Monday, 4 June 2018

Under This Blue

I grew up near the coast in Western Australia and I also grew up in the landlocked English midlands of Robin Hood territory, Nottingham.
I lived in both places, two separate times and moved within each of them a total of 13 times before I’d reached 12. So much moving in early childhood created an undercurrent of trying to figure out my place in an unfamiliar landscape that flowed through much of my life.

It was a childhood yo-yoing between,
Sunburn, wide, open skies, barefoot running on scorching beach sand
Suburban grey, low hanging cloud.
Chilblain fingers of the icicle window-pane, winters
That we shivered through, in our joined up houses.
“Ay-up me duck”-
Took over from
“How’s it goin?”
I had to remember that lollies were made of ice in England
Although they were sweets in Australia,
And chips were crisps unless they were hot
(This is vital information to assimilate in childhood)…
Then later as a 12 year old –
Flip-flops were definitely not thongs in Nottingham
And more importantly “Spunky” is not the word to use to describe the boy you think is good looking. (as that's just taking it to a whole new level!) 

The ocean however, has always felt like home. 

In my early years the Australian beach was something I took for granted.
I remember watching electric storms over the water. 
Swimming in the evening to try and cool down during a heat wave….
 All the waves… Diving into them, getting dumped by the big ones, rolling over and over, feeling as though I would drown, But I loved it.
I loved being in the water, imagining myself as a mermaid.
My hands would wrinkle and I’d always be the last one out.
My parents yelling,
“Time to go now, Rachel get out, it’s time to go!”

It’s easy to romanticize the Aussie life, but when I was there, I missed the green… the forests, seasons, the countryside and the old buildings and narrow roads. I missed my grandmother and her well-spoken, good-mannered, kindness and probably most of all, I missed her big old farmhouse surrounded by fields.

It was a childhood of contrasts.
It was a childhood of leaving.
It was a childhood of arrival.
It was a childhood of grieving…

Memories… Some we cherish and some sneak up on us triggered by sight or sound or word or smell or face.

There was one particular summer that my mind holds onto.
I was becoming a good swimmer.
I’d won some races in the pool at school.
My Dad began taking me to the beach in the mornings before school.
He’d sit on the sand and I would swim.
And there for 30 minutes I would wake up in the water, on my own.
Floating, splashing.
Red eyed.
I perfected my backward somersaults and my underwater handstands…

I was also in awe of the sea. As much as I loved it, it frightened me… I knew about sharks and I knew about currents and I knew about waves so big that there would be no chance that I could out swim them. I knew about jellyfish and seaweed and in all this knowing there was the understanding that this ocean that I loved, was not necessarily my friend. I had to be wise to it, if I was going to survive it.

In December 2011 I discovered that I was pregnant with our first child. Suddenly my own childhood began to sift my thoughts. I recalled my life of migration as I watched the refugee crisis unfolding within the world around me. I recalled the ocean and sensations of swimming, being submerged in water, as the fetus swam and turned somersaults inside me. I found myself returning to that summer in the sea, pin pointing the moments when I felt completely comfortable in my skin, doing my thing, being myself. Being part of the landscape, not just on it, or next to it, but actually in it, working with a force that was greater than myself... counting the waves as they washed over me, just as the child growing in me was at once herself but also a part of me, working with the life force of my body.

All this became the backdrop to my Somersaults song... 


Under this blue 
Back somersaults 
Who would miss me? 
And why so much? 
Keep staring up 
Keep drifting out 
Who would miss me? 
And know my touch 
Under this blue 
Under this blue 

Into this deep 
Head back and kick 
Tight to a ball 
Head back 
And fall 
Keep turning 
These summer 
Summer somersaults 

Today I have just signed my daughter up for swimming lessons. 
I wonder how she will take to it...

Tuesday, 27 March 2018

Lament Of The Selkie (Research and Development Project)

As many of you know I was delighted to receive Research and Development funding from Arts Council Wales, with support and funding in kind from Llanelli's Fwrnes Theatre. The grant offered funding to explore turning my latest album Stone's Throw, Lament Of The Selkie into a multi art form performance.  I have been privileged to have spent 10 days of this last month collaborating with Gig Theatre expert Lucy Rivers of Gagglebabble, Autobiographical story telling expert Eleanor Shaw of People Speak Up  and socially engaged practitioner and Visual Artist Bill Taylor-Beales of Hushland Creative. (Yep the very same Bill I've been married to all these years.)

