Piecing life together

Justin Bottomley can’t remember the day his life changed.

It should have been a routine motorcycle ride with friends, but Mr Bottomley was thrown off his bike at high speed near The Sisters.

“I fell off and no one saw it. All the bikes went to Mortlake and they realised I wasn’t there and they slowly came back and eventually found me, just on an hour after the accident.

“Everyone on the side of the road thought I wasn’t going to make The Alfred.”

The crash broke his motorcycle in two, shattered his body and caused a head injury that left his memory in tatters.

“The accident itself and where it was is totally erased,” he said.

Mr Bottomley was in post-traumatic amnesia for more than 90 days following the crash.

“I didn’t even remember my own name.

 “I didn’t know my own mother, kids, nothing, didn’t know why I was in hospital, where the hospital was.”

Before the crash Mr Bottomley was general manager at Warrnambool’s Cobb and Co, these days he finds tasks that used to be easy much more difficult.

Life’s what you make it. I don’t dwell on stuff, on the negative, you’ve just got to move forward otherwise what life have you got? - Justin Bottomley

“I bought an old bike, just to put it back together. It was amazing how complicated that was.

“There I was trying to put it all together… finger on the start button, the motor would start and then it would just stop. Do it again – start, stop – went to do it again and realised there’s no fuel tank, you idiot. Just real simple things like that.”

Mr Bottomley marked the third anniversary of the crash a couple of weeks ago and said he has made “huge improvement” with his brain injury since then.

He credits much of this to his involvement in a group specifically for people with brain injuries run by Warrnambool speech pathologist Nicole Barker.

Ms Barker said the group had been running for about 18 months to help participants work on their memory, develop their planning and conversation skills, make new friendships and realise they are not alone in their experiences.

“One of the big things that can happen to people when they’re recovering from a brain injury is they can become quite socially isolated and this group allows them to get together once a week with people who understand what they’re going through and form some new friendships and just bounce off each other the problems that they’re all having,” Ms Barker said.

“It’s certainly open to new people coming along, especially if they’re out there in the community struggling with communication and feeling socially isolated, they will definitely find people who have got similar experiences to share.”

Ms Barker said brain damage was often an invisible condition for those who it impacted.

“It’s very hidden. You can see a scar from an accident, or you can see someone who is limping or in a wheelchair, but these are all very hidden difficulties. It can be someone’s memory, it can be getting organised… all of those things have a big impact on someone’s communication.

“What I found over the years is I was working with a lot of people individually on similar types of things and the main thing I was working on is they were having a lot of trouble communicating. It was just a trial for six months and it was actually really successful,” Ms Barker said of the group.

“Everyone gets something different from it.”

Ms Barker said although she was a speech pathologist, the group wasn’t about teaching participants to talk again.

“Everyone in the group can talk. It’s the fact that when people get into conversations that they can get into trouble,” she said.

“What we find with conversations is that they are far more effortful and it relies on the non-injured person to maintain the flow of the conversation.”

Mr Bottomely said it had helped to keep his mind active in the years following the crash.

“It makes you think and that’s really a requirement, I believe. I don’t work anymore, naturally,” he said.

Ms Barker said often improvements after brain injuries were up to the individual.

“A person’s motivation and determination plays a key role in their recovery,” she said.

Mr Bottomley is living proof of this.

“Life’s what you make it. I don’t dwell on stuff, on the negative, you’ve just got to move forward otherwise what life have you got?” he said.

“The way I see things is you’ve just got to learn to cope and adapt with certain things the best way you can and do the best you can. It’s your life, you’re the only one who’s going to do anything about it.”

After breaking his neck, back and suffering serious leg injuries, Mr Bottomley is still living with the physical effects of the crash.

He has been through several surgeries and faces many more in his ongoing recovery. 

And, although he admits some may find it macabre, he is planning to document his journey on the wall of his shed – hanging up his broken bike, X-rays and newspaper clippings from the crash.

“It’s not something to be proud of, but people need to see it,” he said.

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