Because generally I still think that I am. Six years post breakdown I still think the rules don’t apply. And sometimes they don’t: in May I spent three nights in hospital and two days later ran the Edinburgh marathon. (Look how well I bounce back!)
This time it didn’t work that way.
I assumed it would. Last Tuesday when my brain started to shut down, I did the usual things. I fought it. I went to a self-help group. I went for a walk. I tried to notice the sunshine, to feel my feet on the ground. I warned my doctor what was going on. To no avail: cue the pattern she and I know so well. By the time I knew I had no other options I could barely walk. And yet, infinitesimally slowly, I made it to her waiting room, as I always do.
There I slipped in and out of awareness for a number of hours. (It’s a safe place, the place I go when there is nowhere else.) I shook a bit, whimpered a bit, couldn’t reach her office when she tried to call me in. She stated that I needed to be admitted. I couldn’t move or speak to disagree. The nurses came with a wheelchair, lifted me into it, lifted me out at the other end.
And I expected it would go on as usual from there. Twelve hours unable to move deliberately or speak; another twenty-four at the end of which I’d be able to walk, so long as I held onto walls; another twenty-four and I’d be discharged. Then I’d take a day off work, and go in the next day, tentative, but human. (How stalwart, how matter-of-fact about the whole thing I would be.)
The hospital bit went as expected. And then, once out, I found I couldn’t get up and carry on.
It’s been too many times now, you see. Six years of being brought to my knees and standing back up to try again. Twenty admissions in that time, I’d guess – I long ago gave up counting.
That pattern has an odd effect on the brain: yes, logically I know that it has happened before and I have survived it, and so I’ll be able to survive it again. But absolutely every time has been brutal, has taken out of me something I was unable to spare or to give. This time there was nothing left.
Because these episodes don’t slide over me leaving no mark. The hours of flashbacks, terror, violent shaking, occasional screaming, leave a burnt hole in my brain that I cannot ignore. When I’m in the office the next day holding meetings, discussing precise details, sending flurries of emails, that burnt hole is there still smelling of cauterised flesh. I ignore it, but it doesn’t go away.
But what option do I have but to ignore it?
On Tuesday, one week post-admission, I tried to go to work. I showered, dressed smartly, got on the Tube: all fine. And then I couldn’t get off. Couldn’t move. Brain closed down and body with it.
That wasn’t in the plan. I’ve developed strategies for brain shut down in the hospital or, more recently, at home. I can wait it out, knowing I’ll be undisturbed, that I’m safe. (The nurses come in and out; eventually I notice them and say hello.) Being frozen to the spot in a shrieking shaking Tube train with all the hurry of central London around me was different. It was, well, bad.
I went to the end of the Tube line and back, twice, before I managed to stand up and leave the carriage.
Back home I felt darker than I have felt in years. Cue all the metaphors you can think of. The storm clouds closed in. The veil was drawn over the sun. The coffin lid was closed. The black hole folded in on itself.
Put it like this: I couldn’t imagine ever ever being able to stand up and go on with complex demanding adult life again. Ever.
I couldn’t get up yet again and go on.
Superwoman? She gave up.
And yet sleep helps.
The next day I had strength enough that I planned to do some work from home. Unfortunately I couldn’t concentrate to read from one end of an email to the other.
The day after that I considered going into the office. I could read an email now but had no idea what it meant or what the right response might be. I spent the day on self-care instead.
Today, day ten post-admission, I have been into the office for three hours. My ambition was low: I went in merely to prove to myself that I could.
So there we are. Alive. Not superhuman. Human and periodically unwell. Unable to predict the course of my illness. Someone who this time gave up, and who then slept and was a little better again. Someone trying to be realistic about what she can do.
Here’s what I’m trying to tell myself: three hours in the context of my supposedly senior responsible job may be nothing, but three hours in the context of the last fortnight is something to be proud of.
And so we go on.