What are you working towards? Owning your own house? Owning two houses? Getting promoted? Making partner? Having a six figure salary? Having a six pack? Maybe all of the above, but the real question is; when you get there will you be happy?
Most of us have goals we’re working towards which is no bad thing, I know I certainly do, in fact without them I would probably just be trying to complete Netflix… Where the danger lies is if you are relying on reaching those goals to make you happy or to finally feel complete. If you’re sacrificing your life now in the hope that when you finally reach a certain point it will have all been worth it, it most probably won’t. It took me a while to realise that there is no ‘ta da’ moment, there’s no point where you sit back and say ‘I’m done, completed it mate’. My only aim in the beginning was to be independent but once I could use a wheelchair I just wanted to be able to stand, once I stood I just wanted to walk, once walking I wanted to climb, and so on. The hedonic treadmill makes sure that we don’t settle, the need for progress is built in to us so that we keep evolving. It’s a very difficult urge to deny unless you have found enlightenment and seeing as most of us aren’t buddhist monks we should just embrace it. Embracing it has been an important process because it’s made me realise that goals are valuable, but only to drive progress. To be content we need to find pleasure in the journey because that’s where we live our entire lives.
Obviously we won’t enjoy everything we do and often we have to do some unenjoyable stuff to keep moving forward but if you’re sacrificing your happiness today in the hope of finding it further down the line then stop.
Do things that fulfil you now, take pleasure from the process because there is no destination.
The simple things in life are often the most rewarding but if you experience something enough times it’s very easy to start taking it for granted. From time to time I experience something again for the first time. I know, by definition it cant be the first time ‘again’ but believe me when you re-discover things it can often be even better than the actual first time. I’ve had a few of these moments since my accident; moving, feeding myself, standing, taking steps were all huge moments on the journey but often it’s the little things that surprise you.
I’m writing this because one of those magical surprises happened again a few days ago. It’s my fourth year since my accident and although most of the breakthroughs happened in the first year I continue to re-discover the joy in lots of little bits of magic that I had completely over looked in my previous ‘able-bodied’ life. This time it was the feeling of moving quickly again. You take for granted the ability to run, ride a bike, slide down a ski slope or even just pick up your walking pace to overtake someone on the pavement. It wasn’t until I rode the bike for the first time ‘again’ the other day that it really hit home just how slow I’ve been moving for the last few years and how much i’d missed that feeling. The wind on my face, the vibration of the gravel beneath me, the ability to just move is something I will never take for granted again.
I feel lucky to have a second chance to re-discover these things that on reflection I should never have taken for granted in the first place. Be present and appreciate the little things because life is full of magic and if you stop admiring that magic it may just disappear.
Yesterday Lois and I delivered our first joint ’talk’ to a school in Sussex. The key theme to come out was one of the schools values, perseverance, a word that also sits as one of our charities values. More commonly you probably hear the word resilience and although similar, they are not the same. Resilience is defined as “An ability to recover from or adjust easily to misfortune or change” and Perseverance is defined as “The continued effort to do or achieve something despite difficulties, failure, or opposition.” For me Resilience is more about recovery and perseverance is more about growth. So to make a meaningful change or to bounce back and then succeed it’s not good enough to just be resilient, you then need the ability to persevere.
In my experience nothing truly rewarding in life comes easy, in fact the reward is actually often in the struggle of the process but thats another conversation… No one ever won an Olympic medal, became an astronaut or sold their successful business without going through some seriously tough and not very fun shit in the process. Sticking at something is one of the most powerful tools we have because it is completely within our control. I’m not saying it’s easy but it doesn’t take skill or talent, it just requires will and a bit of belief.
More often than not the people leading the aspirational lives aren’t the most gifted or special, they’re the ones that stuck it out when shit hit the fan, the ones that brushed themselves off and carried on down the path of resistance rather than taking the easy option, in fact, thinking about it, perseverance might just be the most important key to success. The good news is that it’s also a compounding trait and therefore something we can practice. The more times we persevere the deeper it entrenches itself as a core value and therefore the more automatic it becomes in the future. So stop telling yourself you’re not good enough or you can’t do it, stay in the fight and prove to yourself that you are and you can.
This time last year I was sat staring at these mountains learning something new, now I choose to look at them every day to remind myself what they taught me.
