Sometimes, you sit down to write with the weight of a deadline approaching pressing on you like the throngs on the train on a Monday morning. You’re trying to keep some personal space, but aware of it all the same.
Now, I’m not writing for an agent, or for some publishing deadline, that kind of pressure is a little bit off in my future (or so I’m hoping), no, I’m preparing for my final exam in my first course in Creative Writing as part of my University Degree. I realise this may be improper use of capitals there for University Degree, but this is a big deal and I’ve been studying for a long time! As I work full-time, am a Mummy and a Mrs, I can only do my degree part-time through the Open University here in the U.K. – a great opportunity, but it just takes so long.
So, I have decided to write a collection of four poems, each twenty lines or less about my last experience of being in hospital. Due to an ongoing condition called hemiplegic migraine, I get to visit the local hospital and check out the latest scenery and food once every couple of years or so.
I have drafted the two poems that focus on experiences whilst in hospital and I now need to write about my experience of an attack coming on and going into hospital and then my discharge from hospital and re-connection to the real world. However, every time I have come to sit down and write recently, it just won’t flow – possibly my first experience of writers block.
Thus, I have decided to spill all my thoughts onto the page here about the frustration of being up against it in literary terms in the hope that will produce a stir and wake up the little dormouse known as creativity that has chosen now, of all times, to go into hibernation.
As part of my course, we have been taught that a freewrite is the best starting point for a new project. Does anyone agree with this? Does anyone have any other suggestions?
So, regarding the first poem of the sequence and the first part of the experience, here goes with the freewrite….watch for any crazy bits and very tenuous connections….if there are any!
Freewrite – section one
A normal day, busy with the sound of the phones at the office still ringing in my ears as I drive away to collect my children. The last thing I did at work was talk about the suitcases I was lending from my boss. I was putting them on the back seat as she pointed out the various dents and scuffs cataloguing the numerous journeys abroad these cases had made. I work about six-seven minutes’ drive from home. My childminder lives about four minutes drive’ from the office. I drove the usual route home. I can’t remember if I had to wait at the only set of lights on my route. I usually do. As I approached the crest of the hill, I felt my face start to tingle and I couldn’t feel the tip of my nose. When I say tingle I mean that pins and needle feeling you get as blood floods back into your arm when you’ve been leant on it too long – that first sensation before it gets a bit too tingly. So, I took these signals to mean a migraine, the normal monthly type, was on its way. Marvellous.
Then, as I came over the crest of the hill and signalled left to turn onto the road my childminder lives on, I could feel the left side of mouth slowly, but definitely, begin to droop. I became acutely aware of something going wrong and as I looked in the rearview mirror, the effects of the hemiplegic migraine slamming into my brain were all too evident.
Snapshots now. Parked at Vicky’s. Called Mike, my husband. “Come home now, I don’t feel good. My face is falling fast”. Autopilot kicking in. Speak to Vicky who immediately spots my droopy mouth – that’s not a good sign. My left facial weaken every month when I have a migraine, but usually only Mike and I notice. Brush off her concern – just a migraine coming on. Collect the boys – baby Edmund – nearly one years old and big boy Howard – seven years old. Drive down hill. Turn onto drive. Don’t remember in between. There’s a roundabout on my route, a mini one, don’t know how I navigated it. There are many little holes, little details, eaten away by the seismic activity going on in my head, that have never been quite filled in. Howard scared, but calm. Seen this before. Edmund crying and crying, tired. Call NHS Direct for advice – they can hear in my speech that my droopy face is getting in the way. Ambulance on the way. I sit on the sofa nursing my baby until he falls asleep. Ambulance arrives. Then Mike. I can’t talk properly. Is this a stroke I wonder idly. Later, I find out it’s called expressive dysphasia (http://medical-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/dysphasia).
I can think coherently, but then the thoughts get to my mouth and hit treacle. I speak so slowly and loudly, stuttering, uttering noises. Panic rises because I know this is bad, the worse attack since being diagnosed some seven years before. Each attack has been worse than the last with a new symptom making its’ presence felt.
Ambulance comes. Baby is stripped away from me by Mike and he wakes crying. Strangers in bright coats taking Mummy away. Hungry now for his tea and milk. Howard stands mute. I see all this, but somehow slightly removed as I lose control of the situation. I feel my body giving in to the onslaught as one spasm after another wipes away crucial synaptic paths, washed away in a tsunami of pain. I am carried along with the tide away from the hub of my family trying to communicate instructions for my bewildered and frightened loved ones.
Within twenty minutes of chatting aimlessly with my boss about holidays and work, I have been rendered almost incapable and am on my way in an ambulance to hospital. Sirens flashing. Form filling. Pulse Check. Oxygen Check. BP Check. Body Strapped in. Coherent Thought has checked out for the indeterminable future. Tears leak unbidden. I only feel them on the right side of my face.
