This time, the new arrival in the pub made no mistake with his entrance. The door slamming hard behind him as he marched purposely in behind them, collapsing down into the leather arm-chair in front of the fire, with a deep, angry rasp of frustration.
“Fucking weather. Bloody, miserable, sodding weather!”
His voice was dark, deep and threatening. With the tone and cadence of a man who’d seen too much, and felt too little. He wasn’t large in size, but the tension of his energy filled the entire pub.
Turning slightly, he addressed the Bar Man with a surprising air of familiarity; “Oi! Pint, mate! Come one! Look lively!”
He grumbled on incoherently about the weather, as he turned back to face the fire. Taking no notice of either of the Bar Man’s guests.
He looked across at her nervously, as the Bar Man pulled down hard on his beer tap; clearly irked by the manners and abrupt change in the atmosphere that his new patron had dragged into his pub.
She looked back at him gently, with a gentle squint of calm and protection in her eyes. It assuaged his anxiety for a moment, but deep down he knew the moment could very easily turn south. His intuition had, after all, been well tuned over the years.
The Shadow by the fire barked suddenly; “Well come on then, son! Me stomach thinks me throats been fuckin’ cut! It’s bad enough I’m bleeding soaked to the skin.”
She leaned over and rested a gentle hand on his left thigh, whispering a calming “shh…..”
“And as for you two” he addressed the pair of them now, slowly; “yeah I fuckin’ knows. I knows, and you knows I knows. Pair a’ muppets! So come on, then! Let’s hear it. Don’t go all quiet on my account. Or do you want me to take over?”
Outside, the rain started to fall heavily again.
aturally, sleep didn’t come easy after our diagnosis session with Dr S. Emma and I both woke the next day agitated with frustration. On the one hand, we had our first and only professional explanation as to what was happening to me. But on the other, it was just too inadequate to explain the full trauma of last few weeks.
In addition to the frustration, I was privately wrestling with what I’d seen in that scan. Utterly perplexed that somehow the curvature of my spine had been pushed out the other way, from concave to convex.
Now how the hell does something like that happen without you knowing about it?
Surely the spinal chord would have been affected, and ‘surely’ you’d feel your entire skeleton and posture change? The only event that added any evidence to the possibility was the MRI fall. When reaching back to try and support myself mid-fall, I remember feeling my vertebrae pushing out against the skin with such force, that it felt as if it would tear through at any moment.
Could that have been the moment?
Wouldn’t I have been more aware of it?
The whole idea was just so huge and mind-bending, that I could only ponder it in very short bursts before a profound sense of panic set in. I was still alive after all, and on two-feet. So burying my head in the sand whenever the notion got too much to think about, didn’t feel too irresponsible. I wasn’t ready for what it might mean. Nor was I ready to share it with anyone else, either.
But we had to move forward. We had no other choice. Frustration aside, it was a professional diagnosis, and from a well respected Neurologist. So in the absence of any other explanation, we sensibly agreed to embrace it positively and follow Dr S’s orders. It was a plan after all, that might navigate me back to good health. We’d never had a plan before. Direction, focus, and most of all, the ability to measure progress could only be a good thing. Besides, ‘any’ positive progress at that point, would’ve be a huge source of optimism and hope to us both.
Over the next few days, motivated by my indescribable love for my super-human wife and perfect daughter, and armed with a carefully prescribed arsenal of extremely good drugs and a new set of back exercises, I embarked on a highly regimented routine towards what we hoped, would be a return to wellness.
Each day started with a double-shot spiritual espresso. This comprised of a self-reiki treatment and affirmation meditation, followed by breakfast, and then drugs. If my back felt up to it, I’d shuffle out to join Emma and Ava for breakfast, otherwise I was forced to eat in bed. There’s a tragic difference between breakfast in bed, and breakfast whilst bed-ridden. It was never an experience I enjoyed.
Next came the first of three daily exercise sessions. Again, depending on the level of my back pain, these were tackled either on the bed, or on a yoga mat on the bedroom floor. Patio doors open, so I could enjoy the stunning late-October mornings.
