GB Paraclimber and catastrophic head injury survivor, Dave Bowes, talks honestly to us about his recent climbing injuries and psychological breakdown

Up until August of last year Dave was making a spectacular recovery from a muscle tear in his left shoulder, which he sustained during the finals of a national ice climbing competition at the end of 2015.

It had taken him three months of rehabilitation work to recover from the injury – it should normally take nine months! He was training every day of the week and nearing his peak physical fitness and strength. His eyes were firmly set on the Paraclimbing World Championships in Paris in September and then the 2016/2017 winter ice climbing season.

Everything seemed to be going to plan but when you have suffered a life changing traumatic brain injury (TBI) life rarely stays on track. During a training session Dave injured his other shoulder and it marked the start of a catalogue of injuries, illnesses and circumstances that would eventually lead to Dave’s breakdown and a slow climb back.

A traumatic brain injury is a challenge every day and one which magnifies the ups and downs of life. The highs fly higher and the lows run deeper.

Dave says: “I was really working hard and enjoying my recovery but the injury to my other shoulder was not part of the plan. It really messed things up and when it happened it was such a shock. It was a really big hit and knockback. After all my hard work, I could only sit and watch all hard work waste away.”

Dave had put himself under huge pressure to recover from the initial shoulder injury and do well in the Paris Championships for his family, sponsors and the brain injury charity he supports, Headway. Six months of training and disciplined dieting was all undone with the injury to his good shoulder.

A sports injury is a massive blow to any athlete but the stakes are even higher for someone with TBI. Dave relies on his climbing to help him control his neurological disabilities, as his brain injuries have left him with permanent symptoms of concussion, no sense of balance, a sleep disorder, over sensitive hearing, migraines and depression.

Dave says: “Climbing allows me to have some control of my symptoms. If I can’t climb, I can’t strengthen my core. If can’t strengthen my core, I can’t walk in a straight line. It all falls apart. I have to work harder to keep my balance by focusing on visual points. This wears down my brain and I get tired quicker and suffer from more migraines. It throws-out my medication levels and depression is a constant battle.  If I can’t climb, everything goes.”

Dave arrived in Paris after weeks of no training and still carrying the second shoulder injury.  To his credit he only narrowly missed out on making the finals but the experience of a busy city, being the captain of the GB Team, the competitive pressure and lack of fitness took its toll physically and mentally.

He returned to the UK, heading down to London for a week and to compete in a National Paraclimbing competition. In hindsight Dave says that he drove for too long, did not eat enough, and tried to compete with zero training and warm-up, which also resulted in two more injuries, this time to his fingers.

“I was just a mess and could barely walk or talk. That day I realised something was really wrong and the day after I knew I was going through a breakdown,” says Dave.

“I had to cut myself off from everything. No physical exertion and reduce stresses. If you think you’re having a breakdown then you must seek help. Tell someone, friends, family or a health professional. I was only able to control my own situation because my family and I have nearly 10 years of experience of dealing with TBI and the consequences. We’ve learned to recognise what is going on and how best to deal with it.”

The experience of a breakdown can be unique to each person but common symptoms are severe stress that leads to depression, anxiety and disassociation. A person can sufferer an inability to function on a day-to-day basis, feel overwhelmed, have feelings of dread, loss of appetite, irritability, insomnia and crippling fatigue. As Dave says, it is vital that the person – and their family and friends – seek help. Don’t go it alone. There are many wonderful organisations that can help, such as the mental health charity MIND and Samaritans.

Upon returning home Dave isolated himself away from climbing and his family. That is not easy when you have three children under six. Fortunately, Dave’s extraordinary wife, Sheema, took on the family duties as Dave tried to bring his condition under control.

It has not been easy. Since the second injury to his shoulder in August, Dave has only managed to climb about eight times. In December he had to cancel participation in the ice climbing season. Another major setback, as he worked hard to secure a place on the able-bodied GB Team. He has fought depression, migraines, a virus, and has been diagnosed as a coeliac.

With courage, determination and the help of family, friends, Dave has never allowed his neurological condition to stop him from living. It has been a difficult six months trying to climb back from his injuries and illnesses but Dave is determined to make a good start to the new climbing season in May.

He says: “Everyone knows that it’s hard to get back into training when you’ve lost momentum and motivation but add in a TBI and it’s a long climb back – but I’ll do it.”

Dave suffered multiple brain injuries as a result of a road traffic accident in 2007, which left him with a neurological disability. He refused to let the injuries stop him from climbing. He has since become British Paraclimbing Champion, ranked second in Europe and fourth in the World, and through hard work and dedication earned a place on the able bodied GB Ice Climbing Team.

His achievements are incredible when you know that his brain injuries left him with permanent symptoms of concussion, no sense of balance, a sleep disorder, over sensitive hearing, migraines, depression and a complete change of personality.

Birchall Blackburn Law is a proud sponsor of Dave and The GB Paraclimbing Team.

You can follow Dave through his Twitter @bowesdave and Instagram ‘bowesdave’.