Paul Middleton was 37 years old and working as a civil engineer in Victoria, Australia, when a freak accident changed his life forever. Here, he explains how he turned a major catastrophe into a positive experience – proving the old adage that you must never, ever give up…
I was staying at a friend’s house in his spare bedroom on a Friday night back in September 2007. It was in an attic above a garage with a steep flight of stairs. I went to bed around midnight, ready for a big training run the next day in preparation for the New York Marathon.
The next thing I knew, I woke up in a pool of sweat on the concrete garage floor.
We presume I had got up to go to the toilet and slipped down the stairs. I didn’t know it at the time, but the fall had torn one of the arteries in the back of my neck, creating clots that restricted the flow of blood to my brain.
I had a bad headache all weekend and at around 2am on Monday morning I was awoken suddenly by a massive bang in my head. My right side was paralysed, and I couldn’t speak. I motioned to my girlfriend for a piece of paper and wrote the word “stroke”.
I was rushed to hospital, where I underwent emergency surgery to remove part of my skull and brain, and relieve swelling. I then developed pneumonia and collapsed lungs – I thought I would die, as did the doctors and my family.
It was only after I was transferred out of the intensive care ward more than two weeks later that I started to believe that I might make it, although my future looked bleak.
The stroke affected everything I took for granted about my body and brain. I was unable to walk without physical assistance, I had double vision, a tremor in my left hand and significant left-side weakness. I could only eat pureed food and thickened liquids.
One of my vocal chords was paralysed and my swallowing reflex was damaged. I lost hearing in my left ear and my balance was severely affected.
I had always been a very active person and the idea being confined to a wheelchair was devastating. I thought my career, my dreams and everything I had planned for my life was over.
For anyone facing a major challenge, here’s how I found a way back from the brink:
Chip away at it
Just after my stroke, the physiotherapists encouraged me to try to walk every day. It was the last thing I felt like doing at the time and I used to dread these daily sessions.
During surgery, part of my left cerebellum was removed – the section of the brain that is central to balance. Walking just 30 metres assisted was the hardest thing I have ever done; it was physically and mentally draining.
But I had tremendous support from various doctors and therapists, and I started to see small improvements every day, which gave me inspiration to keep chipping away.
By the time I left the hospital 12 weeks after my stroke, I was determined to walk out unaided.
It was terrifying! My balance was so bad, I was scared that I would fall over and not be able to get back up. Even a slight breeze made it almost impossible to walk.
A male staff member who knew my background was crying as I stubbornly insisted on shuffling out through the hospital doors.
Later, I taught myself to walk without a stick and then walk on the beach (something that felt like stepping on marbles at first but got easier with time).
It was extremely hard and tiring, but the more work I did, the greater my gains were.
So, whatever your problem is, just chip away at it bit by bit. You never know if you don’t have a go.
Be the best you can be
I thought the brain was fixed and couldn’t recover after it was damaged.
But once I started reading up on neuroplasticity [the brain’s ability to reorganise itself to compensate for injury], my mindset changed.
After I was discharged from hospital, I vowed to continue my rehabilitation by doing something every day for as long as it took to get my life back.
Almost 4,000 days in and I’m still at it!
I started every day on the spin bike. I had to strap my left foot to the pedal and slowly built up from five-minute to one-hour sessions.
I took countless swimming lessons and there were many times where I almost drowned. But it all clicked in the end, and I can now swim far better than I did before my stroke.
Eventually I found that, if I approached it in the right way, there was nothing I couldn’t do. I would dream up things that seemed impossible (rock-climbing or horse-riding, for example), then work out a plan and do it.
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Skiing was another tough skill to learn. With my balance problems, learning to walk was hard enough.
But I went on a skiing for disabled camp and despite being terrified, I learnt to navigate the slopes again and was back on black runs in no time. I was amazed!
When life knocks you down, get back up and be the best you can be.
It takes enormous willpower to do so but the benefits are worth it.
Accept help on your journey
Before my accident, I was very independent and thought I could do everything myself.
When the stroke happened, I quickly realised that my way of thinking had to change.
In the beginning, I had no choice. I was literally helpless, like a newborn baby.
