Personal disability stories: 13 – Michael's story
Blog posted by: Sir Philip Rutnam, Home Office Permanent Secretary, and Civil Service Disability Champion, 01 November 2019 – Categories: A great place to work, Diversity and inclusion, Health & Wellbein.
I have spoken in the past about the myth that most disabled people are born with a disability, whereas in fact many acquire their disability during their working lives.
We tend to take our health for granted, and, for some, adjusting to life with a disability can be difficult. This can be particularly true for those with life-changing injuries. One example of this is acquiring a disability as a result of a traumatic brain injury, where the effects can be wide-ranging.
Michael tells us about the transition that he went through when faced with this situation and the steps he has taken to aid his recovery.
Michael’s story – making the comeback count
Whoever you are, sometimes really bad stuff happens to you. When it does, you want to come back from it and comebacks can take a long time, with many twists and turns.
In 2005, training for the New Zealand Ironman, I was on a bike ride with a friend. A van suddenly turned across our path. I had nowhere to go, but to crash into it. I went from over 20mph to zero in a heartbeat. I was lucky to survive, and a long recovery ensued.
My accident left me with a severe traumatic brain injury. I was in the coma-like state of Post-Traumatic Amnesia for almost two months. I spent about a month in intensive care and a further six months in a rehabilitation unit. This included intensive physiotherapy, as I learned how to walk again.
There is so much our brains normally do seamlessly, such as walking. It’s only when something goes wrong that we realise how important they are. I had to re-learn so many things, it felt like being thrown to the bottom of a steep mountain. To get back the life I wanted to lead, I had to scale it.
My accident prevented me from completing Ironman in 2005. It created a range of issues that made it difficult to even consider training. Yet, I had survived, and none of those issues could stop me attempting it.
Before my accident, I’d been considering a PhD in Economics. I still had a passion for the subject. Barriers to study now included fatigue from my brain injury, ongoing health treatment and problems with my focus. But I wasn’t daunted, and knew that my abilities would improve. So, I took on a Masters in Economics.
It took me five years to succeed in these goals. I learnt so many lessons, achieved so many smaller goals and got so much help from talking to people. I started a blog about strategies for recovering from brain injury. My accident was definitely bad luck but, underpinned by a bit of hard work, I had so much good luck following it. For example, I still wasn’t running well two and a half years afterwards. I researched this, spoke to experts and found a physiotherapist in Australia who specialised in teaching people to run, post-brain injury. Even after training with him, though, I still hadn’t cracked it. I was unbelievably fortunate when another physio, who was herself a runner, happened to move into my block in 2009. How far would I have gotten without her?
In 2010, I finally completed an Ironman. The following year, I completed an MA with Merit in Economics. But my recovery wasn’t over – not even close. Somewhere along the way, I fell in love with a British woman. We married and moved to London in 2017. Changing to a new country isn’t easy. With a CV that looked odd because of my accident, I struggled to find work as an economist.
The finish line in sight for 'Ironman' Michael
I’d somehow gone off track. Life had separated me from the work I was passionate about. Although my accident was now well in my past, I’d somehow lost my overall purpose, the glue that bound my recovery together. I stopped talking to people about how things were going. Brain injury issues like forgetfulness and fatigue started disrupting my life again. Not even becoming a father helped me find my mojo.
My wife and wider family managed to encourage and cajole me to find these things. The Civil Service more readily accepts candidates from diverse backgrounds like me. It gave me the start I needed, an Assistant Economist role at DCMS. Once more having full-time work in economics, I found my mojo again. Through the Ability Network at DCMS and my blog, I started talking to people again about recovery. And I’m back thinking about major goals to achieve.
The accident that disabled me also gave me great strengths. Few have my ability to think resourcefully about goals. I perceive my personal weaknesses – I break them into small steps I need to take and I get the input I need.
Now, I've started in the Civil Service, I am very fortunate to have a manager who helps me make the most of my skills and gives me the flexibility to plan work around my fatigue. She also discusses goals with me openly, advising me when she doesn’t think my path is the right one.
Why am I sharing this? Lots of people tell me how inspiring my story is. If only they’d say what it was that they were inspired to do, I wouldn’t see these as mere platitudes.
I’m sharing my story for people who are coming back from something, be it brain injury or anything else. If that’s you, I encourage you to keep in mind your overall motivation to recover. What is the glue that holds it all together for you? Talk about the stuff that’s weighing you down. The Civil Service is full of supportive groups like DCMS Ability Network – start using your employee network now. And my best wishes for your comeback.
Show us how it can be done!
I’m really grateful to Michael for sharing his story. I like cycling and running myself (albeit not to Ironman standards!) and found it both moving and inspiring (and I don’t say that as a platitude). We can all do something to understand disability – in all its various forms – better and to create a more inclusive, environment in the places we work.
I was particularly struck by Michael’s determination to set challenging goals and to seek to thrive rather than simply survive. We can all learn from his positive approach and willingness to re-learn tasks, learn new skills and be creative to do some things differently.
Michael offers some great advice about talking openly about the things that weigh you down and tapping into the peer support available from Disability Employee Networks. You can also find a range of information on traumatic brain injury on the Headway website.
You may also be interested in:
- Developing talented people with a disability to create more diverse leadership
- Reflections on Migraine Awareness Week
- Civil Service Disability Champion’s summer round-up
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