It was difficult to recognise the moment when I came round. It could have been two minutes or two days ago. I didn’t know where I was. Where was up? Where was down? Where were all these tubes and wires going? Up my nose. Into the jugular vein in my neck. Into the vein in my arm. Onto a peg on the end of my finger. Nurses kept coming over to my bed to administer drugs and I could feel their icy trickle flowing down my neck or up my arm. Then, as if by magic, my pain would disappear.
I regained consciousness again and felt down below my waist with my left hand, as my right arm felt like wood, well there was no feeling in it at all. I felt down past my cock, which had a tube coming out of it as well, stretching it. I then felt lower down the bed. My left leg was intact, all the feeling of a normal leg.
But where the hell was my right leg? I franticly felt around the mattress groping, unseen. I couldn’t sit up to see what they’d done with my leg. A thousand thoughts ran through my head. They’ve amputated my leg! Am I going to be in a wheelchair for the rest of my life or could I get by with a wooden leg? “WHAT IN FUCKS NAME HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY LEG!” I screamed out silently to a passing nurse.
Why do no words come out of my mouth? Not even an unintelligible sound. I became desperate. Then, all of a sudden, there was Celia’s face, full of compassion and sorrow. She shed a tear and hid her face behind her hands. Again, I tried to speak. I wanted so much to comfort her. “Don’t worry. It’s going to be all right. Just fine".
I hadn’t a clue what had happened to me. I couldn’t even remember the last place we had been.
“And by the way, I love you.”
Nothing came out. I couldn’t even ask the nurse whether I would be like this for the rest of my life.
Celia is attempting to communicate with me. She is saying that I am in Tasmania, in the Royal Hobart Hospital, and that I was trying to climb the Totem Pole, on the Tasman Peninsula. “You had a rock hit you in the head and you have just gone through a six hour surgery".
It doesn’t make any sense. How can I be on the Totem Pole one minute and then here, in hospital, with all these tubes coming out of me the next. There’s a huge, squishy hole just left of the centre on my skull and I can feel metal staples through the tape.
I remember the day now. Waking up in the tent and walking the eight kilometres out to the Totem pole. I remember the rope traverse onto the ‘Pole’ itself and rappelling down it. There, I can hear the roaring of the waves like distant bombs exploding. I can still smell the seaweed, like iron tastes. We were alone.
No sooner had I got to the foot of the ‘Tote’ than I was up to my waist in the sea. Soaking wet. I shouted to Celia to come on down, but to stop at the ledge, and to tie the rope off there. I remember putting my rope ascenders on and making two moves on it before swinging wildly to the left… Then nothing. I don’t remember anything else about the next fifteen minutes.
I am now upside down and shrugging my rucsac off into the sea. Celia is shouting at me; “You’ve got to help me here if we’re going to get out of this.” I’m being held upright in slings, the grunting and laborious haul up which I’m told took three hours. I am making noises that sound nothing like me. I lost half my blood as I lay, shaking, for ten hours on that ledge, as Celia climbed out and ran the five miles for help.
Over two years have passed since I had that life-changing occurrence. Some would say I am gathering up the scraps of a life torn apart by a terrible accident but I would prefer to call it progressing on life’s pilgrimage. If there’s one physical act that has helped me more than the interminable physiotherapy it is writing.
Writing about, dissecting and studying my misadventure has aided me beyond reckoning. It helped me make sense out of what, at first, seemed not to have any sense at all (there was no nurse trying to kill me. That was all a twisted hallucination). That nurse wasn’t a complete figment of my imagination though. She really existed and by writing about her, amongst other more important subjects, I found I could well and truly lay her ghost.
By placing every little fact out on the page I have seen that I do have mental strength after all and that has given my weakening self-esteem a much-needed boost. Analysing the altered relationship with my family and my ex partner, Celia, has been essential to my present disposition as has the whole exploration of my changed mind (head injuries really mess with the way you think).
Perhaps most importantly writing about what happened to me has aided me in seeing more clearly my place in human kind as no more or less trivial than anyone else’s. In the words of the wise neuro-scientist V.S. Ramachandran:
If you think you’re something special in this world, engaging in a lofty inspection of the cosmos from a unique vantagepoint, your annihilation becomes unacceptable. But if you’re really part of the great cosmic dance of Shiva, rather than a mere spectator, then your inevitable death should be seen as a joyous reunion with nature rather than as a tragedy.
There are many others throughout history who have used the same tool as a way of coming to terms with loss or acceptance. Two obvious examples are Helen Keller with her ‘Story of my Life’ and Christy Brown with ‘My Left Foot’. Another historical figure who may have found healing in the form of writing is Seigfreid Sasoon.
