Sunday, 27 August 2017

Brain tumour? Stroke? Or stress??

As we drove home from Wales one Saturday a few weeks ago, a stiffness crept up my neck and settled into a sick ache at the back of my head, which held me in its grip for days.

Courtesy of Shutterstock

When I got up on Monday morning, great swirls of black floated across my field of vision, like globules of ink dropped into water. They were totally unlike the vague ‘floaters’ we all see and ignore. They moved slowly from left to right, as thick, black and undeniable as hieroglyphics spelling out a message of alarm.

When professionals asked later whether they were in one or both eyes, I could only answer, ‘It looked as though they were actually there.’

A few moments later, as I stared into the mirror, they faded to nothing. They appeared again later in the morning, much fainter this time.

I do not worry about my health or imagine that every symptom is something deadly. I was worried about this.

The receptionist at our surgery asked what the problem was.

‘An alarming visual disturbance,’ I said.

I have never had a migraine and don’t suffer from headaches, so for me, the word ‘alarming’ was key. She didn’t seem to hear it. She booked me in to see a nurse practitioner.

By the time I reached the surgery, I had reassured myself that this was probably a virus, or a late onset migraine. The nurse practitioner did not agree. She wanted to send me for an MRI scan and I needed to get a full sight test first. The occipital headache and the visual disturbance could be signs of ‘something neurological’ causing pressure at the back of my head.

‘But I’m going on holiday on Thursday. Am I OK to fly?’ I asked.

She looked uncertain, but then urged me to book a sight test for my return. ‘Relax and enjoy your holiday,’ she said.

This seemed a vain hope when she recommended going straight to the nearest hospital if my symptoms returned.

Later my mind was swamped with questions I hadn’t asked and advice I hadn’t taken in. I rang and asked to speak to a doctor.

I went to a friend’s house but couldn’t focus on anything. At last the doctor rang. After taking all the details, he said it sounded like an ‘anomalous neurological event’. I rather liked the word, ‘anomalous’, which I interpreted as ‘random, benign, irrelevant and never-to-return.’ He advised getting a full sight test that day, to rule out a serious eye condition or anything causing pressure behind my eyes.

As I say, I don’t jump to dire conclusions when it comes to my health, but I asked him to spell out what we were hoping to rule out. I had correctly guessed ‘brain tumour’, though I hadn’t suspected ‘minor stroke’ because my blood pressure is the envy of anyone who tests it. There was no space in my head to worry about the awful eye conditions that were also candidates.

Specsavers Tunbridge Wells were reassuring, kind and thorough. They fitted me in that afternoon, despite being swamped, and over an anxious three hours, every test was done. There was nothing wrong with my eyes.

We flew of the Montenegro and the recurrences of floating swirls faded into the usual kind that I could happily ignore. The sick headache was eased away by sunshine, sea swims, sightseeing and relaxation.

Relaxation, Montenegro style

Stressed? Me?

The doctor’s latest pronouncement is that this was most likely an anomalous neurological event caused by stress. I am, of course, massively grateful to be pronounced healthy. But like everyone accused of suffering from stress, I was initially reluctant to accept this. I immediately thought of many people who have much more right to be stressed than me.

Jon and I pondered the possible causes.

  • The partial collapse of my parents’ house.
  • My sister’s husband going through a major operation.
  • All my freelance work arriving at once, just as I was going on holiday, and festering, undone, at the back of my head.
  • The decision to self-publish Unspeakable Things, and the first steps towards making it happen.

I have to admit, the final cause is the most likely. The ‘To Do’ list for the self-publisher is long and troubling – with items such as, ‘Become a social media sensation’ to contend with.

Two Titans are battling it out in my head: the lifelong drive to be a published writer and the temptation to give up as usual and have a quiet life in obscurity. The ambition and the self-saboteur are both fierce and terrifying.

