A woman who nearly lost her life in a knife attack has told how she finally managed to pull herself out from a ‘very dark place’ by getting fit and learning to be happy with herself again.
Tanya Whittam, 25, from Wakefield, West Yorkshire, was viciously stabbed as she stood at a bus stop in Leeds five years ago, in an assault that left her fighting for her life.
Then a 20-year-old student and part-time care assistant, Tanya was on her way home from university one morning when she was stabbed multiple times with a stolen kitchen knife by Rebecca Jackson in a completely random attack.
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Tanya Whittam, 25, was stabbed in a completely random knife attack in April 2011 that forced her to quit her job and left her confidence at an all-time low. After starting to get back into fitness in 2014, she has learned to love her body and her scars again, and took part in a fitness photo shoot (pictured) to boost her confidence
Tanya was randomly attacked as she stood at a bus station by Rebecca Jackson, who was later detained at a mental health hospital. She was left ‘stitched up like a patchwork quilt’ on her left leg, left, and arm, right
On April 18, 2011, Jackson had been to Leeds General Infirmary at 9am to be treated for cuts to her head. She told a nurse that she wanted to kill her mother.
But before a mental health team could see to her, Jackson left the hospital heading to a shop where she stole the knife and then went to the bus station.
Tanya recalls: ‘I’d just missed my bus at the bus station so I went to Greggs to get a sandwich and a drink. I was waiting for the next bus when suddenly I felt something from behind – it felt like I was being punched.
‘I turned around and there was a girl standing there with a knife in her hand. I started screaming and I remember everyone staring at me. A girl came to help me and, despite everything that was happening, I somehow found ways to distract myself from the horror.
‘People were cutting off my clothes (to stem the bleeding) and I remember just thinking how embarrassed I was that I wasn’t wearing matching underwear.’
An ambulance arrived within six minutes and took Tanya to Leeds General Infirmary, where she was in theatre for nine hours as doctors battled to save her life, desperately trying to stop the bleeding as an artery in her arm exploded.
‘I was in a very dark place’: Following the violent attack, Tanya was forced to quit her part-time job and abandon her dream of becoming a mental health nurse. She also gained weight, going from a size 10 to a 16
‘I started screaming and I remember everyone staring at me’: Tanya didn’t realise she was being stabbed at first until she turned around and saw a woman holding a kitchen knife. The attack almost cost her her life
For the first summer following Tanya’s attack in 2011, she struggled to adjust to her altered appearance. She said: ‘I was paranoid people were staring at me, always worrying what people were thinking of me’
Tanya was told she needed reconstructive surgery to her brachial plexus (nerves around the neck and shoulder) as well as an artery transplant. She was also told she may never regain functional use of her left arm – forcing her to quit her job and abandon her dreams of becoming a mental nurse.
‘I was stitched up like a patchwork quilt and my career had been taken away,’ she said.
Tanya discharged herself from hospital after eight days and went to stay with family while she recovered.
But she was still traumatised after her attack and found it difficult to adapt to her new life.
‘I went on to completely lose my identity and I was suffering with post-traumatic stress disorder,’ she said. ‘I was in a very dark place. I wouldn’t wear clothing that would show my scarring and I became a complete recluse.
‘This went on for almost two-and-a-half years. I could no longer cook so convenience food became a habit, and I made excuses not to exercise because of my disability.’
After losing her job and being forced to pull out of university, Tanya found herself in ‘a very dark place’ where she would sit at home in her dressing gown with the curtains closed watching daytime TV for days on end
Tanya says that since teaching her first bootcamp class in 2014, she has rediscovered her passion for fitness. Not only has she lost around 30 lbs, but she has also regained her confidence and made new friends
Tanya, who had once been passionate about exercise, saw her general health decline as a result and went from a size 10 to a size 16.
‘I completely lost myself,’ she recalled. I got to the point where I just sat in my dressing gown, curtains shut, watching Hollyoaks every day. I had a few interviews for admin jobs but it didn’t go anywhere, and I didn’t want them anyway.’
Tanya was also struggling to come to terms with her appearance, with stab wounds on both shoulders and the back of her left arm, as well as surgical scars from her left armpit to her left wrist. She also had a prominent scar running from her groin down to the knee of her left leg where she’d had her artery transplant.
