Earlier this year I had to go into hospital to undergo a procedure on my heart. A radiofrequency catheter ablation, to make it sound way more important than it probably was. The cardiologist inserted tubes into my veins, via my groin and from there they sort of blasted my heart with radio waves in order to destroy the affected area inside my heart and sort out what was, at the time an abnormal heart rhythm. However you choose to describe it, it was a definite sign of middle age and a ridiculously left field way of making me think about life!
It was a relatively quick procedure, although it actually took just over 2 hours, and I was awake throughout, literally watching the whole process that was happening inside my body on a big screen in front of me. And it was a day that wasn’t without both humiliation and hilarity, all of which just served to confirm that I was indeed getting old. It was in fact so humiliating that I decided that something good just had to come out of it all. Prior to the operation, I was told I would have to shave. Not my face, I hasten to add. Not only was I on death’s door (and yes, I am keeping up that particular line in hyperbole), but they were going to make me face up to it having shaved a big square that went from the top of my legs, over my crotchal region, thankfully avoiding both
tiny little mini Graham and the twins, and over my abs…OK, over my middle age paunch. As if my naked body wasn’t horrifying enough, it now looked like I’d not only invented the pejazzle, but got it horribly, horribly wrong.
Next, in order to have the operation I was made to wear not only a surgical gown, but also a big pair of paper pants – please don’t try to imagine this look; it will burn your eyes and leave you unable to sleep for the rest of your days. A lanky, skinny, hairy Geordie in what amounts to a crap dress and paper underwear. It’s amazing that Gay Times haven’t been on the phone throwing money at me for a photo-shoot, really.
I tried to take this whole ‘look’ in good humour, but even then it was traumatising. It felt like the NHS were having a good laugh at my expense, a feeling that was emphasised further when I tried to make a paper pants joke with one of the nurses and she told me that the funniest bit was that they got to cut them off! Again, terrifying. Imagine the poor woman’s disappointment – ‘Ooh, here’s the fun bit’ and then ‘Horror, horror, horror’.
The humiliation took a temporary break though when it was time to start the operation. Being a Geordie I rejected the pain relief and just asked for a matchstick to chew on throughout instead. Actually, I was given a local anaesthetic and morphine and it still hurt! The operation felt like it took forever. I was told to expect to be there for around 45 minutes, but it was only as I watched the digital timer on the wall tick over to 2 hours, ten minutes that I was told it was over. Relief? Well, not quite. In fact, just for fun it was time for a drop more fear coupled with another dollop of humiliation.
I was wheeled up on to the ward and then lifted up, exposing my arse again, and put on to a bed and made comfortable. But, not that comfortable, as it went. I slept for a while, but then woke up, uncomfortable. I read for a few minutes, before falling asleep again.
When I woke up again, something wasn’t right. I felt damp. I sat for a few seconds wondering if it was OK to wet yourself after surgery, whether the nurses would be horrified. And then I cautiously lifted up the sheets to have a look. I’d been bleeding. Just then a nurse came across and I blurted out that I thought I’d been bleeding. She looked, and gave out an audible gasp – not what the patient wants to hear! And so ensued yet more humiliation as two nurses bed bathed me, ripping away and binning my bedding and roughly rubbing away at my nether regions with wet cloths before eventually replacing my dressings and leaving me to rest some more. I’d always imagined any encounter with two nurses in bed to be a whole load more fun that it actually was.
My time on the ward, coupled with the next few days of just resting, gave me a long time to think. And I had quite a bit to think about. (I understand that this is Earth-shattering news to colleagues and friends alike who must find it hard to believe that there are times when I actually think). What should I do now? How did this happen? How poorly was I? And when did I get so old?
As far as I’m concerned I’ve had a brush with death. I know, I know, people suffer a lot worse and I understand that death is more than likely still a long way down the road. So maybe that’s a tad dramatic. But a brush with being quite poorly is not the stuff of blogs and when you’re lying bleeding in a hospital ward, I think you can be forgiven for imagining that the end just might be a bit more nigh (nigher?) than you’d ever imagined. And boy, did I bleed.
