“Through me you go to the grief wracked city,
Through me to everlasting pain you go.”
Dante – Circles of Hell
The rain calms me, just as fear claims me. For some reason the sound of falling water is relief from the ever present throb and whir of anxiety and hyper-vigilance. I am not sure what I am being vigilant of, there is nothing there, just the ever present absence, and the sound of rain is a curtain which veils that emptiness. At night I sleep well as I drift away to the constant patter of relaxation soundtracks harvested from Youtube. I am listening to the rain now, as I write. You can listen to it too as you read if you wish, just hit this link and it will open in a new window, click play and you will enter the watery world of peace and rainquility. The rain is emptiness filled with neutral sound, there is also the childhood association that I have with rain.
When I was a small child I would listen intently to the the thunderstorms in the summer as they boomed and barged around the sky. I was fascinated by their power and seduced into a primeval world of godly light and noise. I was thrilled with childish terror as the clouds flashed mauve and white and the thunder crashed in celestial echoes of creation. In the morning the only sound remaining was the steady patter of rain falling on the garden and making dendritic patterns on the window panes.
The rain in the morning was a sign that the electric terror of the previous night had passed and all was well. There was a freshness in the air as the positively charged ions of dawn chased away the cloying discomfort of summer storms, thus leaving the world with a fresh and hopeful temperament.
On these mornings my dad would be in the kitchen making the morning cup of tea and burning the first round of toast. The smell of carbonised bread is another childhood odour that I find strangely reassuring. So you see I have a strong association with the sound of rain, it is my friend, and now, as I navigate the mapless swamps of post concussion syndrome, rain is my guide and my healer The sound of rain keeps me safe and fills the void that exists deep with in my brain where a single moment has conspired to render me frightened and alone.
Today I spoke to an Occupational Health doctor and for the first time, I felt that I was finally realising what it is that I am dealing with. It was a useful meeting and the clinician that I spoke to actually had both personal and professional experience with neuropathies. But let us rewind a week, because I have not written one of these blogs for a while and I need to catch you up. I had gone into the school, where I am the Librarian, last week. I wanted, needed, to know how I would respond to that environment. The Occupational Therapist part of my brain was curious to know just how much of a trigger the work environment would be. My appointment was at 11.30 and I had woken feeling pretty good: “a good day, this is a good day,” I remember thinking to myself. It is quite phenomenal how much of a difference there can be between the days; a day can be bad for absolutely no reason at all (or none that one might identify,) and somedays I feel almost myself again. On those days, the good ones, there is something that I can only describe as euphoria, I imaging it is how someone might feel returning to their family after a long and arduous journey. At the moment the bad days outweigh the good, especially since I relapsed at the beginning of January.
That day I felt pretty good. I was looking forward to going into work, I was looking forward to seeing colleagues and maybe planning a staged return. This was it, I was getting better. On the way into the school I was listening to music and singing along and making good time, I even had time to buy myself “a little smackerel of something,” as Pooh would say.* It was not until I was walking towards the front gate that I realised that my boyant mood had been nothing more than a subconscious ruse; a self delusional strategy, to prevent me from considering what I was doing.
I went in to the foyer and signed in with my badge, a familiar and mundane task that we all do at least twice a day, but there was a slight twinge in my back; the sense that I was about to experience something profound – and boy did I.
It had not occurred to me that 11.30 was lesson change over time, as soon as I walked through the second set of doors into the main reception area the lesson change bell went; which is less of a bell and more of a klaxon, the likes of which you would expect to here at a nuclear power station seconds after the reactor has gone into meltdown, at least that is how it sounded to me. The ugly sound of the bell slammed into my recovering temporal lobe and sent a mild shockwave through my being. At this point every single door opened and the classrooms disgorged their pupils into the area in which I now stood. I dashed for the staff only toilets which are opposite the reception area, pausing briefly to nod acknowledgement to the senior vice principle who was trying to greet meet. It is quite incredible how much can be communicated when under duress: with a vague nod and a flick of my palm I think I managed to say “sorry mate but I have just been freaked out by all the damn kids and I need to get out of this space because my head is about to explode and I may well try and throw someone through a window which really would not look could and could interfere with my DBS…”
Joking aside, it was horrific. I had wanted to come into work to gauge my response to the environmental triggers and this was worse than I could have imagined. By the time I got to the office where I was to meet the Operations Manager I was starting to sweat, I was visibly shaking, my jaw was clenched tight and all I could do was to look out of the window and try and be somewhere other than where I was. You need to know that I do enjoy my job. The people I work with are a fantastic team with great leadership and huge support from all staff. Ever since my injury I have felt nothing but compassion from the people I work with, especially those who are my superiors, so for me to not feel able to communicate was not normal. I could see the worry on everyone’s face, I could sense their concern and all I wanted to do was blurt out that I was okay and I would try and get back to work, but I knew that I could not because every ounce of self control I had was going into not running as fast as I could, or doing something so insane that I would never see my job again – these were my fears as I waited for the meeting.
