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 8 | The Art Of Gentle Surrender

One-by-one, they slowly drifted up, back into the room. The storm had begun to abate slightly, allowing the potency of the dark, brooding pub and its open fire to steal back the advantage.

 They turned their heads slowly and looked at one another. She smiled, nobly. He lowered his head in respect, releasing a deep, intense sigh.

 “Sooooo….” the Bar Man said, in unison with a long, exhale of relief. “Where do we go from here?”

 “I tried so hard”. He seemed not to have heard the Bar Man. Eyes now fixed on the potential of what sat next to him. “So hard”

 The Bar Man lent forward to ensure he was part of the energy. Eyes darting between the two, as rain and cracking wood, danced together in an impossibly appropriate score for the moment.

 “It’s ok” she replied with an almost filial sense of affection “There’s still time. What you didn’t see, and what you couldn’t know, what none of you can know, is how much its healed. And will continue to heal. Through your love. And through your vulnerability. But your faith and courage are so important.”

 He trained his gaze slowly back to the Bar Man, who had begun to wear a more jovial expression, in expectation of an upturn in events.

 “Don’t get carried away. The worse was yet to come”

 She reached across the bar, and rested her right hand on top of his left. The last efforts of thunder, peeling gently away.

 Over the next few days, I slowly gathered some emotional control and inner-calm back, thanks to my enthusiastic reunion with both the Wizard, and The Agents Of Calm.

(We need to deeply use our time in meditation, and to prey, in whatever way we feel moved to prey. We need to focus on centering ourselves. And we need to find our breath.  We need to find our breath over and over again.)

Physically though, I continued to deteriorate. Thankfully, the former helped me cope much better with latter, as well as having a welcome, soothing effect on the static energy that had been building up between Emma and I.

The following morning after my spiritual wake-up call, I set myself a simple task: “turn, as quickly as possible, all your self-pity and anxiety, into positive determination to get well, and gratitude for everything around you”. Yes, it may sound a bit hoo-ha, but the difference in who I could be towards my wife and daughter with that simple change in attitude, in spite of what was happening physically, was tremendous.

The truth is, tacking our way out of big emotional swells is always but a moments work of the mind.  One of my favorite stories (embedded in an old audio-book I had several years ago) explains it quite nicely on my behalf.

It narrates the story of a man (any man, no man in particular) who chanced upon a Tai Chi session, whilst taking a walk in a park. He sat down on the grass in ear shot of the group, who were all sat calmly in front of their teacher, having just engaged them in the following philosophical dialogue:

“So, can anyone here, tell me what they need to be truly and deeply happy?

The first student answered; “world-peace”.

To which the teacher replied; “then you will have many unhappy days

A second student chimed in; “unlimited wealth”.

Then you too, will have more unhappy days to come

The group looked thoughtful and confused as they sat in silence and waited for the teacher to explain. Looking out into the morning sky above the students, he eventually spoke:

The simple truth, is that none of you need anything to be truly and deeply happy. You simply have to choose it for yourself. We are born with access to infinite happiness. It is our divine right, and to claim that rightis a simple matter of choice. Nothing out ’there’ can ever create true happiness in ‘here’

He finished with lifting his hands over his heart.

(Our hearts hold the key)

So here’s the thing; the whole spiritual, personal development gig was very new to me back then, and I remember my first reaction to this story as being very cynical. I struggled with the cliché and simplicity of it all. It occurred to me, as I suspect it does many others, that a person’s ability to simply opt-in for happiness is entirely relative to what that person has been, or is going through. The harsher or more tragic the experience, the harder it becomes.  Try suggesting for example, to someone who has just lost a loved one in a tragic accident, that the answer to his or her pain and suffering is simply to take a deep breath, and choose to be happy?

But I have since grown to understand that it’s more a process of becoming conscious, of the simple truth, that nothing outside of us can ever have lasting dominion over who are in this world, or how we feel. We’ll all tread on emotional and physical landmines at some point in our lives. Just as we’ll all encounter people who will hurt us in one way or another. The point and wisdom of that Tai Chi lesson, how twee it might initially sound, is to teach us that we all have the power and right to choose how we process those things. And that those choices have an immediate and direct affect on who we are as people, the energies we bring to our lives, and the affect we have on the people around us, and communities in which we live.

The issue is that most people (because so few of us are taught how to otherwise) process the heinous events that happen to them, subconsciously. In accordance to how they’ve been wired up; their beliefs, values, fears and anxieties. And then it plays out from there. Which explains why I’d allowed myself to sink in to such a morass of shame, guilt, self-pity and anxiety. 

I believed – to an extent – that I was bulletproof from ‘real’ sickness. I was terrified of the potential pain of serious medical procedures. I believed my family always had to get the best. And peace of mind was (and is) one of my most important values. Four foundational supports of who I was as an individual, that were now coming apart at the seams under the crushing reality of whatever was happening. But, it wasn’t what was happening that caused those negative emotions. They were on-boarded by my default programming, because I had forgotten to breath, pause and exercise my right to consciously frame them in a way that worked for me. That’s what changed a few mornings earlier, thanks to my wake up call. I literally woke up, and chose, consciously, to emotionally deal with what was happening on my own terms. I chose positivity, determination and gratitude. I chose, as best as circumstances would allow, happiness.