The exercises DR S gave me to do were visually illustrated on the sorriest looking medical leaflet I’d ever seen. The drawings were anatomically brutal, as if modeled on someone recovering from a horrific fairground accident. So I did my best to memorize them on the first pass, before hiding the leaflet out of sight.
Some of them I could do quite enthusiastically. Others gave me way too much pain. One in particular, which involved getting up onto all fours and performing something akin to the Yogic cat pose (stretching your spine upwards and then downwards), triggered the on-set of the Spasm.
It happened during my first attempt. I was on the yoga mat looking out onto the garden, feeling reasonably pleased with myself and basking in the enthusiasm a new Plan brings to a party. I’d managed to get up onto all 4’s, but the moment I started to push my spine down into the stretch, the Spasm gave off a warning shot that stopped me in my tracks. It was a milder version of its full potential, pulsing up from inside the pelvis. I froze mid-stretch, petrified and wincing in anticipation for the full blast. But it never came. Better still, as I slowly eased my spine back up, my entire body gave off a huge sigh of relief, as if knowing we’d avoided its full force.
Naturally, like a total moron, the curiosity of this and the excitement that I may have some control over this demon that inhabited my lower back, encouraged me to gently push back down again to see what would happen. Yeah, unsurprisingly, same thing. When I pushed to a certain point, ‘bam!’ the Spasm fired back. But again, it was just a warning, and we both eased off together. Not wishing to push my luck any further, I cashed out after that second attempt, and carefully brought myself back into a safe posture.
Whilst this was a very enlightening moment, there were two sides to this new information. On the plus side, I was grateful and relieved for the knowledge that as long as I moved slowly and gently, I might never have to experience another full blown Spasm again. On the minus, I was terrified at how close this thing was to going off at any moment. One slip or one wrong move. It was a harrowing potential to have to live with.
Exercises always followed drugs, which always followed food. A simple drill, that played out three times a day. And having a Plan to follow free’d up some mental space and energy to divert to other things. So in-between the morning and lunch time sessions, I did my best to get the wheels moving on my business again. Albeit unavoidably, I’d badly neglected it over the last few weeks, and was grateful to have such understanding partners. There had been enough cash-flow to continue paying my salary, despite my diminished contribution, but momentum was dropping fast and for a business still in start-up phase, that was a bad thing. So I was happy to saddle up with the laptop in bed and get back to it.
Despite my profound aversion for selling, I do have a keen eye for an opportunity. So as long as I wasn’t the rubber that had to go and meet the road – present, negotiate, close (and repeat) – I was more than happy to do the surveillance work and send up flares whenever something flashed potential.
In a suitably ironic way, this new bed-ridden arrangement seemed to work out quite well. It kept me and my mind busy in between the drugs and exercises, and injected some energy back into the business. The down side however, was being exposed again to the urgency of making money, and of course, to the stress it brought that steamed away inside of me.
That’s the dangerous thing about physiological stress. Whether you physically (or emotionally) notice it or not, it’s always there. Turning the screw tighter and tighter. I hadn’t been aware of its presence during the last few weeks. My mind and anxiety had to be directed at things that were right in front me. But as soon as I jumped back on the business horse and consciously exposed myself to spread sheets, targets and P&Ls, the Puppet Master wasted no time in creeping back in. The tightness in the stomach. The whirling of the mind, relentlessly seeking answers to its own deluge of questions. The ever-present sense of irrational urgency to get it all Done. It was a troubling paradox; good to be back contributing to business, bad to have invited stress back into my life at such a delicate time. But ill health or not, bills needed to be paid and mouths needed to be fed. So I did what I could, backing off when it got too much, or if I found myself in a situation that might stretch me too far towards the frontline.
As planned, Emma’s brother Bjorn and his partner Stina soon arrived for a weeks holiday. Their arrival was an exceptional tonic, especially for Emma who was in dire need of some breathing space. And fun! The combination of the Plan and the new routine we developed to follow it, meant I was much less of a burden. For now I only needed help with food, which our Nanny, Nisha was more than happy to help out with, meaning Emma could spend some quality time with her brother.