In the meeting we discussed what the risk of me returning would be. We talked about stress levels, frequency of breaks, working hours, and anger issues around pupils. We discussed matters for about an hour and all the time I was shaking and stuttering and sounding like a madman trying to convince the world of his sanity. It was awful, but it is a testament to how much I enjoy my job that I was willing to put myself through this. When I left the meeting I walked as fast as I could back to my car, (you might think that it is odd that I am driving, but driving is the one place where I can relax and focus on a task which takes me away from the discomfort of post concussion syndrome.) As I drove home I could feel the tension leave me like a bad spirit, the journey exorcised the anxious horror so that when I got home I was able to sleep.
That evening, I told my wife how things had gone and she told me that she was proud that I had faced this fear and taken control of a situation that had been controlling me for so long. I felt a great release and a huge sense of achievement that I had put myself through this. When we work as therapists we ask our clients to challenge themselves in all sorts of ways, and even though I no longer work in the profession, it was a great lesson for me to understand what it means to put yourself in that position. In the meeting we had decided that nothing would happen until I had spoken to Occupational Health, and also that when I return I should have some time in my work area without any pupils. This would give me a chance to re-orientate myself with my systems and physical environment before facing the challenge of sharing the space with 840 teenagers. I had suggested these things, and I had also recommended that we do not plan too far ahead, but rather we should take things one step at a time and carefully assess each outcome. We had a plan, I was going to go back to work.
Was I fuck.
The Occupational Health centre was in Leeds. I had never been there before and all I knew was that it was near the station. I had looked at a map before I had set off, but my phone was out of data so I had to rely on some old school, pre-digital skills to find the place. I was already late due to an accident on the M62 and I hate being late for anything. I remember seeing Ricky Gervais talking about lateness as one of his pet hates on the TV show, Room 101. I was in total agreement; there is never an excuse for lateness, my attitude to lateness borders on the psychotic, but I am adamant there should be no reason for lateness other than death or war. I was 20 minutes late.
The woman behind the counter gave me a form to fill in and I was quickly seen into the consulting room by the doctor. I was still shaking with agitation and visibly heightened in my emotional state. The doctor gave me a friendly pat on the shoulder and said “don’t be agitated, it’s all okay.” I bit my tongue and refrained from the response that was rapidly composing itself in my head which would have questioned the clinician’s empathy skills and drenched her in splenetic fervour. So I kept my mouth shut as my struggling frontal lobe function made an executive decision under duress and an ugly confrontation was avoided.
One of the symptoms of this condition is anger. For the most part the sertraline is doing its job and diluting the concentrations of cortisol that are threatening to send me over the edge into a monstrous rage. Part of this anger response is psychological and relates to my frustration with my current situation, but there is a darker beast that lurks beneath the liminal. This anger is more ancient, more visceral and I dare not allow it purchase on my waking mind. Some nights I am troubled by this daemon, sometimes I lay awake with evil thoughts rotating in my mind, but I cannot allow this thing to surface, because I do not think I would be able to control its power. This is a dark energy that flows from the crack in my mind, the absence which I am trying to understand, the reason for all these blog entries.
Somewhere down there is the devil, and I must not give in.
The outcome of the Occupational Health assessment was fairly straight forwards: you are not ready for work. The doctor talked about PTSD symptoms and this was also flagged up by the Psychologist. My referral for Psychology has come through and there, at least, is a pathway to treatment that has been identified. I do not want to go into the clinical aspects just yet, that will come later once I have a handle on the process and something to reflect on. At this stage there is no sense in speculation. For now I must come back to the keyboard and write, because writing is the one thing that I am can control – that and making bread, and chopping wood and being here – these are the things that I am using to make sense of things at the moment. And when the devil stirs in the pits of my mind and threatens to burn me, I will put on my headphones and listen to the rain as it patters and pours, keeping me sane and slowing down the WUBWUBWUBWUBWUB of amygdalian terrors.
*If you are not familiar with Winnie the Pooh he is a bear and a beloved children’s character created by A A Milne. He is obsessed with honey and likes nothing more than stopping for a “little smackerel of something,” ie food.