebody living with a disability, you’re not open to having those conversations.
For me, I’m somebody who sustained this injury, I wasn’t born with a disability, so I see both perspectives being able-bodied and disabled. So I understand that there is a little bit of ignorance around having those conversations or that knowledge. So I’m here to have those conversations, to take away that awkwardness, to help able-bodied people understand that we want to talk, we want to talk to you, you know, if you see us in the street, give us a smile, say hello, like no different, you know, it’s not your sympathy that we’re after, it’s your inclusion.
[00:57:42] Felicity Cohen: Thank you for being such an incredibly powerful advocate for all people and for sharing your story, because it does have so much relevance to all of us, able body, disabled communities, for absolutely everybody, and it’s such a powerful voice across every single pillar of your life. You’re such an amazing example to all of us.
[00:58:02] Rhiannon Tracey: Thank you.
[00:58:03] Felicity Cohen: And finally, Rhiannon, our listeners are all Wellness Warriors, and we know that wellness is worth fighting for. Once you lose your health, you spend the rest of your life fighting to get it back, whether that’s physical, mental, or spiritual. And you know, you’ve done that in so many different leaps and bounds and you continue to do so and to be such an example to us.
But what I’d love to hear from you, my final question, what does wellness mean to you?
[00:58:32] Rhiannon Tracey: Wellness to me means feeling your absolute best and knowing that every moment is temporary. And I say that because one of the huge reasons that I share my story is to help people understand that they don’t need to have a traumatic experience and they don’t need to have a moment of guilt where they feel like they need to start again, like we need to reshape our lives because I’m having this moment, yeah? So, you know, I think we hold a lot of guilt when it comes to wellness because we’ve been programmed to not have mental health days, to go into work when we’re not feeling our best, or to not set boundaries. But these are all the things that when we start doing them, we genuinely feel better within ourselves, yeah? And when we are feeling good, when our cups fall, we then send that out into the universe and make everybody who’s around us feel better, and our productivity is better.
You know, I say to my staff, and as I said earlier in my staff or my family like I don’t have a big family, the Next Step people, they’re my family. So I say to my family of staff, I say, “you know what? You need a day off, like, take a day off. You’ve got heaps of annual leave, take a day off” or, you know if it’s a nice day, go sit outside! We are on a rotating roster, all my staff have massages because their job is quite physically intense. So, you know, they have access to all of our therapies as well, which, you know, the company pays for, because I know that if my guys are feeling crappy, they’re not going to perform and our athletes aren’t going to get the quality of care that they deserve.
So that goes for all of us, you know, if we’re not feeling our best, nobody’s going to get the best of us. So wellness is feeling your best and, you know, setting a self-care menu because that’s what we need. We need self-care, we need to give back to ourselves and fill our own cups before anybody else can get the best from us.
[01:00:48] Felicity Cohen: A hundred per cent agree with absolutely everything you’ve said, self-care is critical. And I just want to thank you so much for joining me on the Wellness Warriors podcast, it’s been an absolute pleasure Rhiannon having you here with me today.
[01:01:01] Rhiannon Tracey: Thank you so much.