‘Crash Land’ has been undoubtedly the hardest blog to write of the series so far. It has taken months to feel strong enough mentally to re-visit, and to start coming to terms with the events which unfolded during my last months of rehabilitation. Just as things were beginning to look up, and as my discharge from hospital grew closer, I came crashing down to earth. I thought I had hit rock bottom the day of my accident, but this was far worse. I didn’t know how I would pull myself from the wreckage this time.
Finishing my sixth week of brace restrictions was a welcome relief, and another positive step forward on my journey to recovery. Now that the physical restrictions were no longer in place, I could begin rehabilitation proper. I had found the last few weeks particularly frustrating, I was wanting to push on and to tackle harder challenges, but Amy and Paula could only remind me that the restrictions were in place for a reason. One twist, or one wrong bend, could potentially cause further damage to my metalwork, and could have landed me back on bed rest. I wasn’t prepared to take that risk.
Waking up on the first day, I knew that I would have to say goodbye to the red soviet-esque electric chair I had come to grow fond of. He had been my escape partner to a life outside of the ward, but had definitely started to lose what little oomph he originally had. Now that I was allowed to push my own wheelchair, I graduated to the NHS’s best…the Action 2. Now, despite its name, I came to realise very quickly that the Action 2 was a no frills ‘slow and steady wins the race’ type chair. That said, wheeling myself out of the bay for the first time, I felt like I’d graduated to the big leagues. As I continued my push out of the ward and up the long corridor to the café, I realised how spoilt I’d been whizzing up and down in my electric chair…pushing was hard work! But, with restrictions lifted, I could now at last begin to learn some of the more advanced moves and techniques that I’d need to master before I could be discharged. It also meant that I’d be introduced to ‘wheelchair skills’ with Kate and Sandra, two of the Physio Assistants. Judging by what I’d seen from other patients, they’d have me hopping off curbs and back wheel balancing before long. For the time being at least, it all looked terrifying.
On the ward, Tim and I had been kept together, and were moved to G bay. The significance of G was that it was the final bay on the ward, and the last move we would make before being discharged. I had struggled a little with life further into the ward, I had felt claustrophobic at times, and had struggled to sleep most nights being located so close to the hustle and bustle of the nurse’s station. G felt like an altogether brighter and more open space, and surrounded by windows to the outside world. We joined a bay currently inhabited by Michael, a French Monk from a monastery in Worcestershire. I’d met Michael before during a physio session, and I had watched him do many of the things which would soon be in store for me. Although he was coming to the end of his time on rehabilitation, we would still have a couple of weeks left to get to know each other better. Tim and I now had a willing third participant for our frequent movie nights. There would now be three people watching the same film, in the same bay, at the same time, but on their own laptops. The definition of socially unsociable.
Back in physio, my sessions were starting to become more intense, and I was starting to feel the heat. Amy and the team were able to start factoring harder moves into my routine without the risk of injury, and the bar for progression was continually being raised. More emphasis was now placed on developing the correct lifting technique for transfers out of my chair, and onto variable height platforms. Despite having built up my strength since bed rest, I was still frustratingly weak. The thought of transferring myself from the floor and back onto my chair in one lift, which was the end goal of rehabilitation, seemed totally out of site. We started by continuing to build on the progress of the last six weeks. We were looking to hone and to improve not just my lifting technique, but also my sitting balance and general core stability…which whilst improving, was limited due to my level of injury. The good news was that the fun and games of the last six weeks were set to continue with Amy and I once again winning the award for least professional physio and patient in the gym. Although she turned each session into an absolute thrashing, we did still seem to spend a considerable amount of time breaking down in fits of laughter at a well-timed “that’s what she said!”, or at an awkwardly timed bout of flatulence…on my part, not on hers. In between sessions with Amy, I also had the opportunity to work with some of the Physio Assistants at the centre. Kate, who also went by the alias of the ‘Sergeant Major’, for reasons yet unknown but soon to become apparent, started working with me in the second week of full rehabilitation. Within the space of five to ten minutes I’d come to realise why the foreboding nickname. By the end of my first 60-minute session, I knew that she’d have fitted in perfectly as a Physical Training Instructor (PTI) at my former Army Reserve unit. Her sessions hadn’t included any of the big power moves that I was working on with Amy, but Kate demanded repetition after repetition of particular lifts and movements with little rest, and would then proceed to move directly onto a new exercise with no more than an occasional glass of water to replace the outgoing quantities of sweat. Then there was Sandra. Sandra didn’t have a scary nickname, and she had a beaming smile you could see from across the gym. All promising features. So, I was more than a little surprised when, five to ten minutes into my first session, I came to realise that she embodied the same mantra of ‘sweat, sweat, sweat’ as the Sergeant Major. In truth, I loved my sessions with the pair. They reminded me that I could still push myself, even at my weakest.
