You go to bed tonight, just as usual.
But when you wake in the morning you’re face-to-face with a stern-looking doctor who says, “I’m afraid to say it’s not good news… you’ve lost your voice and you’ll never be able to speak again”.
No speaking. No singing. No laughing. Nothing. Poof. Gone.
Once the initial shock subsided, how would you feel? Because from that day forward your life as you knew it would be completely different.
How would you keep pushing forward knowing that you’d lost something that makes up who you are?
Let’s be real here.
Many of us would struggle. Big time.
That predicament is just what Damien Thomlinson had to face in 2009 when he woke to be told he was a double-amputee.
He lost something that was part of who he was. His legs were so much more than the things that he used to walk the Earth.
He was a gifted athlete, excelling in every sport he applied himself to. He had an incredibly physical job that required strength and stamina. He lived an active lifestyle, choosing to surf, run or kickbox rather than sit on the sofa. So he’d be forgiven for taking the news badly and retreating inwards.
But that’s not how this story goes.
This Special Forces Soldier didn’t think twice… as soon as he was able he was on a mission to keep forging ahead and achieve every goal he set for himself. And it’s that sheer grit and determination that led me to interview him.
ONCE A COMMANDO, ALWAYS A COMMANDO
Private Damien Thomlinson, from the 2nd Commando Regiment of the Australian Army, was on night patrol with his unit in Afghanistan in April 2009, when he drove over a Taliban explosive device.
Thomlinson and his fellow soldiers were blasted from the SRV. Commandos in other trucks rushed to help but it wasn’t until they heard someone groaning that they found Thomlinson. And he was in a bad way.
His right leg had been blown off completely, leaving the femur exposed.
The other leg was twisted in the wrong direction and was hanging by skin.
His arms, hands and nose were smashed and his brain had taken a mighty beating. Doctors who later worked on Thomlinson say that he was as close to death as you can get.
But thanks to Thomlinson’s commando mates, who used their survival skills under the cloak of darkness with the enemy dangerously close by, he survived.
Thomlinson has no memory of that night. So waking up to be told he was a double-amputee was a bitter pill to swallow. That type of news would throw anyone into a spin, but it didn’t deter this commando for long.
Thomlinson set a goal to stand on his own (titanium and carbon fiber prosthetic) legs and salute his unit as they stepped off the tarmac on their flight home from Afghanistan, “not there in a wheelchair, not propped up, but there, standing on my own, to meet their plane,” he says in his book Without Warning.
Multiple operations, a bone infection, a broken back and an intense, emotional rollercoaster were all part of Thomlinson’s recovery process.
Those reasons alone would be enough to slow most people, but Thomlinson pushed through his “invisible boundaries” and set new goals for himself. One was to learn how to snowboard and another was to walk the Kokoda Trail – both daunting feats for most able-bodied people, let alone for someone learning to walk on their new legs.
But Thomlinson isn’t any ordinary guy.
After reading Thomlinson’s book I was compelled to speak to this inspirational commando to find out what it is that drives him forward when life throws a curveball (or in this case, a bomb).
Here, Thomlinson shares some of the most important lessons he’s learned since that fateful night in Afghanistan.
1. WHEN YOU’RE FACED WITH A PROBLEM, FIND A SOLUTION
To be selected as one of the country’s elite soldiers is no mean feat – it involves a fierce selection process and intense physical and psychological training. Now that he’s out of the army, Thomlinson continues to utilize his military background in everyday, civilian life.
“Training as a Special Forces soldier taught me so much, and it was very grueling on the body and mind,” he says. “But that gave me strength. We’d sometimes have to stay awake for days, while walking great distances with a ton of weight on our backs – all while being on high alert. Going through that level of training taught me that when you face a difficult situation, you must stay cool and calm. You need to think about things rationally and find a solution, rather than getting worked up. Don’t sweat the small stuff. Tell yourself, ‘Let’s solve these problems’ and then get on and do it. It’s about coming up with solutions rather than looking at what’s going wrong.”
2. YOU ARE CAPABLE OF FAR MORE THAN YOU REALISE
Thomlinson’s ability to push through mental barriers is one of his most inspiring qualities. “So many things we do are based on breaching what we think is our ‘level’,” he says. “People don’t even realize it, but we all have these levels of comfort or invisible boundaries around us. When we realize how far we can go through these levels when we really do push ourselves, whether we don’t have a choice or we’re just driven to do it, we shock ourselves. We’re shocked because we realize that we have so much more within us. I’ve tried to do things before where I’ve pushed myself so hard that I thought I would physically pass out… and it never happened. We should have so much more faith in ourselves. We can always give that little bit more. By pushing ourselves that much more we are consistently improving our standards.”
3. EVERY BATTLE YOU HAVE IS WON OR LOST WITHIN YOUR MIND
After waking to be told he was a double-amputee, Thomlinson was determined to walk again. And he wanted to do it right away, much to the horror of hospital staff who wanted to slow him down and ease him into his prosthetic legs.
But that isn’t how Thomlinson operates. He set a goal to be standing at the airport when his regiment arrived home from Afghanistan, no matter how painful and challenging the learning-to-walk process would be. “And now here I was, the most seriously injured soldier since Vietnam, who had managed to be up walking again only six weeks after the incident, standing there, waiting for my guys,” he says in Without Warning.
“That saying, ‘You can do anything your put your mind to’, it’s true,” he told me during our interview. “Your mind is always the best place to start with anything you want to do. You may as well not even try to do something if you don’t believe you can do it. Life is 90 per cent of what happens above the shoulders.”
4. FIND COMFORT IN TIMES OF PAIN
Thomlinson’s recovery involved months of pain from his injuries, which in turn created frustration and emotional turmoil. But he was able to find a way to master that discomfort and keep pushing forward.
“I’ve learnt that it’s important to be comfortable being uncomfortable,” he says. “You must understand that being uncomfortable or hurting – emotionally or physically – is part of a process. Once we accept that as a fact, our mind starts to think clearer and we can deal with the situation we’re faced with so much better. Once we’ve accepted that we will feel discomfort during times of change, our body and mind can then adjust and we can feel better… almost normal. Then all of a sudden we’re comfortable being uncomfortable and we can make more rational decisions.”
5. LEARN AND PREPARE FOR LIFE’S CHALLENGES
It doesn’t matter who you are, you’re going to face tough times throughout life. We all do. And now that he can sit back and reflect upon his recent challenges, Thomlinson has a simple yet powerful philosophy about getting through those difficult periods.
“Things are always going to be hard in some respect; the trick is learning something from the hard times,” he says in Without Warning. “That way you can always be better prepared for when the next one hits you in the face.”
Bravo, Damien. To take a shitty, shitty situation and turn it into a positive one is truly inspiring.
So next time you’re faced with one of life’s inevitable obstacles, think like a commando and just keep going.
So now it’s over to you: do you have any life hacks that you live by?
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