Turning point: In June 2014 Tanya – who was still ‘very unhappy’ with her body at the time – was asked to take a bootcamp class through Herbalife, a nutrition and fitness company who she had worked for on a casual basis
‘It was the hardest thing I had ever done’: Tanya trained four times a week for 90 days in order to prepare for her fitness photo shoot, and said part of her motivation was to inspire others who are unhappy with their bodies
‘That first summer it was really hot,’ she recalled. ‘I was paranoid people were staring at me, always worrying what people were thinking of me. I started covering myself up. I became good at avoiding things.’
In January 2012, Tanya watched as her attacker, Rebecca Jackson was charged with attempted murder but found not mentally fit to plead. She was detained at a mental health hospital.
‘I was told she wouldn’t be (in court) so I got a shock,’ Tanya said.
The court heard how after stabbing Tanya, Jackson then walked through Leeds city centre with blood on her hands.
One eyewitness described her has having ‘a crazed look on her face’.
After a one day trial, a jury took 30 minutes to return a verdict that Jackson had carried out the act and she was detained at a mental health hospital.
But Tanya says: ‘I’m glad she didn’t go to prison and got help, as she’s less likely to do it again.’
‘The shoot came around and for the first time since the attack I felt amazing’: Tanya says that taking part in the fitness photo shoot was an important step in her road to recovery and helped her to embrace her scars
Tanya, who has lost 30 lbs and gone from a size 16 to a 6/8 admitted: ‘I’m not the kind of person who likes having my pictures taken, but I was standing there in my bikini and high heels showing off my scars’
In June 2014 Tanya, who was still ‘very unhappy’ with her body, was asked to take a bootcamp class through Herbalife, a nutrition and fitness company who she had worked for on a casual basis.
She said: ‘I had qualified as a fitness instructor before the attack and before university. Someone recommended I take a bootcamp class based on my past experience. I was petrified, but I taught a class of 12 people and I loved it. I realised this was what I wanted to do.’
I wanted to get over the fear of my scars being on show
She began teaching three classes in a week, and soon found herself in high demand. Teaching the classes gave her a ‘glimmer of help’ and enabled her to make friends ‘for the first time’.
As the weight started to fall off, Tanya began feeling better about herself and decided to boost her newfound confidence by doing a fitness photo shoot, celebrating her body and her scars.
She said: ‘I realised I still didn’t look how I wanted to look, I was not completely happy. I wanted to get over the fear of my scars being on show so I booked a fitness photo shoot.
‘This was also with the intention to empower others with disabilities and any body issues that they may have so that they too could learn to love the skin they are in.’
Tanya (with one of her fitness classes) has forged a whole new career path. Reflecting on the last few years, she says: ‘I’ve learnt to love me again and I truly believe that everything happens for a reason’
Tanya – who used to feel self-conscious and make an effort to cover up her scars – says she now feels better about herself than ever before and is ‘the happiest I’ve ever been in my own skin’
Tanya says that fitness has brought her back to being her and she now regularly challenges herself
Tanya embarked on the Herbalife Level 10 90-Day Challenge, where, with the help of a coach, she worked out six times a week, doing weightlifting and cardio in order to look and feel her best for the shoot.
She said: ‘It was the hardest thing I have ever done. If I was just doing it for myself I’m not sure I could have completed it. But I wanted to inspire others and this was my main motivation.
I’ve learnt to love me again and I truly believe that everything happens for a reason
‘The shoot came around and for the first time since the attack I felt amazing. I’m not the kind of person who likes having my pictures taken, but I was standing there in my bikini and high heels showing off my scars.’
She said the shoot had helped her feel better about herself and is now ‘the happiest I’ve ever been in my own skin.
‘Overall I’ve gone from a size 16 to a size 6/8 so I’ve lost 4 dress sizes and 30 lbs. I’m now back in the gym, I teach at Fit Camps and I feel amazing.
‘I’ve learnt to love me again and I truly believe that everything happens for a reason. I’ve also faced other fears such as going back to the bus station.
‘I now regularly challenge myself, although fitness definitely brought me back to being me – without it I’d hate to think where I would be now.’