The end of brace restrictions also signified something really important. For the past three months, I had lived my life in hospital. Now, I could go home for a weekend. Back to mine and Ellie’s little home on the farm. Driving home on the Friday night was a real rollercoaster of emotions. I was excited to go back to our home, but I was anxious about how life in a wheelchair would be on a day to day basis, and how I would cope with it mentally. Pulling up on our drive, I was on the verge of tears. Home had felt like a world away for such a long time, particularly in the days following my accident. Back then, laying immobilised in intensive care, I had wanted nothing more than to shut my eyes and to wake up safe in bed back home. I couldn’t believe I’d finally made it. It was just how I remembered it, with the exception of a lavish new porch our landlords had built which encompassed a ramp so that I could access the building. Going inside for the first time, I felt an immediate sense of relief as I came to realise that I could move about quite freely without clattering into door frames and tables. As Ellie and I cooked dinner that night, it felt that little had changed. Away from hospital, and back in our home together, it felt like we could properly reconnect for the first time in such a long time. When I left home on the 6th August, there were cows grazing in the field opposite, and swallows roosting in our spare barn. The cows had since been moved back to the farm, and the swallows had long since migrated south. I spent a lot of time that weekend reflecting on how life had changed since the last time I was home, with one particular reflection more unexpected and more painful than the rest. I’d been wearing the same set of clothes in hospital for quite some time, and I’d wanted to grab a few bits to take back with me. Opening my cupboard door, I completely froze. Looking down I saw my climbing rucksack, the one that I’d used the day of my accident. I hadn’t expected to see it again, least of all here. For some reason, I forced myself to open it. As I reached nervously inside, I slowly pulled out the tattered remains of my climbing harness. In an instant I was brought back to the day of my accident, to those fearful moments lying in the dirt unable to feel my legs, and of the moment when Mountain Rescue cut my harness from under me. I continued to stare at the frayed cuttings of my harness, unable to process the emotions in my head. It wasn’t until Ellie came into the room and put her arms around as she realised what I’d seen that I broke down. I’d prided myself on being able to keep my emotions about that day under control, but this had caught me completely unaware. All I could do was cry.
I found it really hard returning to hospital after a brief glimpse of freedom at home. But, if I was honest with myself, the weekend had highlighted how unprepared I was for life outside of hospital at the moment. The ultimate goal of my rehabilitation was to enable me to live an independent life, and I wasn’t there just yet. Over the course of the next few weeks I continued my rehab with a renewed vigour and sense of motivation to progress. Paula, my Occupational Therapist, continued to introduce new and more challenging techniques for me to master, most of which would incur a fair amount of trial and error (pain) before conquering. We would work on everything from transferring into a bath, through to learning to dress myself whilst on the bed. A personal favourite of Paula’s, and a firm least favourite of my own, was learning to load a wheelchair in/out of the car from the driver’s side. Having learnt to get myself in and out of a car in my first six weeks, the natural progression was to learn how to then get the wheelchair into the car after you. My struggles with this particular challenge started almost immediately. Leaning out of the driver’s side door, it was a good day if I didn’t have to stop myself falling out of the car. Fall averted, I could then start trying to break the chair into pieces before pulling over my shoulder and into the car. Wheels were the easy bit, and could be put within reach behind the passenger’s seat. The main frame of the chair very quickly became my arch nemeses, and was the bane of my life from day one. If I wasn’t taking chunks out of the practice vehicle, I was inadvertently smacking myself in the face with the chair, or accidentally sounding the horn at passers-by. Wheelchair loading somehow seemed to bring out all of the frustration at my situation, I think perhaps because it was the one thing in rehab that I couldn’t get a handle on relatively easily. If one person was enjoying these sessions, it was definitely Paula. She handed out some great advice, but she also seemed to take pleasure in my occasional bump to the head, or honk of the horn. If there was one thing about Paula, she could always be counted on to say it how it was, and would routinely tell me to “suck it up Princess” on the occasions I began to strop. Week by week, my work with Paula started to show some results, and we were steadily working towards the goals set for me to achieve by discharge.
