Like a cairn marks the way in the mountains, moving to the rehab centre marked the way on the path back to the mountains. It was the first time since the accident that I would feel something akin to positivity after a long and exhausting fight through the gauntlet of surgeries. Photo by JM Watson
A Change Has Come
I transferred to the Life Rehab centre across the road from the Vincent Pallotti hospital for my post surgery rehabilitation. They just wheeled me across in the same hospital bed. It was the first time I had felt the sun on my skin for almost 7 weeks. Rehab was like a hospital in that we were in hospital beds in wards of 6 beds each. There were nurses and the same fluorescent lights. It was also unlike hospital, there was a canteen and a gym and patients were moving around freely, no longer confined to their beds. What a change.
On my arrival I met the physio, Madiga. She explained roughly how the setup works. I would sleep in the ward but would be doing guided gym sessions with her and an occupational therapist. They would get me into a wheelchair of my own. I would also be able to go to the canteen to eat meals. When she first saw me she asked why I was still in bed, I knew then that rehab had a different approach than that of the hospital. Instead of rest and recover, this was a place of action. Immediately I embraced that.
I didn’t have any physio that day, but I was able to use a kommode for the first time (basically a wheelchair with a hole in it to shit through). I cannot tell you how relieving it was to be able the sit on a toilet and shit again. The bed pan days were over, it felt as if the arduous journey through the Mines of Moria had finally ended.
On day two they brought me a wheelchair and I was able to eat in the canteen. It was novel to sit at a table and eat again. Lying in a hospital bed for weeks, my entire life had stopped, using a table again was a stark reminder of how much I had relied on other people to sustain me. That was changing.
I had my first physio session which was a challenge. No longer confined to the 15 min bed sessions with the physios in the hospital. Now I had an hour with Madiga in the gym. It was so good to exercise again and I felt some life returning. It wasn’t clear how long I would be in rehab but I would be able to do ‘home visits’ to assist in the transition back to the outside world. First for a day and then for a weekend.
A Week in Rehab
Routine established itself quickly. I would wake at the customary 5 am for coffee and wait for the rehab doctor to do his rounds. I asked him if it was possible to change the blood thinner injection to a pill form, which he agreed could be done. Long bone fractures and big wounds create a high risk of blood clots. Since day one I had been given a daily injection of Clexane into the fat of my belly. It was a painful daily experience. Wednesday marked the first day since the accident that I had not had a needle of some kind either permanently attached or stuck into me for some reason. Although I had the TSF through my leg, it was still a relief and a huge milestone for me.
After breakfast in the canteen each day I would head to the gym. I did two sessions each day, one with the physio and one with Nelia the occupational therapist. Both Madiga and Nelia were amazing, without them guiding me through the first phase of rehabilitation I doubt I would have made any progress at all. Whilst the exercise tired me out and the pain that it caused at the end of the day was incredible, I felt better for it. Finally I had some agency of my own on this journey instead of being a passive bystander as doctors cut and stitched me back together.
The freedom of movement and the canteen allowed for more visits from friends and family. Again it struck me how many awesome people I had met in my life and the support was invaluable. On Thursday I met the trauma counselor and discussed my feelings with her. She was far easier to talk to that the psychologist who had come to see me in ICU. My attitude continued to improve each day bolstered by the activity and conversations with friends, family and rehab professionals. The week had been exhausting. I was learning how to navigate the world with one fucked leg. As such it had taken every bit of me to stay with the flow of events in the first week of rehab.
A Time to Reflect
The first weekend in rehab I would stay there, not yet able to take on the rigours of a ‘home visit’. I would do one physio session on the saturday but otherwise rested. Sleep was better thanks to the exhaustion of the exercise and my mood had improved considerably. I had pizza with my mother and sister on the sunday, a welcome break from the hospital food. It was quite a social weekend for me seeing friends and family but the empty hours between the visits were still torturous.
The pain was still considerable and the weight of the loss weighed heavy on me. I cried many times that weekend as the reality dawned afresh. Each new ability I gained (transferring into a wheelchair, using a toilet, brushing my teeth at a basin, eating at a table to name a few) came with a bittersweet feeling. Although I was elated to be making progress I was acutely aware of the ability I had lost. Every gym session or excursion outside stung with the memory of my previous life. Like a cold and final reminder that I would never live my dream of becoming an 8A climber.
I was, however determined. Tool had released a new album, Fear Inoculum. Once again I would turn to their music to help me on the journey. Pneuma reminded me to keep my eyes full of wonder and Descending would help to keep me on the path to order. I had trained myself both physically and mentally to lean into challenges and I resolved to do just that. I would remain true to my faith in Being and Like Marie, it was time for me to demand “…give me my, give me my wings”. Thank God for Tool.
It was raw and challenging but the journey into the unknown had begun and like the warrior in Invincible I would struggle to remain consequential.
The Ouroboros, the snake that eats itself, a creature struggling to survive by eating itself and simultaneously creating its own suffering. Photo by JM Watson
I have been fascinated for some time by the ability of the human spirit to overcome suffering. People like Victor Frankl have suffered more than most of us ever will in our comfortable suburban ‘Hells’. He had the misfortune of being born on the wrong side of Aryan in Germany. The Nazi’s would force him to abort his child with his wife. He would also lose his wife, parents and brother to the concentration camps in Nazi Germany. Despite this he survived the camps and continued with his life’s work as a psychologist. Developing and applying what he called Logotherapy. A psychological treatment which posited meaning as its central theme. Perhaps it’s a naive opinion but when a man like this has something to say, I think we should listen.
I won’t quote the entire book, ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’. But If you haven’t read it I suggest you do so, like now! Ill distill out three quotes which stood out for me whilst lying in a hospital bed broken both physically and psychologically.
“Life is not primarily a quest for pleasure, as Freud believed, or a quest for power, as Alfred Adler taught, but a quest for meaning.” Viktor Frankl
“There are three main avenues on which one arrives at meaning in life. The first is by creating a work or doing a deed. The second is by experiencing something or encountering someone; in other words, meaning can be found not only in work but also in love. Most important, however, is the third avenue to meaning in life: even the helpless victim of a hopeless situation, facing a fate he cannot change, may rise above himself, may grow beyond himself, and by so doing change himself.” Viktor Frankl
“There are situations in which one is cut off from the opportunity to do one’s work or enjoy one’s life; but what can never be ruled out is the unavoidability of suffering. In accepting this challenge to suffer bravely, life has a meaning up to the last moment, and it retains this meaning literally to the end.” Viktor Frankl
Life is about meaning. Without meaning we are lost. It is the thing that sustains us a humans, not value, not power, not hedonism, but meaning. There are three main channels to find meaning in our lives: Love, Work and Suffering. The last is the only constant in our lives and as such the most important. There will always be suffering to overcome.
Suffering is the Substrate of Life
We say that the only certainties in life are death and taxes. I think this is a poor attempt to hide the truth. Suffering is the only certainty. If you are born (and that is far from a certainty) you will suffer, it is unavoidable. Even those born in full health and with wealth of resource to spare will fall ill and die. That’s not accounting for their peculiar hardships that they may suffer. To disregard this truth is what the core of religion describes as the path to Hell.
I am not well schooled in Buddhism but I think that the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path are one of the best summaries of the fabric and meaning of life I have ever come across (believe me I’ve searched). The Four Noble Truths are:
The Truth of Suffering
The Truth of the Cause of Suffering
The Truth of the End of Suffering
The Truth of the Path That Leads to the End of Suffering
If we accept that: There is suffering. That it is essentially caused by Life or Being itself (to be specific, this differs from Buddhism a bit here but the idea is similar I think). That there is a way in which we can end that suffering without the cessation of Life or Being itself. Then the means by which we do so becomes the meaning in our lives.
Suffering is embedded in Life and transcending that suffering is the ultimate purpose of life. This is the fabric of Life, it is the substrate from which our conscious experience emerges.
