Laughter really is the best medicine.
Heat. Nausea. More heat. Noise. Groggily, I opened my eyes to a scene of white sheets, drips, monitors and busy nurses, but no sign of water to help a thirst that felt unquenchable. It was light outside, so either I'd been asleep for days or hours. Lindsey, my sister, was the face I remember after waking up from surgery. I'm sure there were others but I don't recall seeing them in that particular tableau.
Looking at it now through a lens clouded by the passing of over five years, I've had to let others fill me in on the details as things are pretty hazy. Apparently, Lindsey wasn't there when I woke up, it had been Lucy and my then-husband. The noise I could hear came from the busy recovery room. I remember being moved to a ward and being blessed with a space next to the window, for which I was incredibly grateful. I couldn't see much, part of the buildings outside – so concrete and glass – but I could at least see the sky and the birds. Small things often make a big difference.
The next thing I recall, nighttime had arrived and I was alone. The overwhelming feature in this scene was the headache. Despite being medicated with two types of morphine and paracetamol, nothing eased the pain. It was like someone had taken a chisel to my skull and they were constantly chipping away from the inside. Fortunately, a concerned nurse did some research and thought it might be due to dehydration, so I was encouraged to drink more. I think it had an impact after a day or so, but it also meant that I needed to wee—a lot.
As I couldn't yet coordinate my legs and was suffering from dizziness, I had to use a commode – sexy. Honestly, spend some time on a maternity or major trauma ward, and all of your usual human inhibitions will be wiped out. It got to the stage where I was weeing so much in one sitting that the commode overflowed! Like I said – sexy. I was too out of it to be truly mortified, but I can still call to mind the clench of embarrassment and panic as I heard my own urine splash on the tiles and I was powerless to stop it. Fortunately for me (and for those amazing nurses who had to clean up the spillage), regular toilet habits resumed after a few days.
Never too old to need my mum
The day after surgery, I was aware that my mum and Howard - my stepdad - would be back from their extremely short-lived holiday. They hadn't even reached their hotel before receiving news of me headbutting metal while driving. I can't imagine their fear and frustration at being unable to get home until the following day, but they made it, and I remember taking my mum's hand, saying, "Oh, you came back." and feeling comforted that my parents were with me. It doesn't matter how old you get, if you have a good relationship with your parents, you never stop needing them in tough times. Not that I was much company; I spent most of each twenty-four hours asleep, which is the body's way of trying to heal the brain, and my brain needed some serious healing.
The one person I was desperate to see was Hugo. I recall speaking to him on FaceTime and him saying my stitches made me look like, and I quote, "a zombie skeleton." Thanks, son! But in all seriousness, it was comforting to know that he was coping with the whole thing, and he seemed happy and well. In fact, when he first arrived to see me in the hospital, he was playing a lorry driving game on his dad's phone. The irony of that is not lost on me.
The outlook was bleak, but the jokes were glorious!
You know those scenes in hospital dramas where all the doctors are gathered around a patient's bed like the patient is a circus attraction? TV directors definitely have this depiction spot on! Among the medical staff surrounding my bed were the consultants who had performed my surgery and those now responsible for my rehab. There was Professor Sidebottom, who had spent his Tuesday at work putting my face back together, and Dr Haboubi, a neuro-rehab specialist. His prognosis was that I would not be able to return to work until the end of the year, maybe not until the following summer. Ha! I thought. I'll be back in September, what's he talking about? At this point, I had little idea of the extent of my injuries, nor had I seen myself in the mirror. All I knew was that I'd missed the last week at work, I had ten bottles of wine at home waiting to be given out to the teachers in my department, and I was adamant I'd be back at the chalk face come the start of the school year. You have to admire my ambition, right?
Eye specialists made up the rest of the group, but I think we can all agree that the point of fascination here was the combination of the doctors' names. I mean, I'm not one to make fun of others, especially about something they can't help, but the combination of SideBOTTOM and Haboubi (pronounced HaBOOBIE) brought my visitors and me rather a lot of joy.
And that's what I tended to concentrate on while I was an official invalid, the funny stuff. Thanks to losing my sense of smell from brain and sinus damage, I wasn't eating much at all. I spoke to Lindsey about it and suggested offering my own personal 'diet' regime where one of us stands at the side of the road while the customer is driving, and we launch some metal through their windscreen to recreate my limited eating situation. Sounds extreme, but we were pretty sure people had done way more dangerous (and stupid) things to lose extra pounds. Obviously, this was all said in jest, but at the time it was hilarious and meant that there was far more laughing than crying around my hospital bed.
