The rain began jabbing out heavy combinations against the delicate glass of the pub’s windows. Bass-lined by the occasional bawls of Dolby like thunder-claps. Rarely is there a more soothing sound with which to decorate the silence of the world.
The mellow tones of the Laphroaig had begun taking root, pulling him gently out further from behind the curtain, as the Bar Man waited and watched and listened, as only Men of Bars, can.
“Where do you think it comes from?” he finally mumbled.
“Well, that depends entirely on what ‘it’ is” replied the Bar Man. Nudging the moment along.
“You know. The voice. The, the voice.” He found himself momentarily caught in the headlights of his own belief. Tripping himself on the way up, unable to square off the thought.
The Bar Man held his ground as the thunder snarled.
“That inner-voice. The one that drifts up out of no-where. And, and why do we even call it a voice. You never hear it. It’s just…..the words…..how are we supposed to know?”
“I know”; agreed the Bar Man, compassionately; “but often it’s the things we can’t actually see or hear that we must trust the most in this world”.
The thunder bawled again…
It was early in September when we arrived back in Dubai. Typically a month I used to love in the UK. With the European summer starting to beat its annual retreat, those Indian summer days were a relished bonus. A few last coughs of warm air before the cold slid in. But in Dubai it was different. Very. September for me, was the cruelest month of the year. For those of us that had brooded through the intense heat and humidity of the summer, our natural body clocks were more than ready for cooler times. Yet despite convincing ourselves otherwise, every year September remained as wet and hostile as the previous three months. And with kids now back in tow it only made the situation more frustrating to manage.
Beach clubs and pool days were still off the menu, forcing entertainment to be confined to hysterical plastic play zones, and the air-conditioned relief of the great indoors. Under normal conditions that shouldn’t have presented too much of a problem, but with my lower back pain and ever decreasing horse-power, gallivanting round toddler chaos was precarious to say the least, despite how much I loved playing with Ava. Her enthusiasm was infectious. As was witnessing each new achievement as her courage and sense of adventure grew from ball pits to slides to net ropes, and everything between.
And then there was the Pain. Pernicious and lingering, and for some reason as unhappy as I was to be back in the Desert. Or maybe whatever was happening back there was simply feeding off my listlessness and lack of enthusiasm. Either way, it weighed enough now to warrant taking action.
Hindsight’s a cruel mistress, and can also be a monumental “Fuck” depending on how much you staked on the alternative. And by choosing not to seek proper medical attention at this point, I went as all in as you can go without having to hand over the Farm keys on the way out. I chose instead the obvious choice for one plighted with issues of The Back; The Chiropractor.
A hat trick of firsts in as many months: back pain, health anxiety and now a visit to a Chiropractor. A trade I’d always shuddered at the thought of. There’s certain noises that I choose not to embrace; (ostensible) bone cracking is one of them. That said, the experience was always sold to me as (eventually) highly rewarding. Right now I’d take anything to get on top of whatever was happening. Gloves were off. Hands were on.
Rather than click my way blindly to a Google recommendation, I opted for a new practice enthusiastically endorsed by a dear and trusted friend, who seemed to have taken to the treatment like a Olly Reed took to good Scotch (God bless you, Olly. We all wanted to be you. T’is the truth). It was run by a close and trusted friend of hers, and apparently someone I’d like very much. Frankly, I’m always suspicious of opinions like that, mainly due to the fact that I’m never sure what side of me they believe would gel. On this occasion I was naturally punting for someone with whom my more ‘spiritual’ side would connect. I was putting my spine in her hands after all, and extremely anxious about the whole affair. Turns out she was right. Fareedah was a perfect fit for the occasion. Calm, softly spoken and clearly an extremely capable and compassionate osteopath/chiropractor (the difference is hazy). What could go wrong?
It wasn’t a comfortable start. Driving to my first appointment I became conscious again of a repeated warning that had been percolating its way up from my intuition a few days prior. I’ve always been fascinated with the way intuition works, ever since mine had found its voice on the back of my plunge into spirituality. Whether it’s a feeling, a clear and pronounced inner voice or one of those subtle, oblique jabs that come at just the right time. For me the hardest thing isn’t recognising it, but trusting and obeying it. Ashamedly, selective disobedience towards my intuition is something I’d honed down to a fine art. And within the context of this story, a fine art that would result in a Box-Set of truly monumental Hindsight Fucks.
If you’re somebody who buys into, and values the power of your intuition to help you navigate through life — as we all should –then I thoroughly urge you to cultivate a profound bond of trust between the two of you. Even when the guidance doesn’t fit in with what you would consciously choose or hope for in any given situation. Take it from a man down; even when it leads you towards what might seem like Darkness, your intuition is immovably calibrated to your Light. It’s your greatest ally. Ask, listen and follow, at all times.