For a first timer into the high Himalayas it’s often hard to comprehend what you’re looking at. I remember just staring up in awe at the giant peaks, struggling to make sense of the scale of things. The longer I spent there and the longer I stared, the deeper my emotions would run. I felt humble, calm and strangely spiritual but most of all I had an overwhelming sense of insignificance. Those mountains were significant, huge and incomprehensibly old. I had never felt so tiny and fleeting, I was literally a spec of dust in comparison and my stay on this earth was going to amount to the equivalent of a blink of an eye compared to theirs…The question is why was that realisation empowering and not scary?
I’ve thought a lot about the power of insignificance. I don’t mean on a micro scale, of course you can be significant and impactful to those around you from day to day. But on a macro level, we will all leave this earth and eventually fade away to nothing, not even a memory. Maybe it should but that doesn’t make me feel sad, it makes me feel free. To me it means that I am free to make whatever I want of this life. I’m free to take chances, chase dreams and choose happiness. I’m free to spend these few moments on earth with the people I love, doing the things I love and helping others realise that they can do the same. Why? Because in the end it all doesn’t really matter. The promotion, the title, the bonus, non of it matters. Live the life YOU want to live. ✌️
I’ve always loved the outdoors and being active. Whether it was messing around in the garden with my brother, helping my grandad on the farm or walking the dogs in the Brecon Beacons I spent most of my life pursuing fresh air; I even managed to find a job that kept me outside. So three years ago when I was asked to come to terms with never being able to walk again; in fact that I would be lucky if I regained any movement at all, it certainly wasn’t easy to hear.
I was lying in intensive care and it had been six days and still no movement or sensation when the doctor delivered the news. The impact on the bottom of the pool had caused my neck to dislocate and one of the discs between my vertebrae exploded sending shards of cartilage through my spinal cord. A severn hour operation had been successful but what lay ahead was looking bleak. At this point I didn’t realise that six days earlier I had been resuscitated three times in the ambulance on the way to the hospital but I did already know that my rugby career was over and that my life would never be the same.
It’s fair to say that a lot has happened between day 6 and now. It all started with a flicker of movement and the realisation that maybe this wasn’t over. It didn’t take long for me to realise that I was in a mental battle just as much as a physical one, recovery was going to be down to remaining positive and not giving in rather than any miracle cure. Progress was slow, the outcome still uncertain and by the time I reached Salisbury spinal unit I had spent almost every minute in the same room for 8 weeks. It was mid June and we were just entering a heat wave which made it stiflingly hot on the ward. My temperature regulation was all over the place and I still had a collar and chest brace on for at least another month so things were about to get uncomfortable. Fortunately a couple of years ago a charity built an accessible area to allow the patients to get outside and it wasn’t until I rolled out into Horatios garden for the first time, felt the sun on my face and took a gulp of fresh air that i truly realised what I had been missing. Over the next few weeks I spent most of every day out there, either doing rehab, meeting friends or just sitting and thinking next to the water features or flowers. I truly believe that the difference it made to my mindset and energy levels was one of the main reasons that after three months and against all odds I not only stood but took my first step.
I discharged myself from hospital, moved in with my parents and began pushing my body to see how much further I could take it, all the time very conscious of the impact that the outdoors was having on my mental state and consequently my recovery. It started with physio in the garden, I would use the hand rail around the decking for support as I dragged myself up out of my chair and stood for as long as I could. Things soon progressed and as the number of steps I could take increased I started to venture out in the car with my physio Pete to find quiet places and flat pieces of grass where I could fall over as much as I liked. It was about 9 months after my accident when I announced to Pete that I was going to try and climb Snowdon on the 1 year mark. The idea was met with a laugh and then a concerned look when he realised that I was being serious. At that point I hadn’t walked much further than a few hundred metres so to get from there to climbing the highest mountain in Wales in 3 months was ambitious…or stupid, depending on who you asked. I knew though that I needed something to focus on to keep me motivated through the hours of physio I was doing and for some reason I couldn’t keep my mind off the mountains. Having been brought up in the countryside and living next to the Brecon Beacons for the last couple of years I had always loved the hills but now more than ever I was yearning to get back out there. That wasn’t the only motivation though. I wanted to do something symbolic for everyone else who had been given a negative prognosis and show them that there is still hope of defying the odds. A few weeks out I opened the event up to anyone who wanted to join and although I was hopeful a couple of people would show up I was completely shocked when I turned around at the foot of the mountain to see over 70 people there to join us.