On reflection, the period of Bjorn’s stay represented the eye of this storm. There was a welcome sense of peace and calm in the villa. The weather was as close to perfect as you can get, and over the next few days, in between beaches, bars and bbq dinners in the garden, our home was filled with a lightness and levity, that we’d all been sorely missing.
The only down side was my ever-decreasing mobility. I’d resigned myself to the fact that I was to be bed ridden for a lengthy spell – doctors orders – but tried to get up every day nonetheless to ‘stretch’ my legs and keep the blood flowing a little. But every day that got harder and harder to do. Despite the rest, exercises and drugs, my lower back was getting worse. Much worse.
The situation finally hit rock bottom two days after Bjorn and Stina arrived. Not long after they, and Emma had left for the beach that day, I began the comically labored process of getting myself up to do my exercises. This was broken down into three stages:
Stage one: The Roll. Carefully rolling on to my left side and sliding my legs round, off the side of the bed.
Stage two: The Lever. Using my left arm to carefully lever myself upright, placing my feet on the floor, and up into the sitting position. Hands taking all the weight so as to avoid placing any pressure on my lower back.
Stage three: The Stand up. Slowly and with immaculate care, making sure the entire maneuver was exercised with the legs, and that my back didn’t tilt a milometer in either direction. The Spasm was always battle ready. The quintessential ‘enemy at the gate.’
Once up, I usually stood for a minute or two to gain my balance, building up enough confidence and courage to set off on whatever task was ahead of me. Using the toilet being the one I relished the least. The more an activity required interactivity with the hands, the less balance and concentration was left over to ensure the back remained uncompromised.
On this particular morning however, things turned worse than I had ever imagined. The Roll and Lever maneuver passed without incident, but when it came to The Stand, half way up to standing, my lower back gave off a major Spasm warning shot. I froze. Spitting fear and sweating mercy. This was a new and dangerously comprising situation. Clearly standing up any further wasn’t an option, but what about sitting down again? I carefully reached out with my right arm to stable myself against the wardrobe, before inching lower myself back down on to the bed. There was less than two feet between my back-side and the duvet, yet it still took about five minutes for me to get it down there. Gratefully, without pain.
“I can’t stand up. I can’t fucking stand up!”
Some truths just can’t be processed. I’d never prepared myself for the unlikely situation of not being able to physically stand up. And yet here I was. Cancel Christmas, Jack!
“How am I going to poo?”; and other typical, worse case scenario questions began darting through my mind.
I tried again several times, but on each occasion I was forced back down by warning shots. Whatever was happening in my lower back, it was now clearly unable to carry the weight of my upper body, and serve its role as my body’s stabilizer.
I lay back down on the bed, devastated. Grabbed my phone and sent Emma the news via sms. Not really sure what she was supposed to do with it, but it was a bleak moment and I needed consolation. There are certain moments that shouldn’t be spent alone; losing your ability to stand up, quite understandably being one.
She replied with a similar tone of disbelief. Truth was, this latest turn of events was going to affect her life probably more than it was going to affect mine. I think she knew it, to. Such is the endless burden of the care giver.
Several hours later, the villa suddenly burst in to life. I must have been asleep as I remember being startled at the noise, jolting up too quickly in bed and setting off a glancing blow from the Spasm (why, yooouuu!)
Emma and Bjorn came in to check-up on me, looking sun-kissed and happy, but also anxious about the recent news. And they came bearing gifts.
After the beach they’d run by a ‘Local’ shop and bought me a pair of walking sticks. I wasn’t sure what to think at first, but in light of my new-found disability, I was grateful for the new additions to my anatomy. We’d prove inseparable over the next few weeks, so as gifts go, they were quite the find.
In the spirit of the occasion, the two stood back as I performed Getting Up maneuvers 1 and 2 in preparation for taking the sticks for an immediate test drive. I must have cut a sorry figure, perched there on the edge of the bed in my jocks. A disheveled version of my former self, fumbling with a pair of cheap walking sticks. I had no idea at all how, or if they were going to work, so I dialed in to the only thing I had, instinct.