The Last of my Freedoms
“The last of the human freedoms: to choose one’s attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one’s own way. And there were always choices to make. Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you become the plaything to circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity…” Viktor Frankl
Lying broken in a hospital bed unable to climb, walk in the mountains with my dogs, feed myself, or even move without pain, I still had the freedom to choose. My love of life had been stolen from me by suffering. My passionate work to improve myself in the realm of rock climbing had been destroyed by suffering. But at least I still had suffering. Whilst reading Frankl’s words, I listened. As I had in ICU, I again chose to embrace that suffering, to find meaning. Before transferring to the rehab facility I did know how the journey upwards would go, but I took the first step in Vincent Pallotti Hospital. I laid down a foundational phrase which would help me rebuild my life in the dark times ahead.
When faced with Unavoidable Suffering, Suffer Bravely
This X-Ray was taken about two weeks after the surgery to install the Taylor Space Frame. It was a stark reminder of how my life had changed. Photo by JM Watson
The Last Days at Christian Barnard Hospital
The bottom is an ugly place, but that is not to say that it is not useful to reach it. When I awoke on Friday morning, frustrated, in extreme discomfort and emotionally depleted, I knew that I had indeed reached the bottom. I also knew that there was utility in that and I felt just slightly better for it. Although the day was no less grinding, I did meet with Dr Laubser who would install the Taylor Spatial Frame (TSF) around my leg. Finally it felt as if I was moving again, impossibly raising my head to breathe after drowning in chaos and despair.
He informed me that I would be able to bend my knee and weight bear post surgery. I would also not need to stay in hospital whilst the bones healed. Something which was not certain in my mind and a huge relief. I would be transferred to a rehab facility after about a week of observation and healing in the hospital. There they would help me to regain enough functionality to be released from hospital with the TSF. Exactly how long that would take or in what condition I would be was unclear. But at last there was hope and a foreseeable end to the hospital stay.
The next few days passed like decades. The same routine of early mornings, physio and doctors visits punctuated long hours of attempting to entertain myself by reading, watching YouTube and generally being an emotional mess. I wasn’t sleeping much better. I was, however, able to get a few patchy hours each night which helped. They transferred me to a private ward due to an infectious pathogen they had found in the tests they routinely did. The doctors said it wasn’t infecting my wounds but needed to isolate me from other patients.
The visits from my mother, sister, brother-in-law and friends sustained me, keeping my mind in check in the otherwise endless hours of neon lights and immobility.
The Taylor Spatial Frame Surgery
I transferred to Vincent Pallotti on Wednesday afternoon. Thursday Morning was an anxious time waiting for the surgery that afternoon. I knew I would be going back into a more painful state after the surgery. It meant more IV drugs and altered consciousness. The confused state precipitated by the drugs combined with the massive psychological trauma was not conducive to sanity. It took everything I had to hold on in those periods.
The Surgery was a long one and waking up in the recovery area was as confusing and unpleasant as I could possibly have imagined. I phased in and out several times before stabilising and I was in considerable pain. I could feel the same fractalization of reality between bouts of lucidity as I had when they gave me the Ketamine. Again I found the words of Dr Peterson useful: Shorten your timeframe. I tried to breathe and make it through each second. Not fully aware of where or at times even who I was.
My mother and sister were in the ward when I arrived, I was in considerable pain. The anesthetist had given me a PCA. It’s a large plastic syringe like pump that allowed me to self administer IV painkillers every seven minutes. This alleviated the pain somewhat but at the cost of lucidity. The pain would rise and I would push the plunger. Several seconds later I could feel my consciousness narrowing and be sucked back into the fractal world beyond. The struggle was real.
Hope, and Desperation Post Surgery
Surprisingly I slept quite well that night, but awoke feeling exhausted. Dr Laubser informed me that the surgery was a success in his eyes. A relief but it did nothing for the pain. The first physio session was unnerving to say the least. Bending the knee after almost 6 weeks of it being stationary was an uneasy feeling. It felt as though the whole knee was in a vice grip and it was more than i could bear to feel all the wires and pins inside me. I politely asked to end the session and subsequently broke down crying when the physio left. I felt stretched beyond what I could handle by the end of the day. Music helped to alleviate the burden of being until the sketchy sleep covered me.
The pain improved over the next few days but not by much. I was barely able to move around in the bed. Sunday was the next day with anything other than the routine of hospital life and visits from family and friends. The doctor cut away the protective bandage covering the TSF and I could see it for the first time. As always the sight seemed both shocking and intriguing at once. This thing before me, both biological and mechanical is what was left of the the leg that held a heel hook on Human Energy, a toe hook on Born into Struggle and hiked countless kilometers into mountains unknown. Now I could barely move it and not at all without pain.
The nurses also changed the bandages on the wounds still healing between the Meccano set and replaced the sponges around the pin sites (something I would later do each week on my own). Later that day the physio would help me move the leg over the edge of the bed and slowly lower the foot to the floor. The pain and discomfort was real. I was only able to sustain that for several seconds. I had touched the floor for the first time since the accident, a momentous milestone.
Dr Laubser also started the adjustment of the TSF, a process which would continue for 5 days. The support struts of the TSF which join the two rings together have a locking screw mechanism that allows them to be lengthened or shortened. A computer program determines the correct sequence of adjustments needed to correctly position the rings to align the bone shards. The movement is spread out over 5 days to lessen the pain and allow the body some time to adapt before the next adjustment. Whilst the adjustment wasn’t painful, it did precipitate more inflammation. I felt more pain at the end of the day after the adjustments.
The next few days passed much the same. The pain did begin to lessen and I moved away from the trippy drugs, thankfully. I did my first stand heavily assisted by the physio and with all my weight through my arms on a walking frame. I was only able to do one stand the first day. Progressively adding two more the next day and three the day after that. The journey back to the mountains seemed impossible. I was still in a dour mood for the week after the surgery, despite the progress and the hope it had brought.
The Last days at Vincent Pallotti Hospital
By the weekend I had recovered a bit more, I was in a lighter mood when My birthday came. I ate burgers with my mother and sister and although I was still distraught, I was eager for the transfer to the Rehab facility.
Love had been lost and purpose had been expunged from my life, all that was left now was suffering. Thankfully I had asked for a copy of Mans Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, which I had intended to read whilst in Rocklands. His words brought some dignity back to my mind and remembered in me some of the thoughts which I had cultivated over the few years prior.
” When faced with unavoidable suffering, suffer bravely” Viktor Frankl
Damn how I tried, through the tears and the pain. Looking back on that period I understand that I succeeded in rekindling hope. At the time, however, I could not see the forest for the trees. The forest had apparently seen me and was preparing the reveal itself. After spending a week and two days in hospital post surgery, I would transfer to rehab on Monday the 26th of August.
I have been struggling to articulate my thoughts on this next concept for three weeks now. So instead of trying to express myself in a more detailed and articulate form, I’m going to get real fuzzy here. I’m going to describe to you how i feel about the idea of having an Aim for your life. When I actually faced up to it, because it is terrifying, I decided that my Aim in life was to be the best climber I could be. That Aim improved my life beyond what I had conceived possible. Now the terror is fully realised, I have failed, I will no longer be able to posit that Aim for my life. Perhaps the reason I have been unable to fully engage with this topic is because the loss of that unifier is still apparent and may actually never be resolved (more on this in a future post sometime).
We talk a great deal about having goals, but not so much about having Aims. I think that’s a function of our modern world moving away from what might be loosely defined as the spiritual, but that’s a discussion for another post. Whilst ‘Goals’ and ‘Aims’ can be interchanged in use, for the purpose of this post I’d like to define them more precisely. I understand that goals are important and that there is a collection of literature surrounding goals I don’t think, however, that they are as important as Aims.
