Award-Winning Story Of One Man's Rise, And How We Can Find Inspiration In Life's Darkest Moments
Foreword Reviews' Executive Editor Matt Sutherland Interviews Mark Berridge, Author Of A Fraction Stronger
It’s one thing to be knocked down by debilitating illness, but life often has an insult-to-injury tendency which means that many patients can also find themselves battling grief and depression at the same time. And those mental struggles often do more damage than the physical ones. Mark Berridge would know.
In his recovery from a devastating bike accident—causing more than 50 percent compression of his spinal cord and necessitating 7+ weeks in hospital—Mark suffered intense periods of loneliness and isolation, guilt and despair. By comparison, his work with physical therapists to regain use of his legs was a different, more predictable battle, one in which he could set goals and chart progress. But the mental demons proved to be the more formidable adversary.
So, even as he was doing those stretching and strengthening exercises, Mark devoted much more time to his head, and decided to write about it. In his mind, if he could help even one person with their recovery, the work he put into writing would be worth the effort.
Foreword‘s Executive Editor Matt Sutherland, who faced a few demons himself during his rounds of chemo and radiation for throat cancer, eagerly picked up Mark’s A Fraction Stronger in anticipation of this interview and found himself nodding in agreement. He knew Mark had something original to offer the recovery conversation.
In your preface, you cite three close calls with mortal danger as transformative in your life, including a devastating bike accident a couple years ago that prompted the writing of this book. With the title—A Fraction Stronger—in mind, can you set the tone for this interview by telling readers what inspired this book and who might benefit from reading it?
In mid-2020, I was physically and mentally struggling. That was 15 months after my significant spinal injury and 3 months after the extraction of the 2 x 9-inch-long rods that had stabilised my spine whilst I strived to regain my mobility. Recovering from that 2nd major operation was more complex than I hoped. My return to part time work had been exhausting and—whilst emotionally valuable—less fulfilling than I desired. Everyone was navigating the disruption of Covid.
I decided a defining achievement would reinvigorate me. I chose to “jog” a lap of an oval—about 500 yards. It was the ultimate test of the pre-running drills I had been performing 4 times per week for about 10 months. It was a pivotal emotional event for me, as I had been told many times since my injury that I would never run again. Running was part of my identity. I valued that identity.
Tackling this milestone caused me to reflect on my progress since the shock of 10 March 2019, the day I heard the devastating words “spinal cord injury” and faced the prospect of never walking again. The day I decided that I could find peace with whatever physical outcome I reached ONLY if I gave recovery my absolute best shot. The day I generated the strength to try but granted myself the permission to fail, and the license to promote hope despite the hopelessness I felt.
I felt the urge to publicly share my story for the first time. My article “Value Every Step” reflected on all the incremental efforts and the cardinal help of others that had accumulated to create this lap-rounding moment. I sensed that sharing my gratitude would reward the kindness and expertise that elevated me and encourage this to be applied again for the benefit of others.
“Value Every Step” was the seed that bloomed into A Fraction Stronger. The article and the discussions that flowed caused me to relive the first minutes, then days and months of recovery. How I had to identify and harness strength time and time again to persevere when I was overwhelmed with the difficulty and desperation of my reality. How powerful my sense of self could be and how this was the product of all my life experiences, including the successes, failures, and near-misses of my past. How I was steadfastly heartened by progress, by the words and deeds of others. How pushing myself into uncertainty liberated possibility. How I was stronger than I thought.
In writing A Fraction Stronger, I endeavoured to inspirit readers that they are stronger than they recognise whilst providing a conceptual framework to extend that emotional strength. The book is centred on my lived recovery experience and shares other stories that inspired me. This variety of voices reassures readers that if they suffer, they are not alone. That many “typical” people have faced tough(er) situations and thrived.
I aim to liberate more rewarding outcomes for readers and their loved ones today and for the rest of their lives. I perpend: “What if I could just get a few more people to try, or a few more people to try harder and longer? Imagine the benefit for them, their loved ones, their carers? What if my words compel a few people to become more effective at supporting others in hardship? Imagine the potential of that?”
After a traumatic setback, how much energy should be devoted to figuring out what happened?
The minimum viable amount. Our mind is an amazing problem-solving machine so it is important we set it—as much as possible—to visualising the outcomes and actions that generate the greatest benefit for our future.