In order to do this the project explored ways of combining the mythological selkie story, with my autobiographical story of injury and immobility during pregnancy and the birth trauma that followed.  It wasn't easy trawling through the layers of my trauma again, but Lucy, Eleanor and Bill were incredibly compassionate and empathetic and enabled me to find processes to engage with the content.

Throughout the project we sought to find new collaborative and creative ways of retelling these stories through a combination of music, song, spoken word, storytelling and visual image. Our objective was to create the initial foundations for a full-length show that could be toured in the future.

Below are a few pictures of our initial collaborations, story boarding a script, that I later went on to develop into a first draft version of the show.

As part of the research element of the project, a session was held in collaboration with People Speak Up, providing discussion, consultation and conversation about the themes and content of the project, with women from the local community. The women were also invited to contribute their own voices, through audio and video that could be used in the final sharing performance piece. We also put a call out online for people to be involved in this aspect of the project and received input and contributions from women from all over the world. I'm so grateful to everyone who contributed, this aspect of the performance piece has really moved the project into deeper realms. For our next round of funding we're going to explore taking this idea into each location we perform in, so that we can create site and community specific elements to each performance. (See one of the videos we created below at the end of the blog.)

We shared our final work in progress on March 7th at the Stwidio Venue, of Ffwrnes Theatre. The Q &A discussion that followed the performance was enlightening as it became apparent that this content and subject matter of birth trauma is so rarely explored on stage. I have been staggered by the amount of positive feedback I've had throughout this project regarding the subject matter and need to hear stories that reflect the reality that so many women face.

So, now we are in the final stages of evaluating the project and looking at the next round of funding to fully produce the piece. I will be bringing on board  a director and script editor (dramaturgy the official word) to help further develop the stories as well as lighting and sound designers for phase 2. We're also going to develop the "women's voices"  community / audience development workshops for each of the venues we perform in so that we can continue to include the voices of women that we encounter in each final performance.

Huge thanks to all who have been involved with each stage of this project, offering support, answering questions, sending me audio/ video and text, endorsements, attending the events and sharing the info on social media. A big shout out to Lucy Rivers, Eleanor Shaw and People Speak Up, Bill Taylor-Beales, Jonny Rees, Sharon Casey and all at Ffwrnes Theatre, Henry Rees and Arts Council Wales for enabling this all to happen.

I'll end the blog here with one of the videos we made that included women's voices both locally and globally. During the performance Lucy and I provided live music underscore, but we've added soundtrack here online to give a sense of the atmosphere that the music created to the visual images.

Stone's Throw Exit film with underscore... from Bill Taylor-Beales on Vimeo.



Friday, 1 September 2017

Turbulence Part 10: An Embracing

(Once more we’d boarded a long haul flight and were hitting those rough air currents again)

Towards the end of the first 12 months of our daughter’s life, Bill began to develop severe migraines, most likely triggered by sleep deprivation. As time went on these became chronic, until he faced them daily. Just as my strength was returning I went from being cared for to care giver in a complete role reversal. It was very difficult for all of us but I remember a sense of relief to be well enough in myself to be able to do this. Bill was and is incredible. I genuinely don’t know how he managed to keep working through what he was going through. My admiration knows no bounds for his persistence. Pain filled days, darkened rooms, lack of sleep… the pressure was heavy and unrelenting. I realised that I really couldn’t be out touring and on the road again, with Bill in that condition trying to look after our daughter. So as I released my Stone’s Throw, Lament Of The Selkie album, I had to let go of the big push of live work that would normally accompany an album.  After two years of trialling various medications, some of which had severe side effects, Bill finally found a medication that did at least help, even if it didn’t prevent the onslaught of the migraines.

It wasn’t all doom and gloom. We made the most of the moments that were migraine free and grabbed days at the beach in the sun when it shone (a rare commodity living in Wales) as well as when it rained. We recorded and worked on our creative music projects in the evenings and did our best to defy the ongoing battles of health hardships. As with any chronic condition, it becomes normalised as you learn to live with it.

But there was another turbulent factor that began to sweep across the UK however, namely the political business of “austerity.” The cuts to arts and third sector budgets were becoming increasingly severe. We watched on as our peers and colleagues began to find themselves out of work and then, Bill’s own role as creative director of his self founded arts charity became more and more unsustainable. Revenue funding was nowhere to be found.  Eventually the heart breaking decision was made that after running for over a decade the best thing to do with Bill’s People Around Here charity was to amalgamate it into a larger organisation, to enable some of its work to continue. As Bill’s own job searching began, it soon became apparent how crushing and far reaching the regime of austerity cuts have been for so many and inevitably, despite our best efforts, our worst case scenario “that if we couldn’t pay the rent once the charity had ended then we’d have to put our stuff in storage and stay with my folks for a while” is what happened.
Home and studio packed up, just our clothes and an acoustic guitar, our pets, (one of whom has now passed away) and as many toys as we could fit into a bag for our 4 year old daughter.