I can remember standing on the summit like it was yesterday. It had taken 5 hours to that point and despite playing over a decade of professional rugby it was by far the most physically demanding thing I had ever done. Looking out across North Wales I felt at peace for the first time since my accident. It felt like the culmination of a years hard work and the ability to share it with so many amazing people made it all the more special. I was hooked and I didn’t know where or when but I knew that my adventures weren’t going to stop there…I just had no idea how far they were going to take me.
I was on a mission to raise all of the money back for the charities that had supported me and after Snowdon I had decided that climbing was the way to go. Three months later I was sat in a refuge on the side of a mountain in France with 30 other fundraisers after summiting Mont Buet. My foot splint was just holding together with tape, I had broken two poles and was covered in cuts and bruises. My disability certainly doesn’t lend itself to climbing or just walking uphill even. I have about 10% of the power remaining down the left side of my body, with a few muscles now not working at all. It’s not easy, but that’s kind of the point. The harder something is, the greater the sense of accomplishment and let’s be honest I wasn’t going to raise any money for charity by playing sudoko. It was more than just the challenge though, like my time in the garden at the spinal unit I was finding that just being outside, in nature, was immensely therapeutic. I felt upbeat, could think clearly and always returned with a smile on my face no matter how hard it had been or how many bruises I had. I was seeing the physical benefits too. After every climb there would be a positive change in my neurology, a new movement or sensation. Current medical thinking says that you are unlikely to experience any changes after 18 months following a spinal cord injury yet I am still experiencing changes nearly three years later and i’m convinced its in large part down to the time I spend outdoors and in the mountains.
Mont Buet was another stepping stone but I was about to take one giant leap (figuratively speaking). Nepal is one of the countries where most people dream of going and never actually make it but I wasn’t really in the mood for dreaming anymore and the opportunity had just presented itself. I was offered the chance to travel over there with a charity who were trying to raise funds to build a spinal unit and they had asked if I could help them raise some awareness for the project. Unsurprisingly I fell in love with the place, so much so that before the plane had time to land back in the UK I had a plan. Everything had become clear; I needed to combine my love for the mountains and passion to share it with people with fundraising for the spinal unit in Nepal. I spoke to my wife and a few friends and we founded Millimetres to Mountains as a vehicle to both fundraise and organise group climbs. Before I knew it myself and 13 others were back in Nepal taking on a climb that I probably wouldn’t have even considered when I was able bodied.
Standing at 6476m Mera peak is about 1 vertical mile higher than anything in the Alps and over double the height of my previous limit. Excited by the challenge, motivated by the mission but a bit daunted by the scale of what we were about attempt we set off from Lukla on a seven day trek to reach the foot of the mountain. By the time we reached base camp I had lost the best part of a stone in weight due to the extra effort it takes me to move. The terrain and the altitude were combining to form a daunting task that was challenging me in ways I had never before experienced. After trying to replenish some calories and 4 more days acclimatising we were ready to head for high camp where we would attempt a few hours sleep then push to the summit. The next 24 hours are hard to put into words; cold, serene, savage and beautiful come to mind but barely do it justice. We left high camp on summit day at 3am, it was -25 degrees and after a few hours of crunching through the blackness a pink hue began to form on the horizon. Slowly the sun crept up to reveal not just the summit of Mera peak but the entire Everest region sprawled out beyond. Seven of the ten highest mountains in the world were stood staring back at us with the sunlit summit of Mt Everest proudly taking centre stage.
Standing on top of Mera peak with the world spread out in front of me was one of the most surreal moments of my life. I thought back to the first flicker of movement in intensive care, the first step at the spinal unit, that time standing on the summit of Snowdon. I thought back to the surgeon who saved my life, the friends, family and physios who had been there for me every step of the way and the amazing organisations and charities that have given me so much support. I thought of all the places I had been, the people I had met and the things I had done and I felt grateful. Life had thrown me a curveball but with help of some amazing people and the inspiration and healing powers of the great outdoors I had managed to play it, and guess what, i’m still in to bat.
Steve Jobs said that “boredom allows one to indulge in curiosity.”
