Tuesday, 7 September 2010


As humans, our natural tendency is to take things for granted. This manifests itself daily, as we are barraged with a constant stream of other people's problems, some accessible to our own experience (tales of good fortune and bad fortune, injury and death of close ones) and some which are unimaginable (floods, war, devastation, starvation). Our general default response is to ignore them all, to let the incredible crapshoot of potential outcomes, good and bad, just wash over us. Not me, jack. That is the default response. It hasn't happened to me, so it probably won't.

This is wrong, and stupid, but humans wrote the book on stupid, and the vision of most people doesn't extend beyond the tip of their own nose. The only way, unfortunately, to empathize, truly empathize, with the experiences of others is to have something similar happen to yourself.

Four days. Four days is all it takes to rid yourself of the take-it-for-granted mentality. Laying on your back in a hospital is a great way of achieving this.  Why?  Because four days is enough to strip away all of the distractions and accoutrements with which we surround ourselves, and reduce life to the five basic impulses (aside from breathing, obviously) which drive us, namely eating, sleeping, waste disposal, desiring, and thinking (either consciously or dreaming). Everything else is irrelevant. All of these activities, most of them involuntary activities, have a common theme which very quickly comes to light when trapped inside one's own body in a hospital bed: they all require some degree of physical or mental mobility. They also require, in order to be effective, some absence of pain, and they all must work in concert in order to ensure survival. Of the five, only the first three are unavoidable.

This morning I heard a doctor say on the radio, commenting on whether a drug cure for obesity would ever be found, that our bodies are great defenders of these functions, that irrespective of our thoughts, the body will fight (literally) to the death in order to preserve them. He said there was no way of artificially altering our basic survival instincts, hunger being one of the most basic.

With today's amazing modern anasthetics and technology, a quick four day stay will give you a quick primer on just how the body (unprompted) will go about this defense. The way this happens is that a cocktail of drugs are used to put a grinding halt to the first three activities, tricking the body to bypass all the early warning systems, internal plumbing overrides, and subconscious user manuals which keep us ticking along. We have been tricked, literally, to enable someone to enter the forbidden zone of our body and do pretty much whatever they like, whilst still at the same time allowing basic functions to continue on.

The body doesn't like to be tricked, and when it finds out, it fights back like hell. All the pain that it was designed to employ when its frontiers have been breached is stored up and has to emerge somehow. And it will.

Somebody told me before my surgery that for each hour of actual surgery time, a month of  recovery is needed. I suppose that this is because the body suddenly has to relearn everything it has been taking for granted, the cycle of eating, sleeping and shitting which has served it well all these years. And relearn all this while having a symphony of pain playing constantly. Much like trying to learn a foreign language while having someone scream incongruous babble in your ear the whole time and being unable to get up and adjust the volume or turn off the radio. 

In addition, the body has got to go and review whatever the hell the surgeon has done, and to go about fixing, rewiring, and adapting to a new reality.

I tried to read as much as I could about the surgery I was having (hip resurfacing) beforehand, sort of to prepare myself for the pain. I found very little first hand reports of the reality. I suppose it is the same as having a man ask a woman how a natural childbirth was. The look is often one of incomprehension....how could you ever begin to know? Painful experiences are usually forgotten, or at least the true memory of them is. 

They are also bonding in a kind of way, because all pain is about the passage through pain, and the cycle that accompanies it: shock, anger, acceptance, relief, and renewal. Pain bonds you to others because it forces you to reassess your view of the world, which is always pretty insular. It forces you to open your eyes to others. 

How many people (myself included) , when faced with someone on a cane, ask themselves: Why is this  fellow limping?  When you are young either you don't notice or you avert your gaze. Suddenly, when you are the limper, you begin to notice just how many other people there are- the elderly, the infirm, the injured. Suddenly the disabled spaces look a whole lot more relevant. So consider this last paragraph a big lifelong mea culpa.

Recovering from hip surgery is a two-steps-forward-one-step-back sort of activity, and if you can't get your head around that, you are bound to be very very discouraged. It is about swapping different kinds of pain for a lesser type as time advances.

The whole reason for doing a hip resurfacing is twofold, to alleviate chronic pain, and to return (if one has had an active life) to the sorts of activities (tennis, golf, cycling, in my case) that were curtailed by the bum hip (but ultimately caused the bum hip). A bit of a paradox perhaps.

And in order to go forward to take upon that old life, you must go backward. Or as the french say: reculer pour mieux sauter. Back up in order to jump better. It is a deal entered into with the end in mind, but perhaps little real awareness of the pain involved, and the road will be a long and gradual one.

Now everyone wants an easy out. A quick fix. That is not going to happen with a hip operation, believe me. For every story of a man running a marathon after three months there is probably one of someone taking years to get back to full functionality.

I am only on day 18, and yesterday I did my first light exercycle. The muscles have atrophied in that short period, but at least the soreness is a soreness with which I am familiar.

But these are all just random self-centered thoughts. Someone once said that fear is a sluice into which all other thoughts are drained. The same is true for pain. So excuse the self-centered rambling. 

Just take two thoughts away from this.

1. If you are going to have, or have had, or are thinking of having something done on your hip, take heart. It is uncomfortable, indeed unpleasant, but there is an end, or rather it is a means to an end.  All pain is relative (my hospital discharge report said uneventful recovery from hip arthroplasty). For them, maybe. I would have said shitting gravel out of my ass after 4 days was pretty damn eventful, but what do I know? Just take each day....indeed each step...as it comes. Start each day from scratch, and enjoy the miniscule advances.

2. Open your eyes to people around you in pain. It is no great shakes for you, as an able bodied person, to give up your seat, step out of the way, offer to help. One of the most shocking things I have seen is not only the indifference of some people, but indeed their predatory nature. To wit, the lady with a pushchair who cut me up whilst I was hobbling into the chemist. I saw her eyes, the split second decision, and the acceleration which as she almost clattered into me whilst obtaining a crucial (to her anyway) moment's advantage in the race for nappies or whatever. This did not go uncommented upon by me once entering the shop, in an elliptical way. But the next time.....well the cane makes a pretty good crook, or a weapon. 

Or at the very least, something to write about.