Don't Look Down
The Other Room.jpg

The Other Room

For my girls, Emma and Ava. You save me, everyday. 

And for everyone who volunteered so much love and support along the way. You know who you are. I am eternally grateful.

We're still standing. And this is the story of what happened.  

Chapter 11 | Psithurism

He’d moved his position now, into a chair that allowed him to face them at the bar. His pint dangling, half-empty in his left hand. The right side of his face, theatrically lit-up by the roaring fire that was now feeding off a fresh meal of logs.

He wore the deportment of a very smug, very heartless assassin. Black eyes fixed on whatever hurt the most. He tried to ignore him, but this dark stranger had already diagnosed himself into his deepest anxieties.

 The Bar Man remained calm and vigilant. He knew the game with this one. Antagonizing him would only make things worse, whilst any signs of fear and stress would intoxicate him more dangerously than his beer.

 “These are very important times to do the deep work, of bringing light to your own shadows”. She’d leaned across and whispered towards his left ear, leaving just enough on the dial to ensure the dark figure in the corner could hear.

 His eyebrows and mouth quickly changed from smug, to threatening. She had hit a nerve, but then that was the intention.

 “Yeah darlin’’” he snarled leaning forward; “and how long 'as he been tryin’ do that.  Haven’t you been listening? Fuckin’ light? Jesus.”

He slouched back into his chair and downed what was left in his pint, boorishly motioning to the Bar Man for a refill, by holding up and waggling the empty glass.

 “He’s right,” he said softly; “I‘ve tired so hard. So many different things. And yet….”

 “Huh huh huh, there you go. You tell her mate!” he interrupted.

 “I wasn’t talking to you! Who the hell are you anyway? This is a private conversation”.

His level until now had been slow and steady. But something about that shadow sat by the fire, and his timing, made him snap. Both she and the Bar Man reached across and grasped his forearm. A gesture of support, but also to unify their energies together in anticipation.

 “Who am I? Who the fuck. Am. I? Do you wanna’ tell him sweetheart or shall I”?

 His tone had becoming dangerously threatening.

 “You know full well who I am, son. But seein’ as if I seemed to have slipped your memory, let me remind ya…”


 The Bar Man was quickly out from behind his bar. And a Bar Man out from behind his bar, is an imposing figure indeed. 

 “We’ve been here before pal, now haven’t we? You show up here and try and bring trouble into my pub, but it always ends up the same way, doesn’t it.

 The Shadow by the fire ushered back cautiously from the confrontation.

 “You got lucky this evening” continued the Bar Man; “didn’t expect to find him here after all this time now did you? Nevertheless, this ends now. Right. Now. You’ve got two choices, mate; you can sit down and finish your drink quietly. Or, as you seem to prefer given past events, I can kick you out the front door again. What’s it gonna’ be?

 The rain was really belting down again, now. He looked over his shoulder at the unforgiving scene outside, and turned back to face the Bar Man.

 “Huh huh ha huh” his deep, ugly, throaty laugh seemed to rattle the windows “fair enough guvnor. It’s your gaff after all. For now. But we all know ‘this’ ends, now don’t we.”

 Finally, as if triggered by tone of thise final words, the thunder cranked up fiercelyonce again.

There was something about the Spasm that morning that seemed to represent the start of the beginning of the end of the start (that will make sense shortly).  November had slid in unannounced, and whilst in Dubai one doesn’t get to enjoy some of the natural beauty and drama Autumn gifts the more seasonally attuned parts of the world, I couldn’t hide from my Western programming, that always seemed to dial me into natures great Brood.

The next few weeks were a deplorable carnival of deterioration. Everything went south like a time-lapse of melting ice. Everything. Pain, mobility, hope, belief, tenderness, tolerance. We’d given Dr S’s diagnosis, his drugs and his exercises, the benefit of the doubt. We tried. We really did. But we both knew he and it, were way off the money. (You’re only as good as your last diagnosis, Doc!).

In a desperate attempt to halt my decay, the villa had begun welcoming an army of alternative healers. Cranial therapists, reiki practitioners, acupuncturists, physical therapists. They all came with brave and encouraging motives. They fought, with sincerity and confidence. But sadly, they all left defeated, regretful and utterly baffled at the stubbornness and persistence of the mysterious, stubborn antagonist in my lower back.

