Now we are Four

IMG_20131019_2222124 years ago today. I got up, went to the gym for an hour and then went shopping to Marks & Spinster with my folks, where we stopped to have a pot of tea and an apple turnover. ‘What a beautiful day’ I thought.
Little did I know that an hour or so later my heart would traumatically tear away from its root, contacting emergency services as I struggled to unlock my apartment’s door for the ambulance and my parents to get in.
2 days later I woke after 2 emergency heart operations, having lost several pints of blood and being put on ice, hallucinating about Chinese nurses and caretakers and hippopotamus and Aladdin.
The years between have been full of cancer scares, cameras up/in every orifice, depression, PTSD, the loss of 2 jobs, a mini stroke, loss of field vision, losing my driving licence because of health issues, severe anaemia, a crash with a double decker bus ……..

I began blogging a little before this. In fact, it was in anticipation of planned heart surgery. I’d been planning a holi-holiday to Peru (Macchu Picchu, Lake Titicaca, Nazca Lines – all terribly exciting) and because so much of the adventure was at high altitude, I decided to check in with my Cardiologist. I watched as her face dropped on examination, and she rushed me in for an echo-cardiogram ‘just to check’. I waited to see her for the results as the ward emptied and we were the only two Left Standing.  It wasn’t good. I had an underlying heart condition, which had worsened and required surgery within the next 5 years – she would need further tests and a referral to a surgeon in order to determine when.

The trip to Peru was cancelled – the first of many holidays I’ve had to cancel since.  I was never all that keen on Macchu Picchu if I’m being honest – I don’t really like edges, as I get a bit drawn to them and a little too intrigued about what happens if I go over the edge. In the end, my heart decided it couldn;t really wait for the NHS and so it broke early and impetuously.

In between all that, I had the small matter of my testicular cancer diagnosis the previous year before my emergency incarceration. I know – it never rains but it pours, right?I had some counselling as I was going through it all – the orchidectomy, the chemotherapy. the waiting for surgery. Which is what led me to the blogging. I found it a cheaper way to process and capture some thoughts and feelings – so, if you’re reading this, you’re kinda my cheap therapist. But I don’t know if you’re qualified or not. If you are, I’ve got a bargain. If not, just don’t go telling my secrets to people, because you’re bound by confidentiality, right?
Today I was at the gym. There were 2 crutches left by the side of my treadmill, and I saw a woman struggling to climb on to a Stepper Machine. I recognised the determination on her face, and the struggle she was experiencing.
4 years have passed. I’m not currently employed, and it’s not always easy.

Step by step ….

Today I sewed on a button


Today I sewed on a button.

That may sound so inane, so simple, so easy.

Yesterday, I found it overwhelming to even think of sewing a on a button. So, for me, it’s progress.

This is not the story of me climbing Everest, or winning an Olympic medal, or even overcoming a traumatic injury. It’s just one day in which I managed to overcome so low, dark, depressed feelings. Just enough to complete what would ordinarily seem a simple and straight forward task. And even now I’m belittling an achievement, making light of it. It’s just a button, right?

Getting up was difficult. A night with little sleep, which becomes a pattern during times like these. Everything spirals, and what didn’t worry me yesterday worried me in the night. So it feels good to put on a fresh pair of clothes. A clean pair of trousers. I’m halfway in, skinny legs covered, and pulling the waist up, zipping up, and realise the button is missing. They’re active wear trousers, a special kind of stretchy material that’s all treated with insecticide and UV protection and waterproofing and all sorts of marvels. But without a button, I can’t wear them.

And that’s the day ruined. But I drag them trousers off, and find another pair. In a few minutes, I’m at least dressed, and manage to feed myself and take some pills and have a cup of tea.

The Epic Search begins. Not the Third Ring, not the Keys To Time, not the Golden Fleece. Just a sodding button. High and low – every button but. Surprising how many buttons you can find lying around when you want one particular button. The right button. Because, if it’s not the Right Button, I’ve Completely Failed.

It’s located. I sit myself down, consider this to be a Mindful Task. It will calm and self-soother me, so it can help with the dark mood. I focus on the needle I’ve pulled out, and the black thread I have chosen – it has to be the right thread or it will look STUPID.

And I try, and I try and I try to thread the needle. And I fail, and I fail, and I fail. Again, again, again. The mindfulness becomes a barrage of self criticism, and encompasses everything I haven’t achieved today, yesterday, this week, this month. I can’t even thread a needle now.

I gave up. I just couldn;t face it, and halfheartedly mention it to family in the hope that Someone Else Will Do It For Me. Rescue me, save me, from my own failure.

The morning comes, slow and inevitable and unwelcoming. The trousers remain on the floor, the button unsewn. A cup of tea, pills, some toast.