So the battle is on. The Titans are roaring. It’s no wonder I’ve been having headaches. But you never get the success you dream of if you don’t risk the failure you fear. I won’t let black swirly things stand in my way.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Brits Abroad

Montenegro. Beautiful, but occasionally troubling if you are British.

It’s tough being a Brit abroad. Rules we hold dear are flouted in every other part of the world. Our British upbringing makes society function at home, but leaves us floundering and furious abroad.

And we can’t SAY anything, because we’re too polite. We hold onto our rage and vent it later in a strongly worded whinge.

Don’t mention the smell

I used to work in a dog-friendly office. One day a terrible smell engulfed our desks. We endured it for half an hour, afraid to mention it in case it exposed someone’s secret shame. We did this right up until someone discovered a dog turd on the carpet.

‘Oh thank God!’ we all said. ‘I was starting to feel ill, but I didn’t like to say…’

Inflatable anxiety

It quite clearly says..!

Day one at our resort in Montenegro and a grandma arrived at the pool with small children and an inflatable pizza slice. I stiffened. A notice quite clearly stated that inflatables were not allowed. No one said anything for a while. Then a shocked British child whispered to his Dad.

‘I know!’ he said. ‘Inflatables are not allowed!’

I knew that, like me, he wouldn’t be able to relax until the rule-breaking floater had been removed. It should not have mattered to me. I was not using the pool. It’s just a British obsession with fairness that torments me. If others are refraining from floating pizza fun, how can this be allowed?

Queue decency outraged

It got worse. We went on a boat trip to a blue cave, and then a gorgeous beach. As the time approached for the boat to pick us up, my family formed the front of an orderly queue on the quayside. I twitched with nerves as others ambled in front of us, and fought down horror as the boat arrived and they all surged to the gangway ahead of us.

The scene of the outrage.

As I reached the front, a boatman’s arm came down across the entrance. The boat was full.

I stared at the people already on the boat. Did they know they were terrible people, that civilization itself was in danger of collapse?

‘Mate?!’ said my older son. He was born abroad but brought up by Brits.

The boatman shrugged. ‘Another boat is coming.’

‘Oh yeah,’ said my younger son, who is familiar with this part of the world. ‘Queuing is literally not a thing. You’ve got to go for it.’

Right, I thought. At least I’m at the head of the queue this time. I mean, the boatman’s arm came down in front of me. That makes me first, right?

But as the second boat approached, the queue turned into a human swarm in which numerical order –  moral order! – was abandoned. I did my best to push with the best of them this time, but somehow my British DNA would not allow it. I stepped on board last.

Perhaps driven by shame, someone shunted up to let me sit down. Only my sunglasses saved the rabble from a glare that told of the depths of degradation to which these people had sunk.

At least I had retained the moral high ground. Either that, or I was really rubbish at this. I hope I am never involved in the scrabble for a lifeboat.

As we sailed back in a golden sunset, I realised that there was no aggression or malice in my fellow passengers’ behaviour. I had seen civilization give way to savagery. They had just got on a boat.

British babies, playing together, are taught to take turns. If they don’t, they are met with outrage, as if they had thrown the contents of their nappy in someone’s face. That’s why it is so hard to abandon this rule in later life.

Brit’s revenge

A small comfort to us Brits abroad is the chance for a good moan. I have always loved discovering other cultures, but I am not above snottiness when it comes to tea. As I sipped yet another inadequate brew in Montenegro, I burst out,

‘I know now why foreigners don’t put milk in their tea. It’s because their milk’s disgusting.’

Best tantrum ever

We have a British family to thank for one of most entertaining tantrums I have ever seen.

One evening a small boy trailed along a beachside strip of restaurants, fairground rides, bars and entertainments. He was wailing,

‘LET me! You’ve got to LET me! Not tomorrow! Now! You’ve got to let me NOW!’

His bafflement and grief hung on the balmy air. His parents walked ahead in stoical silence – perhaps defeated, perhaps just too polite to say anything.

The moment led to a holiday catchphrase. ‘You’ve got to LET me!’ we moaned at each other whenever the need arose.