Friday, 26 October 2012


I've started treatment with a new physiotherapist for a long-standing injury. The problem began a couple of years ago with a muscle tear in my right groin (acquired pushing a heavy mower out of a ditch). At first I was impatient with my slow recovery and eager to prepare for two overseas trips I'd booked (to Chile and Bhutan) so I began my activities again (walking and cycling) and built up the intensity. But soon my groin became sensitive, then painful and then intensely painful and I was forced to stop. So I rested for a while (days perhaps weeks), then began again: but each time I built up my activity, the pain would return and the unhappy cycle would repeat. I became stuck in a series of peaks (rising activity) and troughs (pain and depression) – the pattern of a chronic injury.

I ended up having to cancel my overseas trips and claim the money back from insurance. Then I became seriously ill and all thoughts of such activities evaporated. This year, as I recovered, I began to walk further and more often. Stupidly, I managed to pull the muscle in my groin again working in the garden. I rested for a while, then returned to easy walking and started to do more. But the old problems quickly recurred and again I found myself stuck with a chronic injury. I began to fear that I would be unable to do hillwalking and cycling ever again. These were activities I had enjoyed for many years; I valued them and I wanted to be able to have them in my life. So I resolved to try all available treatment options before I abandoned hope: I went to a physio, then an osteopath, an acupuncturist and most recently to a new physio.

The new physio started out my treatment in a different way, by explaining what was happening to me in the chronic injury cycle. I thought that each time I got to the point of intense pain I was re-injuring myself – and this had happened again and again. She said no: the level of pain in my groin was a warning sign (the level of tissue damage was a good way beyond). And each time I exceeded the level of pain (before backing off), I was actually lowering the level at which my groin would become painful the next time. In effect I was teaching my brain to become more and more hypersensitive about my right groin.

In her opinion the injured tissues in my groin should have healed up some while ago. Her treatment strategy was twofold:

Firstly, to get me to do gentle and regular stretching to correctly align the underlying postural muscles around my pelvis.

Secondly, to get me to do my activities at much lower levels of intensity and in a much more controlled way. I should build up carefully and slowly to the point of sensitivity and then scale back. Importantly, I should not stop at this point, but do my activity again the next day (or the day after) and carefully build up to the level of sensitivity again and scale back again. In this way I would progressively be raising my body's threshold of sensitivity and expanding my level of pain-free activity.

I've been following this new approach for just a couple of weeks – so far so good.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Moving On

I've recently returned from two and a half weeks in England visiting friends and family.

This was my first overseas trip for over 18 months (since my illness). I chose the long ferry from Belfast to Liverpool, an 8 hour crossing, because I wanted to be travelling over there in my own car.

When it came to packing for the trip I found it really hard to decide what to take. I was full of anxieties. I'd arranged to stay in peoples' houses: seven in total, right across the country, moving from one to another. Would I feel OK staying in other peoples houses for such a time? Would I be faced with food that upset my sensitive stomach? And each family I was staying with was different, so I should take particular clothes and things for this activity with these people but then I'd need some different stuff when I was at the next place with the next people? And so on.

I ended up with two holdalls full of stuff. Then I filled two carrier bags with my breakfast food and other snacks. I stared at the pile. My first reaction was pretty self-critical. The old me went on long bike trips abroad with everything I needed in just two pannier bags. Get a grip I grimaced, shaking my head.

Then I sat back and laughed. It really doesn't matter, I thought, there's no weight limit. If the pile of stuff would fit in the boot of the car, it could go. I hauled the bags outside and the boot of my old Focus swallowed them easily.

The first thing I noticed in England was all the traffic. Apparently there are 30 million vehicles on the roads there. This makes normal driving extremely stressful; during peak times it becomes overwhelming and brutal. When I lived there I never thought about all the stress I was absorbing every day (such is the power of normalisation). Irish roads are so relaxed in comparison.

England has many attractive and intriguing places to visit of course (travelling between them is the tough bit). I was using a guidebook to historical sites written by Eric Newby in 1968 and particularly enjoyed Stonehenge (after bouncing on Jeremy Deller's version, I just had to go again), The Square and Compass in Worth Matravers (a Dorset cider-house with its own archaeological museum), Stourhead (the landscape gardens, lake and exotic follies), Clifton Suspension Bridge (aesthetic engineering), The Backstage Tour of the new RSC theatre (almost in the round), Ilam and Thor's Cave in the White Peak (most atmospheric, despite the heavy rain), My Bespoke Tour of Radical Nottingham (that started and finished beside the statue of Brian Clough) and the splendid Babington Chantry in Kingston upon Soar.

It was great to catch up with lots of people who hadn't seen me since I was ill. I offered my thanks for all the support they'd given me (last year in particular) and I gave each of them an Ash seedling from my garden. Everyone said that I looked very well. I responded that I felt very well - physically recovered, fairly fit (20 pounds lighter) and mentally pretty good. Several later admitted they feared they would find me somewhat incapacitated, and were very pleased to encounter the opposite. I was given great hospitality wherever I went.

Some of the friends I caught up with I hadn't seen for many years. There was lots of reminiscing and taking stock. Their children had grown up and were now away at college. I had undergone immense change over the past decade. We were reconnecting through and beyond who we used to be.

And my anxieties? Well, they evaporated. I felt pretty relaxed wherever I was and I never needed my comfort food (despite losing a filling en route). I also managed some very tough days of travelling (longest 13 hours) and drove 1200 miles in total.

My envelope was extended and I realised that I was much more robust than I thought I was. Thanks again to my friends and family for all your help.

Nephew Andy and his son Will.

Thursday, 11 October 2012

Lance Armstrong

Today's revelations are truly shocking. The case against Lance Armstrong as a serial doper seems to be overwhelming. And he has chosen not to contest the allegations.

Lance's story of his recovery from cancer (with a bad prognosis) to become a professional cyclist again and then to achieve success in the Tour de France meant a great deal to me. I read 'It's Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life' as I was recovering from cancer. And Lance's story became a talisman to me. I empathised with his ordeal of treatment and I was enthused by his story of recovery and success.

In 'It's Not About the Bike' Lance describes his path from cancer patient to winner of the Tour as not just a victory of determination and courage, but as a triumph of self-knowledge and reconstruction. At the core of his journey is an intense personal transition (wrought by the ordeal of cancer) and through this renewed understanding of himself (strengths and limitations) he became a better person and a better cyclist: better able to focus, do the hard work, make the right strategic choices and ultimately to succeed.

All cancer patients know that story. How you are suddenly removed from the life you lived before. How all the things that used to make sense to you are changed. And how all you can do is to feel your way forward, rebuilding yourself and your life with whatever resources you can find.

Lance's story offered me hope at a very dark time.

Since I read his book I've made huge strides on my own journey. I know myself better than I ever did before. I've become more fully myself, more complete, more self-assured and more capable.

I will never ride the Tour de France. But I think I'm ready for whatever may come.

After the severity of his illness, it was a magnificent achievement for Lance to finish the Tour - let alone to win it seven times. I also recognise that Lance appears to have done what most other professional cyclists were then doing (taking banned substances to improve their performance), as many have since confessed.

But I still feel hurt and betrayed because my talisman turns out to be tarnished.