For most of us, it is unhelpful to deny ourselves any reflection at all. But we must be conscious of how long we dwell and have strategies to redirect our focus away from lamentation. I know I couldn’t completely let go of the thought “I was a talented bicycle rider, how did I lose control?” but I could sense how reliving the crash was draining me. I gave myself permission to feel confused, parking the issue until later so that I could concentrate my attention on taking the actions I needed to right now. I could address my confusion later when I was stronger.
I acknowledge that we will each experience a unique capacity to find our level of “good enough acceptance” and move on, considering both our nature and the gravity of our specific circumstance. My reactions were almost certainly expedited by the desperation and urgency I felt. It had been made clear to me many times that the first months were crucial to my outcomes.
“When you are faced with a challenge, rekindle your embers of normality through memory and events.” What do you mean by “rekindle your embers?”
In analysing how I tackled my predicament, I was drawn to the fundamental nature of hope. I couldn’t help but feel it is more than just some light glowing in the distant darkness. That vision is important, but I believe hope is also intrinsic. I deduced that my progress was made possible both by striving towards faraway imagined outcomes, and some form of internal glow that reminded me I was valuable. That guided me to take the next step and the next step. The more I contemplated this, the more I thought of the embers of a fire. How they may look dormant but can slowly ignite with careful treatment. The warmth and light of our memories and how these can spark us when we are lonely and skirting hopelessness. How we, and the interventions of those around us, can stoke the embers of our identity to help us find our pathway forward.
Part of that navigation included a frank appraisal of what an “exceptional outcome” might be for your future. Should the tendency be to make those expectations easily achievable or perhaps, very challenging, even beyond realistic?
It is a delicate balance. How do we allow ourselves to aspire without constraint, knowing we will almost certainly fall short of our intended goals? Knowing that by striving we will need to deal with disappointment, even though we probably achieved something much greater than if we had aspired more conservatively.
I was absolutely committed to my aiming high, knowing that my “exceptional outcome” was a statistical outlier to the reality I faced. I understood that my aspiration was highly improbable, so shortfall was almost certain. This was managed by giving myself permission to fall shy of outcomes, so long as I lived my goals around attitude and effort. In time I realised even this was a little unhealthy and forgave myself for low moments or gaps versus intention. It was OK to have missed rehabilitation opportunities on individual days so long as I kept the overall trend right.
Is my way the (only) right way? I doubt it, but I see great potential in lofty aspirations. This is a fascinating area and one I will study further and write about in the future.
Most of us dread uncertainty. Tell us why you learned to embrace it?
I think this co-exists with the aspiration dilemma.
I believe we get our best result by aiming as high as possible. To do this, we are opening ourselves up to exponentially more uncertainty. More pathways, more risk, more shortfalls. Far less elements fall within our control. This exacts a lot of fortitude.
If we can keep reminding ourselves of the great things that happened in our past when we embraced uncertainty, how this act liberated possibilities we didn’t foresee, then we are more capable of conscripting the courage we require to loosen our control, to lower our barricades, to open ourselves up to chance. Even if we intend to manage our fortunes by applying ourselves to the things we can control, like attitude and effort.
I know that every time I overcome that resistance and step out of my comfort zone, good things happen. Most of the time they were not what I envisaged—or were barely nebulous ideas—when I made that step. I am not saying this is easy, I still coach myself to tackle dread today. A Fraction Stronger gets me over the threshold sometimes: I find it mentally powerful to “hold myself to account” to these more challenging concepts that I espouse in the book.
The book is divided into three parts: Lanterns, Angels, Demons. Can you tell us why you determined this to be the best structure or scaffolding to tell your story?
Lanterns, Angels and Demons were construed during a brainstorming session on how I tackled my predicament, about 21 months after the accident. I was writing up all the concepts that influenced my journey on coloured sticky notes paper, then grouping them into consistent themes. I identified the categories as: 1) the illumination of hope, 2) the people and actions that support progress, and 3) the emotions that constrain or erode progress. I labelled these Illumination, Angels, and Demons.
A few months later I was at a rock concert listening to a band, Birds of Tokyo. As they played their hit song “Lanterns,” I suddenly connected with the lyrics more than I had before. It was a “moment,” and I knew the first part of the book needed to be lanterns. I was glowing, in part because of my love of rhythms and the 2-syllable nature of Lanterns was a much better fit with Angels and Demons.