They’d be bad days to come, of course there would. They’d be occasions when I‘d let those negative emotions back in. I’m human after all, I feel.  I also understand the importance of processing every emotion we feel regardless of how positive we choose to be. Denying and suppressing the bad ones is a well trodden fast-track to serious physical illness.  The difference now however, was that I had taken back control. Connected to everything that was happening and everything I was feeling. Able to guide myself back on track whenever ‘I’ chose. 

The timing of this, as it so often is, was crucial. My physical health was hitting the skids with devastating enthusiasm, and I needed every ounce of self-belief and positivity I could muster. The lower back pain was now fighting back hard against whatever painkillers and anti-inflammatories I threw it at. Leaving me in an almost permanent malaise of pain and increasing immobility. I hadn’t felt a repeat of Spamsgate, thank God, but I knew it was one slip or fall away. The cough however, as if in a race to see who could bring me down the fastest, was now at the front of the ailment peloton. Deep, ugly, hacking and stubbornly persistent, with each bout sending shattering tremors throughout my entire body. Good sleep was rare, whilst back and rib pain, headaches and abject weakness were my new normal. I’d been permanently bed-ridden for 3 days, and unable to contribute in anyway to several important professional and family matters. Most pressing of all being Ava’s forthcoming birthday, on the 13th. Just over a week away. I needed to get professional help again.

I couldn’t see the same GP I saw a week or so previously. Perhaps a good thing, given his liberal approach to covering all of one’s bases. So Emma and I, under the conditions of my ‘Emergency’ appointed, were ushered in to see another Doctor. A surly middle-aged man from Pakistan who seemed to be more annoyed by our lack of medical insurance coverage, than helping the patient in front of him, who was clearly about to cough himself inside out.  So much for the calm, compassionate family Doctor.

After he poked and listened to the obvious, a quite extraordinary dialogue begun to unfold, that could be used as a Med School case study, for how ‘not’ to treat a patient:

My Burney, I don’t know what to say, you’re clearly very unwell but we need to do more tests to be sure”.

The ‘E’ at the end of my name was frequently mispronounced ‘EY’ (like Barney) by people from the Indian Subcontinent. It was a language thing of course, but it annoyed the hell out of me. Burney was my childhood, playground nickname and it felt very out of place in adult life.

It’s Mr Bur’n’e. Ok (cough cough), what are they?”, I hacked back at him.

You see, the thing is you don’t have any insurance and the tests can be quite expensive”. His tone horribly patronizing, assuming we might be able to afford whatever it was I needed.

Clearly irking Emma, she clipped back with unexpected authority; “Well, why don’t you tell us what the tests are and how much each costs, and we’ll decide?” 

But they’re very expensive you see, I…..

(Silent, simmering stare off).

“Ok. Blood, X-rays and MRI scans. But listen why are you not covered under health insurance? It’s very irresponsible.

Jesus Christ! Emma and I both looked at each other in utter disbelief. He was right of course, but this was neither the time nor the place. Plus his tone had gone up an octave, from flatly patronizing to sharply rude.

 “(Cough, hack, cough) Look, my insurance is under process ok, and with respect that’s not really (cough, hack, hack) any of your business. How much are the tests (cough cough) and is both an MRI and X Ray necessary (hack) for what this might be?

Maybe he didn’t want to be faced with ‘this’ patient at the end of a busy day. Maybe he just didn’t like us. Either way, the more this went on, the deeper the good Doctor sank into his own sense of self-righteousness, which Emma and I were apparently bruising.

It could be many things Mr Burney (arghh) and the tests are all important. I’ll have to check how much each one but I suggest we don’t wait

Neither do I, so (cough, hack, cough, coouuuugh), why don’t we go ahead with blood tests and X-rays, and if (cough cough) you still need an MRI after that then we’ll do that too. Ok?. Now what will they both cost?

Ironically, his attitude had sparked a rush of adrenaline that momentarily relieved me of how terrible I was feeling. 

Quite unbelievably, he then wrote the figure down on a piece of paper and slipped it across the table at us, as if initiating a haggle. I stared at the paper, now trying not to laugh, then back up at him as he turned away to absently peruse his bouncing ball screen saver.  It was one of ‘those’ moments in life. I’m still not sure it ever really happened. I was half tempted to write “I’ll give you a fiver for all three” on the note, and slip it back to him. 

The fee was 800 dirhams for both tests.  About 140 pounds. Ok, not cheap, but certainly not the figure his dramatic tone had led us to believe. His bloody consultation was half that!  

So after acknowledging that the costs were fine (with just enough emphasis on ‘pleasantly surprised’ to annoy Dr. Personality Bi-pass), my blood test was done straight away. The chest x-rays, a few kilometers away in a separate facility. 2 hours later and we were home in the Villa, tired and shell shocked by the black comedy of the afternoon.