So to distinguish them, think of the following comparisons. Where goals are specific and measurable (SMART for those who like acronyms), Aims are a more loosely defined collection of ideas which guide us over time. Unlike goals, our Aims are never realized. They are unending motifs that define our lives, allowing us to forge meaning. When you are hungry, the goal may be to eat, but the Aim might be something like feeding yourself consistently and in the best way possible. Where goals are more fixed, Aims move and change. As a climber you might have a certain problem or grade as a goal, but the aim might be to be the best climber you could be and it could morph into being the best boulderer you could be. Where setting goals is a more logic driven function, requiring some definition and structure, Aims are more rooted in emotion and an elusive quality of interest or curiosity. As an investigative journalist you may have a goal to write a book, but the Aim would be to investigate themes and questions that consume your thoughts.
Whilst I refer to having a single Aim in life, it is infact a complex idea, for some there may be several Aims closely linked, for some perhaps just one. However you cut the cake, I believe it is important to have an Aim for your life. I mean the alternative is quite literally to be Aimless. To be so diffuse, like a spinning compass, that you are both everything and nothing simultaneously. Potential lacking the specificity to be anything at all. Having an Aim informs you, orientating your brain, emotions and the very core of your being towards something. It unifies you and guides your thoughts and actions where otherwise there would be pure hedonism, animalistic desire in response to stimulus. It is what they refer to in the Bible when they say ‘straight is the way and narrow is the gate’. Our Aims don’t just keep us on the path, they create the path. They create the meaning in our lives and a life devoid of meaning is truly Hell, I’ve been there, I know.
So how do we go about discovering what our aim in life should be? The best sense I have been able to make of this question is to combine your limitations to with what you find interesting or what your curiosity pulls you towards. This idea of curiosity or interest is elusive, but it does operate within us. We have all heard the adage that we regret what we don’t do more than what we do. As difficult as it is to define, we know what it feels like to be disappointed that we never chased an opportunity or investigated a desire. It cuts at us and only we, as the individual, can truly understand just how much. On the contrary, doing ‘what we love’ seems to imbue our actions with a kind of magic that is mysteriously lacking in that which we do not find interesting. But we must follow our hearts within the limits we find ourselves constrained by. You may not have the means to become an astronaut, or reinvent yourself as a Doctor at 50 or 60 years old. There are truths about existence which cannot be overlooked. Part of having an Aim is to transcend those limitations, but we also need to be reasonable and not attempt the impossible. Finding that balance can be difficult but as Yuval Noah Harari said ‘Life is hard, deal with it’.
I wont delve too deeply into how I came to posit Climbing as my Aim in life but to sketch a brief scenario. I was disillusioned with life when climbing offered me a release, and hope, if somewhat unconsciously. The progression that climbing offered and sense of alignment found in the flow state which climbing requires was contrary to the Nihilistic view on life that I had been infected by. Suddenly there was an emotional (ie feeling based and not articulated knowledge based) improvement in my life. Something i didn’t think was possible. I had been on this emotional journey of meaning for a few years when I was introduced to the ideas of Dr Jordan Peterson who allowed me to see that having an Aim was important and that I should do it consciously. He also said something along the lines of: Ok so you don’t know what to do, then pick something, you’re gonna get it wrong anyways but it beats Aimlessness. And so I chose climbing, because I had the resources to follow that Aim and it called to me with increasing curiosity and interest. It may not have been a conventional Aim or even worthwhile in the eyes of society (I mean if you’re not fighting for the rights of some disadvantaged group or making money what are you doing?), but it was my Aim and that was important to me.
As it turns out Peterson was right, almost immediately I began seeing the world differently. I improved my nutrition, work life, even how I viewed and interacted with people. Moving away from the cynical ‘everyone is a cunt’ model I became more and more accepting of people, if for nothing else so I could get more climbing partners to climb with. I discovered fasting which improved my energy and helped shed fat I could never get rid of before. I started working from home and increased my discipline, producing work of a better standard and faster so I could take Fridays off to go on longer climbing weekends. My training increased to include running and pilates to boost my strength and overall fitness. The pursuit of climbing became the pursuit of the unknown, looking for more challenging routes, problems and even climbing areas that were remote and difficult to get to. Climbing became the inspiration for change and growth in my life, allowing me to rediscover the awe and majesty that life has to offer. In short, it saved me.
But lying there in that hospital bed in the new ward it was apparent that that Aim was lost. the very thing that had rekindled in me the love of life had been smashed. I was forced to painfully and inescapably experience the disintegration of my psyche when the centre pin was removed. Whilst I understand that it wasn’t climbing that actually changed my life, it was having an Aim, climbing was the mechanism by which I came to understand that. It was that which was lost. It was like knowing that it is not air that sustained me but breathing. I was unable to breathe albeit that there was air a plenty. As I write this now, I am still Aimless. I do not know if I will ever find another Aim that calls to me as climbing did, although I am acting in a way that allows me the greatest chance at following such a calling if I happen to identify it. Its like wading through a foggy swamp, there is no visible end, no motivation, but I must continue to wade. Into the Unknown, with no heading, no destination and quite possibly no reward.
I’ve been struggling to articulate my thoughts on the next concept following the Wards of Sadness. It revolves around having an aim in life and how my aim of climbing changed mine. So to fill the space whilst i’m chewing on that I thought Id try something different and recount one of my past adventures. Something I would like to begin doing for future adventures as well.
Once upon an Easter in 2017, a group of four of us embarked on a four day hike around the Giants Castle in the Drakensberg. A stunning feast of pure awe awaited us.
This was roughly our route.
The Giants Castle is a section of rock that juts out from the more distinct line of the escarpment forming a small peak on a spine whose tail is a prominent feature in the valleys below. The area to the north of this point forms a bowl of large cliffs and converging valleys. The aim of this hike was to summit the giants castle point and the hike back along the edge of the escarment over a large ridge called Mt Durnford and come down Langalibalele Pass. It would give us views of the point and of the bowl of valleys below from two different sides.
We camped in a campsite close to the hotel from which we would start our first day. We were all quite fit and covered the hilly sections of the lower escarpment quickly.
It’s in these early slopes below the towering edges of the plateau where the Drakensberg really starts to come alive. The rolling green grass and magical slopes of the barrier of a thousand spear as it is known in its local Language name. The Giants Castle itself was veiled in cloud that first day but the views were no less impressive.
As we came closer to the mountains the clouds lifted briefly showing the cliffs of the Castle in their full splendor as we hiked passed them on the way to Giants Pass.
The pass was grueling and I was apparently the slowest of our group at ascents. But slow persistence paid off and the views from close to the cave where we would sleep our first night were worth the effort.
In the morning the clouds had closed in thicker, covering the valleys below. We were in our own mountain world now. We had breakfast in the cold and with the mountain air filling our lungs we were ready to explore this dream like world.
Further up the pass we saw just how cold the night had been with these impressive plant freezes a common sight.
We crossed over the bulk of the Giants Castle which was a longer hike than anticipated. The back side of the Castle slopes away from the valleys and we were walking in the pathless and more barren terrain of the plateaux. When we came up the last slope up to the point it seemed that we suddenly stepped out of an elevator and onto a viewing platform.
To our left were the cliffs we had walked passed the day before and the bowl of valleys covered in a magnificent white blanket.
To our right was the rock spine which stretched out into the ocean of cloud which mesmerised us as it rose and fell. Sometimes covering the spine and sometimes revealing it.
Lourens had brought with him the remainder of our friend Schalk’s ashes and we made a cairn of rocks to place them in. A fitting resting place for a dearly loved friend and adventurer. Despite him taking his own life, I will love him until I die. I miss you Bro.
We hiked back off the point and got some good distance in before rounding a ridge which ran along the edge of the plateaux. We camped on its slopes facing the escarpment eager to be shielded from the eyes of the local herders. We had had an encounter that day which left us feeling less than comfortable with their interactions
On day three we would conquer this ridge, Mt Durnford. It was a much bigger slog than I thought it would be. I was constantly lagging behind and need more than a couple of breaks. There was a specific spot we had to crest the ridge at so that we could find the only gap in the mini cliff on the other side. The path down was treacherous but we got right spot in the end.
