33. The great unravel...
I had heard that through work, we had access to a counsellor. I contacted the force welfare department, and asked if it was possible to see him. I left my number and eagerly awaited a call. Soon after, in a rare moment of efficiency, I received a call from the counsellor himself (despite mental imagery of a doctor’s office with a long-suffering secretary) - he was keen to arrange an appointment to see me.
As the day approached, I was filled with feeling of anxiousness. Although I’d initiated the appointment, and was certain that I needed the help, I suddenly felt very uncomfortable about two things: 1. Baring my soul to a total stranger. 2. What on earth was I going to talk about?
I was aware of the use of talking therapies, and having studied psychology at A-level, felt that I had a grasp about how these things worked. What I didn’t know (and why I needed the help in the first place) was how do you unpick the last two years of upheaval, fear, catastrophe, life…where do you start?!! Those who know me will know that I don’t really shut up…and the people who see me often will also know that I have little (no) shame, and don’t mind sharing all the gritty details. So why was this bothering me? All I could fathom was that it was fear of the unknown, but this soon faded when I turned up.
The counsellor had a kind face, a kind manner, and a soft Irish accent which I found instantly relaxing. With very little background information to work from, I was amazed how much information he extracted from me in an incredibly short amount of time. He asked questions around the time leading up to diagnosis, the treatment, the recovery, and an area which I was keen to keep separate from this session: my relationship.
Unfortunately, there was one thing the counsellor wasn’t going to let me get away with…yes - talking about my relationship. The second half of the session was dedicated to exactly that (despite my best efforts to turn the conversation away). Again, I’m not going to go into the specifics from a relationship point of view, but the counsellor clearly believed he had heard enough to start giving me some advice.
He had clearly been paying attention. The counsellor had skilfully picked apart each of my strands of woe: The symptoms pre-diagnosis, the diagnosis, the treatment, my recovery, the emotions attached to all of these, and then the strand that ran all the way through middle, complicating every step by the addition of another person, their feelings and their actions, and the effect of those on me. I was now able to see each strand for exactly what it was individually.
Who on earth had I been trying to kid? I had undergone one of the most traumatic situations conceivable to a normal bloke, leading to an enormous amount of personal upheaval and baggage. It’d contributed to, if not caused the end of my marriage…it had change my goals, my perceptions…the fabric of who I really was. Of course I was going to have moments of uncontrollable emotion. The counsellor explained that in times of physical and emotional difficulty, the brain will prepare the body for action, park the psychological issues somewhere they are less likely to hamper the physical recovery, then bring them out when you least expect them. In my case, on the bridge over the railway line on Hookstone Road, Harrogate. My brain could have at least saved my moment for somewhere nice!
The counsellor offered a number of other services and therapies, but I had a feeling I wouldn’t need to see him again. In short, he was a magician, and he had done for me exactly what I needed…possibly more.
I didn’t need to see him again.
Thursday, 14 February 2013
I've talked about the landmarks on my head, the feeling of my scalp being trapped between football and metal plate or screw at five-a-side, the feeling of fear when waking up from a night out in anticipation of a head ache of old. Even waking up in the morning before hearing my alarm would fill me with dread - just for the moment between opening my eyes and seeing the time, fearing that it would read 06.37. These post-op features of my life reminded me on a daily basis of both my previous condition and the fragility of life, but there was something bubbling under the surface.
I was walking home and listening to music on my iPhone. As a relentless shuffler, I never know which song is likely to pop up next, so I was unsurprised that 'Hurt' by Johnny Cash came on. I love music that fits my mood or inner rhythm, and in a relaxed mood after a trip to the gym, this song was fine by me.
My mind was wandering...I was thinking about my evening, the next day at work, mundane things that would crop up in the course of the week. As I walked, my conscious thoughts dissolved leaving me focussing on the song. I was in full stride, but slowed noticeably. I hadn't been distracted by anything other than focussing more on more on the emotion of the song. I'd always found this a moving song, but flashed back to being on the hospital trolley, being wheeled down the corridor towards the operating theatre. I visualised the staff who surrounded me as we approached the moment of truth. I pictured Lydia's face as she tried to mask her fear and emotion. The image of the consent form crossed my consciousness. In that moment, the reality of what I had been through dawned on me. The magnitude of what I had been through became immediately apparent, and I cried. This wasn't the passing of a couple of tears...I felt the wave of emotion pass through my whole body from my gut to my head as tears streamed down my face and I stopped for a moment.
