One of the great warriors of the mind in my country is Nelson Mandela. And Nelson Mandela always says:
‘Do not judge me by my successes, judge me by my failures and how many times I have got up again’.
When I give talks about fetal alcohol syndrome, one of the demonstrations that I do which is quite heartbreaking is I break an egg into a glass and I pour alcohol over the egg. And within seconds this egg actually begins to cook. Alcohol cooks babies’ brains. There was nothing I could do about our reality. I cried a lot and I still probably will cry.
So what we decided to do is we decided to create something which is called The Flutterby Foundation and we created this foundation to build awareness for drinking in pregnancy. And the tagline of the association is: if even one child is prevented from the scourge, then Gabriel’s life has purpose.
Gabriel himself tells everybody that he has got fetal alcohol syndrome. He stands up with me and gives talks about it. If you had to meet Gabriel in a restaurant he would come up because it’s terribly friendly and he would say to you, ‘Hi, my name is Gabriel and I’ve got fetal alcohol syndrome because my mom drank in her pregnancy’.
And I always go: ‘Gabriel, tell me it wasn’t me’. Although the truth is it could have been.
So then came the control part. Discovering that my son had irrevocable brain damage made me realize that I had to take charge of my life, I had to care for this child forever.
So I changed my life from a life of purposelessness and powerlessness, I started to do things differently. I bought some running shoes and I bought a bicycle and I started to climb mountains. And this is my daughter and myself at Base Camp Everest and the other one is Kilimanjaro. And I started to run, I started to run marathons and 90 kilometers ultra marathons. This is from somebody who had never done a stitch of exercise before.
And then I’ve got this crazy idea because I think once you start going like this, you can get out of control and I got this crazy idea to do an Ironman competition. So an Ironman competition is a 3.8 kilometers swim in the sea, followed by 180 kilometers bike ride, followed by a 42 kilometers run.
So I remember standing there on an African beach while the Zulu dancers beat their drums and jangled their beads in celebration before entering the African waves. And I don’t know if any of you have ever seen an Ironman swim they call it the washing machine. It’s the craziest event, it’s for knitting, you’ve got goggles get knocked off your face, people kick you and I thought that, that was going to be the tough part.
1 kilometer into the bicycle ride however was the tough part, when I came crashing off my bike. I remember climbing slowly back onto my bike in excruciating agony and I knew that I was going to finish this race, I don’t care what happened.
There were too many people watching, so I didn’t want to be so embarrassed that I hadn’t finished this race and I told everybody that I was going to do it. I did the whole 180 kilometer ride, crying again, then put my techies on my running shoes and I started the 42K marathon. I remember looking like a little old lady as I called along eventually I managed to gather some speed and I finished the race.
The next day in hospital, I was X-rayed and I had a fractured spine and concussion. But I also had a medal and I had learned that hardship and difficulty can be conquered and can be overcome. And this is my [pijami] crossing the finishing line.
One of the parts of the brain that I just want to mention here is one of my favorite parts of the brain. It’s called the ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and I promise you don’t have to remember any of these words after this. The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain that hangs out here in your temples and it’s the part of the brain to do with self-control and self-discipline.
The ventrolateral prefrontal cortex, I call the leadership part of your brain. It’s the part of your brain you use when you resist the chocolate cake, or when you wake up 10 minutes earlier in the morning to meditate.
Now remember, neuroplasticity — the more you use any part of your brain, the thicker and denser that part of your brain becomes. The more you practice self-control and discipline, the thicker and denser becomes your ventrolateral prefrontal cortex and the more you are able to practice self-control — to practice control to become a warrior of your mind. So life hadn’t finished with me yet and it probably still hasn’t finished with me.
I went through most of my greatest fears, I lost my cousin and my best friend, I lost my beloved aunt and I noticed my dad through the final stages of brain cancer. My marriage collapsed unexpectedly and devastatingly and I was financially devastated, had to start again. I was also incredibly lonely, sometimes I still am lonely and I cry a lot.