Whilst crossing through the various valleys of the plateaux that day we had another encounter with the local herders which was tense to say the least, they are pertty pushy and just say ‘give give’ the whole time. All the while covered in ponchos which gave me the impression they were armed and hiding it.
We had planned to camp at Bannerman Cave above Langalibalele Pass but were put off buy the increased density of local herders in this part of the plateaux. We decided instead to push on and come down the pass a bit to camp. For views this was a fantastic decision. The lower slopes of the Drakensberg are truly magical and we all sat and watched them talking of the hike as the shadows lengthened and called us to a deserved sleep.
We had only a small distance to cover back to the hotel and we took our time walking slowly on our tired legs. Savouring the clearer view of the Castle and the escarpment we had hiked through.
There are few times in my life when I’ve felt more connected to the mountains than the hikes in the Drakensberg. They are epic arduous adventures but each time I went I was reminded anew of the awe that I feel when hiking through them. I wish one day to experience that awe again, for I cannot recall the feeling and there are not the words to describe it. I recount this adventure here to remind myself of what I seek. To light a flame of hope in the amidst the chaos. Hope that I may one day be able to do these things again, however daunting the dragons may be.
Thank you for indulging me and I hope that you too experience this awe one day, in whichever form it calls to you in.
In a previous life, chasing my dreams on Panic Room 7A+ which I sent just weeks before the accident Photo by Dan Bates
At the end of the first two weeks in ICU I wasn’t exactly out of the woods yet, but the canopy was starting to thin. The doctor was confident that they wouldn’t need to amputate the left leg as well, the major life and leg saving surgeries were done. My body could now focus on healing, to close the envelope before moving onto fixing the bones. The Monday and Tuesday passed with no new drama, the same unpleasant ben pans, semi-sleep and pain. My temperature was still spiking up into the 38’s at times although my blood markers of infection had apparently begun to drop. I went for what I was told would be the last dressing change in theatre, whilst there was more pain after coming out it wasn’t nearly as bad as the actual operations. I was also starting to wean off the IV drugs in preparation for the ward transfer. The lower level of care would mean that I would need to come off the more dangerous IV stuff and onto Targinact, a powerful oral Opioid. By Thursday my temperature had stabilized and the infection markers in the blood test still continued to fall. A good sign that the infection had been slain.
On Friday I transferred to a normal ward where my wounds would heal. The doctor would monitor them and call for transfer to the next hospital where the orthopaedic surgeons (Bone Doctors) would work on fixing the gap in my tibia.
The epic Journey through the narrow gates of ICU had ended and without the hardcore cocktails of IV drugs and constant surgeries my consciousness stabilized. For the first time my consciousness was exposed, fully and unveiled, to the full devastation the Nothing had left in its path. Choose what ever definition you wish, Self, Identity, Core, what it is to be whoever I was, it was so apparently destroyed that it doesn’t matter. What had once been a focused, spinning, moving, cohesive whole had hit some kind of phenomenological obstacle in its timeline and was shattered into fragments much like the rocks floating in the void when Fantasia was destroyed. My Ego jumped desperately between the larger fragments, frantically seeking the Ivory tower as remnants of who I was crashed unrestricted and unbidden into other parts of me.
The day outside looked warm, the softer light of the late winter afternoon bathed Signal Hill in a beautiful light, above its slopes paragliders lived out their dreams, chasing life and thermal alike. It was a Friday and the conditions looked good. The climbers in Cape Town would be scrambling to get to their projects before the light fades, I was no longer one of them. I had endured psychological pain before, I had been humbled and forced to change who I was, that was dark, but I had persisted. I though perhaps, fortified as i was, I could weather this, I was wrong. My leg was buzzing sharply from the movement from transferring wards. Without the IV drugs my whole body was tingling, aware of every touch, my body ached from the immobility, pain from moving and pain from remaining still. But all that seemed to fade as I looked out that window. Did I need this? Had I not been humbled enough? To what end was all this suffering? As the sun set softly, warmly, invitingly like some kind of sick cosmic joke, I cracked. Memories, dreams, fragments of me came crashing into my consciousness, each time exposing the damage anew. The shockwaves of psychological pain slammed into me, forcing shudders as I cried. I broke that night, there in the artificial darkness of the hospital. I had been forced through the bottom, beyond the meta-structure of life, to a place so chaotic that only raw emotion could exist. A kind of fatal, existential sadness was all I could feel. A sadness that was connected to all things through death. The Sadness of the complete destruction of future, of dreams and of Love. The Sadness that called to the End.
The week after that night felt like eternity, busy with the tasks of living, bedpans, eating, physio (which basically involved me waving my arms around and sit-ups). The days stretched, blank and meaningless, as nothing of the path forward revealed itself. There was progress of a sort in healing and movement with physio and I learnt midweek that the orthopedic surgeon would come to see me on the Friday (an event that would eventually reveal some of the path forward). There were however some moments that broke the tedium during this week in the underworld.
The Doctors changed the dressing whilst I was awake for the first time on Saturday. The anticipation of the potential pain to come was in fact worse than the event itself. Horrified as I was, I confronted every new sight. Seeing the shape and devastation of flesh for the first time was macabre to say the least. The poles of the external fix which held my lower leg in place could be seen extending deep within the muscle to the bone as they penetrated openings in the skin. Once they were powerful machines carrying me into the future, now one was gone and what was left of the other was shattered into pieces, desperately clinging to life.
Tuesday was a day with many people, I saw friends and family and Drs including the trauma surgeon and orthopedic surgeon who screwed my knee back together. In as much as seeing friends and family saved me, the doctors vague answers plagued me. There was talk of possibly a year for the bones to heal. I had no real idea what this meant but the answers weren’t forthcoming. A year in hospital? A year of lying in a bed? Could I do that? I didn’t think so. The doctors assured me that the answers were coming and that there was a path, but lost as I was I could not see it. What was once a life defined by passion and drive was suddenly an empty meaningless vessel with no direction. Frustration infused itself in to the sadness as the nights tormented me. Lying broken in a hospital bed I was forced to witness, again and again, the death of what was.
The dressing change on Thursday was easier and coming off antibiotics after a full 28 days since they were first administered the day I arrived was progress indeed. I also transferred into a wheelchair for the first time, progress for sure. I had been quarantined in the ward as I had been contaminated by some wound colonizing bacteria from the hospital, it was apparently not infecting my wounds however (I don’t understand it either). Confined as I was, despite being in a wheelchair, I could not go further than another spot next to the window in the same room. The same view of signal hill with its paragliders chasing their fucking dreams. I mean thanks God, thanks for this Grief. What was once enthusiasm and a love of life was now replaced by bitterness. Where before I would wake in the morning and say ‘Hell yeah’, I now awoke each morning longing for the Hell to end. By the end of the day I was overwhelmed but also exhausted, I hadn’t slept at all the previous night and the emotions had defeated me. The doctor gave me a different combination of sleeping drugs, thankfully it worked and I found myself pulled by sleeps embrace.
What I was had died, I was no longer the active, climbing, purposeful person I had worked to create, that was clear at least. Who I was I had no idea, pieces scattered in the sand in shadow. I doubted I would be able to reassemble what was left, definitely not something that I’d recognise. Death is never an easy thing to witness and it had taken all of me to pass through that gate. The damage was complete. And I could not bear it.
Finally I slept, I could cry no more and the world disappeared. There was no telling what trials the morning would bring, or who would face them.
My home in ICU with the machines continually feeding me drugs Id rather not take. Photo by Dr Carlien Wassermann
By way of a disclaimer, this post contains graphic images which some may find grotesque. I would encourage you to view them however, they are part of what life is and facing these things will only make you stronger. The same is true of the contents, these next few posts expose a side of life which isn’t easy to face but again you would be diminished for not doing so.
After some rest over the weekend, rest being a relative term, it was back to theatre on Monday evening to have the dressings changed. At this point my left leg was basically held on by my calf muscles and the ex-fix. It would have been too painful and too much risk of infection to open the leg in the ICU so all dressing changes would be done in theatre. Although I came out of theatre feeling drained, it was at least a small compensation that it wasn’t as bad as the last weeks oppereations. Dr Bischof had also cautiously mentioned that they were more confident that they could save the left leg, something which was by no means certain at this stage.