In many ways for me this latest round of turbulence has felt so much easier than any of the post birth trauma. I can walk, I can function, I can sing, I can carry and lift, physically and emotionally. I can fully engage with life and all the people in my life. Helping to found the One Day Without Us campaign in support of migrants (the week after we packed up our home) was both a great experience and a great distraction strategy. Sometimes it helps to just focus on others, many of whom have far greater troubles. More and more I find myself empathising with the devastation that is faced by refugees…This part of the story isn’t over yet, we’ve lived in limbo, travelling the length and breadth of the UK for interviews (picking up small bits of freelance work along the way) for 11 months… but events of recent weeks have brought new hope with them that very soon we will be back in a home of our own

People say we have to embrace our pain and my kneejerk reaction is to want to yell “No, that’s not it, that’s missing the point of what pain is, that’s masochism.” Yes, I accept that there will be pain in my life, but that doesn’t mean that I want to run head on to embrace and greet it, generally I’ll run the opposite direction and try to repel it if possible. I want to be spared from pain and to save others from having to go through an experience of it if possible, but I know that sometimes there is just no way to avoid pain.

Going beyond the semantics and working from the understanding that to embrace means to accept, (as in embracing an idea) I can fully comprehend that pain is an essential part of life and that without it there can be no growth.
I do not accept that all pain is justified or “meant to be”.
I do believe however, that all of us are able to take our brokenness and allow something new, beautiful and true to be born out of, and in response to, the wreckage of our lived experiences. This doesn’t have to be via an art form, though it is what most artists do, but it can equally be through conversations, life choices and attitudes. Sometimes we can attribute new purpose, worth and meaning to ourselves that becomes far greater than the initial suffering and that has the power to reach and heal far and wide. Sometimes it’s just about being authentic. Not having a grand plan or wisdom or ambition, just saying, “This is who I am here and now. This is my life.” And through that honest vulnerability others can say, “Yes, I know that too in my own way, this is how it happened for me”…  and so as we resonate, we discover we are not alone.

Some pain we can bear. Some pain is unbearable and we break.

So do I embrace it?

I embrace life.

In embracing life I acknowledge that pain is part of the fullness of this mortal existence. If the physical process childbirth reveals one thing, it’s that there is no life without pain.
I learn to embrace the growth I can make out of pain.
I learn to embrace and lean with compassion into the part of myself that experienced pain.
I learn to embrace a process of recovery.
I learn to embrace a process of facing up to pain and in doing so destroying its power.
I learn to embrace a process of overcoming my fear of pain.
I learn to own my pain as part of who I am and I can choose to hold onto it or find a way of letting it go (and sometimes I think I do both at the same time.)
I learn to embrace my story and the sum of the parts that make up the whole.

None of that is easy... (Brief pause for my cynical internal voice moment saying, “You embrace life?! Could you sound any more pretentious? At least suffix it with a…“well I try to” statement...”)

I don’t deny any of the struggle, anger, frustration, bitterness, loneliness, self doubt or hopelessness I experience as I try and I fail and try and fail again. Every now and then however, I find that I can and that I am and that I have managed to learn to do some of the above and that is reason enough to continue to try. I know that I wouldn’t be the person I am now (for better or for worse) if I hadn’t gone through these and other experiences.

In telling my story I reclaim the narrative and choose the interpretation that best serves me to continually overcome. I can now perceive myself not as the victim of a specific set of circumstances but as a survivor who finds a way through.

I rediscover my story reflected in the words and lives of others; in the myths and the legends, in the novels and songs and paintings and poems, sacred and secular and across the blurry line where there is no longer any divide, and in those moments of connection my own narrative becomes part of something greater. We are all stories and each of our stories interconnects to make up the epic tale of humanity in the cosmos that has been ebbing and flowing from the moment life first crawled out of the ocean. The pages of our brokenness aren’t always an ending. Sometimes they lead into new chapters of redemption as we regain ourselves, or even just survive to live another day. Sometimes the new beginning comes from a totally unexpected angle as life takes on a twist that we never could have predicted.  Sometimes it may be as simple as an unexpected act of kindness or empathy from another human.

