HUMAN : Jake O'Brien
Updated: Oct 28, 2021
I ran into Jake at gym a few years back, he was a personal trainer but hadn't been able to work due to injuries - I remember feeling really upset for Jake, and thought about how unfair it is that bad things seem to happen to the best people. Then Jake was hit by a car, snapping his spine, crushing his bones and collapsing his lungs. Shortly after recovering from a spinal fusion, and finally back at work - Jake was diagnosed with throat cancer. His mindset and outlook on life are so inspiring, and we could absolutely all take a page out of Jake's book. His story is so much more than what happened to him, but how he overcome and transformed himself mentally.
Name: Jake O'Brien
JAKE'S STORY (IN A NUTSHELL)
Hey guys! My name is Jake O’Brien, I’m 28 years young & I’m from Sydney’s beautiful Northern Beaches.
Career wise I’ve had a few chop & changes over the years. I wasn’t the sharpest kid at school and HSC timed badly with some really heavy family issues. My perfectly normal step dad suddenly became a meth addict if I’m being honest.
Anyway, I always loved to cook myself nice meals so I skipped finishing year 12 to focus on gaining my culinary qualifications & spent my initial few years in the workforce as a chef! That was great for a few years until my knees blew out from being on my feet all day and quite the dad bod. Fast forward a few years which is spent rebuilding my body, finding myself and a few in between jobs until I found myself in the health industry.
WHAT IS YOUR STORY?
We’re aware that social media is mostly just highlights. “Perfect” moments that often have us feel inadequate. I know this as I’ve been a culprit! I’m moving things in a new direction though. My life has had its challenges (as has everyone’s) but I think this story is worth telling. In 2018 I got hit by a car while on my motorbike. My spine was snapped next to my brain stem, crushed many bones, lungs collapsed & I spent a LONG time in a LOT of pain. Doctors were amazed I survived. I had a spinal fusion & other ops, learnt to walk again & took a year before I normal life resumed, I had overcome. After a just few months of being back to PT’ing I lost my voice. In 2020 I was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer. After everything my loved ones had just endured, telling them was heartbreaking. I’ve had 2 ops-both failed, tried many alternative therapies & just completed a course of radio. I’ve barely been able to eat or drink due to the pain but what scares me most is if radio fails, I’ll need a tracheostomy. Which means permanent removal of my voice box. To top it off during all this, my dad suddenly died of heart failure at just 58. Like most blokes I put on a brave face & bottle up.
I took myself to a cliff, sat on its edge, thought about how worthless my life was & seriously wanted to jump off & end it all. I came so close, but I didn’t.
A few times things got too much & I’d like to share one of those moments. One day I completely broke down. Instead of doing anything useful, I took myself to a cliff, sat on its edge, thought about how worthless my life was & seriously wanted to jump off & end it all. I came so close, but I didn’t. I’m not sure why. Perhaps because of the people I love, or I just knew it wasn’t my time. Whatever the reason, I’m grateful to be here. Now I’m back in the gym, taking appropriate medication & taking it day by day. Rather than dwell in pity, I feel compelled to channel my pain into positivity. 4/5 suicides are men. If I can uplift a few others from those dark places, then it’s all been worth it 👊🏻
DO YOU MIND EXPLAINING A BIT ABOUT THE CANCER DIAGNOSIS, AND HOW IT HAPPENED?
After finally feeling ready to return to work [after the motorbike incident] I soon noticed my voice was not as strong as it used to be. I tried to rest it but it only got worse over time. I went to see an ENT who performed a biopsy. A few days later I was asked to urgently come meet with the specialist. There was some small talk and then she just hit us with the news that it was, in fact, cancer causing my speaking issues.
I had Holly with me when we found out. I didn’t allow myself to cry as Holly instantly completely broke down and I felt i had to stay strong - at least for her sake. The specialist was really amazing and made us feel like because it had been picked up early my chances of beating it are high. Nonetheless we where devastated.
The next thing I had to do was call my mum. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. She didn’t say much but I could feel her energy through the phone and it broke my heart. I also called my best friend (his name is Mac) and the same thing happened. Disbelief is a word that comes to Mind.
When I got home both mum and Mac where there waiting for me. We all just hugged as they sobbed. I still hadn’t shed a tear. I wanted to stay strong for them. We drank tea and talked about how everything was going to be ok. I was just numb.
