Affliction

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Source: My old drawing journal. Now given away.

It happened on the train.

Well, strictly speaking, it was happening long before I got on the train, but the symptoms manifested themselves somewhere near Northampton, and then just kept getting worse. By the time we pulled up on Euston station, I couldn’t walk by myself.

Make no mistake, it absolutely sucks whenever it happens. But my worst nightmare is to be caught outside, and begging strangers for help.

*

I was on my way to a job interview. It was the reason I got on the train, and it was the only thing on my mind the entire morning, and the weekend before. My hair was recently dyed – an attempt to make it a tiny bit more normal, after a bleaching-gone-wrong. Who knows what might have happened, if only one thing had changed? Maybe I would have caught the symptoms earlier. Maybe I would have had my usual medication on me, sooner. Maybe I wouldn’t have triggered the episode by stressing out, or by spending too much time with my hair wet. Maybe. Maybe. Maybe.

But there’s no way of telling. Not really, not until it’s too late.

It starts off as a bit of discomfort, a cramp in my leg or my stomach – nothing unusual if you train a lot, and/or are in possession of an ovulating uterus.  But then the pain got worse. And worse. And worse. To the point where I could feel

To the point where I could feel the pulse in my femoral vein without even concentrating.

To the point where every third second was a sharp jolt.

To the point where I could barely sit, let alone walk comfortably.

By the time I figured out what was going on, the train was almost halfway through to its final destination, and the thought of getting off was unbearable – not least because turning back would mean a change of platforms, which would mean stairs.

I don’t do well with stairs. I don’t do well with walking. In fact, at its worst, the most I can do is huddle under my coat and howl for it to stop.

And now, I would be doing it in front of a train full of people. Delightful.

*

“Go to the university hospital,” my dad ordered me on the phone. “It’s right around the corner from the station. I’m coming behind you.”

I said I would, rubbing my leg in an attempt to alleviate the ache. No joy. Strangely enough, I didn’t start to really panic until we entered the London area. It was as though I journeyed through a vacuum, where all my feelings only reached a certain point.

Then we were a stone’s throw from the train station, and suddenly the pain was worse, and I had to beg the manager to help me disembark.

Here’s what didn’t happen: People did not stare. They did not point. For the most part, I was too freaked out by the idea of having to hop on one leg to the hospital, but I daresay they didn’t treat me like a walking circus show, for which I am very grateful.

Here’s what did happen: They called the station ahead to let them know what was going on. The train manager helped me off. A very nice lady sat with me, risking being late for work, as we waited for a wheelchair. I thanked her again and again.

Then they took me to a taxi stand where a cab driver took my money, to drive me 100 meters, and drop me off at the wrong ER. I ended up hobbling anyway, my wallet a few pounds lighter, but at least it was a straight track. The receptionist didn’t bat an eyelash at me, despite the fact that I was gasping for air and barely holding it together. I somehow managed to fill out the forms necessary before collapsing on a chair, hunched over my backpack, and praying for someone to put me out of my misery.

Or for my name to get called, whichever comes first.

*

What is it, though? I wish I knew. I’d been having these episodes ever since the year I started Uni, horrible cramps that turned into full-blown fevers, complete with raving, convulsing, light sensitivity and extreme profanities. Basically, if I didn’t catch it on time, I turned into a vampire zombie for a while.

My doctors aren’t sure what it is. Maybe it has something to do with the other problems I have. Maybe it’s stress-induced. Hell if they know.

I know even less.

What I do know is that these miserable times hit without warning, and they hit me hard. That time in London, I was afraid of so many things – afraid of the pain, afraid of what I’d do when the crisis really struck, but mostly, I was afraid of what I’d tell the nurse, how I would explain myself.  Somehow, I’ve arrived at the stage where I not only have to be able to account for my symptoms to medical professionals, I have to be super-nice about it too, possibly even deploy my sense of humour. Sometimes I can do that – that  time I split my eyebrow during training, for instance, I was in my element – but all bets are off when I can’t even put weight on my leg without wanting to howl in pain.

What’s wrong with you? I’d think, whenever my tales of woe were met with cold professionalism. Why can’t you be more sympathetic?

There’s no way to answer that. Doctors and nurses aren’t there to coddle – they’re there to make you better, or barring that, to make you as comfortable as possible. But they’re not your mother, your boyfriend, or your childhood teddy bear. They have to make sure you’re not abusing the system.

Obviously, as I’m writing this, my name did get called out, and I did see a nurse who gave me some painkillers to start, and another wheelchair, and put me in a nice place in the corridor to wait before someone at the ICU saw me. My dad arrived while I waited, and the drugs began to work before I devolved completely.

*

It would have been the thing to end this story with me, having my interview over the phone, high on ibuprofen and adrenalin, and maybe even getting the job. But that did not happen. First of all, I was still in pain, and even as the panic went down, I was still hyper-aware of every twinge and every ache in my body. Secondly, this was the ER – and the only appropriate conversations to be had in the waiting room are performed at whisper-level.

The strongest memory of that day, in fact, isn’t of fear. It’s of shame.

Going through an ER takes time, but the ICU is even longer. By the time we got to see the consultant, my pain was all but gone, and there was precious little in terms of advice that I could get, other than ‘Just keep doing what you’re doing, and have your anti-inflammatories on hand.’ My Dad had travelled to London on his day off to support me. Aside from my freakout on the station, I’d basically ridden out the thing in wheelchairs.

But would I have done so well if I didn’t get help? If I had walked, or if I had just decided to sit down and wait until the next train home? What would have happened if I waited for too long, and was too far gone before anyone noticed I needed help? Who knows? I don’t.

I still felt ashamed, and embarrassed. That the outcome hadn’t been more dramatic, perhaps.

Joys of being a 20-something.

In the end, my father and I walked out under the grey sky, my stomach grumbling, and me, marvelling at how good walking felt again. I didn’t get the job, although they did very kindly offer to reschedule my interview. I ended up doing something completely different. One might say, it was for the best.

It wasn’t even the worst episode I’d ever had. Not by a long shot.

But it left an impact.

*

I woke up today, in pain. Not in a great deal of pain, but enough for me to seriously worry. I spent the entire Friday resting, crying, cursing myself. Being angry that my body has, once again, sabotaged an opportunity for me. My chance at going to a writer’s retreat was ruined.

I couldn’t even write, my brain was so full of cotton wool.

Then, eventually, I stopped trying.

And I told myself I’d try again in the morning.

*

The cotton wool cleared early.

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One thought on “Affliction

  1. You are not alone in feeling ashamed and guilty for going to the ER. I’ve had it a few times where I wondered why I was there, but in the end, no matter the outcome, it was good I went. One time I thought I was having a heart attack and it ended up being a panic attack – before I knew what panic attacks were really like, so it scared me to pieces. I am sorry you deal with random mysterious pain, I am currently trying to figure out some health mysteries myself and it is not a fun time.
    Keep writing, I enjoy your work.

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