Too bright too bright I long to yell, but my frustration and my inability, stretch out those two syllables, those two words far longer than necessary, like chewing gum around a kid’s finger or cheese from that first slice of hot pizza you raise to your hungry mouth.
More bright white lights. Too cold. So much pain now where none was before. I want to go, drift away to another shore. No. I don’t, I’ve got to stay here, my mind wants to go. Too tired. Too tired to fight now. Finally, Mike comes. They’re going to give me a sumatriptan injection. I tell them no, the triptans are no good for me. They don’t listen. Or don’t they understand? Have I become unintelligible? A quiet dark corner. Mike arrives just after the injection. He holds my hand patient as I tell him I said no. He understands or says he does. Confusion mixes, the drug takes a hold. I hate it, a burning heat rushes up my chest. I wrestle with the covers as if trying to crawl away from this beast of burden. I said no I said no. He never let’s go of my hand. Eyes glazing over. I try to hang on “Mike I don’t like it, what is it doing to me. I don’t like it”. A drug-induced sleep falls on me dark and heavy and I sink into a darkness so black, no dreams venture in. I know he tried to make me laugh before. He had spoken with my boss Carol, to bring her up to speed and she also tried the humourous approach “Caroline and one of her headaches then. Right”. Let eye-rolling commence.
I wake. My boys, where are my boys? A circuit board fried in need of repair. A computer rendered to useless by virus. So sluggish. No concept of time. Mike, still there, holding my hand and stroking my head. Has been two hours. Reassuring, but his eyes tight with fright, belaying the truth in his heart. Then, he is leaving me, to relieve whoever he drafted in and go home to bed.
Disruption. The epicentre of the seismic activity – me. The waves rippling out cause disruption lessening with distance. The less of a connection to me, then less of a disruption. My husband, my boys, my sister, my Nana – first level – distraught, frightened, brave. My boss Carol, my childminder Vicky, my friend Tracey – level two – worried, but conservatively positive. This has happened before. I’ll be fine. How bad can it be? Colleagues, neighbours, other family – level three – worried in a vague kind of way. “In hospital you say – well she’ll be fine in a couple of days”. Kind, well-meaning offers of help come Mike’s way. I don’t know if he took any up.
It took several weeks to remember what I had even worn that day. I was in hospital just over two weeks. After the first onslaught, I stayed one night, came home for one night, then was back in again. Whilst waiting to be seen, I sat solitary in the waiting room watching as the room slowly dissolved into varying shades of blue and white with every straight edge rippling and waving as if being baked by high noon sun at the height of summer. Every last vestige of energy was seeping out of me into an invisible puddle onto the floor. Two women came in to talk about their mother who was a patient. One gave the other news of their mother’s condition, upon receipt of which she collapsed in an epileptic fit. “Come on, come on, get out, you cannot witness this”. One nurse said to me.
I sat with seeming resoluteness with tears streaming down my cheeks. However had I tried, I couldn’t move out of the chair. All my attempts were futile, so they turned the chair around, my feet dragging listlessly sideways, to give the epileptic some privacy and to avoid giving me any distress. Distress! Distress! As much as it was unfortunate for the lady on the floor, I was going through some brain-spasming induced hallucination that was disrupting my vision and removing my very basic functions. I know I felt angry momentarily and then so terrified because the paralysis in my left side was so absolute.
Then, it’s my turn. Onto a bed. A kind nurse holds my hand in comfort the whole time. My right hand. I confess to her that I’m trying to be brave for everyone, but it’s such a struggle. I know she said something kind and comforting that did actually help, but I will never remember. Doctors come. Tests for movement. Move your arm, move your toes, make a fist, smile, blow out your cheeks, raise your eyes, lift up your leg. Nothing, nada, nil response. A stick is dragged up my foot to test for reflex. They may as well have just run down the wall at the side of my bed for a better response. It’s weekend, so no scans til Monday. My brain may well have just packed up and left town, but nothing can be done about it until Monday. Rest Mrs. Batson. We will get you a bed. So noisy in here. I need to go to the toilet. I can’t reach my call button. I wait and wait. I can’t get up. I can’t talk properly. The ridiculousness of the situation causes a kind of mad hysteria to set in, bubbles of crazy rise to the surface in my mind. My mind, is this my only companion now, now I’m no longer coherent. I’m not going to wet myself. That is not happening. I’ve lost most of my faculties, but I’m not letting my body quit altogether. I focus on this non-event and nothing else. The kind nurse, with light auburn hair and an even lighter Scottish accent, or am I just assuming things here, comes to see me to apologise for the delay in getting me a bed on the ward. My mind actually speaks to me, “quick tell her, tell her now, you’re not going to hold on much longer!” I think I must actually be losing my mind and this what it feels like to descend into madness. I can’t dwell on this. “Toilet!”. The word comes out loud, interrupting her, demanding attention as it is stretched almost out of understanding. “TTT-Toyyyy-lll-lllehhhhtttsssh”. Momentarily, I think she doesn’t get it. She doesn’t understand, but then unperturbed and still smiling, she says “I’ll be back in a few moments.” Then curtains whipped round, two nurses lift me onto a commode and then we wait. I droop like a wilted tulip to the left and the kind nurse leans in to help me sit straight. ‘What happened to my jeans?’, I wonder idly as I wait for nature and gravity to work their magic. Then a feeling, yes I could feel the pressure in my bladder ebbing away as I heard myself urinate for an age. My waste water tinkling as it hit the plastic like the rainwater that drips from our guttering onto the front door. Constant and relentless for minutes on end. Time still has no meaning as I pass through this fog uncertainly.