Tuesday brought more emotions, I can’t tell you why it hit me so hard that day but it did. There were so many things that seemed to happen during the day as well. The Anesthetist came to place a new epidural catheter, they need to change them every few days for risk of infection. The placement of the epidural is unpleasant to say the least, a large hollow needle is inserted between the vertebrae and into the area surrounding the spinal column and the catheter is then fed into that space, to find to exact spot the doctor needs to move the needle around a bit and it feels like someone is literally scraping your spine from the inside. the process was further complicated by me not being able to sit forward, usually epidurals are used for child birth and are inserted in a seated position. I needed to roll over and stay in that position for some time, a painful situation for me which was again accompanied by an increase in drugs to compensate. The dull high of the morphine and the reality separating feeling of the Ketamine is a combination I would never get used to. Its as if you fade away from reality, reality becomes dull and feels like its breaking into whatever smaller parts it consists of. It felt to me as if I was being pulled by death’s scythe out of reality and it was out of my control if I came back or not.
The discomfort in my bowels had been growing for days now and with laxatives I finally passed movement again. I had to use the bedpan twice that day and both episodes were amongst the worst experiences of my time in hospital. Not only was turning, lifting and positioning painful, but the actual act of shitting was as well, follow that with the inability to clean oneself and having to have the nurses roll me off the pan and clean up the mess. Each episode left me broken and drained.
I did see Nick and it was comforting to chat to him. I also got new Magic cards which helped to take my mind off what was a very emotional day. The ever elusive fits of sleep with their strange and very real Precedex dreams would flit bout me like ghost of healing, as ethereal as they were important.
Although I had gotten through the emotional rollercoaster of the day before, today would see me in theatre again, looking back on this week I can liken it to going round after round with the devil in an MMA cage. Monday, theater; Tuesday, rest; Wednesday, theater; Thursday rest; Friday Theatre; and Saturday was like judgement day and judged I would be. The operation today was by the orthopaedic surgeon to reconstruct the Tibia head which had broken into three sections. He would open the knee up on the side and manually rearrange the pieces before fixing them together with two castellated screws which would go right through the Tibia head from side to side. The surgeon was encouraging post-op, he said that there was more bone contact than he expected, exactly what that means I can’t tell you, but he seemed to think that the operation went well. My family came to visit again and I spent a long time talking to them and then to the anesthetist, Dr Carlien Wassermann, who had kept me alive in the first operation. Despite the operation, the day passed quicker than the day before and it felt that there might be a bit more light ahead. The day merged with the night in that same way, without ceremony or sunset, in the ICU the only thing that really changes is the hue of the light. It’s just as bright at night and it’s just as busy.
At least I got a bit more rest in today between surgeries, by all accounts tomorrows surgery would be a big one and as events would later transpire, I really needed all the rest I could get. I had another bowel movement which was painful, the rolling and the lifting to get on and off the pan were quickly becoming some of my worst memories of my hospital stay. But beyond that the day was more peaceful, it felt for the first time that there was a bit of space for me to think. I thought of the future, the distant and now unknown future, the chances of saving the leg were growing with each day the doctors had told me. But what did that mean, what kind of functionality would I be able to get out of the leg, would I be able to walk again, or climb again? My entire life had been changed to centre around climbing and it would seem that that was no longer an option. Although these thoughts were heavy and the chaos thick, I did at least have time to think them and the anxiety they provoked only seemed to strengthen my resolve further. Although i didn’t know what the future held, I knew what must be done to engage with it. Having opened some new Magic cards the day before and my continued fascination with stories of mythology, I was perhaps not hopeful but certainly had a better understanding of what may be necessary to move forward: Pick up your Spear and go conquer the dragon that assailed you. The Dragon was life and the only spear I had left was my mind. It may prove a futile journey in the end but that’s irrelevant, the only honorable course of action was to fight. I didn’t know how valuable this day of introspection would be as things took a more dire turn during the night. During the afternoon I received more blood ahead of tomorrow’s surgery. Unbeknownst to me, tests had been returned that showed my infection markers had begun to rise.
The night was terrible, I managed to drift off to sleep early after a quieter day but awoke shortly after midnight with increasing pain the the right leg stump and left knee. It began by feeling sensitive and I could feel more pain with the tiny movements i would do, by morning it had built to an intense pain in the right hand side of the knee. I could also feel I had a temperature, which was confirmed at first light when the nurses did the rounds. Somewhere infection had taken root and Dr Bischof was visibly concerned. She ordered blood to be taken and cultured to try to isolate what type of infection it was. I was put on further antibiotics, these ones they apparently use to treat Tuberculosis but they used them because they have a good bone penetrating effect. The antibiotics were delivered intravenously and the drip bag was kept in a thick silver liner to prevent exposure to light, it was unnerving to say the least. The trauma doctor brought in an orthopaedic surgeon to assess the knee clinically and they decided that if the went through with the surgery, they would literally cut the knee open on the side and go in and manually clean it out to try to stop the infection from eating away at the cartilage in the knee. In the end the doctors decide to proceed with the surgery despite the infection and at 15h30 I went under again, this time for 5 hours. The orthopaedic surgeon opened and cleaned the knee whilst Dr Bischof and her supporting team performed what is called a gastronomicus flap and grafted skin taken from my thigh onto the gaping hole in my flesh.
The gastronomicus flap involves cutting a part of the calf muscle out but leaving it attached at one end, then rotating that flap of muscle around to the front of the leg and suturing it in place. This bulk of flesh serves to close the hole in my leg where the rock had gouged out tissue and further tissue had later been removed as it died off. This large hole left the bone exposed. The bone would not regenerate if not covered by flesh and skin to provide an infection free area with good blood flow.
I would be missing a large chunk of my calf muscle but at least the bone would have a chance of healing. After 5 hours under anesthetic with my body already taking shots, I awoke feeling broken once again. Not for the last time did I have this feeling of being a conscious passenger without agency traveling through this Hell which seemed never ending and tomorrow would prove no different as the source of the infection was brought to light.
Yesterday’s operation had tired me out completely and I actually got some sleep, it was patchy but it helped. I felt a bit recovered when I awoke in the morning but today would prove to be one of the hardest and lowest moments of my stay in hospital. I later looked back at this period and thought about the ebb and flow of a kind of vital life energy during this ICU period, it was as if each operation took all the energy I had and I was barely able to recoup enough energy to be able to make it through the next operation. It was brutal, knowing each time that Id come out feeling broken again but still having to just hold on as the rollercoaster rose and fell, with my consciousness on board, a passive bystander.
The anesthetist came to change the epidural around midday and was surprised to find the epidural site infected. She decided to avoid placing a new line for fear of further infection. She and Dr Bischof were concerned, an infection penetrating into my spine was a dangerous and unneeded complication. I was given a stronger flow of the IV drugs before rolling onto my side so the doctors could cut open the area and disinfect it. Reality once again cracked and distorted, blurring around the edges as the morphine, ketamine and precedex dimmed the flame of consciousness in a most unholy way. I could still feel the cutsa and scraping as the doctors worked but at least there was minimal pain.
Without the epidural controlling the pain sent up my spinal cord and only the IV drugs to dull me, I was far more aware of the sensations in my legs, I would have to ride out the rest of the ICU stay with more pain, and there was heaps of it to come. The anesthetist did inject local anesthetic around my femoral nerve in both legs although i can’t say this helped much.
Dr Bischof wanted to assess the extent of the infection and whether it had moved into the spinal cavity itself. She arranged an MRI scan to determine this. Without the epidural movement was much more painful and I would soon be wheeled into the MRI room and transferred first to a stretcher type bed which could be wheeled into the NRI room (there can be no metal in the MRI room so the normal hospital beds aren’t allowed inside) and then onto the MRI table itself. Both painful transfers after an already pain filled day. To add a further complication, the machines which regulated the flow of drugs into my body were also made of metal in places and I was detached from these stemming the drugs which deferred the pain.