‘I’ve not jumped on the bucket list bandwaggon’
So what did I think about? Well, obviously, I wondered a lot about, when I’d got this old. Because old people have heart problems, right? As well as that though, I spent a long time thinking about family and friends, about the way I live my life, the things I’ve done and the things that I’d like to do. Don’t panic, I’ve not jumped on the bucket list bandwagon and God forbid I ever use the phrase road trip. But I came to some conclusions, that I thought I’d let people know about – at least that way some of you might be able to remind me about trying to be nice to people and stuff. And who knows, someone might get all inspired by my brave, brave struggle. Because I have been a very brave boy. I mean, they didn’t even give me a sticker, so you know who to blame for this blog.
One of the first things that occurred to me is that I’m too afraid of stuff. Sometimes I’ve got the hand-brake on and there’s really no need. I don’t mean that I shy away from being some kind of adrenaline junkie. Perish the thought. I’m still not the kind to throw myself out of a plane and tell everyone it was life-changing. It wouldn’t be. It’d just be daft. When I get on a plane I want to just walk down the steps to get off and inevitably think how hot it is in Majorca. No, there are simple things that I don’t do because I’m afraid of looking like a tw*t. So one of first things I thought about was hugs. Yeah, you read that right. Hugs.
I’ve always been very stand-off-ish with hugs. Tactile behaviour in general. I just wasn’t brought up that way and we simply weren’t a very touchy-feely family. We’re from Newcastle, not sunderland. A colleague once slapped my knee because I’d said something they found funny and I nearly jumped off the chair at this off-the-cuff physical contact. And there’s a good reason why I sit at the back in meetings, on my own. But there are many people that I love dearly and it rarely gets shown. So hugs, although it seems a bit silly, are a good starting point. Don’t get me wrong, I do hug my family, but not nearly enough. So the first vow was that they would be smothered with hugs. My wife and kids will be left in no doubt that I love and cherish them. It won’t be immediate, but it’ll be something I’ll work towards. A work in progress, as they say. A work that I think I’m doing quite well at up to this point. I hope they’ve noticed. I mean, what if something terrible had happened and my last hug with them had been days or weeks before?
‘I could have died, you know…’
Fear not friends, the hugs are coming for you too! Form an orderly queue, friends! And let’s not stop at hugs, eh? Let’s link while walking down streets and corridors. Let’s walk into meetings hand in hand. I mean, I could have died, you know…
I also thought a lot about my manner with people. I don’t think that I could ever immediately come across as being very friendly. I’m cynical, sarcastic, maybe even a bit grumpy and I reckon a lot of this comes, again, from being a little bit afraid. This time being afraid of new situations, new people. I think I’m different once I get to know people and vice versa. I love being around friends. I enjoy having a laugh with people and making people laugh. But I can imagine what’s said about me by people who have only just met me. And I have to admit, I’m always quite quick to make a negative judgement myself.
I avoid meeting people where possible. I can’t remember the last time I went on a course for work and it’s not because I think there’s nothing left for me to learn, it’s because I am so uncomfortable around people in general. The idea of walking into some conference room in a budget hotel, knowing no one generally terrifies me and I’d gladly sit on a table all on my own rather than join people and actually attempt a conversation. Ditto, going out for a drink with friends and colleagues. I genuinely worry about someone getting stuck with me and that then ruining their night! And when my son first joined his football team it must’ve taken me at least a month before I even said a cursory ‘Hello’ to any of the other parents. I actually coach the team now and I seem to have become quite friendly with everyone and quite possibly because they had to speak to me as their child’s coach, but God knows what they must’ve thought of me at first when I wouldn’t even stand with them!
‘I want to be seen as a nice bloke.’