I got to a ward later that day. I stayed there for two weeks. I didn’t even manage to move my toe until the fourth day on the ward. It was a true “Kill Bill” moment. I remember consciously telling my mind to “wiggle my big toe”. I was shouting it in my head. It was like reasoning with an insolent child, who stubbornly refuses to do anything, no matter what you try, no matter what tone you take or what treats you promise. I even promised myself a proper manicure in a salon and everything, another sign of me straying into the fields of madness, and almost willingly. The monumental sense of achievement I had when my toe actually moved. You would have thought I had just climbed a mountain or something. I cried silently as I lay prone on my bed in the far corner of the ward. Next to me an old lady snored whilst opposite me an old lady completely immobilised by a stroke, just stared into a distant panorama only she could see.
I focused every ounce of strength and mental energy into getting mobile. I got very tired very quickly. I was told the dysphasia would settle over time as my brain healed. I felt, as the days passed, that I had little workmen in my brain, repairing as many of the tiny roads in my head, as was possible under the current budget. Not all of them got repaired, the money ran out I suppose. Four days before I left hospital I was still on a zimmer frame, but I left using a walking stick. I could speak normally again. I left on a Friday and my son celebrated his first birthday the on the Sunday. This had been my main focus – I was going to be there for my son. I don’t remember an awful lot of that day sadly, but Mike took a lot of photos and videos to help me out. I was very weak and tired easily. I know I had probably come out too early, but I was committed to it and felt I would be ok. I went in work briefly on the Monday just to say hi really. My colleagues later told me they were shocked to see how ill I was and that was the best I had been. I am glad they did not see me when it was really bad, when I was so diminished. My desk and the bank of phones, my in tray and all that it entailed, were really intimidating. I realised at that moment that there was a possibility that I might not be able to come back into the role I once had. The very thought was very worrying, but I was somehow detached from it as if it were a cloud drifting across the sky as I looked out the window. Weird.
On the Tuesday, I went on holiday for two weeks. I’m normally in the driving seat when we go on holiday. I organise everyone, pack the cases myself, organise passports and every little detail in between. Not so this time. My sister Erica and Mike packed the cases with my guidance and Mike took the reins. Marvellously handled really. He can do it again. My sister and my Nana came on holiday with us, as was always the plan and for the first week, I was allowed to do very little with strict orders to rest as per the Doctors. Things started to improve and I could me returning to myself, although somewhat altered in ways that were and still are hard to describe. I felt like I had to re-acquaint myself with my life, my world and all that was going on in it. That took more time than I bargained for and it felt surreal at first, re-connecting with the world. Every sense seemed heightened at first and my energy, both mental and physical was easily sapped, but the therapy of being in the bosom of my family in an environment where there was no pressure to do anything and immediately pick up the reins of normality was very restorative.
That was a year ago this month. I still live with the after effects even today. Like those survivors putting their lives back together after a tsunami or earthquake, it takes an awful lot of time. I live daily with the fear that it will happen again. It’s not a case of if, just when, with this condition. I will be on neuro-drugs for the foreseeable future, which I can just about live with (that’s a story for another day), but I know another attack will come and if history is anything to go by, the next one will be worse than the last.
That said, I don’t dwell. It’s there in my future, but I am well now in my present and I can be happy with that. I smile whenever I am able because I can. I rejoice in every moment I get to spend with my family. I am able to carry on working in the environment I am used to, although I can’t work as hard as I used to. I use the experience as a rich source for my writing, my poems and my musings, as you have taken time to read here now.
The last thing I will say is Mike surpassed himself. He didn’t think he could step up, but he did and I never had a doubt. When we came back from holiday, I wasn’t using the stick anymore and I was in full control of the house, the boys and myself. I looked at him on the morning of my first day back to work and the tightness of fear and worry around his eyes had finally gone.
So, there you have it, all my thoughts on that experience have just tumbled out onto the page in one continuous stream, no edits, no re-drafts, just one big splurge of pure writing. I think this has helped the blockage a little. Let’s hope there’s an exam-worthy piece in this freewrite somewhere!
On reflection, I don’t just have to write poetry for my exam piece. I could submit a piece of fiction or non-fiction instead. Would this piece suffice on its own? What are your thoughts? Is it relatable? Can you connect with it as a reader and is the imagery strong enough to put you in the moment? Any comments are welcome.
Thanks for taking the time to read.