From that moment on, I never challenged the structure—maybe this interview is the first time I have genuinely reflected on whether it is the best structure. I am comfortable it is, because I feel hope is the foundation, so the lanterns that brighten hope must come first. We strive towards that hope supported by our Angels: the people that impact us, our own attitude, belief, and effort. And we must manage the Demons—like despair and fear—that will distract us from reaching our potential. All 3 concepts are inter-related, but I remain satisfied that we start by illuminating hope.
You found inspiration in dozens of individuals who overcame major obstacles to do things no-one ever expected. What is it about these stories that you found useful in your own journey?
I think these stories provide a powerful reminder that we are not alone. That people are achieving exceptional outcomes from imperfect positions every day.
For me, they provided perspective: from initial inspiration, to reassurance, to role models on how to sustain effort. Perhaps I was particularly receptive to stories as they provided the holds by which I clawed my way back out of despair on the first day. I can’t recall much from directly after the briefing on the seriousness of my injuries. In my loneliness and shock, I think I mentally shut down for a few hours. As I tried to extricate myself from that malaise, I pictured the stories of others, reminding me that tackling difficulty wasn’t uncommon. I focused on stories that were particularly inspirational to me and imagined how that person might have tackled their predicament. I resolved that if I applied a similar approach then I could make progress too.
For anyone suffering serious illness or injury, how important is it that they spend the needed time to find exactly the right caregivers and course of treatment, and then place 100 percent confidence in the plan? As a cancer survivor, I remember the confidence I derived out of my doctors and their optimism for my recovery. I shudder to think of someone trying to beat a devastating illness with lingering doubts about how they were being treated?
I am answering this from lived experience, so I must caveat my response with the importance of consulting appropriate medical counsel relevant to your specific circumstances as part of any decisions you make.
Confidence in our carers and our treatment plan is crucial to our ability to cope with illness or trauma. This confidence enables us to commit. It also promotes optimism and there is strong scientific evidence that a positive mindset helps us imagine and pursue recovery, achieving better outcomes.
100 percent confidence in our specialists and the plan may not be immediate. I think that is okay—we are simply seeking sufficient confidence that we can give the treatment plan our unreserved commitment. We can build confidence through progress and by building trust in our relationships/situation. If you have doubts, these are best aired and addressed. Remember, our strongest relationships and outcomes often arrive on the other end of a difficult conversation. If you can’t generate the confidence you require to commit to the treatment plan, it must be addressed to get yourself back on track. This may mean adjusting the treatment plan so that you can gain confidence, a second opinion, or changing caregivers.
It’s one thing to have the “convenience” of some calamitous event—accident, illness, death of loved one, for example—to spur a new path forward, but what about those people who sense they need a change but don’t really have a tangible reason? How do they get started?
I agree that I had a strong incentive which drove me. I was terrified by where I was and pictured any progress—no matter how minor—as a valuable improvement in my circumstances, especially as I hoped to live another 30 years, so even the smallest gain had the potential to yield material benefit over time.
I think the principal is the same even if you are not starting from a position of sudden displacement as I was. We must paint the picture for ourselves that there is more benefit to make the change than the discomfort in making the change.
The best example I can give is the choice to write A Fraction Stronger. I wrote it because I wanted to make a difference to a few people’s lives. At times, it was confronting to relive events and share what I was going through. Whenever I felt my resistance, I reminded myself of my goal of helping people and that I would be more effective in that endeavour if I didn’t hold back. In this way I was prepared to be vulnerable, appreciating that more benefit could flow from full disclosure than any discomfort I might feel from being exposed.
Asking for help, relying on established social relationships, admitting to some vulnerability, these are all important steps to growth. They seem so simple yet many of us, young men especially, consistently struggle to reach out. Why do you think this is?
I feel that effective help-seeking behaviour is complex because at the time we most need to seek support, we are typically amid the most personally confronting or difficult circumstances. So our instinct is to withdraw, rather than reveal physical and/or emotionally vulnerability. To break this deepening cycle of isolation we must reach out for help, but admitting our true state can be daunting—often triggering emotional responses like fear, self-pity, and sorrow as the issues that we were suppressing are suddenly released.
