Observations of an Accidental Patient

I wasn’t supposed to be a patient. I really, really wasn’t.

It was supposed to be a regular in-and-out job. You know, go home to visit the fam, up the snark ante in the Lombe household, crack several greatly timed, mildly inappropriate jokes no one ever seems to fully appreciate, then head back to my fast-paced, over-crowded, highly polluted, over-priced, regularly unhealthy and occasionally mentally destabilising yet ultimately fulfilling city life with enough Tupperware filled with mum’s cooking to last me until the next in-and-out job. (And rice. All the rice).

So, there I was. Knee-deep in Operation In-and-Out, snark pouring out of my ears, when all of a sudden… Hello, Plot Twist! You sneaky, artful hussy. Before I could even blink an eye (or repeat the glorious phrase “artful hussy”), I’m doubled over in a hospital bed, sharp, searing spasms of pain wreaking havoc on my insides and a highly skilled surgeon with an uncanny resemblance to Andrea Leadsom is about to cut me open. Because, you know. Life.

So, what else to do in a situation like this but distract myself from the worst pain I’ve ever had the misfortune of experiencing by focussing on the ways I could impart all the knowledge I was gaining about this alien, anti-sceptic wonderland I suddenly found myself in? (Disclaimer: whether this knowledge is remotely useful was never the point).

And thus, young Padawan, I now share these tips with you:

1. Sure, when you’re just out of surgery and have nothing but unrelenting pain to occupy your thoughts, the last thing you’re worried about is the way you look. But if you think you’ve got that no-make-up-natural-glow thing going on, you will catch sight of yourself in a mirror at some point. And you’ll crash back into reality so hard, it’ll give that intensely graphic opening scene in The Aviator a run for its money. Because the reality of the look you’re rocking will be a little more akin to that of the misguided fool who just went six rounds in a boxing ring with Mike Tyson (or Anthony Joshua. Pick an era).

2. Following this moment of realisation, a random, ridiculously attractive member of the opposite sex will materialise, for no other reason than because life, much like Tyson or Joshua (seriously, pick an era, pal) is just unrelenting with those perfectly placed punches to your abdominal region.

3. People will swim across oceans, travel through deserts and slay dragons to come and see you, and you may feel like the star of a show. But your ability to converse will be nonexistent, morphine will be the only companion you seek, and not a single snark-tinged comment will leave your lips. So, yes, you will be the star; the main act in a circus show without tricks. Queue the booing crowd with their perfectly ripened tomatoes. (How does this concept work, anyway? Would the crowd go to the vegetable market as a collective? Each take their pick of the juiciest tomatoes on the day? Or did everyone just carry out-of-date veg in their bags any time they left their homes – forever ready to strike whenever something sub-par happened? No one in history has really gone into the logistics of tomato-throwing, and these are the questions that keep me up at night).

4. I hereby declare the single piece of toast myth to be real! It’s real, I tell you! Seen with my very own eyes. This offensive act whereby one is offered only a single piece of toast occurs in dark corners of the world, like joyless homes. And hospital wards.

5. The topic of the soup of the day will be debated with a ferocity only comparable to the likes of early season one Paris Geller (Yes, I’ve been rewatching Gilmore Girls. Thank you, Netflix).

6. One day – I’m not sure when, I’m not sure how, and I’m certainly not sure why, but one day – someone will come along and put too much milk in your cereal. Forgive them, for they know not what they do.

7. Hospital wards don’t mess around when it comes to the ill and disabled and their right to copious amounts of caffeine. Their tea and coffee game is on point. This will be the single greatest gift from the heavens.

8. You may have to relearn how to walk. It will suck. (We’re talking Lorelai marrying Christopher because the writers clearly lost their damn minds – that level of suck). Whilst your legs are still out of action, there will be a guy assigned to wheel you around the grounds. You will soon notice that this guy who wheels you around will be so unnaturally chipper – seemingly about everything – that it will throw you into one of the most heated internal dialogues you’ve ever had with yourself. The topic up for debate – Is He Man or Cartoon? (As I write this, results still inconclusive).

9. There will be a Resident Crazy Old Lady in your ward. Watch her. She will provide some of the best hours of entertainment you could ever hope to experience.

10. If you feel like getting lost in an easy, fun, uplifting film one night, for the love of God, don’t choose Me Before You. You will find almost everything about it impossibly problematic.

11. Other patients might mistake your mum for an on-call nurse and think you’re receiving preferential treatment. They will all hate you and likely dedicate their time to sticking needles into handknitted voodoo dolls of you. (Sure, Barbara, you might be pushing 85, but hey, come at me, bro).

12. Never will there ever be as epic a battle seen than that between you and the stairs; forever known as “The Great Climb”. Songs will be written about it. Public holidays will be named after it. Monuments will be built as a result of it. This will be the single greatest challenge of your life. Only once you’ve conquered this – and only then – can you finally become a Jedi.