The turbulence is never going to stop shaking up the long haul flights of our lives.

Dark days and anxious nights will visit far too often... and stay far too long…

But, if I am going to say that these last five years have taught me anything it’s the truth in the words that Leonard Cohen sang:

“There is a crack, a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Turbulence Part 9: Selkies and Selfies

It was time to get back onto a plane and prepare myself for take off…

The longer I didn’t play music, the more self-doubt seeped into my psyche.
What if I could never get my voice back again?
How would I ever be able to perform in front of people again?
Our internal narratives are usually cruel and rarely constructive. Tentatively, I began to take off on a new flight of my musical self and discovered that music was not lost to me, rather it was my confidence that had been shattered. What I needed to do was just start, right there from my place of weakness and allow myself to learn how to play again while giving myself permission to fail and (in the words of Bob Dylan) “keep on keeping on”. Ability can be retrained and re learned and deeply frustrating as it was to have to start again, it was not going to be impossible to gain back physical strength and control enough to play and sing. I just had to make myself begin.

Like my re-beginning to walk, it was a slow process. My back was still so weak that at first I couldn’t even hold my guitars let alone play them. I started with my lightweight ukulele, then little by little began to play the bigger instruments, initially for only five minutes at a time before my back muscles would twinge and begin to spasm. It was hard to imagine that I'd ever be gig fit again but, as with everything over time, (and with lots of physio) I became stronger. 

Bill and I decided to reinvest finance I’d set aside for the cancelled EP I’d been due to record at the time of my accident, into to creating our own home recording studio. So we did. The studio became both a lifeline and a sanctuary. In those precious moments when our daughter was asleep and we were actually awake and lucid enough to engage, we started working on tracks and it was during these times that I began to take ownership of myself as a singer songwriter again.

Before my fall in Italy, I’d been working on a collaborative project with my friend, Gill Stevens, who had introduced me to the selkie (magical seal people) mythology of Orkneys.  Little had I known then how central a role the selkie story was to play in the coming months and years. I now revisited the songs I’d last been working on and in doing so walked back into in the skin of the selkie. There in the ancient legends of her mythology I found a resonance with my own story. The power of the artistic muse is a most mysterious and fragile entity. It is unique to each of us. Every artist will have their own way of describing the creative process but the key word here is 'create', to make a new energy and to inhabit that journey of discovery and imagination. I was profoundly moved by revisiting words I had penned prior to the last nine months and how they now had deep and powerful relevance.

I’d written Selkie’s Song before my accident. It was based on the female selkie legends and the lyric describes a selkie woman's struggle with her identity when her seal skin is stolen from her, leaving her trapped in human form unable to transform and return to her ocean home. The words I’d written so many months before, took on a whole new meaning. 

 “This skin it won’t fit like it used to
These bones they don’t hold it so well
In too many ways I’m a stranger
And it’s a stranger who warms you right now”

Her restlessness and longing to feel comfortable in her own skin now resonated deeply with my own struggles of trying to rebuild my battered body. This song was no longer just describing an imaginary character it was now also a personal song about me.  

As I read and researched the folklore, I found that many myths focussed on the selkie trying to reclaim her stolen skin so that she could return to her first love, the ocean. In some stories this meant that she had to abandon her human husband and children on land. In other stories her children couldn’t survive on land and had to be returned to the ocean while she was left stranded without them. I began to see her as the outsider, the refugee in spirit and circumstance, the mother in the wrong body struggling to find her place in this world. The selkie became an extension of me, but she was also the version of me who didn’t recover. She allowed me to explore my “What if ?” In the narrative that I reconstructed, Selkie's troubled mind led her to the point of falling back into the ocean to return home, but this event created a devastating ending for everyone else around her. 

The muse didn’t stop at my personal trauma. Selkie became my way of dealing with all the other external turbulence that had been happening around me. During my pregnancy and the subsequent few years, several of my closest friends had faced the heartbreak of miscarriages... We experienced multiple tragic losses of friends and family both through natural causes and suicide... Relationships and marriages broke down around us…Globally the wars in Gaza and Syria and the outrageous killings of so many innocent young civilians, the endless rise in refugees of war, economic and ecological circumstance, all played heavily in my heart and mind. While I sought to process all these events of the world around me, I found that Selkie became a vehicle to filter my lamentations and the many themes of refugees, loss, depression, grief, fragile sanity and unstable circumstance found their way into the lyrics.

