Scott Harris suffered traumatic brain injury in a motorbike accident. Nine years later, he's redefined resilience. He tells his remarkable story, sharing the lessons he's learned.
Scott Harris was fighting for his life nine years ago after a motorbike accident, which left him with a traumatic brain injury. Today, he inspires students, carers and medical professionals with the story of how he rebuilt his life, giving them a personal insight into living with brain injury. He’s just authored Crashing into Potential: Living with my injured brain. Here, he shares the life lessons he’s learned.
We’ve all heard the saying, ‘Resilient in the face of adversity’… but what does it even mean? I believe it’s about how we choose to overcome challenges in our lives. Resilience is a very hard subject to teach; perhaps it is easier to understand when you see it in action. Let me share with you a story about what resilience means to me.
Imagine this: it is 15 November 2008. I’m 23 years young and I’m at the Spring Racing Carnival at Flemington racecourse. The day consists of good times with my friends, losing money at the bookies and losing more money at the bar. Everything about the day goes like clockwork – besides the losing money part – that kinda sucked.
The next thing I know, it honestly feels as if somebody clicked their fingers and boom, someone is feeding me like a baby, playing here comes the airplane with a spoon full of slop. I’m in a hospital bed. It’s four weeks later.
Confused? Well so was I, don’t you worry about that!
What had happened was that two weeks after that day at the races, I was riding my motorbike at a friend’s place in Melbourne’s outer north-east when I was involved in a head-on collision with a good mate. Believe me, it was not good. I was knocked out for 20 minutes then the air ambulance arrived and flew me off to the Royal Melbourne Hospital in an induced coma.
While I was fighting for life in the air, the news was destroying lives on the ground. The phone call to my mother had to be made and that was the job of a senior constable of the Heidelberg police station. This is not a phone call that anyone wants to receive, especially not the world’s most caring mother. It gives me shivers just thinking about the way in which my mother’s heart was ripped out that day.
It was only when my family got to the hospital that they discovered what the kid had done to himself. I won’t dwell on the past too much but I will give you a quick wrap sheet of my injuries:
- I broke Vertebrae C6 and C7 in my neck, while damaging ligaments at the base of my skull
- Spent two-and-a-half weeks in a coma
- Sustained severe brain damage
- Have permanent double vision (diplopia) as a result of that brain damage
- Had a facial reconstruction
- Have 10 metal plates holding my face together
- Severed three nerves in my right arm.
To cut a long story short, as a result of this accident, I have been doing rehab on my body and mind now for over nine years. I spent the first six months as an inpatient of Epworth Rehab and the next two and a half years as an outpatient. Let’s just say that rehab was my life for three years.
I’ll cut the story right there, because you don’t need to know about all the wicked fun I’ve been having around the world since those dark days. I’ll just tell you this: The accident was the best thing that has ever happened to me. Without a word of a lie, if I didn’t have my accident, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I would just be an able-bodied guy, working an able-bodied job, able-ing my way through life. How boring’s that? My life now has purpose, and that purpose is to inspire people to make the most of their lives, and to know that whatever happens, with determination you can push through and arrive at an even better place.
What I’ve learnt on my journey are not only lessons fit for an injured brain but lessons fit for anyone going through life. I’ll give you a brief rundown of the four most important lessons that have crafted me into the guy I am here right now.
Lesson Number 1 – The choices we make in life are ours to make
I believe that your life ultimately consists of all of the choices you make. These choices come with their own responsibilities; some big, some small, some important, some not so important, but they all have one thing in common, they’re yours to make. What happened to me was a freak accident; I was just in the wrong place at the wrong time. Yes, things could have been done to prevent it, I know, but they weren’t, so now I just have to cop it on the chin… or on the face in my case. So you may be sitting there thinking, But, Scott, it sounds like you didn’t really have a choice in the matter, and you’d be right, I didn’t. But no one told me to get on the bike that day. It was my choice so I had to take responsibility for it. I’ll tell you what, my life would have turned out pretty crappy if I had spent nine years asking the universe, ‘Why me?’
So that was the choice I made before the accident, which didn’t swing my way. Then, after the accident, I had another choice to make: What was I going to do about it? I could keep crying over it (which I did a considerable amount of) or I could look past it and get over it.
Things happen in our lives that we don’t like; it’s called ‘adversity’ and when adversity hits us in the back of the head, we all have one thing in common and that is choice. We can choose what we’re going to do about it.
