I think it’s fair to say it’s been a rough year. I’ve felt the razor cut of physical and emotional pain at a level far deeper than my previous dark imaginings. I’ve been confronted with the imminent possibility of my own death, then wandered lost in that unique and surreal fog of sorrow that descends when you lose the person you love most in the world.
If this Universe is also our university, then I feel like I’ve passed an important exam and should get a certificate or a badge, because – despite all the heart-shattering turbulence over the past twelve months – I’m still here, living and breathing and filled with potential.
As some of you who follow me from Socialmediashire will know, I suffered a collapsed lung last October. That diagnosis was actually good news, because I thought the excruciating pain in my chest was a heart attack, but as the medics attempted to surgically insert a drain tube, to help reflate the lung – which should have been a very simple procedure, apparently – there were a few mishaps that set in motion a much more serious threat to my life.
Later in the evening, lying in a hospital bed (in a hospital), I noticed the left side of my chest was beginning to swell. I mentioned it to the nursing staff and it was hypothesised that it was ‘surgical emphysema’ – when air leaks from the lungs and into the tissue around the chest and neck, which often happens after surgery, hence the name – but I’d had that before, when I was in my early twenties, and there was a completely different feel to my skin. With surgical emphysema, there’s a ‘crackle’… like hundreds of tiny layers of bubble wrap popping when you press against it… but with this, it was firm, like muscle.
An hour or so after that, I literally had a boob like Pamela Anderson. Also, the morphine I’d been given before the third botched attempt to insert the drain tube, when I was admitted, was wearing off, and I felt agonising, paralysing physical pain for the first time in my life. I couldn’t move an inch in that bed without wanting a vet to burst in with a shotgun and do the humane thing.
It was late at night and, even when I managed to get the attention of one of the nurses (I’m too English to shout out), it took a short eternity for her to summon a doctor to see me, so he could authorise my pain relief. In that intervening time, I was seriously considering phoning an ambulance. Really.
My new lady breast turned out to be a massive haematoma. The minor surgery, earlier on, had ruptured some vessels in my ribs and the whole left side of my chest cavity was filling with blood.
I was transferred to Harefield Hospital – a specialist heart and lung unit on the outskirts of London – and the ambulance that took me actually did the whole flashing lights and sirens thing. As much as I found that rather impressive and exciting, it did make me ponder that I may have some sort of time bomb priming itself in my chest, ready to go off at any moment. I mean, when I see an ambulance blaze past me with strobing lights and blaring sirens, I’m thinking that there’s some poor bastard in the back, close to death… so it really does feels quite odd to be confronted by the realisation that, today, you’re the poor bastard in the back.
It was so strange to be visited by the surgeon and his team, as well as the registrar, who talked me through the post-operative pain-killing options and explained that I was about to undergo very serious surgery. It was a genuinely life-threatening operation and I was already far weaker than perhaps I forced myself to believe.
I also had in mind the recent passing of my childhood friend, Mandy, who had died on the operating table – in her very early 40s - from internal bleeding, which was essentially what I was experiencing. My blood, and lots of it, was in the wrong place, and I’m sure most doctors and nurses would agree that’s generally a bad thing.
On the trolley, just outside the swing doors of the operating theatre, the anaesthetist began to slowly press the plunger of the syringe and I knew there was a unreasonably large possibility that those final few seconds before the anaesthetic kicked in could actually be my last on this Earth.
Of course, I tried to fight the effect. Not, though, because I was afraid, but because I felt sure I could at least make it to the count of ten before I blacked out. I don’t think I made it to 8.
I woke up and it was as though there were snowdrops falling from a void, forming bright shapes and curious creatures that I didn’t recognise for a while as fellow human beings. I was whacked up on some of the poshest drugs you could imagine, lying in the High Dependency Unit, my ex-girlfriend stroking my hand and probably nodding and smiling at me as I talked nonsense.