Inside the MRI was tight, hot and claustrophobic with a hard thin board to lie on, add to this the loud alien sounding noise that the MRI makes as it spins and moves and the resultant experience was truly nightmarish. I lay corpse still, alone with the sound, heat and terror of infection. The pain increased as the drugs faded. In total there were three scans done, each lasting an eternity as I waited to be pulled out of the MRI between each. The nurse attending to me administered a dose of drugs buy hand when I was pulled out. Each time she did the pain reduced but so did reality, slipping away into that strange escher drawing like state typified by the ketamine high. It was all I could do to keep my mind from splitting apart as the nightmarish cycle of pain, desperation and mind altering drug trip coalesced. All the while the over loud alien whooshing sound of the MRI threatened to fully derail my sanity. Again I was transferred to the stretcher bed before being transferred back into my hospital bed, this time there were fewer drugs in my system and the pain lanced through me and consumed my conscious field, there was nothing but pain in those few minutes.
When I returned to the ICU I was finished, my head spun and my breathing was erratic. I am certain that the MRI ordeal was as much as I could take. there was no escape and reality was truly too much for me to take. but alas there was more coming, the constipation caused by the drugs was ever present and the discomfort was again growing, my abdomen distending from the pressure within, despite the activity of the day I would find sleep almost impossible due to the discomfort
The only salvation that day was when the head nurse came to offer me some comfort and told me that they had found no evidence that the infection had spread from the surface deeper into the spinal cavity. It is uncertain to me that I would have had the will to fight that too.
I did manage to get a few hours of sleep in the morning before Dr Bischof made her rounds. she reassured me that the infection had not spread and it seemed that my infection markers were dropping in the blood test results. The anesthetist came to change the Main Line from the vein in my right shoulder to my left. They change these IV points frequently to avoid infection, in my case though my body seemed to reject the intrusions faster than most and the site would become clogged or inflamed and would have to be moved. Each day I would have at least one change or blood sample taken, I looked and felt like a pincushion for the storage of doctors needles. The intrusions into my body were a norm but I would never grow used to them.
I did manage to have a bowel movement again, as uncomfortable and distressing as that was, it did bring some relief to the discomfort. However, a new problem emerged when they removed the catheter for the first time since I arrived. The drugs mess with one’s ability to control bowel and bladder functions and the muscles had also not been used for two weeks, despite the build up of pressure, I could not urinate at all. Most of the night was spent trying to re-learn how to pee. Initially my efforts were useless, a terrifying feeling as one as can imagine. Later, I succeeded in passing small amounts of urine which relieved the pressure just enough to be able to find some light sleep. Only to wake minutes later and begin the ordeal again. Moving to place a pee bottle between my legs was painful each time, again and again I fought the muscles needed. After a full twelve hours of effort and distress I managed to urinate and although I would still have difficulty with this in the future, the battle had been won.
The first sequence of surgeries were over and the left leg had been saved, so it was time to start preparing me for transfer to a lower care ward where the wounds could heal before the next phase of the journey began. These first two weeks had taken me beyond what I believed i could bear, but even with the emotions and the drug trips, the journey was mostly rooted in physical experience. Something which would change drastically as I was moved out of ICU. The next battle would be one of sadness and loss. Like Atreyu in the Swamps of Sadness I would know what it was like to lose my Artax.
Concepts are challenging slippery devils to catch hold of. Just as you think you’ve got it pinned down, poof, it jumps out of your grasp and you’re left chasing it around the room as the phone rings and the kettle boils and some wave comes crashing in to upset your day. So how to we pin these things down? Well usually we use words and symbols. Concepts about economics are encapsulated in a body of literature and symbols and it’s customary for people to spend years deciphering these. So to are concepts of life and meaning enshrined in literature and symbolism. Myth, Religion and Culture are filled with examples of these words and symbols. Through the art of the centuries people have been grappling with these complex concepts and experimenting with different representations of their form. Trying to pin them down only to be frustrated by their elusiveness. The concept I’m trying to solidify out of it’s wave state in this post is as elusive as it is important. To try to coax it from its hiding place lets first look at some of the symbols and stories which I think gravitate around it.
The Battle of Helm’s Deep
In the Lord of the Ring’s written by JRR Tolkien, a battle is portrayed as happening at Helm’s Deep. It is a ‘no way out’ nook of the land which has been fortified with garrison walls and is described as the best and last defensible location of the kingdom of Rohan. Rohan is one of two kingdoms of humans on middle earth, the other is Gondor. Both are beset by cunning and massively overpowering foes seeking dominion over Middle earth. The battle that takes place is the first of the battles in ‘The War of the Ring’ and the odds are most definitely not in favor of the humans. Rohan’s foe, Saruman, has by cunning weakened their forces and resolve whilst preparing industriously and intelligently his own force to destroy them. The loss of this battle would ultimately lead to the destruction of one of the two powers left to stand against the coming darkness. Despite the seemingly impossible odds, the humans are able to fight and defend Helm’s deep and although become greatly diminished by the effort are able to prevent the sundering of the two kingdoms of light.
Jacob wrestles with God
This is a direct excerpt from the Bible that I found online, from Genesis 32:
22 That night Jacob got up and took his two wives, his two female servants and his eleven sons and crossed the ford of the Jabbok. 23 After he had sent them across the stream, he sent over all his possessions. 24 So Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak. 25 When the man saw that he could not overpower him, he touched the socket of Jacob’s hip so that his hip was wrenched as he wrestled with the man. 26 Then the man said, “Let me go, for it is daybreak.” But Jacob replied, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.” 27 The man asked him, “What is your name?” “Jacob,” he answered. 28 Then the man said, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel,[a] because you have struggled with God and with humans and have overcome.” 29 Jacob said, “Please tell me your name.” But he replied, “Why do you ask my name?” Then he blessed him there. 30 So Jacob called the place Peniel,[b] saying, “It is because I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.”
Joseph Cambell’s Hero with a Thousand Faces
Joseph Campbell was influenced by Jung and studied myths across the globe and from across time, from this he distilled out what he called the Hero’s Journey. A kind of blueprint pattern which seemed to span many myths and cultures. The video below describes it quite well. Although I have never read The Hero with a Thousand Faces, I have done some digging into this concept, I would add to the video’s description that the Hero’s Journey is not complete until the new found knowledge or skill gained from the struggle that the Hero endures is reintegrated into the community or society and as such, updates the otherwise stale culture.
Infected Rain: Stop Waiting
Whilst not everyone will appreciate a spot of death metal, they do tend to write about interesting topics. Here Infected Rain use the lyrics”we are…always waiting” and “…get up…get up from your knees….fight…fight for your dreams…”
The Battle of Britain
Even in the realm of recorded history (not that myths and story shouldn’t be thought of as history of some kind), we see examples of this idea. Here Churchill is referring to the coming Battle of Britain which was by all accounts a decisive event in the history of our world. What the world would have been like today if Britain had fallen in WWII is uncertain, although I don’t believe that it would have been quite as liberal as it is today.
Do not go gentle into that good night (by Dylan Thomas)
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right, Because their words had forked no lightning they Do not go gentle into that good night.
Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight, And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way, Do not go gentle into that good night.
Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay, Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
And you, my father, there on the sad height, Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Resilience, strength, fortitude, or some other synonym?