13. The last tip comes in retrospect. When the jokes are done, and the armour comes off, and the sun sets to signal the end of yet another day, you’ll know one thing with a resounding certainty – you’re alive. Despite the bad films, and the voodoo dolls and the metaphorical Mike Tysons, you’re still around. Because you’re surrounded by an incredible support system of people ready to move mountains for you. Because you’re lucky enough to live in a part of the world where you can walk into a place with broken parts and safely get put back together. (Like Kwikfit, with no added costs).

I guess, from time to time, we get reminders of our own mortality. These might come in the form of plot twists. Maybe that’s all they really are. Reminders that we’re not invincible.

Reminders that, even so, we’ll keep taking those punches.

Reminders that, each time, we’ll rise back up.

So, rise.

 

– Bx.

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My year with PTSD

My name’s Bene. I’m in my twenties, and a happy member of the not-yet-disillusioned-20-somethings club. I’ll probably keep believing we can be anything and do anything until life chains me to a tree, repeatedly punches me in the neck and forces me to submit. But until then…

I want to talk about something that’s a little more personal than I’m used to. Because what the hell. At our most basic, we’re all just souls living our lives on the same planet constantly seeking reminders that we’re still alive. And I think it’ll be good for me. And maybe it’ll be good for you, too. Who knows.

But here goes.

Last year was my official introduction to PTSD. My previous knowledge of this pretty much extended to an image of some scene in some movie where some (probably ex-army) guy returns home, laden with the horrors of some awful war. You know, big, epic, dramatic.

Mine was neither epic nor dramatic. The moment itself, I mean, not the trauma – never things to be weighed up against each other. I remember it well, actually. I’d come into my room and found an old box filled with things I’d kept as memories from many years gone. I remember opening the box and looking through these things. And I remember sinking to the floor and sobbing.

And that was it.

No guns or explosions or bloodshed. No screams or loud sounds or hurrying feet or ticking clocks. Just me and a box and the painful silence of my tiny room. I had literally opened Pandora’s Box.

And I knew it.

I left then. I was just about to graduate and like many at the same stage, anticipated at least a few months of indecision and doubt as a not-yet-disillusioned-20-something (a dangerous thing) about to carve out a career in the big bad world. But I’d made the decision to take time out from writing and performing and spend the next year learning the tricks of the trade from the people who do it best. I was pretty lucky, as fate would have it; days before graduating I’d moved to London, started the soul-sucking yet ultimately satisfying task of house-hunting and working for an incredible company who inspired me and gave me free-reign with my fashion risks. In my book, things couldn’t be peachier.

But of course, Pandora’s Box. Not so peachy.

I’d actually done a pretty impressive job of forgetting by keeping busy. But as can only be expected from a creepy little metaphorical box containing all the evils of the world, I was about to get an unwelcome reminder.

This started happening around the end of the year/beginning of the next. It was a seemingly slow unravelling. But once it began, it felt like everything was coming undone all at once. At first I’d put it down to work – general stress, tiredness, the fact that living in London on standard to minimum wage might be someone’s idea of a sick joke. But soon I knew there was something else at play.

I’d always had a lot of the right friends. In the sense that, they were always people I respected, who inspired me, believed in me and my abilities with an unfaltering – sometimes intimidating, most times humbling – faith. They were the people who believed that I could change the world, even in some small way, and this propelled me to be the best version of myself.

Now, PTSD, I began to learn, was like having a close friend around who did the exact and total opposite of that. One who unrelentingly convinces you day after day that you were the worst version of yourself and everything around you, all the bad things happening, was a direct result of that. That’s because PTSD ran with a crew; Irritability, Insomnia, Lack of Concentration and Random Feelings of Isolation, to name a few. So, naturally, I became acquainted with two of its other friends – Depression and Low Mood. We all met up and had a little pity party; lousy company, lots of biscuits. The whole shebang.

Now, my knowledge of depression was pretty limited, too. I thought I knew, but really I didn’t. I’d always applauded every tentative step towards opening up a dialogue on depression and mental illness – as a society, it feels like we’re finally going in the right direction – so this was something I’d always had an interest in, just as a sympathising human being. Dealing with it directly, of course, you quickly realised that intellectualising it is one thing; going through the motions is something else entirely.

This was so incredibly strange to me, because I’m someone who really, truly loves life. Just the feeling of being alive. I love it, I crave it, I want to eat it and breathe it and sleep it. All of it; the joy and the pain and the highs and the lows – is something that has always been so beautiful in its contradictions, so intricately simple, and so very, very exciting to me. But suddenly it seemed like all the things that got my blood pumping were fading. Suddenly everything I hungered for and was inspired by and felt fiercely and astoundingly passionate about was now replaced by a dull ache. Suddenly everything I had come to know as all the bits that made me who I was had been tippex-ed over a thousand times and I truly felt like I was that ink underneath that had been drowned; trapped under a sticky white mess with no escape in sight.