It was only the acupuncturists – a strange, cliché of a Chinese lady with quick hands and a short patience – that suggested I go to the nearest hospital as soon as possible. Sound advice, and in hindsight advice I wish I’d taken.

You. Go now ok. Ha ha ha, I go now!” I wish I had, Madame Wu, I wish I had. Come back soon. You were right. You were so right.

It wasn’t long after Madame Wu’s visit that walking on sticks became a needs-only maneuver. The enemy was now at the gate, clacking off warning Spams with increasing regularity, rendering my field of movement terrifyingly narrow. I felt like a living version of Operation. That retro 80’s game we used to play as kids, in which each player had to carefully pick out plastic organs from some poor chaps electrically charged, cartoon body. If your tweezers hit the sides, his nose would shine red and an alarm would go off. Outta’ the game, Jack. But my nose didn’t go red. I exploded instead, in intolerable pain. It was a daily event now. And no game for kids.

One piece of advice I did take however, was to pay a visit to a local physiotherapy practice, that had been repeatedly recommended by several of the therapists. There was a Specialist there that was doing great things. Especially for backs. It felt like a smart play, and it was a decision that prevented me from attending another Chiropractor. Something I had been secretly plotting having been Googled into believing there was another way the modality might help. I couldn’t afford both; chose the physio, and in doing so avoided catastrophic consequences.

The clinic was only a few kilometers away, but given I now moved at the pace of a garden slug, it took us over an hour from bed to arrival. The attending team was waiting, and duly guided me out of the Jeep and into a wheel chair. A mode of transport I was going to have to become very familiar with.

As I was wheeled into see the great Doctor, I asked to stop outside the main door of the building. The chorus of evening calls to prayer had started up from the mosques, and begun floating out across the rooftops of the City. I’d always cowered under the intensity and power of this sound. On this occasion however, I heard in it a strangely appropriate beauty - intensely pious, and in so many ways reflective of the sublimity of the very Universe to which it was inviting so many to connect. It was layered with the sound of the warm desert wind, melting down through the leaves of the palm trees, before gently sweeping across the contours of my face. It was a potent, spiritual symphony that invited me to close my eyes in acknowledgment of the blessing of the moment. 

To be in such seamless presence and lyrical unity with Life is precious and rare. And although brief, the moment was imbued with a profound sense of symbolism.  I knew I was very, very sick. My mind and body already begun letting go of whatever hope remained for a false alarm. And Nature, so it would seem, in the psithurism of those desert palms, had chosen its moment to reach down and soothe my soul, as it to, bowed in final surrender to the inevitable.

 It didn’t take the great Doctor long to ratify that sentiment. Being unable to climb up on to the treatment table, or maneuver in anyway way to help him conduct even the basic of examinations, his only professional suggestion was Hospital. Immediately. He could see. The great Doctor could see.

Later that evening I put in call to my closet pal, Chris – or Humph as he is more affectionately known - to enlist his help with getting me to Hospital, as Emma had to work. A sound and trusted advisor, as well as everything else a best friend should be - accomplice, judge, defender, dependent, shoulder brother - he agreed to be at the villa at 8am the following morning.

As I lay in bed that evening, drugs down, making my way through a foolishly large measure of good scotch, the fear and trepidation of what may lay ahead, terrified me. I hadn’t been in a hospital- for myself – since I was 5. I had no experience, no prior, no sensory back-up whatsoever to help stitch together any type of visual representation. Just those well-polished albeit unsubstantiated childish fears of pain and suffering. And in the face of such potential discomfort, the mind tends to retreat to its default role of self-protection. Well, mine does anyway and it was doing everything it could to reason me out of the surrender. Drawing on every ounce of creative optimism, inveigling me into pulling back. Keep on riding it out. Or at least give it another few days. Just, another few days.

Emma met the decision with a much greater sense of positivity, given that she had been pushing me to go to Hospital for many weeks. So she was neither amused nor supportive of my continued and increasingly crapulent suggestions that we might reconsider: What if? How about? Maybe? It made for a turbulent and restless night, made tortuously worse by the onset of what I’d later learn was chronic restless leg syndrome. An intensely uncomfortable sensation that feels as if your lower legs and ankles have been overrun by legions of Benzedrine fuelled ants, tearing around hysterically. They slept during the day, burst into life at night and it was only when the inner-panic became too much that they let you sleep. RLS was a poignant symptom of course, but we wouldn’t know that until it was too late. For now it was just another layer of physical and emotional discomfort that had me pinned, ruthlessly, to the side of the cage.

