Learning From Isolation
As a former Royal Marine, mountaineer, endurance athlete, and ocean rower, Montane Ambassador Chris Shirley is no stranger to hardship or the mental and emotional sides of endurance. in 2019 he suffered a fall whilst climbing the Matterhorn which put him in hospital for 3 months. It was an experience that has taught him much about isolation, and how to mitigate its negative effects.
I’ve long suspected that my ‘risk appetite’ has been a little different from other peoples. I spent my twenties in the forces, followed by a stint working in the BBC High Risk and News Safety team followed shortly after but even that wasn’t sating it. I developed a healthy appetite for tough endurance sports, running the Marathon des Sables, mountaineering, and rowing the Atlantic. The latter was achieved with four other men aboard an eight-metre-long carbon fibre single-hulled boat. Having no personal space for weeks on end, was gruelling and – paradoxically – I craved my own space yet felt isolated.
I started travelling to more active conflict zones such as Iraq or Afghanistan to be close to ‘the pulse of life’. In doing so, I met sports teams with uncommon amounts of drive and ambition which spurred me on to start helping build their positive communities. Supporting these organisations is something I am very passionate about.
But late last year, I had a big fall whilst trying to climb the Matterhorn, tumbling fifty metres which put me in a coma for eight days and hospital for almost three months. After spending a week in a coma, I woke up with a traumatic brain injury. The Italian doctors had found three lesions (damage in the brain) which affected my short-term memory, speech and vision in one eye. At first, I didn’t recognise my girlfriend, family or close friends who had all flown to be with me throughout the coma. But as time went on, I started to become more like the person I was before – albeit with a slight change in perspective.
It was undoubtedly the hardest period of my life, but these basic principles helped me to endure it and come out stronger:
1. Make a work routine so you’re not just consuming junk-media and feeling sorry for yourself.
Isolation isn’t a holiday or an excuse for you to stop working – you just have to alter the way you work. I strongly believe achieving small goals gives you a little bit more self-esteem, so when you find your life takes an unexpected pivot and stop ploughing your effort into something meaningful – you can slowly lose happiness.
My hospital recovery started with watching movies all day – which was like a holiday at first but quickly felt like my energy was going down a drain. I needed to feel that I was controlling the injury and now the other way around.
So I started to build a routine around meal and visiting times
2. Be careful who you regularly interact with.
Oprah Winfrey socialised the idea of people being radiators and drains.
A radiator is someone who gives out energy, inspires and picks people up and is fun to be around. A drain is someone with the ability to bring everyone to the task in hand and help people focus.
We need both kinds of people in life however this situation will mean we need more of one kind of person: decide which that is and limit your interaction with the other kind.
3. Celebrate the small wins.
We can sometimes feel overtaken by events outside of our control – so it’s important to stabilise the ship and keep things in perspective.
Some analysis suggests this way of life may last for many more months – so we must treat it as a marathon and not a sprint. When you go to sleep each night, write even just a few lines in a journal so you can look back on this time as one which you endured. I first undertook this when deployed on a Royal Navy ship in the Mediterranean during the ‘Arab spring’ when the world was also uncertain. Writing regularly helps you anchor your current mindset to one you’ve had in the past.
4. Have a plan for the inevitable ‘low days’ that will come.
And come they WILL. I experienced some of the lowest days of my life in the aftermath of my fifth operation to remove 6 centimetres of infected shin bone fragments. I didn’t leave my bed for 14 days and had magnolia walls and iPhone pictures of the outside world to keep me sane.
5. Don’t always start a conversation with ‘how are you?’!
You force someone into a difficult process of contextualising their feelings into an accessible bundle of words. Sometimes they won’t know, won’t be honest. A great deal of insight can be gained from seeing their non-verbal language.
Instead, send them a funny meme or tell them an amusing story and use that as a bridge to see how they’re getting on.
6. Be careful of how often you’re using social media.
Social media can be a great tool for connecting us to similar and disparate communities yet can also put some disingenuous people in front of our eyeballs. Use it with the understanding that it doesn’t always reflect reality.
7. Find ways to weave physical fitness into your new routine.
Physical movement has been proven to increase mood. Understand that it won’t be the height of your achievement – however, accept it will be doing you good. When I could finally leave my bed, I was strong enough to get to the bathroom eight metres away only twice a day. Each one felt like a marathon getting there but the elation was palpable. Over the weeks, progress on the crutches was measured using windows to gauge how far I’d travelled.
Whilst I’ve certainly built up some skills of persevering through hardship, living with a very different lifestyle for so long has changed my perception of the world. For now, I’m far less interested in (and incapable of) finding where my physical limits are, but exploring where my academic boundaries lay. The Doctors that put me back together did so with an incredible amount of poise and energy and inspired me to revisit an interest in medicine.
Coming from a creative background however, this is meaning I have to really understand how to bring biology and chemistry to life – textbooks don’t engage me in the same way anymore.
My approach to risk has been greatly affected. I now ask ‘Is the juice worth the squeeze?’ (is the outcome worth the risk?)
Should I potentially put my family through the same dark times when it looked like I’d probably die whilst in a coma? Or find new ways to add value to the world instead of satisfying a now muted wanderlust.
For now, it looks like the journey into medicine is just beginning.