Clenching my fists around the top of each stick, I started by planting them firmly on the ground in front me, either side of each foot. Using me legs as usual, I carefully lifted myself half way up, moving gently forward onto the sticks just before the lower back would be required to take any weight. Still slightly tipped over with my elbows bent, I took a ‘very’ deep breath and slowly started to straighten up, keeping all the weight carefully distributed between my new extended arms, and legs. Inch after inch, deep breath after deep breath, eventually I managed to get upright. And reasonably comfortably to, save for the ignominy of balancing on a pair walking sticks in an old pair of boxer shorts!
I looked over at Emma and Bjorn. They smiled back. Lips puffed out in that sort of “we don’t know what the to say either” expression. And nothing was said. There are no words to decorate such an insanely random moment. Yesterday, Emma’s husband could stand up and walk around and go to toilet all on his own. Today, he needed walking sticks. Yeah, you couldn’t write it.
I spent the rest of that day getting comfortable with the new additions to my anatomy. Understanding how to integrate them with as much normality as possible. Gauging their limits and flagging potential black spots. The up-side of the sticks was that I retained a small degree of mobility. The down side was that once up and about, I was entirely reliant on them for protection from the Spasm. One slip, stumble or wrong placement, and boomshanka.
Sadly, the next boomshanka arrived only a few days later. I hadn’t experienced a full-blown Spasm since the MRI catastrophe. Several warning shots, jabs and slaps sure, but nothing like the trauma of its full potential. In fact I had grown quite confident that I might never have to experience it again.
It was the most benign and private of moments, on a quiet Saturday afternoon. My sticks and I had shuffled our way out to the guest toilet, leaving Emma and Ava peacefully embraced in a rare ‘family snooze’ moment. The sheer volume of drugs I was taking was wreaking havoc with some of my bodily systems. The excretory system in particular had aged several decades, cursing me with a level of constipation no-one should ever have to tolerate. Needless to say when the window of opportunity opened, it needed to be jumped through. Regardless of how painful and precarious the impending tussle would inevitably be.
Ever seen a new-born fowl stumble for its footing? Add a blind-fold and some black ice, and you get close to how I and my sticks looked trying to back in to our modest guest toilet that morning. Innocent, clumsy and dreadfully tragic.
After the horror show was over, I soaked up some of the relief, before setting out on the equally clumsy procedure of backing out again of the toilet. As I slowly stood up, I had to reach out to stable myself against the wall next to the toilet. I hadn’t noticed, that the humidity in the bathroom had made the tiles wet. So as I leaned in for support, my hand slipped, and the world blew apart.
It was the tiniest of slips. Not even a few inches, but enough to ignite the biggest Spam so far. Boom-fucking-shanka.
The razor blades dug in and danced maniacally from one end of my pelvis, to other, as well as all up my lower back. All I could do was fall forward and hang on to the edge of Ava’s baby changing table, that was placed against the wall in front me. Hyper-ventilating, panic tears streaming down my face. I don’t think it’s the actual pain that makes us cry in such moments. It’s that acute brand of vulnerability. That fear, frustration, and our human urgency to be freed from the torture of such dark places.
Instinctually I managed to shape my body into a position that would eventually pull the pain back. Breathing heavily and terrified, I stayed there for what seemed like hours. Holding on to the side of the baby table for dear life, hyper-aware of every and any sensation from my stomach down, whilst simultaneously plotting the quickest and safest way back to the sanctuary of the bed.
“Sticks, stand up, unlock, move, shuffle, sit down, lie down, drop sticks, sleep…..come on you can do this.”
45 minutes and approximately 8 meters later, my head finally sunk back into my pillow. Ava looked up over Mother’s shoulder at me, with impossibly perfect, sleepy eyes.
“I’m so sorry darling”; I choked. “I’m so sorry”
She, and I went back to sleep.