I wondered if it was all too dark, but then reminded myself that much folklore is very dark as it is rooted in the plight of humanity. I just needed to be brave enough to stay the path that the muse was taking me. Stories are an innate part of human existence. The stories of our own lives intersect, ebb, flow, decline and rebuild.  I interpreted Selkie’s story in the world around me, I saw her reflection in my own struggles and in the hardship of my friends. She was both ancient history’s legend and 21st century’s reality and I soon found that I was working on a full concept album.

As I’m writing my story again, I realise I’ve already been telling it in different ways over the last five years, through our post birth debrief and the written account for the investigation as well as my counselling sessions and many conversations with friends and family. In each successive retelling, I’ve been able to look back with a greater objective clarity and a gradually lessening fear of the pain inherent within. The emotional retelling through the medium of the selkie and her re-imagined story in my album was totally different. I was able to pour all of my pain, trauma and heartache into the songs and music I was creating. It was nonlinear and raw and operated outside of cerebral analysis. Once again art was offering me a lifeline of survival and healing. I would not have been able to make any of my story public as I am doing now with these blog posts, without having first gone through all of these previous retellings.

Bill and I took two years to record the album slowly chipping away track by track. In the second year I redid all of my vocals as I’d finally regained strength and found my voice (and tuning) again. 

Sadly, just as my health began to improve, Bill’s began to decline and yet another kind of shake up was on its way. 

Stone's Throw, Lament Of The Selkie is available on Bandcamp 

Wednesday, 23 August 2017

Turbulence Part 8: Replay and Rebuild

Post crash  - finding the black box flight recording and replaying it - What went wrong and how had this been allowed to happen? The path to recovery had to be met on every level and it had many potholes.

The replaying

“I think I need to talk to someone.”

Bill looked up from his coffee. He’d heard from my tone that I was saying something big.  

“I think I need some counselling, to talk to someone about everything that’s happened, so that we can make the complaint, I just can’t go there again and write it all.”

My health visitor had suggested that we attend an official birth debrief with a consulting midwife at the hospital. Both Bill and I welcomed this, we had so many unresolved questions. During the debrief, the consulting midwife handling my case became more and more concerned about aspects of my experiences as we relayed them. At the end of our session she strongly urged us to make a formal complaint so that there could be an official investigation into my care. I agreed that this could be a good thing to do, both for myself and future patients and told her that I’d be in touch, but as the months went on I found that I couldn’t easily talk or write about my trauma and I needed to put it all down in detail in order to lodge the complaint.

I stalled for six months.

How could I walk back into that time and relive each and every moment that had been so torturous and brought me to the point at which I’d broken both mentally and physically?  

Then, on Easter Sunday 2013, (full of chocolate) I suddenly found myself online searching for trauma counselling. As I’d put our daughter down for her nap, the niggling inner voice had come at me again saying, “You have to write about what happened, or you’ll never make that complaint.” I realised at that moment the only way I would be able to revisit what had happened, would be if I got professional help. I booked myself 6 sessions with a counsellor who specialised in trauma in order to help create a game plan to deal with all that had happened. Talking to a professional listener is always a good thing to do. I wrote my story for the first time as a part of those sessions.

The complaint went through in detail (along with recognition of great work from some key medical staff) and although many of the issues were never fully dealt with, the ward midwife who had so mishandled my situation was put on a monitoring system as a result of the investigation, it was not the first complaint lodged against her.

The Rebuilding

My physio sessions continued over the next year. 
I started my own baby steps of walking again without crutches. 
First milestone was to make it down to the end of our street.
The next was around the block and then around the bigger block, until finally the day came when I was strong enough to physically walk to the park on my own!
My daughter and I were learning to move and grow in physical strength together at the same pace. She brought (and still brings me) so much joy. I was awed at her being and revelled in her tenacity for life. She gave me new eyes, new insight and a new focus. I watched her determination to master each of her new milestones. She was definitely a major player in my recovery process. As she loved and needed me, she also filled me with new purpose, kept me busy and meant that I had no choice but to throw myself back into engaging with life.

I must admit however, that at the same time as I was awed with my new sense of purpose and the wonder that is my daughter, the trouble and turbulence of loss began to rattle and shake me while I struggled to rebuild myself. This time the loss centred on my identity as I tried to figure out who and where I was in the new version of me as a mum.

I think that on some level, every new mother has to face these questions of how to come to terms with their post baby body and their new baby filled life?

