After a night of drinking and partying with friends, British woman Annabelle Moult wasn't too concerned when she woke up the next morning with a throbbing headache and blurred vision.
The now-39-year-old had enjoyed a fun night with her friends that fateful Friday in September 2007, and dismissed her symptoms as a bad hangover.
When the headache persisted throughout the weekend, she noted that her vision had become progressively blurry and her legs had started to tingle. On Sunday night, Moult got up to go to the bathroom - and her legs gave way.
After being rushed to the hospital by her husband, Moult underwent a series of tests - but within three days, the young woman had lost her sight and was paralysed from the waist down, with the doctors having no explanation.
It would take two years for Moult to get a diagnosis. After years of testing, invasive procedures and uncertainty, she was eventually diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica; a rare condition where the immune system damages the spinal cord and the nerves of the eyes.
"I'd gone from being a hockey-playing, gym-loving, independent 25-year-old who didn't have to rely on anyone, to being severely visually impaired and paralysed, not being able to leave my house alone. My whole world changed," Moult said in a candid interview with The Sun last week.
At Oxford's John Radcliffe Hospital, Moult was given steroids to reduce the swelling in her brain and began intensive physiotherapy, as well being taught to use a wheelchair. She was discharged in February 2008, and she and her husband moved into a converted room in her parents' garage.
Before being discharged, her eyesight had started to gradually improve, going from blackness to grey, then to a blurry outline, The Sun reports. However, the steroids and lack of mobility lead to significant weight gain, and despite her small improvements, Moult told her husband, Danny, that she understood if he didn't want to continue with their relationship.
"I told him if he didn't want to stay with me, I wouldn't hold it against him. But he gave me a smile and said, 'I'm staying'," she recounted to The Sun. "I went back to work part-time. I refused to let my wheelchair become some sad, lonely prison.
"Instead, Danny and I went on our planned holiday to Jamaica. Danny had to carry me to the pool every five minutes, but he didn't complain once."
After returning from their trip, Moult began to learn how to do basic tasks again, such as getting herself dressed, going to the toilet and bathing. With Danny and her family's unwavering support, Moult spent the next year undergoing further testing, including two lumbar punctures, a plasma exchange, MRIs and a blood test nearly every day for six months - a period in which she described herself as "a pincushion".
It wasn't until 2009 that doctors diagnosed Moult with the rare auto-immune condition neuromyelitis optica. Its cause is unknown and there is currently no cure.
"The diagnosis didn't make too much of a difference as I'd already been out of hospital and learning to adapt with my new life," she told The Sun. "But it was almost a relief as it meant I could get further information, help and support without being an unknown entity."
Moult eventually was able to stop taking steroids in 2011, a significant step forward in her journey that she said instantly improved her well-being both mentally and physically.
To continue improving her health, Moult took up a number of practices including meditation, cooking, listening to audiobooks and writing in a journal, as well as slowly finding ways to incorporate fitness into her new life. She now regularly enjoys working out from her wheelchair, participating in online classes or following helpful exercise routines that are adapted for people living with disabilities. She also practices Qigong, yoga, HIIT and body strengthening, with her change in lifestyle helping her to lose 50kg.
"Getting a routine and the motivation was hard due to my increased weight gain at first, but once I had built it as a healthy habit and daily routine, it became easier," she told The Sun. "Discovering exercise and holistic alternatives has helped my recovery tremendously."
In addition to persevering with her fitness, Moult has also refused to let her condition stop her from pursuing her passion for travel. Since her diagnosis she has travelled across the globe, visiting the likes of Hong Kong, Sydney, South Africa and Japan. Despite some challenges with accessibility, Moult said she has learned to adapt and take things in her stride, refusing to let little things get in the way of her enjoying her travels and living life to the fullest.
While Moult acknowledges that some days are worse than others, with pain and odd sensations occuring on a daily basis, she no longer feels the need to take medications to manage the pain.
"I'm still in pain every day from my bra line downwards, and sometimes it extends to my whole body," she told the outlet. "There's numbness and it's sort of like pins and needles and a constant prickly pain. Some days can be worse than others."
Moult now serves as an ambassador for NMO UK, a local charity supporting individuals with neuromyelitis optica. In January 2020, she left her job in operations and began mentoring others who are facing similar battles, helping them to cope with and come to terms with the life-altering changes. She also frequently shares and documents her journey via social m, in the hopes of providing a source of inspiration for others in similar situations.
"I want people to believe in themselves and understand that while there will be dark days, learn from them and grow, to become the best version of yourself," she said.
"The key is to have a positive mind and a strong mindset to keep moving. I won't let my wheelchair stop me, so you shouldn't either."