Saturday, 13 January 2018

The Wrong Trousers?

I’ve been home from hospital for just over three months now. For the previous two years I’d had strict limits on what I could eat and how much I could eat. I was regularly crippled with bad gastric symptoms. After my stomach was successfully repositioned into my abdomen, I’ve been eating well and trying all sorts of foods that I couldn’t eat before. I’ve discovered that I can pretty much eat anything again. This is a delicious new freedom to enjoy and I have done so with little restraint. Before Xmas I had to go out and buy new trousers as none of my old ones fitted me. But when I went to put on my trousers today I found that I couldn’t do them up. I double-checked. Were they the wrong trousers? Unfortunately not, I’ve put on 12lbs and four inches around the waist since September. Even my new trousers don’t fit me anymore.

T says I shouldn’t worry. In a few months when I get back on the bike I will slim down again. I’m not so confident. The joy of being able to stuff any sort of food into your mouth without having to worry about the intense pains I used to get in my guts is very seductive. I have a particular weakness for German gingerbread pastries, called Lebkuchen, traditionally made in Nuremberg. They come in all sorts of varieties, with different shapes and fillings. Lidl have a good selection. They were selling them off after Xmas and we bought twelve packets. At the current rate of consumption I may need to send off to Germany for more soon.

In other news, my cold turkey seems to be finally over and I’m sleeping relatively normally again. The agitation and insomnia were quite an ordeal for the best part of two weeks. I’m going to be very wary of taking opioids for anything other than the short term in the future.

I’ve also just had my cancer surveillance scan. These are happening at four monthly intervals this year. The last one was in September, a couple of weeks before my surgery. Now I am again waiting for the results. Most people try and minimise this anxiety, saying ‘don’t worry, you’ll be fine’. But when you are waiting to hear the news your mind plays tricks on you and any strange pain becomes the throb of a new tumour.

I’ve had years of practice at this anxious waiting, but it doesn’t seem to get much easier. I’ve found that you have to grit your teeth and not ask too much of yourself. A date is set for your appointment with the Oncologist in the Cancer Centre. So you look towards this date and, one at a time, you tick the days off. I find myself trapped in a terrible emotional mix of hope and fear. Little by little I do my best to get through it. I growl, walk the dog and reach for another Lebkuchen.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Sleep, Storms and Stan

I’ve had eight agitated nights filled with insomnia on the bounce. I’ve tried a mild sleeping pill, but I just couldn’t relax in bed. I shifted my position by twisting and turning, but I couldn't get comfortable however I lay. My head was full of anxieties. Often I would get up and read until my eyes became heavy and I yawned repeatedly. Then I would go back to bed. I might sleep for an hour or so and then wake up agitated and unrelaxed, or I might have to get up again without sleeping at all. This interminable process repeated each night. I might get perhaps a total of four hours of fitful and disturbed sleep. I realise this is the amount of sleep that Mrs Thatcher regularly had whilst Prime Minister, but she became completely mad.

I’ve had a series of exhausted and distracted days with bad headaches, and only my agitation to keep me going. I don’t know how I would have managed if this had kept up for any longer. Two nights ago I managed to get to sleep and, despite waking regularly, I slept fitfully until eight AM. During the day I again felt headachy and exhausted but I was less agitated than usual. Last night I again slept fitfully, but this time for a little longer. This morning I felt a little less exhausted and I didn’t have a headache. You will also be pleased to learn that my diarrhoea has stopped. I’m now fervently hoping that I am coming to the end of my cold turkey from opioids that began on Christmas Day.

It’s certainly made me realise how strong and dangerous these drugs are. Their great capability is that they interrupt and alter our perceptions of pain in our body. Opioids do this much more effectively than any other class of drugs. So when you are coming off them, your perceptions of your body seem to remain distorted. I felt agitated and unable to find a comfortable position in bed, however much I tried. I very much hope I have come down fully now and am back in touch with normality again. I certainly feel pretty worn out from it all.

One positive of becoming partly nocturnal is that I have been getting through my Xmas books at a great rate. I devoured TS Eliot’s Book of Practical Cats early one night and went on to The Running Hare by John Lewis-Stempel. This is a great piece of nature writing, set near the area I grew up in, which gave me great tugs of recognition as he spoke about local landscapes and landmarks. I moved on to a journal and handbook of Stoic philosophy, which was most appropriate and very useful. The only one I didn’t start was Lincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders. Oddly enough this might have been the most appropriate for the peculiar half-waking and half-sleeping state I was in each night.   