One of the big questions that played over and over was how could I become Rachel, "The Singer Songwriter" again? That person on a stage in a kooky hat and steam-punk dress playing those songs, seemed so alien and far away now. The lady who would walk into an unknown room, in an unknown city, in an unknown country and sing a capella bringing a rowdy crowd into stillness, she was not this unfamiliar person, called mum. This new version of myself couldn’t even fit into any of those gig clothes, let alone stay awake long enough play a set!

I was huge. I tried not to beat myself up about it, (I mean what else is there to do when you’re house bound, recovering from injuries and growing a baby, but to eat cake?!) but after pregnancy and the birth trauma I found that I didn’t recognise myself either physically or internally. My scar was a daily reminder of all I’d been through. It was a physical jagged line reflecting back the lines that my mind and body had crossed. Having such limited mobility for all those months as well as the invasive surgery had meant that my muscles had atrophied. My core muscles weren’t even strong enough for me to hold my notes in tune when I sang, let alone strum my guitar. I was stripped of music and my ability to make it from within.

This was hard.

Music was and is so much a part of me.

Identity can be a devious thing. We all fill our minds with tricks, devices and props to ease ourselves though our days. We are what we do. We kid ourselves that what we can do will build our importance. We torment ourselves over our physical appearance and our self confidence rises and falls in relation to what we tell ourselves and how we perceive ourselves. At that moment I didn’t have the ability (or time) to do much of anything that I’d being used to doing previously. My body didn’t do or look anything like that of my previous self. The rebuilding here took a lot of self compassion to accept who I was right in that moment. Sometimes I succeeded and sometimes I failed. There were days when dredging through everything was too much. The mud and muck of my circumstances clung thick and fast in a smothering blanket of dark thought. Some days I wallowed under the covers of self pity, other days it wasn’t so much wallowing, it was just too much effort to lift the weight of those heavy sheets and the best I could do was simply try to come up for air and catch my breath, but having a baby meant I didn’t have time to stay there long. In those times I think an instinctive primal ‘mum type wiring’ kicked in as I knew I needed to take the focus off myself and get busy keeping my focus on caring for my daughter.

Through it all I realised that it was going to be a long time before I was going to be able to find the singer songwriter again and that when I did, she would be a whole new entity, as the scars of these experiences had and were changing me.

Monday, 21 August 2017

Turbulence Part 7: Debris

As far as a landing goes it was more like a series of crash landings with bits of the plane falling off at every impact. It was full of confusion. Were we airbourne? Were we on the ground? Where is the plane? There I sat unable to move with the remains of the fuselage scattered around me unrecognisable as a plane, just as my life was unrecognisable from 9 months previous… 
Would we be able to find and gather all the pieces to put back together to build something that was once again recognizable, or did we need to start again from scratch?

As I’m writing my story, I am aware of so many other stories of huge suffering around me.
There are people in my life who have been through horrific chemo and radiotherapy that has savaged them to the point of a living death existence while they endure it. There are dear friends of mine who have lost their partners and/or their children. There are those living with chronic physical pain or tormenting psychological illness on a daily basis. There are a few whose bodies and minds have been violated by the criminal actions of others. I hear my own words in the context of everything else and know that all I went through, is just life. None of us makes it out unscathed. We all have to find ways of getting up and beginning again when that rug is pulled out from beneath us and we crash and burn. This is hard. 

It was heart breaking and defeating to be back in hospital.  Although my objective self knew I needed to be there, my subjective self felt like I was in prison. In retrospect I find myself thinking about torture techniques and how repeated physical and emotional pain are used to break a person.  Of course I don’t compare what happened to me as equal to what survivors of torture have experienced, but I do feel a small amount of heightened insight as to the breaking of a soul in that way.
Add to the mix: The trauma of my fall, Bill’s near death experience, months of physical pain from my injuries, months of sleep deprivation, the epic and traumatic events of birthing and haemorrhaging, necessary but excruciating physical pain inflicted by staff with no warning or worse a false statement of “this procedure will just feel a little bit uncomfortable” constant noise and bright neon lights of a hospital environment, building work outside my room and drills sounding non stop through the daytime, a continuing cocktail of drugs, claustrophobic spaces of an MRI scan, the underlying undiagnosed medical conditions that had been ignored and dismissed as nothing important and finally listening to the sound of a few gossiping staff members making negative uninformed and disparaging comments outside my door.  All this, compounded by my own sense of grief that I was unable to properly care for my newborn child, had added up to bring me to breaking point.