While I lay wincing with the pain, wondering what was taking so long and how I’d got so old I gave this a lot of thought. I don’t want to be so cynical or grumpy. I want to be seen as a nice bloke. And that’s genuinely not a cry for attention in the hope that lots of people message me and tell me that I already am a smashing fella. No, it worried me so much that I genuinely thought about what it would be like if I died and came to the frightening conclusion that my funeral would be a horribly quiet affair. My wife and kids, parents, sister and ten or so others rattling around in a church or a hall somewhere looking around and wondering why there aren’t more people helping them get through the day. A terrifying thought, but one that genuinely occurred to me and that really bothers me. So it’s clear to me that I’ve got to make a bit of an effort to be more friendly. Mind you, I still won’t be volunteering to go on any courses for work! There’s a definite limit to being this being approachable lark! I might just give you a hug though.
When I left university, many moons ago, while I wasn’t exactly the most aspirational or ambitious young man, I had definite goals I wanted to achieve. I felt I could be a someone. I was 22 and ready to take on the world. In Ward 19 of the LGI back in April, it occurred to me that I very definitely wasn’t that young man anymore and while I wasn’t a nobody, I didn’t feel at all like a somebody. I felt sad, lonely and really quite scared. But the worst of it came in the days afterwards, resting up, bored and on my own in the house. I felt disappointed in myself and in the way things were turning out for that 22 year old who’d left university believing that he could achieve something special. Why hadn’t I tried harder? When did I give up? Fear again.
I thought about the kind of things I’d fancied doing over the years. Not just fancied doing, but been convinced that I could not only do, but be bloody good at. So off the top of my head, here’s a list of what I’d either fancied doing or had a go at – takes deep breath – write a novel (in fact, write a few), develop some kind of website perhaps revolving round football, try stand-up comedy, coach football, get fit, travel the world (or at least a fair chunk of it), write a sit-com, learn a musical instrument, record some music (in fact, record more music, but that’s a long story), develop the band Pie, do some charity work, become a journalist, master Tai Chi, make a successful podcast, salsa dancing (really), become a Head of English (but, you know, a cool one), work in a prison, develop a futbol de salao franchise, write a Eurovision song, write a Christmas song (we will do both of those songs, David Penny), go vegetarian, go vegan, swinging (just kidding), and join a book group. Twenty four things off the top of my head. The point here being, I’ve rarely really settled at anything. All of these things have occurred to me as ways of breaking the monotony of real life, ways of making my fortune and ways of helping me feel like it’s all worthwhile. Lying in my hospital bed, it all felt worthless. I’d allowed myself to be dictated to by fear. Not only scared of hugs and people, but now scared of trying.
So, I’ve vowed to try harder. This blog is a part of that. It allows me to be creative and hopefully it raises a smile from people who read it. But it has to be just one part of trying harder because in the past, as the previous list reveals, I’ve thought a lot about trying harder, but never really went beyond that. Actually, that’s a bit of a lie. One thing went beyond thoughts and into words that became a promise. At an interview (I can’t remember where) I listed Tai Chi as an interest and talked about it in what must have been a convincing amount of detail to a clearly rapt interview panel. I even went as far as to make a promise to start teaching Tai Chi to staff as a way of de-stressing after work. I got the job, but the Tai Chi classes never happened. The reason why? Not as simple as needing to try harder, really. The reason was that I hadn’t even done Tai Chi at the time. In fact, the Tai Chi video I’d been bought was actually still in the plastic at home! So there we go. I can add vowing to stop casually lying to blogging on the list of vows that I’ll now have to see through!
So two things seems like a decent start and a good place to end this particular episode of insight into middle age. I’m blogging and hugging. No doubt some people reading this will have a bit to say about the kind of bloke who thinks hugging people is significant progress. And you’d be right to a point. It’s nothing life changing, but a definite starting point. Now, where did I put that Tai Chi video?
* Much to my childish delight my cardiologist is called Dr Pepper.