We can help ourselves and others be less resistant to reaching out by developing and sustaining access to established and trusted support pathways. By reaching out on smaller issues, we become more capable of revealing our deeper concerns, as we are building positive experiences regarding seeking support. By appreciating and discussing the benefits, without glossing over the challenges, we foster a positive attitude towards seeking help which normalises help-seeking behaviour. This makes it easier to give and receive encouragement from our family, friends, or network to seek help when needed.
You studded the book with dozens of powerful quotes from leading thinkers and writers. One of the most impactful was pointed out to you by one of your sons’ coaches—a St Augustine quote on humility: “Lay first the foundation of humility … the higher the structure is to be, the deeper must be the foundation.” You go on to say, “And with humility I could rise again.” Please talk about the role humility must play in a life well lived?
I had less appreciation of inspirational quotes prior to my accident. I loved “The Man in the Arena” and admired JFK’s speeches, but generally quotes just passed me by without much consideration. That started to change in my first week in hospital when that coach gifted me a book inscribed with relevant Augustinian references as part of his moving note of encouragement. I wasn’t ready for his words and shunned them, feeling far too broken at that point to accept any praise about the humility he saw in me and too unstable to consider forming any foundation.
I came back to the words a few weeks later and wept again. Now I appreciated their wisdom and the encouragement they conveyed. I still didn’t know if I could form a foundation but I felt I had made gradual emotional and physical progress.
In the interim I had lived with humility, and it had been an enabler for so much of what I had gained. I felt truly helpless but determined to help myself and regain independence. To achieve that goal, I required extensive help from others. I needed to seek and embrace help. I needed to practise the help seeking behaviours mentioned above, and humility is essential for effective help-seeking.
There is great merit in the Confucius quote: “Humility is the solid foundation of all virtues.” I continue to try and live that way today.
Another quote, this one from Rumi, struck a nerve with me about the frightened and defensive mindset of many patients: “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” You end that chapter by writing, “Love reinvigorates effort. Learn to embrace and welcome it.” For many, this may be an unconventional way to think about love, as if it’s all around us at all times, rather than something given to us by a loved one. Can you flesh out this idea for us, please?
First, let’s talk about my newfound love of Rūmī, because I could have included dozens of Rūmī quotes in the book.
In July 2019 I was curled up on the sofa watching a crime TV series with my wife, something we love to do together. The series finished perfectly with a Rūmī quote: “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing there is a field—I’ll meet you there.” I thought that is brilliant. I am nearly 50, how was I unaware of Rūmī. It compelled me to learn about the 13th-century Persian poet, so as the credits rolled, I scrolled through many inspiring quotes when one leapt out: “Don’t be satisfied with stories, how things have gone with others. Unfold your own myth.” It resonated.
By my standards life was difficult. I was 4 months into recovery, and every movement was still challenging—even laying on the couch came with significant pain. But I resolved to deal with discomfort and keep doing things that connected me to my identity. I was striving to unfold my own myth: my own exceptional recovery.
Back to the chapter. I wrestled with the titling of the “Uniting through Love.” Perhaps it was safer, more “mainstream” to derate that emotion to “kindness” or “care.” Both concepts are integral to the chapter, but they didn’t adequately capture the gravity of what is required and what happens when you desperately need help.
As I battled through those (mostly) lonely 7+ weeks in hospital, I genuinely felt it was manifestations of love that pulled me through. In my determined but terrified loneliness, it often felt more convenient to withdraw and fortify my feelings, and no doubt I had defensive and insular episodes. But love arrived from many unexpected places and my ability to appreciate it raised its currency. The love a nurse has for their job because of the impact they can have on people in need. The love of being human in the moment that someone desperately needs to stay in contact with their humanity. This is particularly important because hospitals can be such a dehumanising experience.
I continue to remind myself of this enlightenment, particularly as marketing a book often feels isolating for me. Any small act of kindness is greatly appreciated by us authors, encouraging us to remain open. If there are writers whose work you love (if you haven’t already), reward them with a social media post, review, or referral sharing that appreciation. It’s a small but meaningful act of love.
I know that over my life I have gained so much by letting people in rather than shutting myself away. That is why I believe that love is all around us if we choose to embrace it.
Guilt is one of your demons and it is always demanding to be fed, you say. And you make a great point about how wasteful and destructive it can be because to feel guilty is to dwell on the past. Explain how you work through your guilt? Is there such a thing as healthy guilt, or helpful guilt? What do we know about people who experience high levels of guilt?