Nobody knew why I had lost my memory in those moments. It might have been any number of medical symptoms from anaemia to TIA, or it might have been a psychological disassociating PTSD type of response to my trauma or just sheer fatigue so great that my mind couldn’t function, but for me experiencing those episodes of confusion and memory loss was the moment that I realised I was really very broken. Something inside had snapped both physically and psychologically. There was talk of brain scans, but in the end the consultants decided against it.

My bladder was stretched and distended and retaining disturbing amounts of fluid so the catheter went back in and then a few days later a system of monitoring began. The problem was, the hospital was so understaffed that there was nobody available who was qualified to operate a bladder scanner once the scanner finally had been located. I won’t go into the gory details of how we had to measure in the end except to say it was what they described as the old fashioned way… It is likely that I’d experienced bladder trauma from the impact of my falling and that this was part of my on going back pain but that in between my hospital admission in Italy and my re admission in the UK, there was a lot that didn’t get checked out. 

My haemoglobin levels had dropped significantly below 7 and I was finally given a blood transfusion. As I felt the cold new blood travelling through my body I wondered who this blood had previously been travelling in. I contemplated the fact that my story had intersected with complete strangers who would never know how much I valued their choice to offer something so vital in donating their blood. During the second unit I suddenly found that I began to feel more human, but then sadly almost as soon as I’d received the blood transfusion, my blood pressure soared and I developed postpartum preeclampsia. The Drs wondered if the blood loss from my haemorrhage had been masking that condition all along. Again I experienced the NHS stretched beyond what it could handle, as during the night, the staff were busy with an emergency situation and were unable to administer my medication.

We decided that one of the best things for me to do would be to try and get some sleep. This meant that Bill took our daughter back home with him for the nights I was re-admitted and she spent the days with me. The majority of staff were supportive of this decision but there were a few who felt differently and made it known to me, voicing their opinion both to my face and discussing me outside my room. New mums need support, not disapproving judgement. I knew they were afraid that I wouldn’t bond with our daughter. I already felt a terrible amount of personal emotional guilt about this, not being well enough to properly care for my own daughter, but knew that it really was the most helpful scenario to choose.  I also knew in myself that I already was as bonded as I possibly could be and that if I was going to have a fighting chance of getting well enough to function, then I needed to sleep. I believed that our daughter would feel more secure being cared for in the evening by her dad who she already knew and trusted as well as my mum who had who was on hand at that time, than by a member of staff who was a stranger.

I finally retuned home with beta-blockers and a truckload of extra iron tablets and visits from breastfeeding consultants. 

In the days that followed there was suddenly a lot of concern from visiting support team about our daughter not gaining enough weight as it transpired my milk wasn’t producing the fats/ nutrients needed. It had taken two full weeks for my milk to come in at all. At the time I could still barely walk (or do anything much physically, even changing a nappy was sending my muscles into spasm) but I found breastfeeding was something I could at least try to do. It was toe curlingly painful for many weeks, but I think I’d got so used to everything being so painful that I didn’t really question it. I don’t think I really knew how ill I’d been, or was, while I was going through everything. I had to top up every feed with formula for a few weeks but eventually we settled on continuing with a mixed feeding pattern 75 % me 25 % formula. It worked well and thankfully our baby was healthy and thriving.

I wasn’t depressed, but I was utterly and totally broken. I was starting from ground zero in every sense. I felt my life was a post apocalyptic wasteland of the person that I’d known. Anxiety and panic attacks visited me daily for many months and were often triggered by lack of natural light or lack of windows, anything that reminded me of the hospital lighting. Neon supermarkets were particularly awful.

I wandered through the debris of my broken self and very slowly began to rebuild.

Saturday, 19 August 2017

Turbulence Part 6: Crash Landing

Turbulence can be disturbing not only because of the physical experience of dropping through the sky but because you cannot anticipate it, you cannot brace yourself for it. The seat belt lights ping and a calm voice announces “We are experiencing some turbulence, please remain seated with your seat belt fastened at all times as the flight may be a little bumpy for while.” But turbulence is nothing compared to the landing, which is apparently the riskiest part of flying. According to Boeing statistical studies, 16% of fatal accidents occur during takeoff and initial climb, while 29% occur during approach and landing. So, after many hours of anticipation on the long haul flight you prepare yourself for the big descent but again the voice sounds over the tannoy saying “Ladies and gentlemen, this is your captain speaking. Due to heavy weather conditions we have been placed in a holding pattern circling the runway before descent...”
Just when I thought we might be coming into land with my whole birthing experience we were put into an decreasing flight pattern with continuing turbulence and an emergency crash landing...