Our New Year has also been without phone or internet. This is not a dramatic resolution to detox ourselves from the modern world. Storm Dylan on New Year’s Eve did the initial damage and this was compounded by Eleanor, whose winds roared just as threateningly as Ophelia. Along with plenty of branches from the trees that form a hedge along one side of the garden, the phone line was brought down. We are waiting for an engineer to come and fix it. Not having a landline is not difficult when you also have mobiles, but the lack of the internet is a big problem. I have been watching TV news, but it is very uninformative, even the supposedly detailed BBC News Channel. And of course there is the lack of contact with friends and family through email and social media. I do not have a smartphone and would only check these from time to time each day via my computer. Missing a day or two is manageable but any longer gets extremely difficult as so much communication is now only electronic.

This morning I got a text from BT Openreach telling me that engineer Ryan would be attending to our  job today. We waited and waited. He arrived at 4.15 and set about it. He checked our internal cables through the house and in the roof-space using a tester and a strange little sensor that could detect where the cables were under the loft insulation. He climbed up the gable end of the house and attached one end of a new external cable. He then went to the telegraph pole at the end of the garden and attached it there. He completed most of the outside work in the dark by the light of a head-torch. At 5.30 we were connected again. He said he shouldn’t have been doing the outside work after dark, but he wanted to get the job finished today. I said that’s well beyond the call of duty, thank you Ryan. He smiled and said his name was Stan. Our repair job had been reallocated. Well done Stan.

Sunday, 31 December 2017


Ring out the False
Ring in the True
Ring out the Old
Ring in the New

Wishing you
a Healthy and a Happy
New Year


Friday, 29 December 2017

Cold Turkey

Like many people in the first world, our palates have become somewhat jaded from gorging on festive fare. The number of ways in which turkey, gammon, sausages, stuffing and sprouts can be served is indeed limited. On top of this problem of plenty, I’ve also been suffering from agitation, insomnia, anxiety, the sweats, muscle aches, cramps and diarrhoea. This is not because I didn’t get what I wanted from Santa, but because I stopped taking opioids (morphine-based painkillers) on Christmas Day and I’ve got withdrawal symptoms. I haven’t yet seen any pink elephants climbing the walls, but I guess there is still time.

When I left hospital three months ago I was taking 50 mg of morphine a day. A thoracotomy (the opening up of your ribs) is one of the most painful surgical incisions. My morphine dosage was very slowly stepped down until three weeks ago, when I finished the course and began to rely entirely on prescription strength co-codamol tablets. Codeine is also an opioid and, as I have found, very hard on the stomach. On Christmas Eve we opened a bottle of champagne, the first we’d had all year, and my stomach became very sore after just half a glass. I stopped drinking and had a long discussion with T, who had severe stomach problems in the past. The next day I stopped the co-codamol tablets and returned to the painkilling patch on my left side and straight paracetamol. I also began a short course of omeprazole to help heal the stomach. My festive season was thus turkey full and alcohol free.

The pain in my left side had been reducing very steadily, but the wound got stirred up during Rex’s disappearance. Firstly, I climbed over the back fence, pulling up with both arms, whilst looking for him in the field behind the house. Secondly, T accidentally knocked the right side of my face when I was leaning forward and I flinched backwards, pulling the muscles of my left side. These two pulls in quick succession seem to have irritated the drain site and put me back into plenty of pain. The drain site is at the bottom of my ribs, on the left side, where a tube was inserted into the lung cavity during surgery. The tube was removed and the hole stitched up before I left hospital. In the weeks after the operation it was possibly the most painful place on my body, although there was plenty of competition. So what has probably happened is that an internal scar, called an adhesion, around the drain site has been torn a little and has irritated a nerve. The painkilling patch is working well and in a few weeks I expect the tear will heal and the nerve will settle down again. I’m pretty confident that I haven’t done anything bad to the hernia repair.

In the meantime, I also have to cope with the withdrawal symptoms from the opioids. I am shocked at how strong they’ve been. I have hardly slept these past few days and I feel easily agitated and very anxious. Despite this, I’m glad to say that I don’t feel drawn to re-start taking opioids (I still have a bottle of liquid morphine on the bedside table). No wonder long-term addicts find it so difficult to get off smack for good. I’ve read that the withdrawal symptoms are most intensive for the first two weeks and after that they decline. The only upside is that I don’t have to take laxatives anymore. 

Sunday, 24 December 2017

Happy Christmas

The most wonderful time of the year can also be the most awful. I’m not thinking of the rampant consumerism but of the very mixed feelings that this most intense of our annual festivals inevitably brings. At Christmas we celebrate our relationships with family and friends (through cards, phone-calls, visits and shared meals), but in so doing we are also much more aware of our ties to those people who were once close to us, but who have since departed through death or separation. Christmas is the time of family and friends and at the same time it is also the time of loss and loneliness. It is a festival that is inevitably bitter-sweet.