In fact, I often refer to my experience as like being born again. From walking to swallowing, I had to learn how to do everything again and my mother has had to raise me twice!
Initially, I refused access to a psychologist because I saw it as a sign of weakness (part of my old mindset).
But eventually I agreed and I loved it. It was just like talking to a very knowledgeable best friend and it helped me immensely.
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Don’t be too proud to accept the help that you need.
Support from my friends and family was paramount to my recovery. They were so important to maintaining a positive attitude, and without them, I wouldn’t be here today.
Alter your attitude
After my accident I consciously made the decision not to wallow.
I never thought, “why me?” If anything, it was “Why did I survive?”
I realised I should have died. I owed it to those no longer here (such as my dad, who died young) to attack life and push the boundaries.
Even when I was in intensive care, I remember just being happy to be alive.
I had no idea what the future held, but I took stock of all my great friends and family. I decided right there to stop looking for greater success and instead be happy in the moment.
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This positive attitude was crucial to my recovery.
It is no use worrying about little problems. You are far better off putting your energy into working out a way to overcome them.
It took endless amounts of rehab for me to learn to walk again, and the process made me realise how much I used to take things for granted.
I often look around at people complaining about small, insignificant things and think, “If only you knew how lucky you are to be able to walk.”
Overcome or be overcome – it’s a choice.
Respect the past, don’t live it
About six months after my accident, I went back to work part-time as a civil engineer.
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It wasn’t the same as before: I worked fewer hours and I got very tired using my brain, meaning I had to take afternoon sleeps.
But to be able to chair meetings and not get confused was an enormous achievement for me.
At around the same time, I travelled through Buenos Aires airport on a family holiday. Our group was lost but, suddenly, I remembered directions from when I was there 10 years earlier.
Up until this point I was unsure if my sense of direction (something I prided myself on) was intact. When I realised it was, I was so happy – it was a great feeling.
The key to all was not thinking “how do I get back to how I was pre-stroke”.
I realised this was never going to happen. For me, any improvement on how I was when I was in intensive care was a bonus.
Don’t waste your emotional energy on what you don’t have. Just maximise what you do.
Live life fully
Six years after my stroke, I fulfilled my dream of taking a 13-month trip around Australia.
This journey was a breakout moment for me; it proved that I could have a meaningful life.
I used to love travel and I remember thinking in intensive care how I couldn’t believe I never got to explore my own country. Like many people, I had been leaving it to later in life.
I vowed that if I ever got better (which looked extremely unlikely at the time), I would do it.
The adventure was affirmation of my belief that my life could be better for having had the stroke.
And once I got a taste for travel and proved to myself that I was capable of it, it reignited my passion for exploring the world.
I’ve since travelled far and wide, including a recent Flash Pack trip to Vietnam and Cambodia.
But it took me to the point of near-death to understand how to live fully like this.
Now, I am trying to do everything I have ever wanted to do – and I suggest you do, too.
That way, if I end up in intensive care again, I’ll have no regrets.
Learnt to dance in the rain
It took me years to get to a point where I could say that I am actually glad that I had the stroke.
Even saying this out loud seems ridiculous – it has been such a long, hard journey but I believe I am a far better version of myself now.
Physically, I still have limitations; I’m totally deaf in my left ear, my balance is still problematic and I have a slight limp on my left leg, especially if I try to walk quickly. My voice is also slightly different.
But emotionally, I am richer for the experience.
I recently changed jobs to become a freelance investor, something I had always dreamt about but never would have done had it not been for the stroke.
It means I can make a full-time career out of investing and travelling.
I’ve also spent a lot of time with my nephew and niece, and got to see them growing up. This closeness is something I’d never have experienced if I hadn’t had my accident.
And I’ve had the opportunity to travel extensively with my mum (above).
When we globe-trot together, people always comment that she is lucky to be able to travel with her adult son. If only they knew how much work both of us have done over the past 10 years for this to happen!
I thought my life was over at 37 years old.
I thought I had no chance of a meaningful future.
How wrong I was!
Whatever you are struggling with in life, don’t wait for the storm to pass. Just learn to dance in the rain.
Images: Paul Middleton