So what is this crazy Watson oke getting at here, can’t we just call it strength or something similar and move on? Alas it is not quite so simple. When I awoke in ICU I was very much in survival mode, it was really autopilot stuff. I didn’t have the time or energy to sit and think about how to do things, things were happening too fast and there was too much damage, both physically and psychologically. The physical damage had nearly killed me and could still possibly do so, through infection or some other unfortunate chain of events. The psychological damage was also extreme, one moment i was balls deep in living my dream of being a fulltime nomadic climber, living in nature with my dogs, crushing projects that were beyond my imagination and meeting extraordinary people to share the journey with; the next moment I awoke in an ICU without a leg and the very real possibility of losing the other, pain that was beyond my imagination, the full death of any planned future and of any dreams which I had worked so hard to move towards (and no dogs although they were alive and well). I was definitely not in Kansas anymore. Given this extraordinary set of circumstances, how was it that I was still alive and how was it that I was still what approximates sane? Sure I was beat up, taking shots, but I didn’t feel like I had given up, like Id been crushed by the weight of it all. Not that I like comparing myself to others but there are countless stories of people who go through flood events which are much less severe and turn into little puddles of jelly. A breakup or being fired or a stock that falls can send people into the blackest of holes. But I felt strong and resolute, It wasn’t a hopeful kind of strong for sure but I somehow knew that should I survive, this wasn’t going to be the end of me. Why was that?
During the second week of ICU I had a small break of sorts in the intensity of the operations, quite what made me able to think about these things on that specific day I don’t know. But the timing was fortuitous, the next two days would be one of the biggests tests of my life and to come through it in one piece would prove to be a challenge the likes of which I had not yet encountered. I thought of my experiences climbing and how I had been humbled over the years, of how each time I had been laid low by some event or failure. Through all that I had continued to grind, continued to fight, sometimes without hope. I thought of previous failure, in projects I managed and relationships, even academic failure and more personal failures I won’t elaborate on. Each time I rebounded, I learnt that overcoming such things is paramount in life. Although this time was the most extreme thing I had been through that character, that pattern, still resounded in me. Lying there looking at the rain falling on the city beneath me, crying and utterly destroyed, I understood one thing: You have an obligation, pick up your spear damn you and fight that dragon that assailed you, the outcome matters not, it’s the fight that counts.
So lets unpack these examples above and see if we can pin down this elusive concept. Its not as simple as one might think but definitely worth pinning down.
The first thing that strikes me as obvious with regards to this pattern is that is is completely devoid of hope. Hope, as the Roharim so eloquently said, has forsaken these lands. At Helm’s deep they had no hope of victory, it was a ‘Deus ex Machina’ that ultimately brought victory. When Jacob fought with God, what hope did he have of winning, the fact that God didn’t obliterate him instantly in the story is rather fascinating, but he could certainly not have hoped to win. So to in Churchill’s speech we read a tone of desperation but also of nobility, ‘their finest hour’ speaks to valliant action in the face of overwhelming odds. Even though there is no hope and cruel death is sure to be their fate, even when the Chaos of existence is surely too much to bear and will obliterate one, there remains a mode of being that is valliant, an obligation to transform that Chaos into Order in some way, however small. These stories above are examples of what happens when we do so, we are rewarded. Sure these are examples of the successful stories and no doubt there are countless stories of people who did such a thing and were still torn asunder by the Chaos, in my mind that doesn’t kill the theory though, to do nothing, to give up has never inspired myth or Legend. There is no fairy tale which reads: …and he cracked, sat down, peed himself and began to cry, the evil dragon of Chaos took pity on him and offered him some treasure to make up for the suffering. There is a randomness at work in life that does in the would be heros in a majority of these stories, and so they end. But the stories of success, so commonly presented to us and which seem to resonate with us emotionally are those where some kind of valiant action was undertaken despite the seeming impossibility of a better future. So abandon all hope ye who enter here, it will not avail you. But enter you must.
The next thing that I have come to understand about this resilience or strength is that it is voluntary. You must make a choice to fight, constantly. In Helm’s Deep the King of Rohan has a moment of weakness, with hope lost he gives up the fight, resigns himself to failure. Aragorn reawakens this fire within him by offering him a noble death by riding out against their foe head on, an act which will surely see them killed. In the book better than in the movies, Aragorn’s character was well portrayed as the redemptive man, a Christ like figure who had forsaken his obligations only to realise his faults and rejoin the fight. This was again a voluntary choice and his actions inspired those around him to do the same. When Jacob wrestled with God, it was God who said ‘let me go’, not Jacob trying to flee. Jacob, astoundingly, was fighting with God voluntarily and would not stop before God blessed him. If there is one thing you really want to avoid fighting with its a being who’s powers are described as omnipotent. But yet there’s Jacob, wrestling with him intentionally, the story is preposterous but yet we see it repeated over and over again in many guises. Even in modern art where Infected Rain is screaming at us, ‘Stop Waiting’, ‘Get up’, its a choice we must make despite the death of hope. So choose, will you go gentle into that good night or will you rage against the dying of the light.
But for what reason? Why should we fight, continue the suffering, endure the trial if there is no hope and in all probability no future reward? The answer to that is nothing short of the closest approximation to the meaning of life as I can get to. It is the very substance of our being that guides us into this resilience. Again i paraphrase Jordan Peterson’s words to describe this: There is a mode of being which transcends the suffering of life, and that mode of being is to stand up forthrightly, pay attention and speak you being forward. In other words you fight voluntarily using your best weapons of attention and spirit (or in Peterson’s words Logos, I suggest you dig into the meaning of that word on your own). Fight to turn Chaos into Order, the continuation of which allows you to bear the immense suffering that existence requires and not for hope or reward , simply to bear the suffering, personally. To stand up under the weight and say: I accept this burden and I will carry it until it crushes me completely because it matters that I do. It is understanding this that allows us to break free of the Nihilism of defeat and capitulation. To know that everything we do matters gives us the courage to act valiantly when the world goes dark and all hope dies. It is what the moral or the core that these stories above can be reduced to: If you continue, in every moment, regardless of what came before or what comes after, to fight, to turn Chaos into Order, you will balance the suffering of Being. Perhaps not in the future as the failed stories will attest but at least in that moment you will be able to bear the suffering levied upon you, no matter how great.
So its not Hope that makes us strong, or I would truly have cracked. Its not instinct which shapes how we act, its choice, a stark choice between the light and the dark. And its not Nihilism that builds our strength, its the knowledge that everything you do matters, now, and you had better make meaning of that. Pick up your spear, damn you, and fight that dragon that assails you, because it matters that you do. That’s what these Stories, Myths and Legends are telling us. This is what I drew from, this is why I am still here.
Good Afternoon, maybe not where you are but somewhere in the world. Since my last post so much has changed and in truth it has been all I could do to keep up. Like Alice in Wonderland when she meets the Red Queen, I have been running just to stay in one place. Turns out, that makes you fitter, even if the view never changes. But with a new year comes new hope and a new resolve, I have begun writing again and will hopefully be a bit more on it with telling this tale.
I will still be following the same structure as I laid out before, a narrative of the journey I’m on interspersed with posts on some of the thoughts and concepts I have regarding this journey. However, I feel I should summarise this journey to date and talk briefly about what’s coming.
The Journey so far …
Casting my mind back to 2019, the rock hit me mid July and I spent 3 weeks in ICU, a week in a surgical ward waiting for the wounds to heal sufficiently to move onto the next step. Then a two week stay at a different hospital where the doctors attached a ring fixator to my lower leg, this kept the bones in place so that they could re-grow (a process that would take 5 months). Following that I spent 6 weeks in an intensive rehabilitation centre attached to the hospital. Here I started to learn how to use what little ability I had to live in this new world, a challenging task to be sure.
In early January 2020 I underwent a surgery to remove the ring fixator. Whilst gaining strength I sunk all of my energy into rehab, increasing the amount and type of rehab sessions as quickly as I could manage. Then Covid struck. This definitely affected the pace of rehab and pushed the next surgery I would have, to begin the reconstruction of the knee, out by two weeks. In may I went under again, this time to replace the Lateral Collateral Ligament which is on the outside of the left knee using a tendon from my ankle ( they also tied the bones of my lower leg together with the same tendon) and to replace the Anterior Cruciate Ligament in the centre of the knee with a piece of bone from the knee cap and tendon attaching it to the quad.