It was week four of isolation and I was up early again, drinking too much coffee and waiting for the dew to evaporate so I could mow the lawn for the fourth time in as many days. If I’m honest I hadn’t hated isolation to this point, in fact I had quite enjoyed it. For the first time in what seemed like years my head had emerged from beneath the backlog of emails and I had begun to indulge in some of the past times ‘I didn’t have time for’. As productive as this was and despite the lawn being manicured to within an inch of its life there was an inevitable itch developing. I suppose if you spoke to my wife she would describe me as restless. I thought I was doing pretty well combating this particular personality trait but I suppose questions have to be asked when your sat waiting for the grass to grow so you can cut it again. The grass was taking a while so I started flicking through the news and inevitably Captain Tom was dominating the headlines with his incredible gesture to the NHS by walking lengths of his garden fundraising. This got me thinking of all of the other charities that are struggling at this time and that there must be something I can do to help. It was time for some lateral thinking.
I picked up the phone and called my mate Ross who a couple of days before had climbed the height of Elbrus on his stairs. ‘Whats the crack then mate, how hard is this?’ Actually before I continue it’s probably worth saying that Ross is not alien to doing some pretty gnarly things. He’s a yes man with a big engine. Just a few months ago he climbed Mont Blanc then jumped straight on his bike and cycled to Calais, canoed the channel and ran to London. So the response I got to his assault on the staircase was a bit of a surprise. ‘It’s brutal mate…my legs are in bits and it’s painfully boring…’ The original plan was to climb the height of Snowdon (1,085m) which I calculated would have taken me about 4 or 5 hours. Ross agreed that was probably a good idea given that I was going to have to only use one leg, he gave me a few tips and wished me luck. I cant really remember the thought process within the next hour that took me from Snowdon to a four day expedition climbing from sea level to the height of Everest (8848m) and back again whilst camping at the bottom of the stairs but there was definitely no alcohol involved as it was 10am and I was mowing the lawn. Unfortunately for my wife and parents, once I’ve thought of something I find it very difficult to let it go so this was going to happen, I just had to play it down enough so they would allow me to start.
Although the main reason for the challenge was fundraising, I thought that if we tried to have some fun along the way it might break up the monotony of isolation and give people something to smile about at home. Persuading my dad that pitching a tent in his kitchen was a good idea however has to be one of the more bizarre negotiations of my life. Fortunately my family were as bored as me so were open to a bit of change…they just weren’t sure how much ‘change’ they had let themselves in for.
I started at 8am on Tuesday morning and it was obvious within the first couple of hours that I had wildly underestimated what I had let myself in for. In preparation for the climb I had worked out that I could cover about 125 flights in an hour. That number was now looking more like 80-100 flights which may not sound like a big difference but it meant that I was going to have to endure 10-12 hours a day rather than 8. I had put a white board next to the stairs to tally up the total, marking a dash every time I completed 10 reps. You would have thought counting to ten was easy but it’s amazing how quickly your mind wanders when you’re doing something monotonous. In fact after filming myself I realised that I had done 23 extra in the space of just one hour, so I taped a clicker to the banister at the bottom of the stairs to keep me on track, or closer at least.
I finished the first day at 8pm, 12 hours after starting. The last hour or so was really tough physically but all in all considering I had just done the best part of 23,000 single leg step ups my body felt ok. Because of the spinal cord injury I suffered a few years ago my right side doesn’t have any pain or temperature sensation and seeing this was the side doing the majority of the work the lack of feeling was turning out to be a blessing. There were a few expected blisters but nothing to write home about so I patched myself up, tucked into a big feed and retired to my tent to pass out. The next morning I woke up and it felt like I had been run over by a bus and as much as I wanted to just lie there i knew the only option was to get moving, so I rolled out of my tent, had a good stretch, tended to some blisters and set off.
Each morning I started with a live session on Instagram in the hope that a few punters would join in from home. By day two I couldn’t believe the amount of people who didn’t have anything better to do than tune in to watch me climb the stairs! Lois would read out questions and my dad would be taking music requests as he read the paper. It was amazing how quick those live hours went past and how much fun they were, in fact I’m not sure I could have coped without them as it was becoming clear the main challenge was going to be a mental one and these hours were the only thing breaking up the monotony. As well as having a laugh it’s amazing how much difference that moral support makes even from a distance. I had felt it before when I was in hospital and although the stakes were slightly different this time it felt very similar.