Lesson Number 2 – Mindset is the key to overcoming adversity
I’m not sure if you know this already (you probably do but I’m going to tell you anyway). The mind is the most powerful thing in the world. Everything in this world, apart from nature, started off in somebody’s head. Think about it, every invention ever made, dollar ever earned, war ever fought, all started off in someone’s head. So, in essence, we’re all harbouring the most powerful thing in the world, inside of us. It’s just that a lot of people (except for you and me) don’t know it. A valuable lesson this accident has taught me has been how to use my mind.
Growing up, I played so many sports that I drove my parents nuts. I drove them nuts because I had a fixed mindset. That is, if I wasn’t the best, or any good, at something, I’d give up. Then I’d move onto the next big thing. After my accident this feeling was amplified because I was now a disabled kid and disabled kids can’t play sport… can they? I had been fighting my way through depression for a while when, in 2010, I was invited to the snow with Disabled Winter sports Australia. DWA, a group of volunteers, help disabled people on the snow and I decided to give it a go. After all, I literally had nothing to lose. Well let’s just say that this weekend at the snow changed my life. My fixed mindset had told me that I couldn’t have fun because I was disabled. I couldn’t play any more sports, because I was disabled. I couldn’t, I couldn’t, I couldn’t… because I was disabled.
This weekend completely changed my mindset and I started to develop what is called a ‘growth mindset’. People with a growth mindset believe that learning and intelligence can be acquired.
Lesson Number 3 – Goals: the height that you set the bar will ultimately determine the outcome
On returning from that snow trip, goal setting became my drug of choice. I became addicted to setting goals. I started achieving goals that I once didn’t think I was capable of achieving. You could say that I became addicted to proving myself wrong. Well, my brain at this point was still rapidly recovering so I guess I had good reason to doubt my potential. But this doubt was not going to stop me from living out my dreams. Before my accident, I had imagined myself living overseas one day, just as my sister had done. After my accident, I decided this was impossible because now I was a guy who lived with an injured brain. I couldn’t go on a solo mission to live overseas… could I?
Keep in mind that at the time I set out to achieve this goal, my life was pretty messed up. I would still be at Epworth for another year and I definitely wasn’t fit to take care of myself on the other side of the world. That didn’t stop me from dreaming of a time when I’d travel. I was going to Canada to go snowboarding, and that was that. I was going to stop at nothing to make this happen. Moving on two years and I was still in Melbourne, slogging away at rehabilitation. The itch to travel became an infection and something had to be done, I had been working so hard in rehab now for four years and I needed out.
I left Australia with a backpack full of fears and much doubt from my family and friends, who all thought I would be back soon. In my mind, though, there wasn’t a chance on earth that I was coming home early with my tail between my legs. Instead, I travelled the world solo for 18 months, returning a new person. This was all thanks to that growth mindset I had developed years earlier.
Lesson Number 4 – We need persistence to achieve our goals
The first and most important goal I’ve had throughout my recovery has been to simply get better. All I’ve wanted from the start has been just to get better. Getting better is not the same as most guys just getting over the man flu. A couple of Panadol, some warm honey, lemon, a hot water bottle and you’re good to go. No, for me, getting better is not like that at all because I know I’ll never get back to being 100 per cent. My brain will never fully recover, so in fact getting better for me means making sure every day is better than the previous one. It means putting one foot in front of the other and taking small steps toward my goals.
I’ll tell you something about persistence. While I was an inpatient at Epworth, I was doing 25 hours of therapy per week. That many hours of therapy with an injured body was incredibly taxing on me physically and mentally, but there was not one moment that I though about giving up. Supported by the amazing staff there, I was on a mission to get better.
Throughout my recovery, I’ve had my ups and down, don’t get me wrong. I’ve taken on depression, fought my mindset and had a number of major setbacks, but there’s one thing I’ve maintained and that is persistence. It’s all about showing up. Yes, you can fail at things if you do show up, I agree, but I know for a fact that if you don’t show up, you will not succeed.
This journey has taken me from the highest of highs, where I didn’t want my days to end, to the lowest of lows, where ending it would have been the easy way out. This journey has taught me more about life than I ever wanted to know and I can tell you now that I am so, so grateful for this opportunity.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, this accident has been the best thing that has ever happened to me. I have learnt to be persistent, to be determined, to have a growth mindset, and I now know that I can take on the world.
If you would like to read more on my journey, I have just written a book, Crashing into Potential: Living with my injured brain.
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