»Heading underwater to rise from the depths
APASSIONATE scuba diver whose devastating brain injury almost wrecked his marriage has been shortlisted for a national award.
James Neal’s brain injury changed his personality and turned his life upside down.
But his passion to scuba dive once again has helped him to turn his fortunes around.
Now, the 49-year-old who lived in Cheltenham for 20 years and is part of the Cheltenham Sub Aqua Club, is in line for an award from brain injury charity Headway.
James is one of three finalists put forward for the Alex Richardson Achiever of the Year Award.
He said: “When I found out I was a finalist I was lost for words. To hear I have inspired other people is just seriously cool.”
His wife Dimple found him unconscious on the floor just before Christmas 2013 after he suffered a subarachnoid haemorrhage, a bleed on the brain.
James was rushed to Bristol’s Frenchay Hospital, where he underwent immediate surgery to stop the bleed.
His loved ones were told to prepare for the worst and he was not expected to survive the night.
James pulled through the surgery, but his life was changed forever.
He was left with shortterm memory loss, had difficulty thinking logically, making decisions and being rational. Struggling to find his words and overwhelmed with fatigue, he could no longer run his business, and his marriage was pushed to the limits. Dimple said: “He quickly became angry, having outbursts that I thought would end our marriage. The dynamics of our relationship had completely changed and we were struggling.” James’ inability to filter his thoughts made him blunt and direct and as a result he was kicked out of one of the two diving clubs he attended. He said: “People knew I had sustained a brain injury but because I looked fine, they were unwilling to accept that I was struggling. “That’s the problem with brain injury – it’s a hidden and fluctuating disability.
“My wife says everyone else gets nice James, while she’s at work, but she comes home to the fall out. I struggle to manage my fatigue and emotions, it’s like Jekyll and Hyde.
“My wife is remarkable, I don’t know how she does it. I love her to bits.” Cheltenham Sub Aqua Club were understanding of his injury and once given the go-ahead by doctors, helped him get back on his feet. “My neurological doctors didn’t know anything about diving, and my diving doctors didn’t know anything about brain injury, but I put them in touch and I’m really grateful they worked together to support me,” he said.
But getting back in the water wasn’t easy. “For the first half a dozen dives I was absolutely terrified,” he said. “I would break out in a cold sweat.
“Even though it couldn’t happen, I was worried the pressure would cause me to have another brain bleed.
“But diving is my identity. If I couldn’t dive I don’t know who I would be. It was my passion that pulled me through.”
Although James lost many of his life skills as a result of his brain injury, his knowledge of diving was still there.
“All of my worries and concerns disappear as my head drops below the surface,” he said. “I basically go into auto pilot.
“As a result of my injury, I can only focus on one thing at a time.
“When I’m diving I focus on that and everything else is gone. On dry land there are always too many things going on at once and I can’t focus on doing anything.
“I’m qualified to dive to depths of 100 metres plus, carrying multiple cylinders, breathing gases that would be deadly if inhaled at the wrong depths.
“But I can’t make a bacon and egg sandwich without ruining it, it makes no sense.”
James is an elite diving instructor and has found a sense of purpose through helping others.
In September 2017 he organised a 24-hour scubathon with fellow divers to raise awareness of brain injury which raised £8,000 for Headway Gloucestershire. The Headway Annual Awards celebrate the exceptional efforts of survivors of brain injury and their carers.
James will find out whether he has won on December 7. robin.jenk[email protected]plc.com
James Neal under and, inset left, above the surface