Where had this come from? I didn't understand how my positive approach to my recovery had resulted in this. I understood everything. I handled everything. Most importantly, I had come through the experience unscathed. For a moment, I considered what was wrong with me. Had life just got too much for me? I wasn't sure. I took a few seconds to compose myself. As a man, my next reaction was to look round to make sure no-one had seen me. I was in the clear, but knew that this was not a feeling to brush under the carpet.
This was a scar that needed attention. It was almost exactly a year since the operation and I needed help.
The months that followed brought a number of events...some significant, some not. I wrangled with the DVLA over the return of my licence - a task made infinitely more difficult due to their bumbling ineptitude. I found a new car befitting of my return to the road. Lydia and I had a well earned holiday to Morocco, where I learned that metallic bone fixings do not set off metal detectors. These months were about re-discovering my sense of self...my confidence...my independence.
The unpleasant side-effect of this time was the realisation that a number of factors had driven a wedge between Lydia and I. I don't wish to use the blog to air my experiences or feelings on the matter, but I had gone through a life altering experience which had shifted my ideals, hopes, dreams and values. The dynamic of our relationship had changed, and after a difficult time, we separated. This isn't the forum for the specifics of the break-down, so I'll move on. What I will say is that my world had been turned upside down, back up, and all the way back over again. Emotionally, the number of massive events taking place in my life...no, that implies that I was a passive observer...the number of massive events that I was having to deal with really took their toll on me. Symptoms, diagnosis, surgery, recovery, re-emergence, separation, the big wide world.
I am annoyingly positive. I know. I hate to be seen to have any weaknesses. I hate to be seen to not be coping with a situation or problem. I was furiously paddling under the surface of the water. I needed to retain my veneer of calm. I struggled. My work capacity was on the increase as my brain continued to recover, but any slack that this gave me was immediately taken up with the pressures in my personal life.
I was on my own for the first time in my life. It may seem strange, but for as long as I remembered, there had always been people around. My parents and brother, my friends on the estate, school mates, uni mates, house mates, girlfriends, football teams, cricket teams. I can't remember doing anything on my own. I feel like I'm painting a picture of myself in the Wilderness. The truth? In the presence of social networking, you're never truly alone. I needed my friends...electronic or otherwise, but I got used to my own company.
My thoughts would often wander back to darker, Ivan related times, and I was coming to terms with the break-down of my marriage. For the first time in my life, there were fewer distractions to take me away from these thoughts.
Whilst walking home one evening, I was hit full-force by an event that would bring about a major event in my recovery.
Friday, 8 February 2013
It was now a month post-op. By now, my wound had all but healed, and the landscape of my head was the only really physical sign of what I had undergone. I had started playing football again a couple of weeks after receiving the semi-clear, and was back at work on reduced hours, so not to wipe myself out.
As I concentrated on my investigations (which had remained as I had left them in the case of the longer running enquiries), I would idly run my fingers through my hair. This would serve no purpose other than an idle distraction, if anything, as I hadn't begun to style my hair again. When I ran my fingers across the top of my head, I could trace the outline of the square of bone that had been removed. I could feel the corners where it didn't quite sit flush with my skull. I could feel the screws and plates that added rigidity to my head, the starter hole where the process had begun, and small areas where the follicles on my scalp had been replaced with scar tissue, and the ridges where the wound had healed unevenly. Each idle grope reminded my of what had happened, and still does.
To the outside world, I was no different to the rest of the population, but looking a little deeper showed something more. My scar was neat and hidden, and in a sense this suited me, but the small boy within me wanted people to feel the undulations of my head, to see the signs. I was proud of how I had tackled my demon. Part of me wanted to brag about it.
Mentally, the signs were more subtle, but I was eminently aware of them. My speed of thought was improving, but I was notably less mentally agile, especially when it I was called upon to be quick witted. My word selection was laboured when I was tired, and when typing a double letter in a word, I would often type (and still do) the letter before or after as the double. These weren't things that caused me any real concern, but they were there, and I was aware of them.
I occasionally pondered how I had escaped relatively emotionally unscathed, but set the thought aside, preferring to congratulate myself on my mental fortitude.
