Annus (partim) horribilis

I’ve had better years than 2012. Apart from an amazing adventure in New Zealand back in April, which was unforgettably exciting, it has rained more often than not, I’ve made little headway on the second draft of the novel, and I’ve seen the inside of hospitals and clinics more these three months than the preceding three decades combined.

In October I started struggling to cycle and to concentrate, and my heart was beating fast. The GP thought it must be asthma. My being out of breath got so bad that Mary insisted I phone the emergency doctor straight away. The nurse who called back said, “I can hear you’re out of breath – what have you just done?” When I told her I had only stood up to answer the phone, she arranged my first ever trip in an ambulance.

I had pulmonary emboli – multiple blood clots in both lungs. Often clots are only found postmortem, having caused fatal heart attacks or strokes. I was lucky not to have died. Apparently I have a strong heart. It’s rare for a 35-year old to suffer clots, and my age is probably one of the reasons I’m still alive.

Me, with pulmonary emboli, earlier

The strangest part of the condition is that we couldn’t identify a cause. No major injury or (recent) long haul flying, no history of embolism in the family. In May, when I’m off the anticoagulants, I’ll be tested for hereditary factors that may have allowed the clotting, perhaps needing the medicine for life. If it isn’t genetic, then the worry is that the same situation could arise again.

The hardest part has been the recovery – the grey area between serious illness and fitness. In hospital you know where you stand, or lie, with oxygen tubes and heart monitors and 17 syringes of your blood taken at once. And at some point in the future, I’ll be back on my bike, racing up Histon Road to the office, and throwing the children in the air when I get home.

But in between? In between is tricky.

You can’t magic blood clots away. Anticoagulants prevent any new clots forming and allow existing clots to naturally dissolve. But that takes time. Months, in fact. Plus my heart and lungs have taken one hell of a beating, and need time to repair. After a few fatigued weeks I pitched up to the office, only to end up back at the doctor with wildly irregular heartbeats. They were benign – but a wake up call that my major organs were trying to get better and I wasn’t giving them a decent break.

It’s frustrating. Especially when, having rested, I feel bright, only to get exhausted a day after doing normal things again. I find it hard to do nothing when I’m feeling okay in the moment. I’ve tidied every cupboard in the house. Some pulmonary embolism survivors take 18 months to recover. I’m not up for that.

It might be denial but I’ve never felt ill in myself, that is, my body has been struggling but I’ve felt perfectly well inside. Only on the first night in hospital did I consider that I might be dying – I thought how much better it would be to die now and have people say, “he could have been such an amazing novelist!” than to reach old age and prove without doubt that I’m not – although I did think how awful it would be for Mary. But since that night, and the disgusting hospital breakfast that followed, I have considered myself to be basically okay and waiting for normal life to resume.

I wish it would come quicker. I don’t feel like a lucky survivor. I feel on hold, annoyed at all this unexpected inconvenience. I can’t drink over Christmas or even next Easter, on holiday with friends. I haven’t worked a full week yet. I’ve had to cancel things I really wanted to do – from applying to a Creative Writing course and attending a writers’ workshop to running some fun new training for Fluent. I’ve had plenty of time off but been unable to write. We’re in Snowdonia at Christmas but I won’t be climbing any hills. And my wife is still having to do most of the work at home.

Mary has been incredible; quite apart from saving my life in the first place by making me phone the doctor (I’m not even the first person in the family for whom she has done that). Colleagues, friends and family have been tremendously supportive. I’m grateful for all of them, and for the myriad blessings of which my life is made – energetic children, living in Cambridge, Artificial Eye DVDs, friends releasing poetry collections and albums, cooking and eating fresh mushroom soup.

But I’m ready to feel completely better. So I’m writing off the second half of 2012, doing very little over Christmas, and hoping to hit January with more gusto. Here’s to more energy, more writing, more fun. I’m wishing you all what I want for myself – a happy new year.