My first appointment with Fareedah started with the usual information gathering; measuring, poking and a little prodding to see what was what. Clinical R & D to paint an accurate picture for what was wrong and what needed adjusting. I can’t recall getting any definitive diagnosis of the cause behind the Pain, but it came as no surprise that both my pelvis and the vertebrae in my lower back required re-aligning. News met with rapid increases in both pulse and perspiration. Cabin pressure always drops when it’s time to confront a fear.
Q & A quickly rolled into Action, and before I knew it I was duly positioned in something akin to the fetal position, on a treatment bed that looked like a homeless Transformer, whilst Fareedah pinned herself on me in a way that felt and looked like a highly polished grappling manoeuvre. Probably just as well, as bolting had suddenly prioritised itself on my immediate agenda. And then it happened; a quick 3–2–1 count down, followed by a sharp, purposeful squeeze-come-twist-come-push, and I swiftly lost my spine adjustment virginity. Quick, awkward and a little confusing. Curiously similar to my more traditional experience with virginity loss. (Not now…)
The noise I was expecting wasn’t as bad as my imagination had led me to believe, neither was there any of the discomfort. In fact the whole thing turned out to be a bit of an anticlimax. Most disappointingly of all was the lack of help it seemed to have offered to easing the Pain. I wasn’t sure what I was expecting, but after the nervous energy of the adjustment had passed, it quickly clawed its way back into my consciousness.
Fareedah suggested a weekly visit and seemed confident she could solve whatever the problem was. In the meantime I was to minimise putting any pressure on my lower back. Advice I’d served myself several weeks back, but nonetheless comforting to hear from a professional bone cracker. As initiations went, it was the wrong shade of vanilla. But it did feel like progress so I clung on and circled session two in red.
As the September days melted on, both the pain and the listlessness grew steadily, and with them an increasing intuitive sense that I was entering the domain of the chronically unwell. And like it or not, trust or disobey, it was a feeling I couldn’t ignore. I wasn’t scared yet, but my anxiety was quickly evolving into something that lingered with unwelcome permanence, rather than its previous pattern of ebb and flow. Friends and family had also seemed to have promoted my plight from ‘it’ll pass” to “could be serious”. Meaning whatever was going on back there was now a regular topic of conversation. Which is fine up to a point; I’m an ardent optimist so it gave me frequent opportunity to vocally affirm that all be well. Nothing to worry about. It’s getting sorted. And so on and so forth. But deep down the truth and the Pain was fusing into one. And it hurt.
The slip from ubiquitous Anxiety down to ubiquitous Fear was inevitable, and it duly arrived during my second vista to Fareedah, a week later. After the warm-up dance, we both braced ourselves for another lower back adjustment. I can’t be positive but I faintly remember my intuition holding up a banner reading “told you so…” as she started the 3–2–1 count. I took a deep breath….
I can’t remember how long I was out. But the last thing I remember before the lights went dim was an introduction to a level of biblical pain that I had never before experienced. A seismic spasm made of fire and knives and a lifetime of “Fuck You’s, why didn’t you take more care of us”, that spread out like a terrific bomb of a million razor blades across my lower back. I also swore very loudly.
Clearly lost in the abrupt drama of it all, and no doubt nervous that her new Practice could already be heading for legal trouble, Fareedah clumsily started one of those gloriously text-book dialogues that often tumble out in moments of heightened stress. A perfect pitch of stating the obvious and asking the worst questions possible:
“Oh my gosh, are you ok, what’s wrong, what happened?”
“My back, my back, what the fuck!” Unusually aggressive for a self-proclaimed man of calm and balance. But these were extraordinary circumstances.
“What happened, where is the pain? I didn’t hear anything break. Move slowly on to your front again”. Calmer voice now. Clearly manoeuvring back into professional mode.
“NOOO, please, please don’t touch me, please I’m in fucking agony”.
“Ok, ok, but please let’s move you onto your front to give your back some relief. Let me help you”
“Fareedah please, just leave it for a moment I can hardly breath that hurt so much. I think you’ve broken my back or something”. A true bear-poker of a suggestion, to any physician. Especially those with a model of a spine hanging next to her desk.
“That’s highly unlikely Christian” a much needed to change of tone; “I didn’t hear anything break, don’t worry. But look I can’t assess what’s happened until we get you on to your front. How’s the pain now?”
I paused. Lying motionless, wondering how the hell I’d got to this moment in time and space curled up in an awkward fetal position precariously balanced on the edge of a starving Transfomer voluntarily having my spine cracked. And possibly broken.