Today is another day. Another attempt. I pick up a thread, a needle, a button. And I try again. Cursing the size of the eye, cursing the state, of my eyes, licking and sucking the thread to straighten it. I try to think mindfully, to focus on process and not outcome. perhaps I will be able to thread it this time, perhaps not. I am in the process of doing it. This time, I have not given up.

Unbelievably, astonishingly, I reach the summit. I climb Everest, I find the Golden Fleece, I knock out Goliath. The thread is in, and I tie it off before it escapes. I hold the button in place, and I thread in and I thread out. In and out of the back, in and out of the front. A slow but determined rhythm develops, and I try to breathe with it. This is process. This is determination. This is The Moment for which I am grateful.

I’m wearing those trousers, and the button is still on. This is the small tale of that moment, when I dragged myself out of gloom and despair and failure.

I sewed on a button.

I Am Dalek … on tanks and their metaphors

ianfacewave tank

look at me, I’m waving. Big Jessie.

So last weekend I was driving a tank. As you do. And a few things struck me. Not literally, like bombs, or grenades, or mortar shells. I’m a lover, not a fighter, and the tank driving was purely for the experience of doing something I wouldn’t normally do. The ‘Jessica’ on the tank refers to the tank’s name (yes, they name their tanks), not me. Though I do answer to the term ‘Jessie’.

So this tank business. It’s all very butch. And the inside of the tank is filthy (as,actually, its the muddy outside). Somewhere in my mind, I thought they’d valet it to make it all clean. We had to wear the most unflattering jumpsuits – vaguely camouflage design, but there aren’t many places to hide in a Leicestershire farm field occupied by a herd of domestic cows and a handful of military vehicles. Certainly nowhere to hide a tank.

A couple of friends who’ve seen pictures have commented that I ‘wear a tank well’. Strangely, I agree with them. Which is a bit disappointing – I can’t camp up the machismo size and context of a tank. It consumes you, so you have to become part of this military machine.

So there was me, a woman I didn’t know who was part of the same group, and the instructor who told us we could call him  ‘Big G’. I don’t think so. He gave us a spiel which included a lot of statistics on the tank’s weight, what it did, how fast it went – all of which went over my head. He said, almost proudly, that it was the type of tank used in Afghanistan. I wasn’t proud, or impressed, having taken part in many anti-war protests. If anything, the enormity and ‘in-humannesss’ of the tank – its ‘dalekness’ – made me feel distinctly uncomfortable, even in a farmer’s field in Leicestershire.

We went round the field twice each – first time round looking out of the turret, the second time with the cover down so that we could only look out of a pillar-box viewing slit. Much more difficult, and much more Dalek-like. My co-driver declined to have the cover shut her in, but she did manage to reverse park the thing, thanks to instructions from ‘Big G’.

We got the opportunity to buy some pictures taken on our way round (£20 for a disc of around 100 pics), and then to look round the other armoured vehicles on show. Some of The Guys were terribly interested in all that – but it just seemed like big cars to me, and I’d already played with the biggest.

Meanwhile, in another part of my life, I’ve been helping with online research for Macmillan. One of the questions was around the language used in illness, and how useful it is. This followed a conversation I had with a lesbian feminist friend I’d had after seeing the film Pride which had prompted us to look at the langiage of struggle and, partifularly, the domination of militaristic language, and how a friend of hers was ‘battling cancer’ but had no lnaguage to expeess how she really felt. it turns out those of us who have had cancer aren’t all that keen on the whole ‘battle/fight’ analogies – and why would we? Who wants to be at war with their own body? Susan Sontag identified the importance of language and metaphor around illness, and AIDS taught me the importance of reclaiming terms like ‘victim’ or ‘sufferer’, ‘fighting’ and ‘losing the battle’.

I’m a lover, not a fighter.

Somewhere in my online response around illness imagery, I waffled about positive imagery, and recognising that, whatever the illness, the body does its best. I do my best – I’m not separate from my immune system, or a broken heart, or a tumorous testicle. I don’t want to fight my body, I don’t want to see it as my enemy, or to hate what it becomes or how it changes. In a previous post, I referred to my favourite book of the moment, The Wounded Storyteller by Arthur Frank, which describes the struggle of a person designated ‘ill’ to own their  narrative, and come to terms with ‘the diminished self’. That may be a struggle, but it’s not a fight, or a war, which we’re in danger of ‘losing’. It’s an experience, which is what it is – sometimes up, sometimes down.

We’re living in peacetime but in a time of war – Syria, Iraq, Sudan, Ukraine, Gaza, an Ebola Crisis,  a ‘war’ on ‘terror’, the challenges of climate change…You can add to the list, I’m sure. But let’s not make ourselves victims, and let’s not wage war on ourselves. Let’s not become the enemy, or the battleground.

My friends were right. I wear a tank well. But I choose not to. I don’t drive with the lid down, and with my view restricted.

But you can still call me Jessie.