A week had passed since I’d attended the Talent Identification Day for Great Britain’s Paracanoe programme. As I waited impatiently to learn my fate, an intriguing invite from an old friend momentarily stole my concentration.
I’d been invited to speak at an event in London held by a group known as the ‘Yes Tribe’. The tribe, the brainchild of adventurer Dave Cornthwaite, brought together like minded people from across the country – each dedicated to leading extra-ordinary lives. Every month the tribe held a ‘Yes Stories’ evening, to which I had been invited to speak at their May event. Up until now, the only way I’d shared or spoken about my story publicly had been through the relative safety of my blog. I was ultimately in control of when I felt ready to write, of when I had to compose myself ahead of writing the next passage, and even to what extent I opened up honestly about the raw vulnerability and heartbreak of certain events. Stood in front of a room full of strangers, speaking about the most challenging moments of my life, I had no idea what emotional reflexes it might trigger.
Arriving at the venue in the heart of London’s Piccadilly, my friend Jack and I encountered the evening’s first challenge…a broken lift, and a winding staircase up to the conference room on the first floor. Undeterred, Jack and I enrolled the services of our friend and avid gym enthusiast Mark. With Jack grasping the chair’s handles behind me, and Mark lifting the chair’s footplate in front whilst walking backwards, we tentatively began our ascent! Like a Pharaoh sat atop a throne, I dictated our approach. As we approached the top of the narrow staircase, the stairs twisted sharply to the left before entering the room six or seven steps later. Fatigue was clearly starting to set in for two thirds of our trio, and as we navigated our way through the tight turn, the chair began to lurch somewhat worryingly from side to side. Praying fervently that I wasn’t about to get dropped, I clung determinedly to the rickety wooden bannister to my left. Any nerves about my talk had long since faded into insignificance!
Having made the journey to the first floor unscathed, we entered the crowded room where I spotted my friend from university, Emma. It was thanks entirely to Emma that I’d been invited to speak at the night’s event. Within a matter of seconds she’d introduced me to the charming and charismatic Dave Cornthwaite. The pair, it transpired, were a couple, and would be giving a talk before me that night about their recent 1,000 mile tandem bicycle trip to Budapest. With his arm around Emma, and with a wry smile spread across his face, Dave whispered that they had a surprise for everyone…which they wouldn’t reveal until later on. With people beginning to take their seats in anticipation of the evening’s first speaker, I joined Jack and Mark perched against the bar at the side of the room.
Each person who took to the stage shared a story distinctly individual to them, whether that be a bicycle trip along the River Rhine in Germany, or a project in Nepal to provide aid in the aftermath of the devastating 2016 earthquake. Emma brilliantly recounted the story of her and Dave’s tandem bike adventure, a form of transport which she admitted had the potential to either make or break their relationship. With time rapidly counting down until it was my turn to take the stage, and with nerves now tingling in the pit of my stomach, I began to silently panic. How would I start my talk? What would I do if emotions got the better of me? All of a sudden, I heard the word “announcement”, and my attention snapped back to Emma. She clicked play on a video being projected onto the screen at the front of the room. A beautiful lake sparkled in the background, the silhouettes of Emma and Dave stood between two trees. Their tandem bicycle next to them. Before anyone realised what was about to happen, Dave had gotten down on to one knee and proposed. The room erupted into applause. I was delighted for them, yet at the same time I thought – bloody hell Emma, how am I meant to follow that!
Without any advanced warning, and with half of the room still congratulating the beaming couple, came the next announcement.
“So, our next speaker of the evening is here to talk about a journey which he has titled ‘Strength Through Adversity’. Please could you put your hands together and welcome to the stage Darren Edwards…”
Approaching the front of the room I kept my head down, like an athlete walking to his starting block, mentally rehearsing the next steps ahead of me. Turning to face the audience for the first time, I took one last deep breath. The Strength Through Adversity logo projected onto the screen behind me, a visual reminder that I’d overcome bigger challenges before. With an air of composure which I hadn’t quite anticipated, I introduced myself to the crowded room. I took the opportunity to congratulate the beaming couple, and promised that whilst my talk would start on somewhat of a downbeat note, the story also had more than its fair share of lighter hearted moments to look forward to. I clicked to the first slide in my presentation.
Two images from my accident now projected against the white screen behind me. The first, taken by a member of the Mountain Rescue team as he looked up to the imposing limestone cliffs of World’s End from the roadside. The tiny red dots of the rescue team barely visible as they crowded along a small cliff edge. The second, an image taken as the team stabilised my back on a spinal board as I waited for extraction by Coastguard helicopter. Looking over my shoulder, I stumbled momentarily over my words as I tried to illustrate how far I had fallen. I paused unintentionally, held captive in my mind for what felt like minutes, fixated on the red mountain rescue jackets in the first image. Somewhere amongst that blur of red was me. Laid there, utterly unaware of the journey ahead. As I continued to recount the initial moments of my accident, and as I elaborated on some of the toughest moments of my time in Intensive Care, I felt no need to hide the emotions I’d felt at the time: the fear; the worry; the pain. I was an open book.
It was interesting to see how people reacted almost in perfect unison to the concept of six weeks forced bed rest. And yet, as I spoke about the first three months of my rehabilitation (which I had found the most frustrating), I reflected with a smile on all of the small things which had helped pull me through. Whether that had been cramming 15 members of my family and friends into my small room for a morale boosting KFC, insisting (arguing) with the physio department that they should give me something heavier than a pink 1KG weight for me to do exercises whilst on bed rest (to which I was told “it’s called bed REST for a reason”), or the discovery that I could alter the speed of my electric wheelchair as I whizzed up and down the hospital’s corridors! There were moments of pure happiness, and a sense of love and even belonging I’d perhaps not appreciated before. Yet, with every anecdote, I knew that I was coming to a part in my story I was most nervous about sharing.
‘Crash Land’ projected onto the screen behind me. With a sense of foreboding I approached the defining challenge of my early recovery. My demeanour switched, suddenly more introvert, less confident. Breaking eye contact with the room I looked down to my lap, and after a momentary stutter, I explained how my relationship had unexpectedly ended a matter of weeks before my anticipated discharge date. Everything I’d strived to return to was gone. The rug firmly pulled from underneath my feet. I glanced up briefly, conscious that I was only a matter of seconds away from tears. A sea of empathetic and understanding faces looked back at me. Not one person judging me in weakness. It was the most reassuring, liberating response I could have asked for.
From that moment on my confidence grew with each second that passed. Now I could focus on the positive experiences which, coupled with the love and support of those around me, helped to shape a new purpose for me in life post-injury. Whether that was jumping into a kayak (and repeatedly falling out) a day after my discharge from hospital, spending Christmas day at home with my family two days later, or creating Strength Through Adversity. Sat reflecting on those experiences with everyone in the room, I felt a sense of inner pride and confidence which I hadn’t known for a long time. As my talk came to an end, the reaction which followed simply blew me away. Emma keenly started the round of applause. Within seconds the sound of moving chairs reverberated across the room. People were getting to their feet in applause. I was overwhelmed, exhilarated, and utterly exhausted. I couldn’t have asked for a better audience and for a better ‘first time’. It had been like an intense form of therapy. Now the only challenge which remained was to get back down the stairs…