Football brought an alarming improvement. My right foot began to function properly, accurately, and for the first time that I could remember, to the concern of my fellow players. This was good - I could stand this kind of side-effect! I was wary of headers, but I noticed that I was focused on playing, rather than the much more self-protective style I had started to subconsciously employ prior to diagnosis. I can only guess that within my subconscious, my brain had activated some kind of safe-mode. I can only assume that my body was aware of what was happening long before both the medical professionals and I had discovered.
I built up my stamina in every aspect of my life, and finally finished the course of steroids they had put me on to prevent inflammation. Within a month of being back at work, I was doing my full hours, and was back to feeling on top of everything. It was now apparent that my work issues had been totally tumour related, and not ability or motivation based as I had once thought. Time passed quickly as my life returned to its normal pace.
As I got off the train in Leeds City Centre, I felt a sensation of impending doom. There was no real reason for this, but I asked myself, "Can I really be this lucky? As I walked through Leeds, I felt a knot in my stomach which was being quite persistent. As I walked back in to the hospital, my previous visit came flooding back, as I looked up the ramp to the wing I needed to be in.
As I sat in the waiting area, I racked my brains to try and remember the CT scan from the day after the operation. Had I spotted anything that might be deemed untoward? I didn't think so. Could I read anything else into what the registrar had said? Maybe...he had said that they thought they might have left an odd cell - could that be bad news? I wasn't sure. In short, my mind had gone into overdrive.
When I was called into the consultation room, I was greeted by Mr Ross. He had a calming influence, by virtue of his softly spoken manner, and calm assured nature. Mr Ross had nothing but good news - they had been happy with the surgery, with my recovery, and most importantly, with the CT scan. I was in the clear...for now.
This was a little over six weeks post-op, and I was unsure what guidance I would be given about my return to work. The three main things on my mind, were the three things that were conspicuous by their absence - driving, work, football, and beer. There was no room for negotiation on the driving front, but I checked anyway if he had any reason to believe that I wouldn't be fit to drive when my six months were up - he didn't. He was also happy for me to return to work when the occupational health people were happy.
To my surprise, he was also happy for me to start playing football again, but on the proviso that I didn't play it in a manner that would put my head in direct impact. I assured him that I couldn't bring myself to head the ball at the best of times, so wouldn't be putting it in any immediate danger. I was interested to know that there was no evidence to suggest that impact would cause the bone repair to lose its integrity. Mr Ross explained that four metal plates now secured the patch of bone in place, and that it was unlikely to go anywhere.
As for the booze, I had quite enjoyed a spell of enforced sobriety, and had sampled a number of zero-alcohol alternatives to actual beer. I was surprised by two things - the large number available, and the lack of pubs that saw fit to put them in the fridge. Beer, just how I like it - alcohol free and warm. Mr Ross told me that alcohol would lower the threshold at which I could have a seizure, but in light of there being no warning signs, that I should be ok as long as I didn't binge drink. I tried to resist the obvious joke about habitual drinking being the way forward, and failed completely.
On this last point, my situation had highlighted a little bit about modern drinking culture. I was amazed how many occasions were marked with drinks, compared with how often I would actually want a drink. It pointed towards the modern tendency to use alcohol as an emotional crutch, and I felt fortunate to not crave or need the help. My sleep was healthy and natural, and my head was clear on waking up every morning. On top of this, my new found totally rational fear of headaches made it perfectly easy to resist, or to know when to stop, as the alternative held too many painful reminders. The prospect of mixing my drinks and waking up with a blinding headache filled me with dread.
The consultation ended, and I went on my way happy. My next appointment would be in two years, and in the meantime, my GP would see me through my return to real life. Normality was so close, I felt like I could almost touch it. I contemplated this as I walked back to the train station, and started to make phone calls. I called Lydia, my Mum, and my boss to start with - I shared the relevant information, and contacted occupational health at work to find out how they wanted to re-introduce me to the fold.
Thursday, 7 February 2013
After a week of behaving myself, I had the blessing of all around me to venture into town. It was about a mile and a half, and fairly flat. I've talked about taking things for granted, and a twenty-minute walk is one of those things. I felt on top of the world, and having spent an odd week being fairly inactive in the past, I anticipated a bit of weariness, and maybe a hint of fitness dropping off.