An hour later, just after I’d inched myself back under the duvet for the night, Emma’s phone range.  Surprisingly, it was the Doctor from earlier. I hadn’t assumed for a second he would’ve been capable of such efficiency. Unsurprisingly, he seemed to be very agitated. Furious even, by the startled look on Emma’s face, and the fact that I could hear his voice through the phone laying five meters away. It turned out that he’d been trying to call me on the mobile number the clinic had on record, which was about 6 years old. Thankfully Emma had left hers when we registered for the appointment earlier that day.

I’m not sure what was being said, only that Emma was getting increasingly upset by his tone and wasn’t able to get a word in edge ways. Eventually, in tears, she hung up.

What an awful, rude man! How dare he speak to me like that! You’ve got Pneumonia!”.

She threw the phone on the bed and stormed out the bedroom.

Pneumonia? What the hell...?”

I was as shocked as I was ignorant about what I’d been diagnosed with. Shocked by pneumonia’s renown, ignorant as to exactly what it was. I’d always thought it was down to too much exposure to the cold. Or something old people die of. So instead of going to comfort my wife, who was clearly feeling the strain of it all, I jumped onto the internet instead to get up to speed on what I was dealing with. For the record, this was a classic example of how my gradual descent into the realms of chronic illness was pulling me further and further into that other room. Away from the love I needed to both give, and receive.

Thankfully, despite it’s renown, pneumonia is a very treatable condition for someone of my age. In fact, having picked up the antibiotics the next day, I only needed another 48 hours in bed before feeling significantly better. But what did trouble me, helped in no uncertain terms by a flurry of red warning lights from my intuition on the matter, was that pneumonia can often be the sign of a more serious condition. The back pain, the listlessness and now the pneumonia; positive attitude aside, I couldn’t ignore the gravity of the situation that all these symptoms were pointing towards. What was once a dark and brooding knowing buried deep down inside of me, was now a permanent presence, dripping like a faulty tap on my already fragile nerves. 

Recent, patience-grinding experiences notwithstanding, I was now ready to gently surrender into the arms of serious professional health care. And there’s nothing like a swift right hook to one’s vanity to help reinforce such a decision. And those hooks came raining in on me during the afternoon of Ava’s birthday.

Under the uncertainty of my health prognosis, we nearly had to cancel her party altogether. We’d set the bar quite high for the afternoon, and it would have been too much for Emma to handle on her own.  Let alone having me festering in bed with scores of kids and parents running amok around the villa. But thanks to better drugs and a better attitude, I was able to shake off the worst if it, and contribute enough to allow the afternoon to go ahead.

It was your atypical, toddler birthday mayhem. Colourful, chaotic, noisy and highly emotional. But Ava seemed to have the time of her life. Thoroughly immersed in all the attention, and enjoying her role as the sugar-fuelled matriarch of all she purveyed! For the most part, it was a very welcome escape for Emma and I. A timely reminder of the how beautifully innocent and fun life can be. Plus, there’s a special reserve of profound pride a parent feels for their children on their birthdays, that helped lift our spirits.

But throughout the afternoon I was having to deal with a relentless stream of horrified looks and disquieting questions about my heath. All of which were triggered by my new, apparently ghoulish appearance. One doesn’t notice the gradual progress of their own physical transformation – good or bad – with daily references in the mirror. But for many of our friends at Ava’s party, this was the first time they’d seen me in several weeks, and were clearly shocked by what they saw. A few days later we looked at some of the photograph’s we’d taken of the afternoon, and I finally saw it for myself. I was horrified. Pale, hollow and visibly sinking from life. I almost entirely rejected the image as me.

It was the middle of October, 2013. My dance with pneumonia had left me weak and pale. The pain in my back was always-on and increasingly debilitating, pulling me further and further from work, family, life. The stress of making ends meet financially was increasing as my ability to do so, diminished daily. Thankfully however, I had my incredible family and friends around me, and a resurgent spirit of positivity and determination inside of me.

Together we agreed to take things up a notch. The time had come, albeit several weeks too late perhaps, to enlist some serious professional help. But no more GP’s. No, if I was to do this I needed a Specialist.   Thankfully my medical insurance had finally been processed which took a lot of the stress out of the decision. As I knew that whatever was happening wasn’t going to be a quick fix, and after running some conservative numbers on a possible treatment scenario, having that insurance in place was essential.

I’d be lying however if I didn’t admit there was something about the health insurance that troubled me. I’d started the process prior to that first doctor’s visit, on the back of my growing health anxiety. In the haste to get it done, I didn’t run the forms past my IFA as requested, sending them back direct myself. I guess in times of urgency, desperation often trumps prudence. For the next few days after sending off the forms, I carried around a troubling suspicion that the answers I provided for the ‘previous condition’ section could have been a little more comprehensive.  Time would tell. As would the scale of what I might be required to undergo in the near future.

As for the specialist, I was enthusiastically advised to go and see a neurologist by our closest friends, Chris and Natalie, at one of the larger Private Health Care clinics. It was Natalie that recommended Fareeda a few weeks, so I trusted the recommendation. By all accounts Dr S was a lovely, calm and compassionate physician, whilst at the same time, exceptionally efficient. Maybe there was some hope, after all.