Sasoon’s poetry is well documented as having changed radically after the deaths of his brother Hamo and best friend, ‘Tommy’ Thomas in short succession of each other in WW1. After being given the nickname of ‘Mad Jack’ for a series of death defying missions into no mans land against the German army Sasoon wound up in a military hospital with shell shock. It was there that his whole philosophy on the war swung antipodal, as did his poetry.
Geoffrey Withrop Young, the greatest of pre-great war mountaineers, lost his leg whilst in charge of an ambulance on the Italian front. Despite the surgeons having to amputate above the knee he didn’t give up and went on to climb the Matterhorn on his prosthesis. He published many books but this verse from ‘I Hold the Heights’ in ‘April and Rain’, penned in 1923 shows mental healing at work most poignantly.
What if I live no more those kingly days?
Their night sleeps with me still.
I dream my feet upon the starry ways;
My heart rests upon the hill.
I may not grudge the little left undone;
I hold the heights, I keep the dreams I won.
In 1997 Australian Warren Macdonald lost both his legs at mid-thigh when a massive boulder fell on top of him whilst climbing Mount Bowen, on Hinchinbrook Island, in far north Queensland. His book, ‘One Step Beyond’ reads like an ode to his lost legs. At first he consoles himself with the positive memories of having been places “that most people have never been, given me experiences most people had never had.” One can sense the sadness in those words. But by the close of the book he has quite accepted what he has become.
At the beginning of his story he likens himself to a baboon he saw once in an African wildlife documentary on the TV. The baboon is trying to get to a water hole that is writhing with crocodiles. In the end, dying of thirst, the hapless primate risks everything and approaches the pool. He finishes up with his head in the jaws of a crocodile but miraculously wriggles free. Macdonald recounts how the rest of the troupe stares at him as if he were a ghost, “because it forces them to face their own mortality.” He likens himself to the baboon as, now in his wheelchair, he feels the eyes of strangers boring into him.
Immediately after the accident he thought “that part of my life has gone forever.” But by the close of the book, just two years later, he has climbed a mountain and, mischievously, can’t wait to pick up his first hitchhiker in his car. Moving on from ‘One Step’ he has climbed Federation Peak, a remote mountain in Tasmania’s wild Southwest. The approach alone involved a three week crawl through dense rainforest and bogs.
I sent him an email asking him if he felt that writing the book had helped him heal at all and his immediate response was; “I didn’t, and still don’t see my writing as a kind of therapy. I saw it more as a chance to tell my story in a way I wouldn’t be able to tell in that kind of depth in general conversation. So I saw it mainly as a huge relief rather than a purging of my soul so to speak.” I didn’t ask him why it was ‘a huge relief’.
Obviously it takes a strong willed person to be on the end of the pen. But you can tell that plenty of this stuff would have just been forgotten if he hadn’t started writing and that would have made healing a longer, more painful process.
Joe Simpson, mountaineer and author, made headline news when descending off a mountain in the Andes, in 1988, with Simon Yates. He fell and badly broke his knee whilst still three thousand feet from the bottom. Yates commenced lowering him down the face for two long days until, in a white out, he lowered him off an ice cliff. After an age Simpson’s weight was threatening to pull Yates out of the snow seat he had created for himself so he did the only possible thing. He cut the rope. When Yates went down the slope and saw the yawning crevasse that Joe had fallen into he naturally believed him to be dead and staggered back down to camp. Meanwhile Joe was having his own private nightmare crawling through the caverns underneath the glacier, over rubble-strewn slopes and eventually into base camp. A very traumatic ordeal to say the least.
When I interviewed Simpson for this piece he said of ‘Touching the Void’ that “digging all those skeletons up only served to scare the hell out of me but that spending twelve years lecturing on the same story, telling it repeatedly, almost fictionalised it somehow, distanced it from my mind.” He continued “That’s the way that the survivors of the Kings Cross fire or the Herald of Free Enterprise ferry disaster were told to deal with it. They told their psychologist and friends the same story over and over until it just didn’t seem real any more.” I ventured that writing a traumatic story down was surely the first step in just such a process. “My second book, ‘This Game of Ghosts’ was definitely a cathartic exercise. An exorcism of the ghosts of friends I’d lost to the mountains.”
With compassion, in ‘Void’, Joe writes himself into Simon’s shoes and in doing so explores what it must feel like to play the part of a killer.
“I had never felt so wretchedly alone. I could not have won, and began to understand the reason for my dreadful sense of condemnation in the snow-cave. If I hadn’t cut the rope I would certainly have died. Looking at the cliff, I knew there would have been no surviving such a fall. Yet, having saved myself, I was now going to return home and tell people a story that few would ever believe. No one cuts the rope! It could never have been that bad! Why didn’t you try this, or try that? I could hear the questions, and see the doubts in the eyes even of those who accepted my story.”
