I arrived back in the UK three days after I’d been injured in Afghanistan. When they wheeled me into the hospital, I was in and out of consciousness. My family had been told I probably wasn't going to make it, because normally a few days after the injury is when you die from it. My sister could see I was trying to say something. I don’t remember this because I was so out of it, but they took off the oxygen mask so I could speak. My sister was thinking it could have been my last words, and the only thing that came out was “I’m still a photographer.”
I describe it almost like breaking a stick of rock. What is written inside is what defines us. For me, being a photographer is everything. It’s my identity. That was always the thing, through my recovery. I kept thinking OK, I’ve lost my legs, I’ve lost my arm. I was told I’d probably be in a wheelchair. But I kept thinking, if I could take photographs I would have my identity back. I would still exist.
- The writer, back at work. Photo: Giles Duley
The hardest thing was the 46 days in intensive care. They say the experience is very similar to torture. You don’t sleep. There’s no difference between day or night because it’s 24 hour care. The room is bright white. You start to lose all sense of what time it is, what day it is, and you’re constantly close to death – which is why you’re there. There’s is constant noise and constant fear. Because I had a tube down my throat, and my hand was in a cast, I could only communicate by blinking. You’re never sure what they were going to stick in you or do to you next.
There was a turning point three or four months after I’d been injured when I was moved from intensive care into the high dependency unit. That was when I had to come to terms with my injuries, that I might never walk again, that whatever happens I’m missing three limbs and life will never been the same. That was harder in a way than intensive care, where all you’re doing is fighting for the day, fighting to survive. Then I had to focus on my new reality.
“All I could say was, ‘I’m still a photographer’. It’s almost like breaking a stick of rock. What is written inside is what defines us. For me, being a photographer is everything. It’s my identity.”
I was completely unable to look after myself. I was so badly injured it took me two months to learn how to sit up in bed. You’re literally having to learn everything again from the starting point. I had a colostomy bag so I couldn't even go to the toilet by myself. It was completely psychologically emasculating, going from being an independent person who travelled the world, to thinking I can’t even wipe my own arse and might need full-time care for the rest of my life.
I remember being taken to have a shower for the first time. It took three people to move me, and I saw myself in the mirror for the first time. I went to bed thinking, I wish I’d just died, it would have been a lot easier for everybody if I just hadn't made it. I didn't want this new reality.
The next morning I made a conscious decision: I would never again focus on the things I couldn’t do. Instead, I would excel at the things I could do. That was the turning point. It didn't get easier but it gave me a focus.
“I went to bed wishing I’d just died. The next morning I made a conscious decision: I would never again focus on the things I couldn’t do. Instead, I would excel at the things I could do.”
I’m now doing everything I did before my injury. I travel around the world on my own, I do work that creates a positive impact on other people’s lives, but my work appears with no byline saying ‘This was taken by a disabled photographer’.
But it wasn’t like I made a decision to sort my life out and I was fine. It took three years from when I got injured before I felt like I was back doing work that was anywhere near where I was before I got injured. There were dark patches along the way where I thought I’m never going to reach that point, and certainly nobody made it easy for me. I was bankrupted by the whole thing. I lost my home. It was a really long and dark road, but I kind of knew that was the only solution
I’ve always said that I don’t think anyone is defined by her injuries or disabilities. I think you’re defined by how you cope with it. For me, I was absolutely determined and absolutely sure that I could find a way to not just return to work but to come back as a better photographer.
If someone meets me for the first time they will see a disabled person, but my photographs will stand up alongside anyone else’s. For me, doing what I love, I’ve beaten any disability. I never really think about it anymore, because I do feel like I’ve conquered it.
Find out more about Giles Duley’s photography here.
In any way they can. Everyone is different and what gets one through may not another. So I can only give my personal experience and the after affects. I was held against my will by a "friend" he and his friend took turns holding me down and you can figure out the rest. I fought with everything I had but I am petite. For being slight I am pretty strong but I learned sometimes will alone can't save you from harm. It can see you through all the hard roads it takes to be "okay" again. There for me was a process, though I didn't know it at the time. I felt used and dirty and somehow at fault. I kept it to myself and that caused so much more damage than I could handle. I was breaking inside, not eating or sleeping. The sleep I did get was filled with dreams about it. I turned to self medicating, which lead to more problems. I destroyed anyone who got close to me. Meaning the relationship not the person. I was full of rage and darkness. Then someone said to me "Get busy living or get busy dying" That made me angry but it also made me think. Who had I become? I didn't recognize me anymore and I went against everything this I was raised to be. I had someone raise me to be strong with morals and values. I was letting this strip me of me. So I faced it and forgave myself. It wasn't my fault and I had to stop punishing me for their wrong. It wasn't easy, nor quick. I had heaped on many more hurts in the process to forget. So I had to take a hard look in the mirror and have some unpleasant talks with myself. I still have trust issues and a fear of certain situations but I found my way back to me. To me getting through hard things is holding on to who you are inside. The world can and does change, people will turn on each other. Bad things happen but if you can hold on to the good in you and not become bitter. You will find the way.