After lunch on day two I lay down outside for 20 minutes before trying to get up and carry on. I was already shattered and despite not even being at the half way mark all I wanted to do was close my eyes and stay there for the rest of the day. I took out my phone and glanced at the fundraising total which turned out to be all the motivation I needed. The original target was 2k which incredibly we had passed before I set foot on the first step and by this point we were already nearing the 10k mark! I had joked about now not having to carry on because we had hit the fundraising goal but the truth is the exact opposite. There is no bigger symbol of support than someone actually donating some of their hard earned cash to the cause, especially when times are as tough as they are at the moment. The simple fact that so much money had been raised assured that no matter how long it took, I had to finish. Having that motivation makes a huge difference when times get tough and you might want to give up, you focus on the people who have supported you and the people who you are helping and you crack on, it wasn’t about me. Not long after I re started news came in that we had hit 10k and Berghaus had been in contact and matched it. Berghaus has been very supportive of me since my accident as we share the same belief of the physical and mental benefits of the outdoors but this was an unprecedented gesture that meant the fundraising total was now at a whopping 20k and counting!
I had almost been defeated but that afternoon I hit the stairs with a spring in my step, put on the Red Hot Chilli Peppers ‘By The Way’ album and nocked off 300 flights before the live session at 5:30pm. Looking back I feel like this was the tipping point, I had the urge to give up but thanks to that boost I was able to push through and now felt like I had broken the back of it ’no pun intended’. During the live session I got caught in my first avalanche when my step mum chucked a bucket of ice over my head then ran off. This sums my family up…I was angry for about a second and then realised how nice it was to be cool for the first time since I started. A few more hours and the second day was finished by 9pm. I was again tired, blistered and sore but passed half way so it was all downhill from here…ye right!
Fatigue was accumulating and my pace on the stairs was slowing so I decided to start slightly earlier than usual to get some reps in before we went live. My hands were slightly too big to fit between the bannister and the wall so by this point there was blood everywhere from small grazes on my knuckles and blisters on my hands. By this point I had done over 1500 flights of stairs and I was really having to dig deep to stay on track, luckily there was help on the way… The evening before a group of my mates who are DJs lined up four live sets to get me through the day and it made a massive difference. I kept stopping and chuckling to myself thinking how bizarre the situation was and some of the comments from people stumbling across the live feed were hilarious. It must have looked so weird, half your screen was a DJ playing house music and the other half was some bloke limping up the stairs. It may have been confusing but the donations were still rolling in and unbelievably still with a day to go we were up to 30k.
After the live session that evening I had the opportunity to chat to F1 legend David Coulthard who is a fellow ambassador for ‘Wings For Life’, one of the charities I was supporting. I had heard good reports and it’s fair to say he didn’t disappoint. Incredibly measured, friendly and funny, I was amazed at how comfortable I felt talking to him given that I was worried I would be fan girling from minute one. It was a pinch yourself moment and made me take a moment to think about the momentum that had built and how supportive everyone was being. I mean I just spoke to a formula one legend live in my house about walking up and down the stairs from the kitchen to the bathroom…I tell you what when people say these are unprecedented times, they’re not joking!
That night I finished at 9pm but short of my target so I knew that if I was going to make it to the summit on time the next day then I would have to start early. I was actually quite excited by getting up at 4am, it was going to be like a proper summit day, starting in the dark and watching the sun rise over the mountains…or garden.
When the alarm went off I awoke full of adrenaline, it was the final day and I knew I had a nice cold beer and a big steak waiting at the end. Unfortunately my body wasn’t as enthusiastic as my mind so it took me a good 20 minutes before I resembled a human being at the bottom of the stairs. A long day awaited but I was adamant that I would finish on or before the time I had told everyone so that they had the opportunity to join in from home if they wanted. The head torch was on and I set off up the stairs in the darkt. I mean if it wasn’t so warm, I was on steps, I was wearing shorts, a t-shirt, 1 trainer, there were handrails, the air was normal, I had just had a good sleep and almost everything else was different then it was effectively exactly the same as being on the real thing. I actually loved the morning session, by the time my dad emerged weary eyed at 6 am I had already done 160 flights bringing me back on target and setting me up nicely for the final 500 to the finish. I did a few radio interviews that morning before I set off constantly shaking my head in disbelief as to the interest being created but grateful nevertheless as the fundraising total had now climbed to 40k!
