Surviving the Unthinkable: My Journey of Resilience and Mental Health After a Life-Altering Accident
Following on from the horrific accident that changed any life completely and is the underlying reason for why I am here now and writing this blog and working on a business that aims to help as many people a possible to understand their inner workings and to get on top of their mental health.
People often ask me how it happened. Although Ewan speculated that I caught an edge, sending me off the side of the cliff, the injuries I sustained and the condition of the snow at the time give a more plausible explanation. Because the snow had been so sparse for the entire season, the dump we had the night before had only lightly covered the rocks, not actually submerged them. As a result, I presume that I might have accidentally hit the side of a lightly snow-covered rock at the top of the cliff, causing my cruciate ligament to snap and resulting in me losing my balance and falling off the cliff.
I spent five weeks in a French hospital and was then transferred to Addenbrookes hospital, in Cambridge, for a further five weeks. I remember nothing from France, even though I was awake for the final fortnight. It is sad not to be able to remember being flown back to England in bed on a private jet. Thank God the ski company for which I worked provided us with insurance.
Without going into too much detail about the multitude of physical and mental issues I had to face, there were and sporadically still are two lasting effects of the injury that I have had to learn to deal with and try to overcome.
The first, which is a pretty standard result of a brain injury, is reduced concentration. If I have no instant interest in a subject or can’t see its immediate use, I will almost always switch off. I don’t go to sleep but my mind will quite literally stop processing anything coming my way. For example, if someone gives me directions in advance to a particular location, I will happily nod understandingly as they are delivered. Yet when the time comes to actually find the place, I will invariably get lost and have to call someone to guide me in the right direction. I just turn off when it bores me, assuming it’s just easier to be talked through it at the relevant moment than it is to put in the effort of properly concentrating in the first place. Concentration used to be a naturally achievable state, when circumstances called for it, but post-accident I need constantly to prompt myself to make the effort and motivate myself to do it.
The second issue that I have to deal with is a neurological disorder called prosopagnosia (facial blindness) the inability to recognize faces. I have very few solid memories of my time in hospital but there was one occasion when I was able to walk again, when I remember asking a nurse to direct me to the bathroom. She told me the way but also informed me that I had already asked her five times and that each time I did not recognize her. ‘Why do you think I’m in hospital?’, I said to myself. I thought all the nurses looked the same, so at the time, I wasn’t too worried about it.
Thankfully I didn’t have many issues recognizing my close family and close friends once I was fully conscious. I was told, though, that one of my dearest friends, Bronya, with whom I had lived with before embarking on the ski season, came to visit me in hospital in Grenoble. I don’t remember this at all. She asked me if I knew who she was, at which I frowned, quizzically.
‘I’m Bronya’, she told me.
‘Don’t be ridiculous’, I apparently retorted, ‘you’re much prettier than Bronya’.
On leaving hospital I remember having a few friends round for afternoon tea. Well, they had tea and talked to me in my bed. I turned the television on and started watching something. It was my favourite programme, Friends. After a short time, I asked why they were showing a spoof version.
‘It’s not’, I remember Amelia telling me. ‘Why do you think it is?’.
‘Because they’re different actors with the same voices’.
I was mystified and convinced they were playing a joke on me.
‘Seriously, guys, it’s not funny’.
I don’t know who felt worse at that point but there was a sudden realization that I had a long way to go before I could get back to living the way I had done before the accident.
The severity of suffering from prosopagnosia slowly dawned on me over the following months and years of my rehabilitation. I was fine with those close to me but if I met somebody new one week I would more often than not have no idea who they were the following week. People who were not close friends prior to the accident would also fall into the facially unrecognisable category, which often caused a lot of embarrassment for me even though I had no control over it.
A couple of years after the accident I remember visiting Johnny, a university friend, in London. This was pre-internet film streaming, so we decided to go to a ‘video shop’ to pick up a ‘DVD’ (lots of old words there). Anyway, after making a joke to the assistant about the Liam Neeson film Taken, which was living up to its name by not being available (I thought this was funny), I noticed a beautiful girl enter the store, make eye contact with me and smile.
Oh my goodness’, I said to Johnny, ‘hot girl just smiled at me, what to do?’
‘Why don’t you just go and ask her for her number?’ He said, simply.
‘Hmmmm, good idea, maybe I will’.
After lots of running around the shop and pretending to be interested in ballet DVDs, I motioned towards the incredibly pretty girl and started stammering.
‘Ummmmm...’ I paused for a bit. ‘Hi, my name is Tim and I think you’re beautiful, please can I have your number so that I can take you out for a drink?'
'Yeah, hi Tim, don’t you recognise me? We were at university together’.
Ah, that’ll be why she smiled at me, I realized. After explaining my situation, and after she told me how lovely it was to have been asked out but she had a boyfriend, we went our separate ways. As soon as she had told me who she was, I remembered her. I was fine with names and places and remembering situations involving people I met. It was their faces that were ghosts.
But it wasn’t just faces, it was everything visually identifiable about a specific character, be it handwriting, the way they walked or the type of car they drove. I was not only blinded to faces but to all visually distinguishing features.
The accident was in 2007, and what an incomprehensible effect it has had on my life. It took me almost three years before I could confidently say that I had recovered.
Because of the head injury, I sometimes still have mild repercussions from it. But these are nothing like I would have, were it not for techniques that I have discovered and developed through the mindfulness teachings that I now teach at the Mindful Baker's sourdough workshops or through the life coaching sessions that I provide, which can all be accessed by hovering over the 'work with me tab' when you go here.
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