Humph’s arrival the next morning was a much-needed tonic. For such a small City it’s unusual how much time can pass in Dubai without seeing your close friends. There’s something about the pace of life over there that breeds a unique level of busyness, and we hadn’t been in one another’s company for a while. It was good to see my buddy, and he bowled in with his usual air of disarming cheeriness and positivity. And right on cue to, my spirit needed lifting after a restless night of ant fighting and hospital anxiety. But he also had a look in his eye as he sat on the edge of the bed that suggested the day might not go according to plan.

Riiiiiight”; a Humph intervention always starts with a slow, commanding ‘Riiiiight’.   

Is Emma hear mate, I just wanna’ talk to you both

No buddy, she had to go to work early, why what’s up?”

Look, I’ve got a suggestion. Hear me out. Nat and I were talking last night, mate are you sure you it’s time to pull the Hospital card? What about going back to Dr S, and get him back on the case?”

Buddy we’ve been there and tried that, and look at me. Still.”

Fair enough, but you’ve only seen him once. Right? I trust this guy mate, he’s done so much for Natty, and I just think as a next course of action, going into the hospital might be starting you from scratch again. At least Dr S is on the case already. Maybe a second round might be the opportunity he needs to get to the bottom of it?”

There was logic in what he was saying. And let’s face it, I didn’t need much persuading away from the uncertainty that lay behind the doors of A& E. 

Whadya reckon? I’ve blocked the whole day for ya’, we can go straight to Dr S now, I’ve locked it in with him. And look mate, he may suggest hospital anyway. But at least we’ve exhausted all other opportunities.”

30 minutes later we were on our way to DR S’s surgery. Initially, Emma was furious at the decision, feeling perhaps that she had been on the wrong end of sedition. But was eventually encouraged by the new tone of determination in my voice, and grateful that I had Humph to help me through the day. My soul surrender agreement from the previous day hadn’t changed. Just the route I might have to take to get me to wherever that surrender would take place.

DR S was clearly unsettled and confused about my deteriorating condition, helped in no uncertain terms by my arrival in a wheel chair. (“Yeah, that’s right Doc last time I came in here I was walking. Now what?”) The soft and gentle demeanor from our first visit had been replaced by a more serious, if not slightly gruff countenance. The visit was short and sharp, and ended with a hefty non-steroidal anti-inflammatory shot in the back-side and an urgent repeat visit to that dreadful MRI facility from a few weeks earlier. Given what had happened there previously, and the fact that I was considerably more vulnerable to Spams than ever before, suddenly hospital seemed like the better option. But we were on and committed, and I had my buddy by my side to help me through it.

Thankfully, it went down without any trauma. The anti-inflammatory shot helped me negotiate the ridiculous mount and dismount maneuver that was necessary for this particular type of MRI machine. Whilst my freshly established position on surrender, curiously softened the blows from the pneumatic audio-drill that was the main event. “Do your worst machine, pound away, I’m all yours. Just fucking catch this son-of-a-bitch!”

Later that afternoon, Humph handed me carefully back over to Emma, and we made our back to the DR S’s, who having clearly picked up on my sense of urgency, put a rush on getting the MRI scans back. But the news wasn’t good, and neither was his prognosis that followed.

So look, I’ve looked at your new scans Christian and your spine is ok. I cannot see anything that gives me cause for concern. In fact I would tell you, you have a very healthy spine.” He continued to point out several spinal highlights and areas of particular good health.

Long, deep breaths. Staring seriously and earnestly at the intimate scan of my spine, hanging motionless in all its HD glory on the screen in front of us. I was so taken back and frustrated at the news I forget to ask about the blatant change in its curvature. I was too devastated to think. ‘We’ were too devastated. How could this be happening? How could I be told my spine was in “good health” when I couldn’t’ even walk? When I was dealing with SO much pain.

Ok, well, so what do we do now? I can’t go on like this.”  Holding back tears of desperation. And hope.