In the 24-hours previous, I hadn’t been allowed to eat or drink, in preparation for the surgery. The thirst was almost unbearable. I’d been sweating so much from the pain and the most I could do was take a sip of water and swirl it around my mouth, then spit it out again. It was momentary relief, like throwing water onto baking desert sand.
I thought I’d be able to gulp down long, cool glasses of water when I came to, but then came the badder news… that this operation had only allowed them to evacuate the blood already in the wrong place, and they’d have to perform a second bout of surgery the next day to fix the problem properly. They’d left a pack inside me, to help them identify where the bleeding was coming from, and the pressure and pain in my chest was immense… and I still wasn’t allowed to have more than a tease of a drink.
On the plus side, during the first operation, they also surgically implanted a morphine pump, which allowed me to self-medicate either when I needed to, or every three minutes, which turned out to be the same duration.
Before going into theatre a second time, I asked the anaesthetist to wait for a few seconds before he hit the plunger. I had a moment of reconciliation. I didn’t think I was going to survive round two. At that instant, I feel as though I stared death in the face and recognised there was simply nothing to fear about it. I was ready, and I told the patient anaesthetist to carry on. I don’t think I reached the count of five that time.
Of course, I survived, but it was far too close to the edge a few times along the way, and when recuperating from such an event in life – especially when it’s the first time you’re shown that, actually, no, you’re not invincible after all – there’s a psychological, as well as physical battle involved as you move along the road to recovery.
Just as I felt as though I was climbing out of the mental snake pit of my own calamity, my Mum’s health began to deteriorate. She went into hospital on New Year’s Day and never came out again, passing away on the 17th March. My heart was shattered.
I’ve survived, though, despite the fact it wasn’t too long ago I would have put the money on me having bought myself a farm within a week of my Mum dying. It was the event I feared most in my life… the unfathomable… and to some extent it remains and always will remain unfathomable. Death messes with the mind, however at peace you are with your own mortality.
I’m stronger than I thought I would be. The arrow may still be at ‘Lardster’ on my ‘Manfoxication Ambition Chart’, but I’ve developed a great deal of psychological and spiritual muscle through enduring these trials and I feel much more prepared to confront the challenges to come.
And my life is collapsing. It hasn’t collapsed yet. It’s an ongoing process that I’ve just got to endure. Both my Dad and my eldest brother nearly knock, knock, knocked on heaven’s door during the past couple of months; my kitties are all ageing and not long of this world, and it’s more than likely that I’ll be kicked out of this house in the medium-term future… the house I was brought to from hospital, when I was a big-boned baby… with the garden all my beloved menagerie of pets are buried, including my beautiful Itchy and the legendary Mr Mouser. The thought haunts me that their resting place could be desecrated by the new tenant’s desire to put a patio over the grass. In fact, if we lost this place, we’d have to get my cats adopted. That would rip me apart.
Yet, amidst all this tumultuous change, I feel fortunate that I’ve been able to practice what I preach, in regard to present awareness. Absolutely, though, I haven’t always been a perfect picture of peace and calm. I still wake up crying and I still have days when I plunge into emotional air pockets; I’ve been petulant and pissed off at the world and certain people in it, but compared to my pre-awakening days, I’m pushing through this like a champ.
What’s to come is a fleeting fear and I can lead myself out of that, even if it takes a little time. What’s behind is beyond my control, and if I fall into sadness, I re-emerge swiftly. I’m a human being, not some ‘bullet-proof guru’ and that understanding, flexibility and patience with myself is cool with me. I’ve come a long way.
I’ve got to lay the path out of this chaos by working hard, pushing myself further than I ever have before and developing my writing. I’m humbled by how much my words appear to help others, and that’s the burning passion at the heart of me. If there is such thing as a destiny, then I believe the work I’ve been doing over the past couple of years is a major part of mine, and the naysayers are just going to have to talk to my hand while I get on with it.
I never thought I’d have the peace of heart to say it, but life really does go on.