Then there was the conversation about how absurd the whole event was and we questioned the chances of it happening. The more I think about it now, the more I know it was just a significant part of my life journey, and while a lot of it has sucked, good things have evolved from it too. But it was difficult to comprehend back then, even for those without a brain injury. "It just all seems like a 'Beadle's About' prank," quipped Lindsey. (Remember that show from the late 80s? I hope you do, if not, you're not going to find this next bit funny at all – soz).
"Haha, yeah, it really does," I replied. "But isn't he dead now? Jeremy Beadle, I mean?"
"Yeah, he's no longer about."
Well! Those around us must have thought that whatever had been said was the funniest thing known to humankind. It evoked the kind of laughter that almost prevents you breathing. Lindsey and I were creased over, Lindsey, quite literally. There were tears, and neither of us could explain what we were laughing at because each time one of us tried, we laughed even more at what we had just said. It's making me laugh as I write this. It's probably my second favourite moment from my time in Queen's Med.
Laughing is helpful for healing
My ultimate favourite was on my final day - day eight. Hugo and his dad had come to collect me; I was talking to a solicitor who was going to help me find the party responsible for my injuries and ensure I got the care and support I needed in the future. I was telling the solicitor how we had been due to go on holiday on the 14th but the accident, which had happened on the 11th, had sort of gotten in the way. Hugo then chimed in with -
"Don't worry Mummy, we can go on holiday when your head grows back."
It's these moments I take with me from the hospital. Not the pain and discomfort, not the way I looked or how long it would take me to recover. I knew I could do it and was determined to do it quickly. In fact, the first time I got up to use the toilet and walked there with my drip, Dr Haboubi saw me and couldn't believe his eyes. Apparently, it was mighty incredible that I was walking with the injuries I'd sustained. I didn't know this, I was just fed up with using the above-mentioned commode).
Here's me taking my first steps to that glorious, private, porcelain throne
I have to say that focusing on and remembering the humour has helped with the healing process, especially dealing with things on a psychological level. I'm not one to hold on to what makes me feel bad - I don't see the point. I'd rather just let it go. Otherwise, you risk it latching on and draining you like a leech. I don't forget the bad stuff, but I have to decide to think about it. I think it has become another one of my unconscious coping mechanisms, to try and be able to choose when I think about the devastation the whole thing has caused. Mention me being in the hospital, I instantly think of Jeremy Beadle, my built-in Halloween costume of a zombie skeleton, and having my family around me at every hour they were allowed to be there. The good stuff.
Easier said than done
People might be reading this who think that dealing with things this way is just who I am, that they are not built like that. But to that, I say, hell no! Up until my late twenties, I was the sort of person who tended to focus on the negative, feel aggrieved and blame others for the bad things that happened. Being a person who doesn't do that anymore has taken a lot of reading, thinking, learning and self-development. Honestly, ask my mum how much she used to dread answering the phone to me when I was away at university; all I ever used to do was moan. I'm no longer like that, and if I can do it - ordinary Katie from the East Midlands - there's no reason you can't. If you choose to, you can make your life better by dealing with, and reacting to, situations in a way that favours the positives.
In the next couple of posts, I'll try to illustrate that everyone does this in their own way and show you that having a different reaction to someone else is a perfectly normal, human thing. I'll share the stories of my accident from my parents' perspective and that of my sisters. It was not until I had spoken to them about all of this for 'Everyday Extraordinary' that I realised how much my accident, and the consequences of it, affected others, nor how everyone's reactions were so varied.
So how does this help you?
Your reaction to a bad situation will be a culmination of your gut instinct and emotions, then the choices you make in how you behave, respond and move forward with your circumstances. It's normal for an initial outburst of upset, outrage or fear when something unexpected and negative occurs.
Until about six months ago, I would often swallow my feelings and react in a way that benefitted those around me or react in a way I considered the most optimistic. I was doing the whole 'positive thinking' thing, assuming that to be happy, I had to try and choose to be happy all of the time. It soon left a rotten taste in my mouth. It often wasn't about choosing to feel happy but fighting to try and feel happy. I don't know about you, but conflict really doesn't tickle my fancy and it was very confusing to be following the 'rules' and not receiving the promised outcome. It wasn't until after a month or so of neuropsychology sessions that I realised ignoring negative emotions leads to a whole other set of issues. (I'll expand on this in future posts.)
At this point, try and remember that whenever something bad happens, you have 'felt' your natural emotions and have your rational thought back, it's up to you to make the best choices possible. Those choices might not lead to what you want, but you can choose to do your best with a crap situation. Trust me, I've done it with terrible Jeremy Beadle jokes!
Feel, think, learn, choose you.
Some of my favourite funny stuff to help you through the bad times :)
I love stand-up comedy, especially when I feel like shite. This one with James Acaster is comedy gold!
Do not read this book in public if you do not like drawing attention to yourself while you laugh out loud. Round Ireland with a Fridge by Tony Hawks.