I always find Christmas a difficult time. Thirty one years ago my first wife and I had just bought our first house and had moved in just before Xmas. But in early January she was killed in an accident. It took a long time before I could bear to open the door of the new house. And when I did I found the house full of boxes from the business of moving in that for her would always be unfinished. Everyone has their story. A good friend of mine’s grandmother died at home on Xmas day. When his mother went back to the house her elder relatives were rapidly removing all of the decorations.

For tens of thousands of years humans have celebrated a Midwinter festival. It happens at the darkest, coldest and most deathly time of the year, when life seems at its lowest ebb: many animals hibernate, most plants are dormant or died back. It is unsurprising that our ancestors were moved to mark this important festival by the bringing in of symbols of life to the hearth (evergreen conifers, holly, ivy, mistletoe) and the sacrifice of an animal to mark the point at which the year turned from the dark, cold and death towards the light, new life and regeneration of the spring.

It is also unsurprising that early Christians, some 1700 years ago, should have selected this Midwinter festival as the point in the year at which to celebrate the birth of Jesus. It was entirely symbolically appropriate to piggyback the Christian festival onto the pre-exisiting one: the bringing of new light into the Midwinter world of darkness and death. This point was deliberately chosen for the festival of Christmas as early scholars and historical records suggest that the birth of Jesus actually took place in midsummer.

However you choose to celebrate Christmas, may I wish you the very best relationships with your nearest and dearest as well as the very best honouring of your ties to your dearly departed. May you feel rested and reinvigorated on your journey into the New Year. My dearest T and I will be celebrating quietly at home with Rex. We have sprigs of evergreen plants on the front door and have a conifer erected at the hearth. The tree is lit by real candles that I bought in Germany. We shall raise a glass to you all.

Tuesday, 19 December 2017

Lies and Threats

Unsurprisingly, Rex has been out of sorts since his ordeal. When he arrived home, after his release from imprisonment on the farm, he was very thirsty and hungry. He devoured a couple of days rations in several hours, and then howled during the night. The next day he seemed depressed. Since then he has been eating normally and seems to have picked up a little in mood. We have been reassuring him with lots of stroking and plenty of treats. We took him to the vet who examined him and pronounced him fit and reasonably well. Rex is certainly a resilient dog, he probably learnt this because of the maltreatment he had for the first year of his life with the old farmer. The vet also told me that a dog could only live for around four days without water. So Rex had been rescued just in time.

I reported the incident to the police. They told me it was a case of animal cruelty, which made it the responsibility of the local council. I rang the officer in charge. He took down the details but told me that a successful prosecution was unlikely because there was no independent evidence of the crime. Unfortunately a dog is unable to give evidence against its abuser. He said he would visit the old farmer and give him a stern warning that any subsequent problem with him would lead to a prosecution. I wasn’t satisfied, but this seemed the best option available. Later in the week, the officer reported to me that he had visited the old farmer and had warned him, and he had denied all knowledge of the crime.

I also spoke to a near neighbour about the old farmer. They told me that his wife had left him with their young child, so the old farmer had been on his own for forty years. They said that he came from a strange family. Apparently the old farmer and his brother were known for playing vicious tricks on people for their own perverse amusement. Several decades ago they had tricked a simple farm labourer up on top of a building they were constructing and he fell 30 feet and broke several bones, but could easily have been killed.  The locking up of Rex without food and water was in the same vein. This confirmed my gut feeling that the old farmer is unbalanced and dangerous.

As the week wore on, I spoke to several other neighbours about Rex. One told me that he had visited the old farmer when Rex was missing and asked him if he had seen the dog. The old farmer replied that he hadn’t seen him, but he was glad that he was missing because he didn’t want to see him again. And this dreadful lie was spoken when he had our dog locked up just a few yards away. The other told me that the old farmer had recently told him that he was very angry with me for reporting him to the RSPCA about not feeding his own dog properly. I shook my head and laughed. The old farmer had now produced a further lie to try and deflect attention from his own dirty deeds. I then gave my neighbour the true story.

We were speaking together below the farm towards the end of the lane. Just as we finished talking, the old farmer came around a bend on his tractor. He stopped, dismounted the tractor and began shouting at me.

‘Why did you bloody report me to the RSPCA?’

‘Because you tried to kill our dog,’ I shouted back angrily. ‘You locked him up for over three days without food and water.’