Beads of sweat started rolling done my forehead, as the silence sat between us with its elephant suit on, for what seemed like hours. Thankfully the pain started to subside quite quickly, but my worry was aftershocks. Neither of us knew what had happened but I was the one carrying the evidence. But I couldn’t lie there forever and was naturally keen to get out as quickly as possible. So I opted for an ultra slow-mo roll off the treatment bed, teasing myself down, feet first, with bomb diffusing care and attention lest I trigger a repeat. I briefly felt a lending hand on my side as I lifted my torso up, but rather cruelly brushed it away. Bomb diffusion faces us all at some point in our lives. And it’s one of the odd occasions that utterly debunk the maxim; ‘many hands make light work.’ Eventually I managed to sit upright on the bed, albeit very gingerly to avoid putting any pressure on the lower back. We exchanged eye contact briefly, our faces frozen in a bewildered “wtf?” rictus, privately replaying what had just happened.
The period between “wtf” looks and the moment I finally limped out of her treatment room, were filled with apologies, postulations about what had just happened and several forceful suggestions that I go for an immediate X-ray. I daren’t let her touch me again. Not on this occasion, anyway. I was understandably furious, although once the initial shock had passed and my mind and body had calmed down, the initial vitriol that had quickly welled up inside me had all but evaporated. I didn’t, couldn’t blame Fareedah for what had just happened. Chiropractors don’t break peoples bones unless those bones are easily breakable. And that knowledge is the responsibility of the bone owner, who shouldn’t be visiting a Chiropractor in the first place. Ahhh, the plot thickens.
Thankfully, whatever had transpired that morning didn’t seem to bare too many immediate side-effects. By the time I’d clambered back into my Jeep, everything felt as it if had returned to normal: just me, the Pain and an ever growing sense of health anxiety.
But things were far from normal. The stakes had been raised. Intuition came knocking again with bad news, and I was forced to accept that I had just crossed a line of inevitably, that certified me as a bonafide member of the chronically un-well. It had been steadily down hill for some weeks now, but the gradient had just gotten a lot steeper. Yet despite this intuitive knowing, and Fareedah’s ardent recommendations, I chose neither to have X-rays taken, nor visit a Doctor. The latter representing arguably the biggest hindsight Fuck of this entire story. Sadly the reason behind this choice was profoundly poignant; driven by a relentless riptide that has had me looping in and out of happiness throughout most of my teenage and adult life: money. But more on that later.
Life outside of the Pain rolled on with grateful normalcy. Ava continued to burst into life and had settled in her new nursery. A genuine fairy tale of set-up called Homegrown, conceived and created by two of Dubai’s leading expat lights; Gaurav and Lucy. A compassionate and dynamic couple, who also happened to be two of my oldest friends in the City. Placing Ava in their care via Homegrown during this delicate time of her age was a no-brainer. Especially with my ever-increasing health woe’s gathering in the background. Things were clearly getting serious, so protecting Ava from any undue stress and emotional upheaval was absolutely paramount. In the pastel laced, toddler heaven of Lucy and Guarav’s nursery she couldn’t have been more protected.
Maintaining that at home however, was a greater challenge. She’d been on two legs since 10 months, and was an extremely inquisitive and tactile little girl. Yet despite the ever-present and often overly-enthusiastic assistance from our Nanny, the amount of physical attention she both craved, and deserved from her Puppa, quickly became too much for me.
I found the sense of heart-break of being unable to freely and openly play with my daughter, uniquely painful. On the rare occasions that I tried, it would inevitably end in her seeing me grimace in discomfort; forced to put her down, stand up, or stop whatever if it was we were playing. Ava has always been smart beyond her years, and I could see in her eyes that she was quickly making a connection between physical interaction between us, and her Puppa being in pain. To this very day, whenever she wants to be carried or lifted up onto something, she never expects it of me. Reaching instead for Emma. Social psychologists widely suggest that a child will have established their nuclear beliefs and the foundations of their attitudes by the age of 4. If you ever want proof of this, ask my daughter to ask her Puppa for a carry. Ye Gods, the things we lose in the fire.