Guilt was both a driver and a distraction for me. Arguably, I needed to be selfish to optimise my recovery results: “I am just going to focus on me; what I need to do today to get better.” However, I couldn’t stop thinking of my family and the complexity that my injury had created to our dynamic. With 2 careers and 3 active children, life was always busy and weekends, in particular, took some planning with up to 5 sporting commitments. Suddenly, I had gone from a major contributor to our family routine to consuming significant effort to be supported. I didn’t handle that well, and it took a “gentle intervention” (not that gentle) from my wife to redirect my energy from apologising to her, towards attending to my own needs.
It wasn’t all bad. Those feelings of letting the family down were an emotional spur that dug into me as I gave recovery my absolute best shot. So the feelings both distracted and activated me; I just had to make sure the weighting clearly favoured the latter. When you are working through deeply personal feelings like guilt, I think you need an external perspective. By disclosing the feelings to a partner or a friend you can generate sufficient distance from the emotion to utilise its benefits without its destructive tendencies.
As I was writing the book, I located research (J Appl Psychol, S Schaumberg, and Flynn, 2012) that showed that employees with higher guilt proneness are typically more committed. I do think it is reasonable to say that in the right doses guilt can be productive, but we need to make sure it a spur that generates momentum and not a cross to bear.
Your discussion of fear, the personal fear you experienced in the days after the biking accident, is riveting. Can you tell readers what fear taught you, and what you taught fear?
I won’t claim to have taught fear anything as I think it will always be its own beast. I became more attuned to the strategies I had accumulated to deal with fear. That was a necessity because from the moment I heard “more than 50 percent compression of your spinal cord” I endured constant terror of what those words meant for my present and future life intentions. And every new moment of my recovery reaffirmed no miracle would suddenly materialise around me. The only way forward was sustained hard work and seizing opportunities when they presented. Those opportunities were always on the other side of fear.
Often we indulge our fear such that it becomes overwhelming. Our current worries dominate our thoughts, causing us to downplay our previous gains beyond fear. I know I can be an effective catastrophiser and need to implement strategies to rein in that behaviour by focusing on the present rather than extrapolating ahead.
How do I tackle fear? Mostly I try to change my perspective—rather than being paralysed by the negative aspects of “what might be,” I visualise the “what might be” opportunities that facing fear will liberate. In its simplest form, I know from accumulated experience that I feel better about myself simply by mobilising. I feel brighter once I commit to action, even though making and keeping that decision may test all my courage and resolve.
My top six tips for overcoming fear are:
Act—nothing changes the shape and substance of fear like tackling it.
Persevere—don’t give up! You’ve started, you’ve got this.
Visualise—focus on the satisfaction of the outcome rather than the threat of the task.
Resize—stop fear from being insurmountable by breaking it down to achievable increments.
Surge—make the most of momentum when you have it, bolster when you don’t.
Savour—celebrate effort and success. Bank your past achievements to fortify future resolve.
And if you need one more push, Ralph Waldo Emerson’s quote nails it: “Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.”
What does your life look like today? Are you back working? What is your exercise routine? Is there a new writing project on your desk that we can look forward to?
I am operating my body at its limits to do basic things like sitting, standing, and walking so I know from experience that I need to prioritise my physical wellbeing. I invest 2–3 hours into formal rehabilitation each week and move better when I stretch every morning. Keeping active is important to me as I love nature, especially the ocean. I regularly walk amongst scenery and wildlife to remind myself how fortunate I am and how fabulous our planet is. I select multi-day hikes as medium-term goals to motivate me to pursue improvement.
I am focused on building a career as an author and public speaker. I believe that by choosing to write I extend my capability, making a difference to those around me and perhaps creating an impact into the future.
I have a sequence of book projects in various stages of planning. Two more nonfiction titles, then perhaps a fictionalised memoir as a transition to fiction. As I hone my skill, I’d like to become a playwright. That is my long-term writing goal.
Beyond writing, I will develop a small-cohort online training community designed to support people to aim higher, strive harder, sustain longer, and have more fun as they pursue their own exceptional outcomes. I know this concept can change lives and generate valuable bonds that will make a meaningful difference to people facing a difficult pathway.
Perhaps, by falling and then finding a way to stand up, I have now found where I was meant to land.
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