By Brooke Brown
Photo by Loren Worthington
“The only obstacles I face are ones I put there myself.”
Spunky, cheerful and tenacious, Isabella Mansfield is a newly-published poet, wife to Matt, and mother to “spit-fire” 5-year-old son, Travis. “The only obstacles I face are ones I put there myself,” she says when asked about the struggles of her disability. Mansfield was paralyzed at age 12 from transverse myelitis, a virus that attacked her spinal cord. What brought on the virus is one of her life’s greatest mysteries, but she firmly believes all things happen for a reason.
During her extended stay in the hospital 22 years ago, there were three mementos from home that she kept close by: her teddy bear; the blanket made by her aunt; and the plaque from her dining room depicting Christ with the inscription, “I never said it would be easy, I only said it would be worth it.” That turned out to be an apt encouragement in the face of things to come.
In fact, during her recovery process, she was sent to see several psychologists who were perplexed by her unconcerned mental state. As she would learn years later, one went so far as to describe her as “inappropriately cheerful.” She recalls saying to them, “Look, I don’t know what you want from me. I’ll cry if you want me to, but let me ask you something… Will it change anything?”
That mindset is reflected in every facet of Isabella’s life, including her writing. She found her creative voice with poetry at age 13, though her family would say she started writing the moment she learned to form letters. Poetry was her “sweet spot” she explains, “I can tell stories and people don’t have to talk. I write really bad dialogue.”
Isabella’s poems explore the gamut of human emotions. The poems in her first book, At Arm’s Length, published in 2014, were written over a sixteen-year span. “I was terrified of publishing, because these poems are so much like a diary or journal for me. The title, ’At Arm’s Length’ was chosen because I felt like, as a writer, I was finally allowing people to share in some of my most private thoughts – but selectively so, in that this certainly isn’t ALL of my poetry. I was still keeping the reader ’at arm’s length’.”
She thought the book would just be a “one-off”, but the words kept coming. With the exception of one very short piece triggered by a visit to a friend’s upstairs home, in her latest book, White Lies in Blue Ink, Isabella never writes about her disability.
“I just never thought in terms of ‘disability’ before. I was the only one in my hometown who used a wheelchair, but I was still me.”
Disability was still an afterthought in early online conversations with her future husband. Isabella met Matt in 1997, before online dating was a social norm. The pair continued to grow their relationship long distance, eventually marrying in 2005 and relocating to Phoenix in 2007.
After Matt completed his first year in film school, the couple decided it was time to start their family. Pregnancy turned out to be one of the biggest obstacles Isabella has ever faced. Travis was born eight weeks early and spent five weeks in NICU. After Travis’ birth, Isabella experienced postpartum depression and started to dislike the person she saw in the mirror. Doctors put her on medication, but she didn’t care for its effects and was concerned about her weight. Looking for an alternative solution, she discovered the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center and became a member. She worked out independently until someone suggested the weekly T.L.C. (Train, Lift, Condition) class and Bootcamp. That was three years ago, and she hasn’t looked back.
“Weight management is difficult when you have a disability. I can’t go run five miles when I want to, but I’ve lost thirty pounds, mostly since August thanks to the classes, and I feel better about myself. I’ve had to rethink some things since I joined Ability360 because it’s the first time I’ve been around other people with similar struggles, but I like who I am now, at 35,” Isabella explains.
Her fitness program has even helped her become a more energetic mom. “Raising a 5-year-old is exhausting,” she freely admits, “but I know I’ve gotten stronger.” Travis makes everything worthwhile. The little guy has never given much thought to his mom’s differences in mobility until very recently. In fact, Isabella’s wheelchair used to be his favorite walker, oftentimes leaving his mother momentarily stranded on the carpet. It’s only in the last couple weeks that Travis has voiced any thoughts on the matter. “Mom, I wish you could walk,” he said as he watched Isabella getting ready for the day. “I don’t,” she replied. “If I did, I wouldn’t have met your dad or have you.”
“I don’t walk, big deal. I can do lots of other things.”
Isabella hopes that message is the take away from her books.
Both of Isabella’s books are available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Brooke Brown loves to tell all types of stories that encourage others. She’s the author of The Little Butterfly Girl, a writer for Autumn Magazine, an actor in Theatre360, a public speaker and runs Brooke’s Butterfly Touch: Creative Storytelling Services, which strives to help others discover the power in sharing their own stories in order to cultivate hope, opportunities and understanding.