It’s a strange time of year for anyone who’s had a difficult time of it in the last twelve months. The culture expects and demands jollity and it often feels like being sprayed with a layer of fake cream.
For me it’s been additionally difficult as this time last year I was in intensive care and critically ill. This Christmas it’s just been a very bad cold and cough and I’ve kept to my bed.
The worst thing has been the flashbacks from last year; I only half remember most of it; the drift into semi-consciousness, the ambulance, A and E, intensive care and then various wards. The problem is that there’s no coherent narrative, I only remember bits of it and it’s as though my psyche is trying to make sense of it all. So as soon as I try and sleep the flashbacks begin, over and over, always the same, with lots of bits missing. Always with the sense of life-threatening urgency.
Friends and relatives have filled me in on various bits that they witnessed, but the timeline doesn’t quite work, there are huge chunks of days missing. Somehow I need to know what happened to be able to finally put it to rest.
But on and on they continue, not helped by the high temperature of a bad cold. I kept my phone by the bed, not sure if I was once again going to develop sepsis and not be aware of it until it was (nearly) too late. Even thought of calling an ambulance one afternoon after particularly nasty flashbacks/hallucinations.
After three nights of not sleeping until gone three, I decided to revert to the trusty sleeping tablets. Magic, take one and ten minutes later you’re in a deep sleep. Still getting the flashbacks as I fall asleep, but at least they don’t last.
Playback and rewind.
It’s been a week since I put my nose outside the door, today I went to have a coffee with a friend. The first few minutes outside were very weird, my familiar street and neighbourhood seemed completely alien, as though I had just landed from another planet.
The sense of dislocation is familiar, happens whenever I go away for a few days or weeks, it’s strange that the neighbourhood continues on without me. So it would always take me a few days of re-entry after a holiday to regain my habits. But dislocation from illness is strange in a different way – the ten minute walk to the coffee shop seemed to take forever, I’m rusty with judging the lights, nervous of falling, awkward with choosing and paying for something to eat.
Planet illness is a strange place, which I’ve had to get used to in the last year, but it’s a while since I was confined to quarters and there’s something comforting and secure about not leaving the house. Slippery slope that one though.
So I had coffee and the world gradually returned to its pretty normal axis. Dropped by the supermarket and the cashier said he hadn’t seen me for ages – we talked about colds and how he gives people who sneeze and cough over him a beady look. Bumped into a couple of other people I know who wished me a happy new year.
Happy to get home in one piece with paper and a mountain of cards from friends far and wide. Realised that I do belong here after all. Back on the planet and relieved that the natives seem to understand me.
I’ve never been much of a monarchist, unlike the French side of the family, who are avid for any morsel of royal news and believe that because I live in the capital, I must know all the comings and goings.
But like Her Maj, I have had the most terrible Christmas cold and neither of us made it to church on Christmas day. The thing with colds is that they seem to last forever, different stages of temperature and shivering, sleepless nights and lack of appetite.
This time last year I was in intensive care (though not with a cold) and in my feverish state I kept wondering if it was working up to a repeat performance and whether I should call an ambulance before I became unconscious again. That’s the trouble with being seriously ill, the normal side dishes of colds take on a drama all of their own.
After nearly a week in bed, I finally got dressed today for the first time and a good pal came over with some supplies and great conversation. So I’m well on the mend.
Apart from the hallucinations and high fever, the telly has been not half bad, although my ongoing addiction to 24hours in A and E may soon require professional help. The only other odd thing is my cough – it’s not a human sound at all, more like a hyena barking and once it starts, has a life all of its own.
This time last year I was in an ambulance heading towards intensive care, seriously ill. The good friend who called the ambulance and came with me happened to come to dinner last night and I wanted to go over the story with her. The thing is, I was only semi-conscious for several days before she found me and have no memory of the previous twenty four hours, other than falling out of bed at one point (took me several hours to get up) and desperately thirsty, going to the kitchen for elderflower cordial, which happened to be sitting there. I know it was the cordial, because my brother later came to get me some clothes and said the kitchen was completely sticky from where I had missed the glass over and over again.
It never occurred to me to phone for help, I just wanted to sleep. Eventually the daughter of said friend, who was coming to dinner, raised the alarm when she couldn’t get an answer from me and the police had to break in. I didn’t even hear them banging the door, other than as a distant drum.