I set off from the flat, and took my normal route past the local shops, and opted to follow the main road into town on the off chance that I needed some assistance. Within ten minutes, I was exhausted. A combination of seven-and-a-half hours of anaesthetic still filtering from my system, and the vibration of the ultrasonic tools still plaguing my brain, had brought my body to a whole new low. My choice of route was good, as I found a bench to sit on and listen to music for a few minutes while I recovered. I weighed up my options, and opted to continue into town. I made it to my favourite café, ordered my drink, and sat down. I was immersed in music and coffee, and had achieved a goal (as mundane as it may sound) I had dreamed about for over a week. So simple a task, but with such immense joy derived from it. After a while, I conjured the energy to make the two-stage walk home. I was happy.
Over the coming weeks, I built my stamina - the two-stage walk became one-stage, and one trip to town a day became two. It was a simple existence, but I felt it provided me with everything I needed. I was engaging in light conversation, helping my confidence to grow in terms of my speech, my body was getting stronger, and my steroid dose was getting smaller and smaller.
On one day during this period, I felt a noticeable step-up in both my cognitive ability, and My physical recovery. This was strangely significant improvement, strange by the instantaneous nature of it. It was like being half asleep, and then being shaken...waking up instantly - the difference was startling. I don't know to this day whether it was the reduction in dose of steroids that caused this, the effects of the anaesthetic wearing off, or just my body stepping out of a kind of safety mode. The latter seemed to make more sense in light of the timing.
Time began to fly, and before I knew it, the day of the follow-up appointment was looming. I was apprehensive, as I was about to hear some home truths about the success of the operation, but I was confident that they would not seek to hold me back given the rate of my physical and mental recovery. I couldn't shake the thought that the Doctors might be telling me about cells they'd missed, the possibility of re-growth...worse even. I used this to prepare myself for the worst case scenario. It's fair to say I slept badly the night before the appointment. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear what they had to tell me.
Monday, 4 February 2013
Wednesday had arrived, and it was time to see the nurse at my Doctor's surgery. I had been given a hermetically sealed instrument of torture. It was a combination of scissors, pliers, and eye lash curlers. I sat in anticipation of how this tool would be deployed, presuming that my head would be the likely candidate, and waited to be called by the nurse.
I eventually went in, and sat in front of the nurse as she unwrapped the implement. She expertly used the device to remove the staples one by one, while I sat with my face screwed up. In truth, apart from the incidental extraction of a couple of hairs, and the feeling of a tweak or pinch of the scab on top of my head, the only sensation was mild discomfort. Mentally, I was certain that five days would not be enough for my head to heal, but now unsupported by staples, it held strong. Five days. Now when you bang your head, and break the skin, it bleeds like hell. Fortunately, this same process speeds the healing process immensely, as the blood supply brings in abundance, the building blocks required to knit the wound together.
Feeling a little conscious of my still-unwashed head, and a rather unsightly part-healed wound, I donned my flat cap, and requested a trip to the office. I remembered a quote from my favourite film, "The rumours of my demise have been mildly exaggerated". I wanted to show my colleagues and co-workers that I was back, and would not let this 'minor inconvenience' keep me down. I walked into the office with pride - I had nothing to prove except what I wanted to prove to myself. I was on my own two feet, and my brain was back in working order.
Having shown off my scar, and assured my colleagues that no rogue items had been inserted the gap vacated by Ivan, I went home. I was still under orders, and the morning's events had taken it out of me. I had to realise that my brain was still recovering from an almighty ordeal, and that my recovery would take time. I was happy - I had satisfied my audience, and was a step closer to being back to normal. And of course, I was now allowed to do the unthinkable - I could wash my hair. Yes - a proper shower was on the horizon. I'll let you use your imagination when it comes to the colour of the shower water.
It may seem strange, but I desperately wanted to get back to work as soon as possible. Long had I looked at people at work who had gone off sick, and taken what seemed like an age to come back when the circumstances just didn't seem to justify a lengthy absence. I didn't want to be like that, and felt as though I could inspire people to do better, or shame people into not doing it in the first place. I was proving to myself that I was able to recover, and that I wouldn't be held down. Of course, convincing my bosses of this was a different matter.
I saw out the week trying to find a blend of not doing too much, of accepting the help I was graciously being offered, but also building my strength up. I had accepted a week of pure recovery, but was itching to get out into the big wide world again. I was required to be off work for a minimum of six weeks, and I had no intention of letting the Creme Eggs do any damage.