Remembering how I felt on day 2, I couldn’t really believe that my right leg was still going so strong to be honest I was two hours in and it was the best my body had felt since day 1. The body has a way of adapting to its stresses over time and I think I had broken through that barrier now, it was day 4 and my leg was just thinking, “oh well, I don’t like it but I guess this is what we do now so better just get on with it.” Blisters were the only real issue by this point but my spirits were high and things were just made better when I found myself joined by current F1 driver Alex Albon who wanted to walk some stairs with me. I mean I know he probably doesn’t have anything better to do at the moment but what a hero.
I was now climbing live again with people joining in from home when all of a sudden I noticed that @thebodycoach was requesting to join the session. I obviously accepted a bit taken a back and the next thing you know I’m chatting to Joe Wicks… as if this couldn’t get any weirder! After a good chat and a solid bit of motivation from the internet sensation I cracked on towards the summit. I watched the numbers tick away as I approached the final push and with only about 80 flights left to go I had another call from a very special guest indeed. Berghaus had lined up a chat with Sir Chris Bonnington. Sir Chris, now in his 80s, is mountaineering royalty and still widely considered one of the greatest climbers of all time. He has numerous first ascents and of course pioneering climbs on the real version of the mountain that I was currently attempting. He was an absolute delight. I was engrossed as he described the magic of some of his favourite climbs and I nearly fell off my chair when he went on to offer me advice for the final push to the summit. It was a magic moment and one that I will treasure for a long time.
I put on my mountaineering gear for the final push which was almost a mistake as the heavy boots combined with how tired I was nearly resulted me tumbling back down the staircase a couple of times. As I took the last few steps I was met by a barrage of Prosecco to the face and some whooping from the family and i couldn’t help but burst out laughing at the ridiculousness of it all. I was stood outside my parents bathroom in full mountaineering gear being sprayed with Prosecco whilst speaking to hundreds of people via a live feed on my phone. I mean its not what I envisaged whilst I was sat staring at the lawn a week ago, in fact I’m not sure what I envisaged but this was definitely weirder. The support I received all week and on that final day in particular had been nothing short of amazing but just like that it was done.
I took my jacket off and sat on the top step to take it in. It’s usually at this point of an expedition where all of your hard work pays off and you are rewarded with an incredible view. I looked down at the blood stained walls before peering up at the same window that I had been looking at for four days and you know what I felt equally content. In fact I felt a bit sad that it was over. Don’t get me wrong I wouldn’t rush back and do it in a hurry, it was savagely hard work and mind numbing at times but it had evolved into the most amazing week of positivity, community and most of all fun. It was as clear of an example of ‘it’s about the journey not the destination’ that I had ever experienced. I had seen and spoken to countless old faces, met some incredible new ones and had the chance to have some hilarious quality time as a family. There were so many positives but most of all we had raised over fifty thousand pounds for some incredible causes…
It has been nearly a week now and my body is back in one piece, base camp is packed up and the parents have forgiven me for having to repaint the walls. I’m sat here wondering what’s around the bend on this crazy road we’re all on and the answer is that I don’t know. I’m supposed to be returning to France and Nepal this year on fundraising trips and I have just received official registration of my own charity ‘The Millimetres to Mountains Foundation’ which I’m excited to start making an impact with but the truth is a lot has changed recently and If there’s one thing i’ve learned over the last few years it’s that you never really know what’s around the corner. Change used to scare me, now I embrace it, in fact I seek it out. New experiences, challenges and opportunities are everywhere and in every situation if you’re open to them. Sir Chris summed it up perfectly when I asked where his favourite mountain on earth was; “you don’t have to go to the other side of the world for an adventure dear boy,” and of course he’s right…you don’t even have to leave your house.
Thanks again for all of the support, it’s been one hell of an adventure, until next time.
So I’m 3 today! Well technically I’m a little older than that but do you know what, it’s the first time since my accident I’ve reflected back and can’t really remember what life was like before April 8th 2017. It’s amazing how life ebbs, flows and sometimes does U-turns but eventually, without fail, everything becomes ‘normal’ again.
I do know that I’ve changed though, I have fundamentally become a happier person. That might sound bizarre following a life changing injury that has taken me from a professional sportsman and left me with the motor function of a wingless daddy longlegs, but it’s true. On paper I’m way worse off; bladder and bowel issues, regular spasms, temperature regulation problems, I’m weaker, poorer, lighter + fatter (bad combo), but I became happier…why?
I finally understood that life isn’t on paper, it was in my head. It wasn’t about what I had, it was about who I was, and that was a choice. Life can take things away from you, it can test you, lord knows some are being tested to the limits now. Life can make things truly shit, it can change your life and take people from you, but it cant control who you are. You own that.