It could be a yearning for what you once were (and could have been) and an acceptance of what you have become that impels one to write, as in my case or simply a preparation for death as was the case with Jean-Dominique Bauby. The author of ‘The Diving bell and the Butterfly’ suffered a massive stroke and consequent Locked-in Syndrome. Completely paralysed and unable to speak, he only had the use of his left eyelid. His speech therapist developed a communication system by way of which he could use his eye to ‘dictate’ these beautiful words:
"My cocoon becomes less oppressive, and my mind takes flight like a butterfly. There is so much to do. You can wander off in space or in time, set out for Tierra del Fuego or for king Midas’s court. You can visit the woman you love, slide down beside her and stroke her still-sleeping face. You can build castles in Spain, steal the Golden Fleece, discover Atlantis, realise your childhood dreams and you adult ambitions.”
Bauby died five months later having perhaps through the writing of the book reached some kind of resolution.
It is well documented how Native American shaman or Indian aesthetes will take hallucinogenic drugs to visit that other world which few of us are ‘privileged’ to see. Through severe trauma one gets to places, sees things in the mind’s eye, which others have a morbid fascination in seeing but are, understandably, too scared. Bauby paid the highest price possible to see that ‘other’ side and he had no choice in the matter. He was going on a one way trip whether he liked it or not. He has left an extraordinary book which people can content them selves by reading without, hopefully, ever having to go there.
Victims (survivors) of child sexual abuse are counselled to write about their experiences. It is said to help them in remembering their experiences, exploring and expressing their feelings, facing up to their fears and accepting themselves more readily as who they are now.
"Now I think things out and write them down instead of pushing them down. Once I started writing I couldn’t stop. It really surprised me - I could write better than I could talk. It’s best to deal with things. I’m quite good at that now.”
Claire (survivor in Breaking free).
This has led to some remarkable pieces of literature also, ‘Cry Hard and Swim’ by Jacqueline Spring being, perhaps, the most intense. Described on the jacket as being a ‘beautiful and ultimately healing journey’ it documents in the form of letters and poems to her mother her immense bewilderment caused by her father’s sexual advances. By writing these ‘letters’ she has moved on from feeling psychologically mutilated and an all consuming self-hatred to seeing her father as an ultimately pathetic figure:
"I gather together all the known facets of my father, attempting to join the ragged edges that will not fit, to reconcile the inconsistencies, not, now, with a child’s understanding, but as an adult becoming free. The awareness settles upon me that he is not to be looked at differently, that he is not a different kind of being, that he was neither the hero nor the ogre of my childhood, but perhaps only a human being, beating blindly about in his distress.”
I have mentioned accidents, physical disabilities (which is the category I now fall in to), preparation for death and psychological scarring. You may never be able to change or, ultimately, heal completely but you can learn to live, or die, within your shell. If you are disabled by an accident it will take you some time to accept your new body image. It has taken me nearly two years and I’m still not all the way to accepting mine. But it does get better with time and by writing about it I am convinced that one can accelerate if not precipitate that process.
The question is still begged why Macdonald or Spring or Bauby feel the need to put down in print their very personal story of tragedy for thousands of people to read? We are social animals through and through and we need to share our story with others, compare notes or just tell the world what we’ve been through.
I think that apart from a healing process that is going on here there is also genuine want to empathise or help some one if we can. I have dedicated my book to all those who have had head injuries. As such I have had to be totally honest about my fears of not being able to urinate again and all consuming self-doubts about (at first) my inability to have sex. These are things that others with traumatic head injury will, as I have done, fret about to all heaven.
Oliver Sacks, whilst walking up a hill, alone in Norway was confronted by a bull and, as he turned to sprint, fell off a drop and tore his quadracep off his knee. After a dramatic rescue and long recuperation, when he had the pot removed, he was shocked to find that the leg had no feeling in it at all. Not only was it completely numb but, what was more, Sacks couldn’t call any movement into it. To all intents and purposes it was a corpse leg.
After extensive surgery feeling and movement return to the limb. As a neurologist Sacks had many interesting insights into what horrors await the patient with paralysis. He wrote in his 1984 book, ‘A Leg to Stand on’:
"Now I was free - morally free, as well as physically free - to make the long trek, the return, which still lay before me. Now the moral obscurity and darkness was lifted, as well as the physical darkness, the shadow, the scotoma. Now the road lay open before me into the land of light and life. Now, unimpeded, without conflict or blocks, I would run this good road, swifter and swifter, into a joy, a fullness and sweetness of life, such as I had forgotten or never known.”