WHAT WOULD YOU SAY WAS YOUR BIGGEST STRUGGLE?
Hmmm once again - plenty to say here!
From the crash: The Intense physical pain my body insured for 3 months. Finally started feeling better. And the going through the whole process of the spinal fusion. As someone who had NO idea [about what that would involve] I had a couple of people reach out saying "DON'T DO IT IT RUINED MY LIFE" - while doctors were warning me that if I looked too far to the side or jarred my head, even gently, there was a high likelihood I could just die from my brain stem being crushed. Scary shit.
Important part - not sure if I mentioned - I was deemed not at fault by the police.
This meant insurance was able to cover the costs involved with everything. Including a few consultations with various specialist. So I picked the one who seemed the most confident and qualified to do the job.
A few weeks later he sliced open the back of my head and fused it together forever.
Scary stuff. The first week after the fusion was traumatically painful, scary. And lonely.
Bring honest Jess it was so bad I’m not even sure how to explain the discomfort. Oh I remember a story you might like to include: "lying in top triage & throwing up all over my own face a few times because I couldn’t turn my face or body to the side 😅🤣 Thank god for amazing nurses!
Through cancer: Well if you look at all of my values, it took all of them away. So it’s been depressing in pretty much every aspect. HOWEVER, something good that came out of all this was the was the connection me and my partner have made. She has seen the worst of me and stuck by loving and supporting me the whole way through. I’m bloody lucky we met a few months before that bike stack!
WHAT MOMENT WAS THE TURNING POINT FOR YOU?
There’s a few parts to that question I’ll answer it all as best I can!
My situation/injuries/diagnosis was very much OUT of my control. I didn’t ask for that car to cut me off or to get cancer. Although likely different, I’m 100% sure there’s plenty of other people with their own adversities that can relate to the horrible feeling of being completely out of control of you situation.
It took a long time but I finally began to feel grateful for my challenges rather than defeated by them. Because ultimately they make me, me.
All I can say is I did my best to take control as best I could. I researched harder than I ever had in school & put all of my effort into making sure I would bounce back. I believe this is what sets me apart, my resilience. I have always put on a brave face, made decisions with confidence and despite its regular discomfort & have gone with the flow.
Pivotal moment? How about I talk about my transition to opening up online?
Honestly it just felt right. I was no longer a personal Trainer along with many of the other labels I had previously associated with. I was a new guy & as I mentioned earlier, I’m an extrovert!
It took a long time but I finally began to feel grateful for my challenges rather than defeated by them. Because ultimately they make me, me - and I think I'm awesome!
I’m proud of what I’ve overcome and feel that my story is worth something. . And I wanted to do something proactive. So I just went ahead and made my mindset from Victim to empowered! As far as opening up on a deeper level online there have definitely been a few people that have especially inspired my shift. Yourself included (Jess: aww thank you Jake!)
Insert inspirational quotes here lol. Do you want some of my faves?
I WOULD ABSOLUTELY LOVE TO HEAR YOUR FAVE INSPIRATIONAL QUOTES - HIT ME WITH THEM!
✨ Channeling pain and suffering into meaning
✨ Turn test into testimony
✨ Even though it feels like you're in the fire, perhaps you are a clay model & the fire is only helping & it will only add beauty to the rest of your days. ✨
✨ “Life’s swings hard. But I’m swinging harder”
✨ “Do not pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a difficult one”
HOW DID YOU TURN THINGS AROUND?
The episode which ended with the whole cliff situation as a pivotal moment for me. I knew that was not a healthy or an acceptable way to exist.
I took my partners advice and revisited my therapist, (who I had neglected seeing for atleast 6 months). She along with my doctor, recommended I begin on a dose of escitalopram while I got my shit together basically. It’s a Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitor (SSRI) which basically stops me ever REALLY freaking out. It helps me get on with life. I’m not ashamed & the stigma of it being a bandaid approach to mental health....? So what if it is?! Aren’t bandaids made for a reason? Does this mean you don’t believe keeping your wounds clean? No. Using any natural remedies you truely believe in? No way! Throw it all in. There are people out there who have strong beliefs either way and you’ll never make everyone happy. But that’s not important. It’s about putting yourself first.
HOW DID YOU ALTER YOUR MINDSET?
