Having slipped stories about my accident and time in hospital in amongst the walking posts, I thought it was worth devoting some full posts to the time between then and the start of my walk, to give the full picture of how my recovery went. Feel free to skip this if you’re only interested in my challenge!
After two weeks in hospital, I was taken home to Sussex in an ambulance. My parents had rearranged a downstairs room into a bedroom, which would be where I spent most of the next month or more. My situation became suddenly more real. The stay in hospital had been a new experience – even when boring, painful or scary, I had tried to be philosophical and had viewed it as seeing a new part of life’s rich and varied tapestry, but that was all over now. There was nothing enlightening about being back in the house where I grew up, dependent on my parents for everything. I felt I had practically regressed to infancy.
An occupational therapist came round to come up with ways of doing mundane, necessary things like washing and going to the loo. I felt she was more used to dealing with more frail people and her suggestions reflected that. I was quick to show that I needed no help transferring myself from my bed to my wheelchair or wheeling myself around the ground floor. I was desperate to cling fiercely to the meagre scraps of independence I had left. I had to feel that I was in some way in control. I was always incredibly stubborn growing up. I think I mellowed in this regard in my early twenties, but I still had a reserve of that stubbornness to tap into when needed. I was adamant that I was in charge of my recovery process; I would decide what I was or wasn’t capable of, what I should or shouldn’t do. In practical terms, this meant very little, but it was the mental attitude I needed to help stave off despair.
My time trapped in bed or in my wheelchair seemed to drag on interminably. People who visited me remarked on how quickly I seemed to be getting better, but I didn’t feel that way at all. I was constantly frustrated. I had also never realised just how difficult being in a wheelchair is. I thought I might be able to wheel myself around outside, but a slight incline, a tiny step, or short grass all turned out to be huge barriers. Instead, when I wanted to go outside, I would get my dad to wheel me out and leave me on the lawn with a book, wrapped in layers of blankets against the November chill. I had to get outside whenever I could – I’ve never been able to sit inside watching TV all day and now was no exception. When I did watch films or shows, if I saw a character fall off something, I would flinch and get a vivid flashback. I watched the “How to Train Your Dragon” animated TV series, in which the main peril the characters face is falling out of the sky. This was maybe not the best choice.
I decided I had to use this time effectively. I read books I had been meaning to get round to, and I started learning Norwegian. I also started thinking about what I would do next. I looked for master’s degree courses that interested me, specifically ones that would allow me to do remote, exciting biological fieldwork. This was part of my determination – I would make sure that by next year, I would be able to do it.
Time lost most of its meaning, and I can’t remember how long it was before I decided I was ready to try to move around on crutches. My first steps led on to circuits around the living room table, with my parents spotting me. My legs had lost a lot of muscle and I was quite tottery. I was determined, though, and soon graduated onto circuits of the lawn, fuelled on by upbeat music in my ear.
One of the most difficult things, mentally, was the uncertainty. I had been incredibly lucky, and hadn’t suffered any nerve damage. I knew I was slowly healing, but the question of how well I would heal hung over me all the time. At the moment I felt like I had the body of a rickety, fragile old man. Your back affects everything you do, and mine wasn’t strong. So was that going to be how I felt for the rest of my life? I was sure I would walk again, but how far? Would I climb, hike, carry a backpack full of kit? Would parts of me carry a bit of pain, reminding me of that horrible fall, forever? I could only wait and try to hope, as my second life ticked away.
I began to wean myself off my powerful painkillers. I think I must have had withdrawal symptoms, because I went into a terrible mood for a week or so. The loneliness was getting to me as well. My friends in UBES, the University of Bristol Expeditions Society, were planning their winter mountaineering trip to Fort William over New Year. I asked if I could come, and it led to some extended debates among the committee. They cared about me and wanted me to be happy, but they also wanted me to get better, and probably didn’t trust that I wouldn’t be reckless. I said that I just wanted to spend time with friends again, and that my mental wellbeing was just as important as the physical. They eventually allowed me a place, on the condition that I absolutely promised to be sensible.
November turned into December, and I tried to spend a bit more time on crutches every day. A week or two into the month, following my reassurances that I didn’t need constant supervision, my parents took me back to Bristol to stay with my housemates again. This felt like a reclamation of a good chunk of independence. I could clip along to Sainsbury’s on my crutches, wearing my huge, robust orthopaedic boots, to do my food shopping. My days were brightened by the unexpected perk of having really quite a lot of people smile at me in the street, though they would also ogle my feet. I imagined this was what it would have been like being a pretty Victorian woman wearing a slightly-shorter-than-ankle-length dress.
UBES were having their annual end-of-term black tie house party. I was overjoyed to be among so many friends again. When the dancing started, I was there on my crutches, but after a few collisions, I abandoned them and simply relied on flopping from friend to friend for support. At one point they picked me up to crowdsurf on top, which was one of those drunk ideas which is great as long as nothing goes wrong, and prompted immediate worry among the more sober partygoers. One of the people at the party was my friend Alex. He’d been on the trips to Morocco, Iceland, and Norway with me, and was a quick and surefooted walker. He’s also deaf in his left ear, like me, which makes conversation tricky because we both naturally try to shuffle round to the left of each other so we can hear. Having known him for three years, it was only after my accident that I learned he had broken his back too, falling out of a tree when he was eighteen. This was encouraging to me – I would never have been able to tell based on how active he was, so maybe I’d be fine after all.
At some late point in the party, when my back was tired, I sat down on the floor, supported by the wall, my booted legs splayed out in front of me. Alex sat next to me. We shared a drink, and I asked him what I had to expect. “You’ll be all right,” he told me. “Every once in a while, you might have a rubbish day, where your back is sore and you need to lie down, but basically you’ll be fine.” We drank to that. A bad day once in a while. That didn’t sound so bad – everyone has bad days once in a while – but to me at that time it also sounded like I might never be completely free from the effects of that brief, terrible moment.