She filled in some of the blanks, which was somehow reassuring. it’s odd to only vaguely remember flashes of what was a life-threatening situation. I do remember the kindness of the paramedics but had completely forgotten my shortness of breath and low blood pressure. More than anything I just wanted to sleep. But fortunately they gently insisted on hospital, thereby saving my life.
I’ve felt a bit discombobulated these last few days, as though history might repeat itself and every twinge has been a source of nervous questioning.
Fine now though and today is the shortest day. Great to be going towards the light.
Pre-Christmas clean and it brings surprises as ever. Not just the things that have been hiding behind the sofa for several months or the books I have been meaning to read gathering into a tottering pile. Paper seems to be everywhere in these days of paperless offices and each one needs sorting into a pile. Or in my case, fending off the decision until next clear out, put in a drawer somewhere.
Still the cards are up, decorations wait until Christmas Eve. A family habit from the French side of the family; we liked Christmas very much, but didn’t believe it should last beyond the twelve days. So food and presents in advance, but decorations and crib up on Christmas Eve and taken down for the Epiphany.
I’m not particularly set in my ways (ha!) but this time of year brings out the family traditions that one has absorbed without noticing. What, when and how we eat. Where and if we go to church. Who we invite to share (in our family it was extended relations and various neighbours who were alone), even what telly we watch, Queen’s speech or not, (half the family would watch and the republicans would huddle in the kitchen eating chocolate) precise timing of trip down the pub and walks.
And I’ve just discovered that applies to tidying too. I picked up a t-shirt from the floor and gave it a shake, or rather a snap and instantly remembered the sounds of Mum and her French relatives doing the same. It’s a particular sound that took me back to childhood and made me grin.
When did the fortnight before Christmas become a series of interrogations rather than just normal conversation? I’ve lost count of the number of people asking me if I’ve finished my Christmas shopping, sent all my cards or what I’m doing for the Christmas season.
Not just concerned friends, but complete strangers at bus stops, the cashier at the till in the supermarket, my normally morose newsagent. Poses a bit of an ethical dilemma. Last Christmas I was in intensive care with one foot in the hereafter. So Christmas this year is going to be (I hope) a delightfully low key event with no blue flashing lights, no arterial lines or blood transfusions.
So no cards, no presents, except for the children in my life and very little Christmas shopping. I’ll go to midnight Mass, come home and scoff some mince pies, might even stretch to a piece of toast or two. Then a long lie in, reading, the odd smoked salmon sandwich and Christmas telly. Phone my nearest and dearest. And that’s it.
I’ve always liked my own company and Christmas is no exception. I’ve taken to lying to all the people who would like to invite me to their celebrations, which I’m sure would be full of jollity, but which are really not my idea of fun. So I just say I’m already booked. It’s not that I’m not grateful, it’s just that I’ve reached a stage in life when I know what I want and after this past year need more of it.
Mind you there’s no accounting for the surprises this year continues to bring. Yesterday I went to see a very good friend sing in a choir which gave us an evening of traditional carols from all over the country, including medieval ones. It was delightful. There were even some Morris dancers. I was in the front row and had to move out of the way sharpish when one came past and rattled her staff a bit too close to my skull.
Now that would have been a terrific end to a terrible year.
Ah but it was glorious to visit my old life today – spent the day training and it went very well. But it was all the extras that I miss most, feeling agency in the world, popping out at lunch time like everyone else to get something to eat, getting the latest office gossip. And I miss teaching like a much needed blood transfusion, not just being good at it and passing on my skills, but interacting with people, witnessing the light bulb moments, just being in the classroom.
However lovely it was to visit, I also need to acknowledge that life has pretty much gone, I no longer have the strength or energy for full time work. Though I feel pretty energised at the end of a very long day, I know tomorrow is unpredictable.
But what I did understand today is that I have been inhabited by all the losses of the past year. Not surprising I know, since my life has changed radically and I have to learn to live with serious illness. The accumulation of losses has knocked me down like a giant wave at the beach, so that I’ve somehow become the losses, rather than just experiencing them. There comes a point when you no longer have the strength or capacity to struggle against the undertow.
As I was sitting in Pret at lunchtime today, just like everyone else, eating a sandwich, looking at my texts and keeping an eye on the time before going back to work, I realised that I can’t continue being inhabited by the losses, great though they are.
Time to try and start living again.