From Army to Artist: The Stewart Hill Q&A
In 2009 Stewart Hill suffered a traumatic brain injury during a second tour in Afghanistan. A Lieutenant Colonel, Stewart was blown into a ditch when one of his men stepped on an IED. He was found some distance away with his radio antennae embedded in his skull.
What followed was years of rehabilitation, not only for his physical injuries but mentally. Along with perforated eardrums and a loss of sense of smell and taste, Stewart's cognitive processes had been affected by the explosion making it difficult for him to process and organise information.
Despite this, Stewart made progress and is now able to share his story with corporate audiences as a speaker, speaking specifically on overcoming adversity, leadership, change and - of course - motivation.
We caught up with Stewart recently here...
You talk very candidly about your injuries and the effect it had you and on those around you; the challenges with depression during your recovery. How long did it take mentally to get to where you are now?
For the first year after my injury, I was positive about my recovery as I did not understand the impact of the brain injury on my life: do a few press ups, go for some runs, get fit again, and all would be well. I did not notice the problems with my brain until I experienced difficulties. If you're missing a leg, you know immediately you cannot walk, but there is nothing explicit if you're missing part of the brain.
My mood continued to drop the more I realised I could not match what I was able to do before - I was exhausted every time I used my brain. Reluctantly, I admitted to my therapist that I needed anti-depressants (the term depression was anathema to me), but I became more depressed over the next couple of years as I discovered more of my new limitations.
It was not until 2013/14, some 4-5 years later, that I began to improve my mood and my perceived quality of life.
Stewart recently speaking on stage about his experiences
You’ve said that you changed your views on depression from being a weakness (before the accident) and just being a case of ‘pulling yourself together’ to understanding it as a very real and personal issue. Having witnessed both viewpoints, what do you think the obstacles are to the stigma around depression being lifted?
It’s as simple as the expectation that a ‘man’ should not be depressed. I was the strong one in my family, I had a role in protecting my family, could not be the one who was struggling mentally. Being in the military compounded this view; the culture that depression is a weakness and one should just ‘get a grip’. Dare I write it, but the main stigma is that it’s not manly to be depressed, it’s not what men do…supposedly.
You also used good old-fashioned PMA to get through this. How did that work, given what you’d been through?
I began painting and drawing again at the end of 2010 by a chance meeting with an artist (I had not drawn anything since ‘0’ Level art at school in 1986). I understood immediately painting and drawing allowed me to escape my very negative emotions, and began engaging with art when my mood was really low. Painting and drawing means one has to study any item objectively and consider it’s shape, tone and colour etc to recreate something; by looking closely at the object, I appreciated it’s beauty.
Stewart visits the BBC's DIY SOS Homes for Veterans Project
As my mood improved, I recognised I was responsible for my thoughts and began to understand the benefits of considering things differently. If I could create negative thoughts, why not create positive ones? Reading books on thinking positively (the type one sees in airport bookshelves I used to dismiss out of hand) intrigued me and, through effort and practice, I experienced the considerable benefits of positive thinking. My experiences in self-improvement now allow me to switch instantly to feeling good as soon as I recognise I have a negative thought.
What are the main lesson(s) that you’ve learned from the last few years?
The main lesson is that my suffering has been the catalyst for profound reflection and new possibilities.
I've also learned the importance of preserving the mind's energy - like any muscle the brain needs rest to grow. Resting the mind allows room for growth, thereby increasing one’s capacity, performance and life.
Living in the moment is the most efficient way to do this - it allows you to focus attention and deal with complexity one moment at a time.
Stewart with HRH Prince Harry
Too often we mainly use one side of the brain when we should utilise both sides, right and left, to achieve true balance in our lives. Understand your brain to become a better leader.
Life and work are about people. In a world of process, we tend to forget about people. Employees account for the majority of costs on a balance sheet yet we don’t measure their worth. Leadership is about people. It’s a cliché because it’s true: ‘treat others as you would expect to be treated’ unless you’re a psychopath of course. Leaders are followed because they treat people with respect. Compassion and daily acts of kindness to oneself and others are enriching.
What are your plans for the future?
To become an accomplished artist, to show others how beautiful life can be (without me sounding like Mother Theresa), and to be the best I can. The most satisfying part of being an Officer was helping soldiers grow and reach their potential. I would eventually like to have a social enterprise or charity educating and teaching young people to realise their potential. Either that or become a Jedi Knight.
The force is strong in you, Stewart, for sure. Any final thoughts?
I would like people to see how beautiful life is without suffering trauma first.
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