On a brighter note, earlier in the year Emma had started her own design business, specialising in posters and artwork for children. It was a fabulous way to stimulate her immense creative talent, and as September rolled on it was really starting to take-off. So whilst I continued to labour away beside her in our home office, like Old Gill The Salesmen, the creativity, and hustle and bustle of our villa belied the sub-plot lurking in the background. Our relationship remained reasonably buoyant to, save for the odd times we found ourselves floundering in the frustration of not knowing what was wrong with me, and my ever increasing inability to contribute to certain domestic and toddler raising duties. But as selfless as always, she shouldered the added-burden with rarely any complaint. Sometimes we don’t get to choose how many plates we have to spin in our in life, but on the back of my deteriorating health Emma’s were multiplying with unreasonable regularity. Business women, Designer, Model, Mother. Wife. Lover, Carer, Warrior. But amazing as she is, she kept them spinning at no cost to her loving and compassionate demeanour. Even during the rare times when her eyes revealed it was getting too much, her compassion prevailed, a soothing whisper in a strong wind. Without it, and her, this story would have taken a very different turn.
Looking back I wish I’d had enough strength and emotional intelligence to give her more support during those early times of uncertainty. But as the pain, the listlessness and the fear tightened its grip, I couldn’t help but slip further behind The Curtain. Into my private inner-space, that had now become an existential safe house. A quiet place to sit, think, hope and affirm that all this will pass soon. To operate on myself spiritually, in search of divine guidance, or better still, healing. And to exercise that extreme optimism that would one day prove to be such an essential part of my survival team. At this stage it hadn’t become my permanent residence, but I was retreating there with increasing frequency, and sadly there was never room for two. Or maybe I just never allowed there to be. Sometimes fear has a strange way of isolating you from the love and care of the people and outside help you need. Because often that’s where the truth lies. And thanks to the brutally honest nagging of my intuition, it wasn’t a truth I was ready for. Despite everything that had been spilled so far, I gripped tightly to the belief that I remained bullet proof, and sooner or later I’d smite this foe myself.
Despite several bouts of trying to steer me away from a third visit, and into the nearest hospital, I chose to follow my well polished stubbornness and ignore Emma’s pleas. Besides, Fareedah had convinced me on the phone that there were other ways we could help my back that didn’t involve grappling, and the possibility of more razor blade bombs. Another decision I would soon regret.
I hadn’t experienced another explosion since my last visit. In fact during the last embers of September, the Pain had flattened out slightly. A welcome turn of events that was framed by a sudden and epically welcome change in Dubai’s weather. Outdoors was back on the menu, and with confidence high and fear all but muted, I found myself opening a cruel window of possibility that all that positive thinking and optimism was coming to fruition.
It didn’t last long. To cut to the Chiropractic chase, at the end of my next session, after an hours worth of careful stretching and very gentle manipulation, Fareedah had one last manoeuvre she wanted to perform. Which involved pushing my bent knees repeatedly in towards my chest, and out again. So far the session had played out without any seismic activity, but on the very last cycle of knee-pushing, detonation! As she leaned in and pushed my knees up; ‘bang’. Something shot me, point blank range, straight through the lower section my right ribs. It was a different pain to the razor blade bomb from the last session. Cleaner and less annihilating, but nevertheless abominably uncomfortable.
Swearing, awkward dialogue and another round of the X-ray assertions ensued, as I clung, hopelessly confused and miserable to the right side of my lower chest. And this pain wasn’t going away. Whatever had happened in there was bad, long-term and more than enough motivation to reach out for more help.
I never saw Fareedah again, but she did become a source of support over the coming weeks. Regularly checking in to see what the news was and if there was any improvement in my condition. Frustratingly, the X-rays I agreed to have done after the rib shot (and paid a years worth of Nursery fees for) appeared to show nothing in the way of injury, despite my lower ribs throbbing permanently, making certain movements and resting postures virtually impossible. Given there’s little to nothing one can do to help with a broken or damaged rib, I failed to see the point of getting a second opinion.
Not only did those X-rays represent the first of many (many) I’d have to go through over the coming months, they also represented the first of many times that I’d be monumentally let down by modern health care. Both its technology and its physicians. I would later come to learn that the original explosion in my back, and the subsequent rib shot were both cases of my bones fracturing. In a way that was unique to the antagonist that thus far, remained hidden in the shadows. Had those early X-rays been read properly, there’s a strong chance a lot of the misery that was about to come my way could have been avoided.
Rome was really burning now, and to make matters worse, I was getting sick. The tell tale signs of what I thought was a routine chest cold started to creep in as September was turning into October. And coughing with razor blade bombs running loose across your lower back is now picnic.
“About a Great Many Things” is a story about my, and my families journey through the howling vortex of discovering, fighting and living with cancer. About the many things, the great many things, that such a journey demands of us as human beings. The mistakes we make, the courage we find and the love and light we wield, to push back against the darkness of this most unforgiving and unpredictable of foes.
These are just a preview chapters as the whole story and Book is finished, and I warmly invite your comments and feedback.