I truly believe that at the end of the day we can chose to be happy, chose to be positive, chose to be whoever we want despite what happens to us. There’s bad times and there’s good times and it’s ok to be sad or angry for a bit but always remember that things will become ’normal’ in time and then all we have left is who we’ve chosen to be.
Well it’s fair to say that everything’s just a little bit weird at the moment. One minute we’re bouncing along as normal and the next minute everyones decided that the apocalypse is upon us and only unnecessary volumes of toilette role can save us now. We’re in uncertain times that is for sure and despite actively practicing social distancing for a long time prior to the government regulations I am thoroughly unexcited by the thought of being confined to my home should it come to it.
Unexcited but not unnerved…I’ve been here before. No I wasn’t around for Spanish flu or the war but this isn’t the first time I have entered a long period of uncertainty and a form of isolation. Three months on a hospital ward is an endurance test for anyone, but add in a spinal cord injury and the possibility that you’ll never walk again and you’ve got a recipe for…well lots of things, but mainly stress.
It didn’t take me long to realise that I was in a mental battle rather than a physical one. Control my emotions, stay positive and my body would react positively but get down, spend time worrying and progress was non existent. The main problem was that uncertainty is the primary cause of anxiety and no one knew what the future held; if I would ever walk again, or if I would make any recovery at all.
The future for most of us is uncertain; Is my job safe, how long will this last for, what’s going to happen to all of this loo roll when people realise they don’t need it? All of these questions are weighing heavy on our minds and creating a lot of anxiety. But, and there is a but, what if I told you that we don’t just have to survive this next few months we can actually prosper from them.
Through necessity I learnt a way to stay positive against the odds, deal with the boredom of isolation and come out on top. Now I want to share a few little tricks I picked up along the way.
It’s only a crisis if you say it is
Catastrophising is the minds tendency to think of worst case scenarios. We naturally focus on negatives over positives. Was I unlucky that the water was shallow when I broke my neck or was I lucky that I didn’t drown because someone was there to pull me to the surface..? Are you unlucky that you cant go to the pub anymore or are you lucky that you aren’t on the street or have severe respiratory problems. Marcus Aurelius said ‘Its not what you look at, it’s what you see’. Most of us have just been given the most precious commodity there is, time. Lets focus on that for a bit…
Plan / structure
The thought of having no plans is quite appealing right? You go on holiday, get up when you want, do what you want, laaavely. Difference is the holiday or weekend version of having no plans is ironically…planned. When having no plans is forced upon you and your previously structured week is no more it can actually through you off track quite badly. The mind responds well to structure and it won’t take long until idleness and inactivity will start to take their toll. Re-introduce some structure and start to take some control back. If your working from home get dressed in the morning, take a lunch break and even have a little whinge about your boss to the wall, it all helps retain some normality.
Ahh natures medicine. When anxiety and house arrest are the name of the game, it’s never been more important. By the time I reached Salisbury spinal unit I had spent almost every minute inside for 8 weeks, and it wasn’t until I rolled out into the hospital garden for the first time, felt the sun on my face and took a gulp of fresh air that in truly realised what I had been missing. There was a path around the hospital garden that I used to do laps of in my wheelchair for exercise, challenging anyone that was up for it to a race. If it wasn’t for the ability to get outside and get my heart rate up during that time I think I would have gone mad. Be sensible but try to get outside and get your heart rate up at least once a day, if not for your body, for your mind.
Let me just start by saying I have never considered myself ‘creative’. Growing up I had never kept a journal and would probably mess up trying to draw a stick man. I did play the saxophone for a bit but I was so offensively bad that my teacher actively encouraged me to stop. In hospital I started recording voice notes at night as a way to clear my head and help me sleep. It worked. I would just write about what I had done that day and what I was thinking, it was private but getting it down was helping. One day I woke up and a mate was reading through my transcribed voice notes. I wasn’t impressed but he looked up at me and said two things; firstly; ‘you’re weird’, and then ‘you need to make these public, they might help people’. I wasn’t keen on sharing my thoughts with the world but after some persuading and the realisation that if it helped just one person then it would be worth it I caved. So began a daily practice of blogging about my time in hospital and it had a way bigger effect than I could have imagined. It allowed me to communicate and get advice from people who had been in my situation before and update friends and family on how I was doing but most of all it felt good just writing, it was a great distraction. There is a lot research now behind the psychological benefits of creative practice so why not give it a go if you don’t already. Drawing, playing music or writing it will all be beneficial, you may already be good at it but if not you now have time to learn. I would recommend starting with a simple daily diary, it’s amazing what you find out about yourself if you just start writing..
