The Things That Change Us: A Story from Afghanistan
Updated: Mar 12, 2020
Easter Monday may seem like a bit of an odd time to be writing about this, but it recently occurred to me that this marks the 10 year point since my time in Afghanistan. A decade ago, my life changed - more even than I could comprehend at the time - and as I look back at the journey since then, I feel a sense of awe, and quiet pride at just what and how much has changed. If you'll let me, I'd like to share some of that journey with you here.
I was young - 24 - and ’acting up’ as a junior officer in a senior officer slot. The work involved a fair bit of travel up and down the country and into some of the slightly more remote areas. There were experiences that changed my life. Making eye contact with a man as he pulled a weapon up to fire at the vehicle I was travelling in; walking the streets of Kabul in civilian attire, alone as we'd run out of military escorts, a pistol on my hip, terrified but trying not to show it. Helping a multinational team of soldiers pick up body parts of a suicide bomber who‘d blown himself up at the gates of the compound we worked in. Lying in a ditch in the pitch black at Kandahar, waiting for mortars to land, wondering whether this would be my last day. Mild experiences on the spectrum of action in war - nothing compared to the truly frontline guys and girls in the proper firefights. And yet, the experience was profound, and life-changing. I remember writing a letter about my time out there as I was travelling back, more a reflection than anything else. When I got home, that got filed away with all of the blueys I’d received, and the few trinkets I’d picked up while I was out there. I neatly boxed up my memories, just as I’d boxed up my kit and my home, and moved on to my next posting on my return - or so I thought. But things were different. My perspective had completely changed as a result of my time out there. I couldn’t understand how anything mattered; everything seemed insignificant when compared to the knife-edge of life and death, and the questions that living on that edge had asked of me. The feeling that I wasn’t doing enough pervaded my thoughts, constantly. My experiences in Afghanistan - the constant reminders of the tenuous and temporary hold we have on life, the removal of the illusion of safety and security of a long life - haunted me.
After a few months of struggling with these uncomfortable thoughts, I went back to the drawing board, to consider what it was in life that I really wanted to give to the world. I wanted to make a difference to people, as cliched as that sounds, and after a lot of soul-searching, I chose medicine. Everyone thought I was mad. I was doing well at work, I had a steady job, I was financially secure, and my prospects were good. Besides, I also only had 1 science A-level and absolutely no connections in the medicine arena. I wasn’t doctor material. I didn’t listen to their perfectly reasonable advice and chose to pursue this new ambition. I studied in my own time for the entrance exams, poring over biology and chemistry textbooks, writing essay arguments under time pressure and completing practice papers in the evenings after work and at weekends. I managed to get some work experience at the military rehabilitation centre. I put in my medical school applications and then turned my attention to the aptitude exams. I went for my assessment in Sheffield and remember sitting and chatting to the other candidates in the break between the exams. PhD’s and MSc’s in biochemistry and medical science abounded. I was laughably outgunned, and during those chats, the futility and stupidity of my ambition really hit home. The pressure was off; there was no way I was going to compete with these people. I sat the rest of the exams only for the experience and because I’d paid for them. I took the train home, ready to draw a line under this foolish venture.
You know how this story ends, because I'm a doctor, and I'm not going to bore you with all of the details of medical school and the years after (perhaps another time though...). But, as I've reflected on that journey, the lessons that I learned are deeper and more enduring than the medical school lectures and hundreds - perhaps thousands - of hours of study that have happened since that journey began. What I've learned is that there are no limits. That persistence pays off. That the competition isn't real, and that heart counts more than the paper we write our achievements on. That when you really set your mind on something, and when you're determined - even with the odds stacked against you - you can achieve whatever you want. What my time in Afghanistan taught me, above all else, is that life is precious and if you don't feel like you're doing enough, or fulfilling your potential, then you cannot afford to wait for the right time.
I recently re-opened that box of trinkets and blueys, and I re-read the letter I wrote to myself at the time. One of the lines jumped out at me, and brought tears to my eyes. I'd written: 'I am lost, and want to be found again. I want to be more than I am.' If I could reply to that letter now, I'd tell myself that I was never lost, that I always had the answers, and that everything is a path to something else. And I'd tell myself that I was courageous, and beautiful, and worth so much more than I believed I was, and that it wasn't about being more than I was, it was about being everything I could be, because that is enough. Knowing and being able to say those things has been a part of the tremendous growth that was brought about by that time over there. This journey isn't over yet, and there is much more, I hope, to come. But today, 10 years on, I can say with quiet satisfaction, that I am closer to the person I am supposed to be. I guess the message here is that it is never too late to re-think, to grow, and to change. We don't need a war story to prompt that; what happened to me is echoed in many of the stories I see in others, in different ways. Now, as a coach, I get to be that future voice for others, the one that tells them that they are enough, that they are courageous, and that they have all of the answers if they look deep enough within themselves. We all need that voice sometimes, and here it is now, for you: whatever it is that lights you, let it, and whatever it is that sparks that desire for change, let it. There is no time to lose.
Need help finding your direction, or ways to make the changes you want to make in your life? I can help you. Book in for a free life-coaching scoping call and let's see where the journey takes us.