After 4 days of pre birth trauma followed by the major postpartum haemorhage at delivery, I was not given a blood transfusion as my haemoglobin level was on the borderline of 7 and the Dr’s wanted to see if I would cope without one.

The circling begins

Day 5:
My right leg had lost further mobility during labour and we discovered it lacked normal feeling when I had an ice test the next morning. I needed an MRI scan. This meant undoing the metal beading from my stitches around my C-section scar and then re-stitching my scar. I also had to have a drain removed from my wound in order to undergo the scan. I was told to expect a little discomfort at its removal. This was not a correct description so I was unable to brace myself and mentally prepare. Slowly dragging a skewer out of your insides without any form of pain relief is the best description of what it felt like. Bill could hear me shrieking from the other room.

I blacked out during the MRI scan so it had to be halted half way through. (MRI result: aside from discovering I also had a degenerative disc and slipped, tilted vertebrae, was that my daughter had been pushing on the nerves at the top of my leg during labour causing bruising and numbness)

I developed an infection, spiked a fever and became covered in rashes and enormous blisters in an allergic reaction to the plasters I was given around my wound.

Day 6:
My back muscles were too weak and spasming for me to really hold my baby, let alone change her or feed her and I kept having reactions to the various painkillers (we found out later this was most likely a bi-product of my anaemia) I experienced reoccurring dizziness, so was also feeling scared to hold her in case I dropped her during a dizzy spell. I felt an inconvenience to the staff constantly pressing the button for assistance for everything, (even though that is what they were there to do.)

My body was too weak for my milk to come in properly so we had to top up and supplement with formula. I tried very hard to take in the information that the midwives and breast-feeding support offered.

My catheter was taken out.  (Too early it would later transpire…)

Day 7:
I had a run in with a midwife who thought I was exaggerating and being a hypochondriac when I said I was worried because it felt like my bladder was about to burst through my scar. She told me that was perfectly normal and just my wound, so I believed her. I later heard her gossiping and discussing me negatively in the corridors. (Bill heard also) It was very distressing.

I just needed to leave.

I was desperate to go home. I asked the midwife if there was a still a medical reason that I couldn’t go home at that point and said that I would stay if there was one but if not I would like to be discharged.

I felt that if I could just go home, I’d be able to breathe out and begin to get better. After all, having raised my health concern issues, the midwife in charge of me hadn’t seemed to take them seriously, so I just figured it was all part of the process and normal to be feeling the way I was feeling.

I was discharged with antibiotics and huge amounts of iron tablets.
I got home... coming into land...

Our baby daughter was safe and beautiful.

Bill and friends were around to help.

I had 24 hours at home and finally after a visit from a community midwife, I went to sleep.

I’d hardly slept for months.
Since my fall I hadn’t been able to lie down without pain, so my nights were spent propped up with pillows all around me and I’d only been getting three to a maximum four hours sleep. During the week of labour and post the birth I’d had much less per night.
I was utterly and totally exhausted.

I slept.


I woke up several hours later in my bed and felt contractions.

I saw Bill in the doorway, holding a child.

“Who’s that?” I asked feeling confused.

Bill became arrested in the moment and waited for my next words.

I carried on, feeling the afterbirth contractions and said something like

“The baby will be coming soon now.”

Bill began to look alarmed. 

“Rach?” he said.

Then, as he began to ask me some questions,

I realised that I couldn’t remember.

I had no idea what had happened or that I’d already had our baby.

It was another of the most terrifying moments I’ve ever experienced.

My reality was not reality.

I felt a thousand things at once, questions, confusion and fear all pounding, "What happens if I can't remember?" My brain clawed its way forward, in an effort to make sense of what was happening. In my minds eye I saw electricity sparks trying to connect as I searched for the pathways that would connect my memory and find the huge chunk that was missing. This lasted about five minutes, but it felt much longer.

Somehow, I found my way back. 


How could I not know my own child?

I woke up disorientated and confused for a second time again later that day but the effects only lasted one minute that time. A wave of dizzy, tingling, terror flooded my whole being.
My bladder still felt like it was going to burst though my scar. I could feel the weight of it.

The anxiety kept building.

My mind and body filled with dread as Bill phoned our DR who then called for a first response team and an ambulance to take me back into hospital.... this time our steadfast and unfaltering friend Becky was literally left holding our baby...