Referring back to any of my lame quotes. It’s all about trying to see past the current pain. Know that it WILL eventually pass & you WILL be stronger for it.
HOW ARE YOU NOW?
These days my neck is as good as it will ever be. I’ve got a few nuts and bolts holding me together but I’m ok. I’m finally finished radio. Through the very worst of it and finally feel like I’m on the mend. Back in the gym. Finishing a course in remedial massage where I’ll get to use far less of my voice which will be a perfect transition. ** NOTE: This interview was a little while ago so update - Jake beat cancer!!! Definitely check out his social media and check out his posts about this!
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE FRIENDS OR FAMILY OF SOMEONE DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER?
To be honest it’s really hard! Being sympathetic and showing me pity never made me feel any better. It only encouraged me to put on a brave face and tell people I am fine. So stay away from phrases like “you poor thing” and “I can’t imagine how hard that must be”. Or even worse still when someone tries to “out-do” your story by telling you about their family friend's horrible condition.
Instead all that I ever really found comfort from was mates that insisted we hung out and just not really talk about it unless I brought it up. Just being there for someone. Causally ask how we’re doing and if we want to share we will and if. It then just hang out with us like normal! If I get bugged about my emotions and I’m not ready to share it feels like an interrogation! I’ve found that I can only honestly y answer the "RUOK" question if I’m in the right head space. For me I had to ask myself first before I answered other people. So yeah, be caring but don’t be pushy!
WHAT IS THE BEST THING TO DO FOR SOMEONE DIAGNOSED WITH CANCER? Cuddles. Give them a cuddle and tell them you will do whatever they need. That’s it.
WHAT ADVICE WOULD YOU GIVE SOMEONE GOING THROUGH WHAT YOU WENT THROUGH?
First, get off your bum and do your research. High and low not just a quick google. Try everything that calls you toward healing. Just go for it out! If it feels good - great! If not stop and try something else. Or just chill and go with the flow! Advice is hard, it’s so Individual. For example 4 days after my spinal fusion I walked myself out of hospital, down to an outdoor gym & was doing shit like sets of 50 + calf raises laughing at the top of my head at how meaningless the pain felt. But I’m sure that’s not normal. Like I said we’re all different.
Jake O'Brien & his incredible girlfriend, Holly.
FINALLY, WHO ARE YOU “BEHIND THE SCENES" OF SOCIAL MEDIA?
Ah well pretty normal dude I guess! I’m definitely somewhat of an extrovert and don’t have a problem putting myself out there to the world. I try live my life as authenticity as I can, aligning my daily routines with my highest values.
I’d say my top 5 would include my physical health/strength/conditioning, mental stability, creating and maintaining meaningful relationships, adding value to other lives and creating enjoyable nourishing meals (especially more plants!)
I’m also really flexible because I’m just pretty much constantly moving and stretching 😂
HOW I FOUND JAKE:
Jake was a member of the Anytime Fitness gym I worked at, so that's where we first connected. After leaving the gym, I'd run into Jake at the new gym I joined and of course just around the Northern Beaches. Jake is one of those guys who always has a smile on his face and is happy to have a chat haha - just all round great vibes.
I've been following him and his story on social media and, honestly, his growth has been phenomenal. For someone who has suffered so much at such a young age, he has the most infectious, positive energy and powerful outlook on life. If you are looking to be inspired daily, follow follow follow!! We could all take a page out of Jake's book!
Jake's Instagram: www.instagram.com/jakeobrien (Seriously go follow)
The HUMAN Series
I started this series because, in a world where we all put on happy faces online and in-person, it is very easy to feel alone and isolated when we are struggling. Purely because it looks like no one else is.
I want to show you that every person has a story. Every single person on this earth has struggles and has STRUGGLED in the past. Even the happiest people have had to overcome physical/mindset hardships to get where they are in the present.
I want to hear their stories, and I want to share their stories.
I studied psychology because I wanted to help people. When I was going through a difficult time during my teenage years, I just wanted someone to say “hey, I went through that, it was really hard but I’m still here. Life gets better, it did for me and it will for you”
So, I want to bring to light the experiences of others, their struggles, how they got through it and their advice for anyone in the same (or similar) situation. As they say hindsight is 2020, when we work together and support one another, things can be more manageable.
If you think of someone who has a story that needs to be shared - please DM me on instagram (instagram.com/jessnugent1).
Love & strength,