After facing the possibility of being permanently bedridden after surgery due to illness, an Australian army officer turned to books to keep his mental health in check and to get him through the challenging time.
Captain Dylan Conway at 6th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (6RAR), was unable to walk for over 14 months after a total of eight surgeries on his back.
The 26-year-old revealed that it was confronting to have to think about a future that could mean he may never walk again.
"I have spent my entire career as an Infantry Officer, looking after the welfare of injured soldiers," Captain Conway told Yahoo News Australia.
"So, when it came to me being injured it was quite surreal because you sort of look at it, and you're like, is this really happening?
"It took me months for me to come to terms with the fact that it was actually happening to me."
Captain Conway had to step back from his active career as a serving member of the Australian Army due to a condition called Pilonidal Sinus where the success rate for surgery lies at only about 70 percent.
The number of surgeries had Captain Conway immobilised, in and out of the hospital, and confined indoors, well before the coronavirus lockdown rules were enforced.
"I couldn't do things like walk, socialise or go outside and I wasn't actually allowed to go out in the sun," he said.
"Once illness consumes your life ... I lost so much purpose, all of the things I looked forward to, I couldn't do, and work was a big one.
"It's funny, everybody complains about going to work, but once it's taken away from you – you lose a big part of yourself."
Turning the page over
A big part of Captain Conway's life was physical fitness and as an active person, it proved to be challenging for him to be unable to exercise in any way.
After admittedly "feeling sorry for himself" for some time, Captain Conway decided to train his mind and focus on what he could do to "better himself" instead.
"Before the injury, I was a very active guy, I focused a lot of my self-worth and my progression on my university studies and physical training," he said.
"When I couldn't do the physical training, I decided to just focus my efforts on education.
"For the next 12 months, I decided to just read books as if it were my job, so I'd wake up at 5 in the morning and read until 11 at night because this is the only way I can develop myself while I can't physically walk."
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Captain Conway revealed that his reading habits were "nowhere near what they are like now" before experiencing long-term, incapacitating illness.
He read over 100 books while in recovery on topics ranging from self-development, recounts of combat operations and philosophy to stories of perseverance in times of extreme hardship.
"We are seeing the effects of poor mental health going through Covid and being isolated," Captain Conway said.
"I think reading is the perfect antidote to that."
Helping others through trauma
A week out from being able to walk again, Captain Conway was inspired to create Brothers n' Books.
He set up an Instagram account that features book recommendations to encourage people to share their own stories and to show that reading can be a helpful way of dealing with different stresses in life or anxiety.
"I wanted to set it up so that if you were going through a certain trauma or hardship in your life, that you can jump on to Brothers n' Books and [see] positive confirmation that somebody else has gotten something out of a [particular] book," he said.
"If you have any doubts about literally anything in the world – someone has written a book about it to tell you how to deal with that situation.
"There are people sending me stories all the time about horrible, life events that they have gone through but have always juxtaposed it with the success that they've had to overcome it."
Captain Conway launched the Brothers n' Books initiative on Instagram in November 2020 and its fan base has grown to more than 4,000 followers in just six months.
Past and present Defence members have strongly supported the platform and it has even caught the attention of several Australian authors.
Back in action
Since Brothers n' Books began as a platform for Australian Defence Force personnel and first responders to refer books and share their experiences, it has evolved into a community for anyone who has faced adversity to share their own stories while recommending helpful, life-changing books.
Captain Conway has now returned to work and recently assisted with the ADF's NSW Flood Assist Operation in Northern NSW.
Inspired by the overwhelmingly positive response to Brothers n' Books, Captain Conway plans to grow the platform by sharing his enthusiasm for reading and learning on a national scale.
"I'm currently setting up a way for businesses, hospitals, charities, even kindergartens to be able to apply to get a Brothers n' Books bookshelf," he said.
"Second-hand stores around the country have a lot of books to choose from and what I'll try and do is to set up the Brothers n' Books libraries to only include really meaningful books that have been recommended by the [Brothers n' Books] community on social media.
"The response that I have gotten has been super uplifting."
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