‘I didn’t do that,’ he shouted

‘Oh yes you did.’ I glowered. ‘Rex would be dead now if I hadn’t rescued him from the shed you locked him in.’

He growled at me and shook his head.

‘And I reported you to the Police,’ I shouted, ‘so you’d better be careful, they’re watching you.’

‘And you’d better watch out,’ he shouted, pointing his finger at me. ‘If I see you or that bloody dog around my yard again, I’ll do you.’

At that point he turned to get back on his tractor. I set off up the lane with Rex. I was fuming at his brazen duplicity. Five lies about Rex and two threats in one week. As I strode along I made a mental note of our exchange. When I got home, I wrote everything down and reported the lies and threats to the police and to the local authority.

Later on I told T what had happened. She sympathised and hugged me, then gave a faint smile.

‘Well, you’ve now become a fully-fledged member of NI society,’ she said.

I looked at her quizzically. ‘What do you mean?’

‘You’re involved in a feud with one of your neighbours.’

I smiled ruefully. ‘It’s only taken me 20 years.’

Thursday, 14 December 2017


A week ago Rex went missing. At first we weren’t too worried. He had a habit of occasionally visiting the farmyard where he had lived for a year. It was only a quarter of a mile down the lane and he went there to see the old farmer’s new dog. But when we went down to the farm to collect Rex, he was nowhere to be found. Then the snow came and we began to worry more. The next morning we again went to the farm and asked the old farmer if he had seen Rex. He told us he had seen him the day before but not since. Rather uncharacteristically, he told us that he hoped Rex would come back soon. As the icy weather set in, our worries increased. We began to go further afield, asking people and calling for Rex beside old barns and suchlike where he might be hiding out. But we had no luck at all.

After a couple of days we were terribly anxious and filled with a deep foreboding that something bad had happened. We remembered that the old farmer had threatened to shoot him and usually complained to us about Rex visiting his yard, for he believed that Rex was a bad influence on his new dog. Then a ray of hope, a neighbour told us they had seen a Facebook post about a stray collie that had been seen about three miles away. As T began to search for the post, I drove to the area where the stray dog had been seen and began to ask around. The backroads were very icy and I had to go very carefully. For several hours I met people who had not seen a stray collie. Then I met a farmer who said he had seen a young collie a couple of days ago. My spirits lifted. I made house to house enquiries. Many people were not at home. The remainder seemed helpful and concerned. I left our number written on pages torn from a notebook.

I got home late afternoon. T had finally tracked down the Facebook post. It was on a local ‘lost and found’ page. We scanned the hazy picture of the stray collie. He was very like our Rex, even down to the white patch on his tail. But it wasn’t him. Our spirits fell through the floor. We returned to the awful suspicion that the old farmer had killed him. After all, he had both motive (however unbalanced) and opportunity (the farmyard was the last place Rex had been seen). And he had acted suspiciously when we had asked him on the Friday about Rex, by not complaining about the dog coming in to his yard. I knew that the old farmer always visited a family member on Sunday afternoons. I decided to go down to the farm and have a good look around whilst he was not at home.

As I strode down the lane the light was fading. I feared that I would find a crime scene, with the stiff, dead body of Rex with gunshot wounds out the back of a barn somewhere. I sighed and steeled myself, I had to find out what had happened to our wee dog. As I walked into the yard there was a low bark from some stone outbuildings. I looked up the yard and saw the farmer’s new dog tethered there. The bark had come from another dog. I shouted Rex and whistled for him. No response. I pushed open the door of the first outbuilding, it was full of debris and had only half a roof. As I came out I looked up. Framed in a small high open window was Rex’s wee face. I shouted to him. He bobbed his head to me.

My heart flew as I ran around the stone barn looking for a way in to the upper floor. On the other side of the yard was a flight of stone steps covered in unbroken snow. At the top was a bolted door. I pushed it open. Rex ran out between my legs and raced across the yard. I glanced around the gloomy room, I could see neither food nor water. I ran out into the lane after Rex, calling to him. He was already far up the lane on the way to our house. Despite the icy conditions, a great well of happiness and warmth came over me. Rex was saved.

As I walked home, I realised that the old farmer had intended to kill Rex in the most horrible way. He had locked him in the outbuilding on Thursday, probably around lunchtime. The snow had come on Thursday evening and the steps up to Rex’s prison were still covered in unbroken snow when I rescued him on Sunday. He had been in there for over three days without any food and water.. A dog can’t survive for much more than four days without water. And the old farmer had lied to us on the Friday morning when we had asked him where Rex was. Our wee dog had been imprisoned on the farm all of the time. But for now my only concern was Rex, the old farmer was a problem for another day.