DR S paused for a while pensively, before asking his attending nurses to leave the room (and nothing good ever follows when nurses are asked to leave a room). What followed next was an extraordinary shift in posture, from Neurologist to Psychologist, as the good Doctor began his chosen song for his last chance saloon.

Christian, I want to talk to you about Depression.  I think that might be what’s causing this situation.”

Cue pin drop.

Depression triggered, psychosomatic pain. To be fair, it was far from an official diagnosis. More a suggestion. Offered calmly and compassionately by a Physician that had clearly run out of road. Nonetheless it left Emma and I utterly speechless. Not in an angry or indignant way, we’d just never, ‘ever’ contemplated such an oblique explanation to the trauma of the past few months. Truth was, we simply didn’t know what to say. One minute we’re hoping- finally – to get some clarity on a painfully obvious physical situation. The next, we’re being asked deeply sensitive questions about the state of our relationship and collective happiness, laddering up to the left-field notion that the root cause of all this pain might be Depression.

The cold truth, was that it wasn’t out of the realms of possibility. And it would be wrong of me not to admit that behind sincere assertions to the contrary, it got me thinking. Dr S had, perhaps rather cruelly, snagged the twine of a new possibility. Leaving me to pull at it nervously as the mind duly darted into action.

Depression is a cruel and beguiling condition. My father suffered from several intense bouts over the years, so it was something I’d had experience in. I wasn’t sure if Depression was in anyway hereditary yet given that experience, and the desperation of my situation, it became another weight pulling on that loose twine of possibility.

We didn’t have the energy for a lengthy debate on the matter. We’d both had exhausting days and quite frankly, just wanted out. Home. Bed. Sleep. Escape. Anything but more medical shadow boxing. Dr S’s final verdict was for Emma and I to engage in some serious ‘talking’, supported by another bag full of pharmaceuticals, which now included several sheets of the proverbial Happy Pills and mega-strength anti-inflammatories that fell out of the packaging like horse tranquilizers.  

The evening that followed was profoundly maudlin. Neither Emma nor I had any words of comfort for one another, and certainly didn’t have the emotional zeal necessary to explore the great Depression. Privately however, DR S’s suggestion had sent my mind racing down and round the darker avenues of my past. Instinctively seeking some sort of evidence to hang the notion off of. I didn’t know whether I believed in the possibility or not. But I had reached a level of desperation that made it sound absurdly comforting.

Eventually, breaking the deafening silence, Emma suggested I try and take a hot bath. Washing in anyway whatsoever had been a precarious challenge since the middle of October. Slippery bathrooms and showers are no place for razor blade bombs on tight ropes. But over the past few days in particular, I had been unable to wash without Emma there to help me through it. So as nice as the suggestion was in principal, in practice it filled me dread. But she was insistent. I smelt. And it was necessary.

Given my increasingly narrow range of movement, and the severity of the punishment that lay in wait should I venture too far, getting both to and into the hot bath was a perilous, inch-by-inch maneuver.  The Spasm was so ever-present I could almost see it reflecting back at me in the bath water. Grinning maniacally over my shoulder waiting for its next invitation to detonate.

it dealt me about six or seven cynical blows, before I finally managed to settle into the one and only position I was allowed: fetal like, gently leaning against the far side of the bath with my arms wrapped around my knees. Emma sat on the other edge, gazing down at me tearfully.

What are we going to do Bubba? Look at you…”

I didn’t know what we were going to do. I didn’t know anything, anymore. I was done. Every part of me felt broken. My heart most of all.  I haven’t included too much about my daughter thus far, simply because it’s very difficult to articulate, and extremely emotional. But she was always there. Her face, her laugh, her perfect toddler scent, her adventure, innocence, mischief and her pure, unblemished love. She was always with me. Collapsed in the bath that evening, the emotional pain I felt for her was as bad, enough worse than the physical pain I felt in my body. I wasn’t certain exactly how at the time, but I knew a period of separation from her was inevitable, and at a time when I needed her in profoundly human way. Way more than she needed me. There’s little more powerful or more healing in this world than the loving, innocent eyes of your children (and it would be those eyes that would quite literally save my life in about five months time.) So, as Emma and I sat silently together, I closed my eyes to picture her little face, and tried desperately to hear her breathing as she slept in the other room. 

"I love you, my darling. And I'm so sorry"