Theres nothing more damaging than feeling useless and with everyone stuck at home there’s a danger that people will lose a sense of purpose. After my accident I felt like a burden on everyone, I couldn’t even wash or feed myself and it was tough to deal with. When I started blogging and people were contacting me saying it was helping them it made a huge difference to my mental state, finally I was some use again. Obviously this is a completely different situation but we all need to start thinking outwardly because believe me the quickest way to feel better about yourself is to do something for someone else. That sense of value and worth is a powerful thing and there’s lots we can be doing to help it. Obviously we need to follow the government guidelines but you could offer your services to help with food deliveries or delivering medication to the elderly but less than that, simply taking time to call people who may be isolated can make a massive difference. If we all think of each other first, this isn’t just going to be an easier ride but we can come through this a lot tighter society as a whole.
I still find myself wondering how I managed to stay positive. The answer is that I didn’t, not all of the time. I just have to read some of my diary entries and blogs back to realise that. Over time however I learnt to manage my negative thoughts and even turn them into positive ones.
It was fight or flight and I knew that negativity was counter productive to my recovery, so i started to develop ways to fight it, I had to. Productive distractions, fear setting and eventually mindfulness played their part but the most powerful was, and still is, reframing. Reframing is simply just looking at a situation with a different perspective in order to turn it into a positive. I didnt have any experience with psychology or mental techniques, in fact if anyone had said i should try reframing i probably would have thought they were talking about art or windows. At the time my mind was just finding ways to survive. What i find really interesting though is that after practicing it for long enough reframing has become something almost completely subconscious and as a result I’m more positive now without even noticing it.
Bad things happen and negative thoughts are natural, in fact for most of us they’re more common than positive ones. What this says to me though is that a situation is only negative if you look at it that way. That sounds easy, it isn’t, but it is possible. All i learned to do was step away from the issue emotionally and ask; why is this good? Then force myself to find an answer. And believe me when i say that an answer to that question can be found in any negative situation, even the most mundane. For example, someone cuts you up on the way to work; your automatic reaction would tend to lean towards a lot of expletives, but look at it differently and you see an opportunity to practice self control. You stay calm, and then you feel good about yourself for doing so.
It’s difficult at first but like anything with time and repetitions it eventually becomes subconscious, until the point that every day seems a more positive one. ✌️
I’m not certain but I’d guess that my right leg doesn’t like my left. I’m pretty sure that if it had it’s way we would just chop it off and take to hopping. Half way up a mountain with a swollen knee, in full spasm and not a flicker of selective movement I have been inclined to agree with it, but then I remember that I’ve grown attached to lefty…quite literally. Aside from the fact that it has been joined to me for over 30 years, what it has had to put up with over the last few you wouldn’t wish on even the most hated limb (Captain Hooks peg leg for example). The truth is it gets a bad wrap, when actually it’s the entirety of the left side that’s, for want of a better word…struggs.
Sooo what the badger is BS syndrome? No it’s not a congenital defect that effects politicians or something you suddenly contract when your parents ask whether you’ve had a cigarette before. In this case BS stands for Brown-Sequard. An average spinal cord is 12mm in width, of which I have 4mm left. A fragment of exploding disk decided to venture horizontally through over half of my cord, cutting the motor nerves for the left side of my body but the sensory nerves for the right…confused? Ye I was too. It’s because the motor nerves stay on the same side of your body from the brain down, where as the lateral spinotholamic tract that carries the nerves responsible for pain and temperature starts on the opposite side of the cord and only decides to cross over when they head off to their assigned body part. This means that I cut all of the pain and temperature nerves for the opposite side of my body below the level of my injury. BS syndrome only effects about 2% of people with spinal cord injuries and is most commonly associated with knife and gun shot wounds…(which basically makes me a gangsta…with a capital A).
Gangsta or not it has resulted in my body being a tale of two halves. On one side a leg with no interpretation of pain and consequently a love of endurance and on the other side a constantly confused and over sensitive weakling…but thats fine because they’re both mine so on we trot….