Now, I’m pretty claustrophobic. Just that imagery itself makes me mildly claustrophobic. But knowing you’re drowning and simultaneously walking around with this façade of having it all together is a pretty dangerous juggling act – even for a lover of the stage. It just becomes a matter of when the mask will begin to slip. Most of the time, I was good at it. I think it helps when you’re a performer. But I knew the cracks were there – and with time, they began to show.

My health, which had been slowly deteriorating, cranked up the volume and nose-dived like there was no tomorrow. I’d never been great when it came to my own health – to the (mostly) amused frustration of my friends. But I’d always been pretty aware of when I needed to straighten out and really take care of myself. Only this time, it was like having a thick fog in your mind, and putting your hands out to feel your way through to the other side but not being able to move your feet because you’re stuck in quicksand. And you’re sinking.

And you can’t press the panic button.

Because you broke it.

Overrode the system. I think that’s a good metaphor for the experience as a whole.

I remember there was a lot of internal panicking. Which was odd for me when I tried to rationalise it.

I decided to look at the facts: young, early 20s, intelligent, black female who works in theatre and is going to write plays. I then started to think in the broader spectrum of creative arts in London. Now, London’s a funny one for me. I’ve lived in many (many, many) places, and London is by far the most diverse in population. And yet, I looked at the arts and wondered – where is that representation of diversity? Where are all the black actors and stage managers and lighting designers? Where are the directors and the producers and the writers? Where are those story tellers? Thousands of stories from cultures and experiences and perspectives that haven’t even begun to be touched on. Endless viewpoints we haven’t really begun to present. And I wanted to present them. Those stories and those experiences and those viewpoints. There has been movement towards this, but it’s never happening fast enough. And I had every intention to be right there, putting the pressure on alongside all the campaigners and advocates for increased diversity, carving a new path in the arts.

Perhaps it seems I’ve gone on an tangent, but I wanted to convey the things that I knew in my soul I wanted – and was going – to do. Now going back to the fog and the quicksand and the system overload: there would be days where just getting up and having a shower would be a huge accomplishment. And not even in a sarcastic way – I mean the psychological obstacle course I’d have to complete to get to that point on some days, was unlike anything I had ever experienced. I don’t live with depression, so I can’t really begin to express what having days like this throughout your life would be like. But with experiencing a similar state for a good part of a year, I’ve begun to understand it a little. And I have nothing but the highest regard for anyone living with it and the strength that they somehow continue to muster every day.

I started CBT, which – weirdly – I’d always wanted to try before this fog-quicksand-overload business. I  think the basis of Cognitive Behavioural Therapy would be such an impacting experience for all human beings; the concept of getting to the root of how you are the way your are, events and experiences that have influenced your thought-process, actions, way of life. I love it. Straight up my street.

Or at least that’s how I treated it when the sessions began. I’d always been uncomfortable with the idea of being in a room with one other person and knowing you’re not going to be the most perceptive person in that room. So believing this open, friendly-faced woman with trusting eyes and an understanding air was simply satisfying my curiosity made it easier for me to deal with. She humoured me. Because, of course, she was the most perceptive person in the room.

It took a long time for me to get to that stage (figuratively and literally, London waiting times are a nightmare). And once I finally was there, it took many more months to start applying what I was learning about myself and the way my body and mind were reacting, and actually start digging myself out of the deep hole I’d stumbled into.

It’s an incredible thing – learning about your mind to fight against your mind. You don’t realise how easy it is to mistreat yourself and poison your own thoughts. Perfection becomes an obsession; partly the masochism of knowing you can never obtain it, but still beating yourself up when that happens. Your mind becomes a battle field. It’s the most intense, vicious cycle of self-destruction.

Ultimately, it was a journey of self-discovery in the truest sense. I usually grit my teeth when I hear people say that, but I can’t think of a better way to describe it. Identifying your deepest flaws and celebrating your greatest strengths. For myself, I’d put self-reliance in both categories. It’s a tricky balance – never letting yourself get to a point where you can’t ask for help. And being able to dig yourself out of the rubble when the bricks fall down.

If you’re reading this, whether you’ve been through similar experiences or whether you’re just another human being with your own intricacies and great strengths and flaws: you are so important and you are intricately beautiful. I write this so you hear it in your head in your own voice. And remember to repeat this to yourself as many times as you need to. Believe me when I say it goes a very long way.

Usually, when I look on last year, I’d easily remember a great city, a great job, incredible friends and some unbelievable opportunities. Everything else that was going on with me internally might get the occasional, somewhat weary mention. Almost like a footnote.

Now I look back on that experience as the bulk of the novel. Stands out by a mile.

Because that was the year I learned how to properly love myself.

And it may just be the best year of them all.

– B.

Memoir Madness