I was told quite early on in the process that “rehab is what you get out of it”, and I was thriving on that emphasis of self-determination and hard work. If I was honest, I was enjoying my time in rehabilitation so far. It started to feel like things were finally slotting in place. My continued progress had meant that my initial discharge date of mid-December had been revised to late November, which was fantastic news. What was even better, was that my close friend Harry had returned to the UK from his turtle conservation project in Kefalonia, Greece. Whilst he had been away, Harry had sent his parents Julia and Bluey to visit me at the hospital, and to report back to him on my progress. Over the course of the next weeks and months, Harry and Matt would be of more support to me then they could ever appreciate. Visits from family and friends of course continued during the second half of my rehab, but it was becoming more difficult to see anyone during the daytime due to my hectic timetable. Admittedly, my timetable was made no easier by mine and John’s insistence on heading to the gym for extra strength training sessions each day. My friendship with John had continued to grow during our time in hospital together, I think due in part to our committed approach to rehab, and in a large way due to our ‘itchy feet’ in between scheduled sessions. On one particularly dull Sunday evening, John and I ventured off ward in search of some excitement to cure our boredom. Somewhat conveniently, it turned out that the back entrance to the gym had been left open. John headed straight for the weights, whereas I took the controversial decision of eyeing up the standing frames in the corner of the physio room. Now, there are a large number of reasons why I shouldn’t jump into a frame unsupervised, biggest perhaps of all, the risk of being unsupported if something went wrong. Sounded a bit like climbing. I jumped straight in. Fast forward fifteen minutes, and there’s John pushing weights on the chest press in the other half of the room, whilst I’m stood in the far corner illuminated only by the light from my mobile phone. Had we been caught, we would no doubt have been in serious trouble. To all the physio staff at MCSI, please accept our belated apologies.
“What do you do when life gives you lemons?” It’s a strange question, but one which Amy would frequently pose when pushing me in physio and looking for a positive reaction. I would answer, “you make lemonade”, before picking myself off the canvas and gearing up for another round of whatever it she was putting me through that day. It had been pretty easy to stay positive this far through my rehabilitation; I was grasping things quickly, and the end goal of going home was growing ever closer. However, as I approached the end of my time in hospital, my world slowly but surely started to spiral out of control. Sometimes it seems that we are so absorbed in what we are doing that we cannot see what is staring us in the face. I had been so busy concentrating on doing my best in hospital, and on getting back to something that resembled my old life that I couldn’t see what was happening. My relationship with Ellie was breaking apart. I’d drawn such strength, safety and comfort from our relationship that I hadn’t wanted to admit it. The life I’d imagined for myself outside of hospital was slipping through my fingers, and there was nothing I could do to change it. As the relationship ended, I felt so desperate, so scared, and so alone. I had lost the only true sense of continuity from my life before the day of my accident, and I’d lost the only thing I was so sure of in the days, weeks and months following. For the past four months, I had defiantly fought back from my injury, but now I felt so powerless, and so unable to stop my mind from mercilessly torturing itself. I thought back to those petrified seconds of fall during my accident, replaying in my head the gut wrenching fear that I’d never see her again. I thought back to the moment I saw her for the first time at Stoke Hospital, and the overwhelming flood of emotion at having been lucky enough to be able to have that opportunity. I thought back to the moment I saw her for the last time, and to the moment we said goodbye for what would be the last time. As my world seemed to crumble around me, all I could bring myself to do was cry. There was no defiance left. Home, whatever that now looked like, seemed as far away as it had back in intensive care. I tried my best to mask what was going on from everyone on the ward, but it wasn’t an environment in which you could easily hide, least of all from those in your bay. As word started to spread, I felt more able to visibly be upset, however much it hurt my pride to do so. Unfortunately for her, Amy bore the brunt of this one afternoon. As I struggled to get my head in the right frame of mind at our next session, she asked, “Darren, what do we do when life gives us lemons?”. To which I could only reply, “Fuck lemons, I hate lemonade”.
The end of the relationship marked the start of a daily battle for positivity and motivation, the likes of which I’d never known before. It felt as if I’d suddenly become aware of the significance of my injury, and of how the accident had changed my life almost beyond recognition. At times of turmoil and stress in my life, I’d always headed out running or climbing to clear my mind. Now, all I could do was head to the gym and try my best to burn off a little of the emotion I’d built up that day. Whatever I could do, it wasn’t enough. As soon as my timetable finished each day at 4pm, I would just about hold myself together long enough to make the lonely push back to the toilet in G bay before breaking down. If there was a light at the end of the tunnel, it seemed pretty dark from where I was sitting. If it hadn’t been for the unwavering support of my family and friends, I would have surely slipped further back in terms of my mental recovery. Whilst I may not have believed them at the time, I knew that they were trying to convince me that life still meant something, and that I could still lead one full of adventure.
Sometimes the bad things that happen in our lives put us onto a path we least expected, or onto one that we might feel totally unprepared for. But that’s where true adventure starts…