This was a brutal 5 hour surgery and I was forced to book in at a rehabilitation centre once again, this time for 6 weeks. I was prohibited from putting any weight on the knee for those 6 weeks to allow the ‘soft tissue’ to heal. This was a major setback as I had begun to stand and even take a few steps on crutches with a prosthetic. Being alone in a rehab centre unable to leave the bed much was psychologically destructive and at a stage Im sure I presented as insane. It would take a further two months of rehab after this initial 6 week period before I would be able to leave the wheelchair fully once again. I then moved into a place on my own, a major challenge but worth the risk. The pace of progress was increasing. A period of relative calm ensued which allowed me to focus hard on rehab and continue building the systems and habits which I believed would give me the best fighting chance.
The prosthetic journey has also advanced, in no small part due to the donations I received from Family and Friends and to the prosthetists at Chin & Partners. I now have a socket which fits well, a microprocessor knee and I’m trying out different feet to find the best fit for me, all in all a massive improvement to the early days.
Further Journeying …
As I write I am facing another surgery, this time to replace the Medial Collateral ligament on the inside of the left knee. Hopefully this will be the last surgery for some time and will further improve the stability of the knee. I can honestly say that I’m terrified. The prospect of another invasive surgery, the risk of covid, the risk of infection, the risk of some other fundamental failure during or post operation is daunting to say the least. In addition I will again be setback in terms of ability, although I won’t book into a rehab centre again, I will undoubtedly not be able to walk and move around in the world as I do now. I cannot express how frustrating that is.
But as fucked up as this joke is, there is at least some light. Having had some time and space to deal with the shrapnel of what’s left of my life and dreams, I have began to lift my head to the horizon. The horizon, unsurprisingly perhaps, is full of mountains. My plan now is to head to Rocklands again in June. If there is a God I doubt even it would know why, but that land is calling to me again. So like the knights of the round table setting out to find the Grail I will enter the woods of life at that place which seems darkest to me. That place is climbing season in Rocklands, the very heart of my dream, a dream which is now dead.
Beyond that there is a lonely mountain in Africa which beckons me forward. A peak which I have summited before, a peak which previously inspired me to dream again after a long drought of hope in my life. Perhaps it will inspire me again. The current plan is to attempt Kilimanjaro in January of 2022. I do not know if this is possible, if I had to guess Id say probably not given my current state. But that’s the plan.
As for Watson’s Journeys, I plan to keep telling the tale of this unusual journey and expand that to include an instagram page and hopefully in time a YouTube channel where I can share the journey more visually.
Until next time as Rudd once sang: ‘I know you are strong, my your journey be long, and I wish you the best of luck’
One crowd…Many individuals (Photo by Jethro Watson)
In the song Pneuma by Tool, Keenan’s lyrics talk about becoming Pneuma. Becoming breath, but breath is the same to all of us. We are essentially made up of the same thing, born of one breath, one spark as Keenan so eloquently puts it. What does this have to do with anything? Well strap in it’s a wild ride.
I’d like to take you on a Sci-Fi journey through a strange thought experiment. I invite you to imagine that you are not in fact Human but Taelon. Whats a Taelon? Back in the late 90’s Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek) penned the ideas for a TV series called Earth: the final conflict. In this universe, the Taelons had come to earth looking for a cure to their mortality. Whilst the plot and intricacies of the series arent relevant here, the Taelons were quite an interesting race. They had evolved into beings of energy and were connected by what they called the Commonality. This was a kind of macro neural network which allowed them to share a collective identity. Whilst still retaining and individual personality and free will they were simultaneously an individual and communal consciousness. You might think it would be impossible to fully imagine yourself as such a being, but lets take a gander anyways.
Lets start with connectivity, the ability to be connected and communicate with others almost instantly. Well we can now do that between individuals, there’s a multitude of platforms out there to connect people. Perhaps that doesn’t seems so alien after all. But what would we be connecting to in this case, an individual or a collective? Whilst communication would certainly be possible between individuals in the Commonality, it strikes me as far more useful to connect to the aggregated knowledge and experience of the collective consciousness. This collective ‘being’ is built up of the minds of not only those Taelons currently living but also those deceased. The insights provided by this collective would be invaluable indeed and would no doubt heavily influence the behavior and thoughts of individual Taelons. However, such information would be on a scale impossible to comprehend through the mind of an individual. How exactly the Taelons were aware of this communal consciousness is unclear in the story, but I’d wager that it wasn’t as cut and dry as we would like it. Perhaps the individual Taelon was not capable of understanding the communal consciousness per say and was influenced by it through a more dream like or unseen process. A process not dissimilar to our unconscious. Mysterious perhaps, but when we watch its action over time and across many individuals we see that there are unmistakable patterns to this unconscious. Perhaps that’s not too alien either. The Taelons created this Commonality to restrict their more animalistic tendencies to rage, violence and darkness, again this is very much how the idea of Archetypes functions in our subconscious. This thought experiment is starting to seem uncannily close to reality. So let us further imagine a full lifespan as an individual Taelon. They are born and assimilate into this communal consciousness and when they die, their experiences remain known to this ‘one consciousness’, the ripples of their lives mixed in with those of countless others, subtly influencing the collective and allowing it, through the aggregate of all its individuals, to experience everything. Allowing it to know what its like to be everything and everyone, ever. Now that’s fascinating, what an alien idea. But its not, let me call this idea by another name we Humans use to describe this kind of all encompassing structure: God. So we have one last stop on this make believe journey, life itself. Never in this story did Roddenberry explain or attempt to explain where life came from. Each individual Taelon was born (through a process of energy) and came into the world, much like we do, suddenly awake in this world of chaos with no idea where they came from. Yes they were given tools and structure by the Commonality, again much like us, but they weren’t given a manual for life and told ‘This is the point to all this and this is how you go about it’. They were still exposed to the same existential problems we face, they too were trying, without reference, to make sense of this crazy universe we live in. They were born randomly into the energy bodies they inhabit and in a time not of their choosing and confronted with the chaos and suffering of facing extinction. They were doing their level best to make sense of that and trying to out run the inevitable entropy buildup in the system which they were inexplicably conscious of. Just like us.
So why am I asking you to imagine yourself as a Taelon? Well partly because its amusing for me to think of people out there going ‘ Im a Taelon, I’m a Tealon’ so just humor me on that front. But mainly because I couldn’t think of any other way to approach this concept without people rolling their eyes, calling me a hippie and running back to their ever entrenched individuality. Its a complex concept which when stated simply tends to get distorted into the ideological. So lets then give this concept a name to define it and then I’ll go through some of the examples which I’ve come across in our Human world: We are one!
By outlining the examples below I’m not trying to convince you that any of them are true in a reductionist sense. I’m pointing your attention at the idea from different viewpoints in an attempt to create a deeper and more nuanced understanding of it.
Ok so throw out the Taelons and lets start with Jung again, this guy is truly fascinating, the more I learn of him the more incredible I find his thoughts. I found this video on YouTube whilst researching for this post. Ill list the four points here so as to continue with the conversation, but its worth a watch.
The experience of the world is just as much psychological as it is physical
The psychic world corresponds in structure to the physical world
Extroversion places deciding weight on the objective factor and introversion places deciding weight on the subjective factor
Just as the physical (objective) world is already there for extroversion to draw from so too is the psychic (subjective) world already there for introversion to draw from
Bear in mind that introversion and extroversion occur to some degree in one individual, otherwise we’ll leave it out for now. Essentially there are two worlds that we experience and both precede us in origin. Its easy to believe that the physical world precedes us, I don’t think that many of us ever really question that. It is however, a bit more challenging to conceptualize a psychic world which exists before and independently of us and yet is simultaneously only perceivable from the inside of one’s self. Jung believed (in as much as I can understand what he believed) that the psychic world was in large part made up of what he called the Collective Unconscious. This ‘a priori’ type structure was common within all of us and jung called its constituent elements ‘Archetypes’. Essentially they are powerful personalities independently at work within us, directing our thoughts and actions on a moment by moment basis depending on the need. Some aspect of this can, in my view, be seen in the actions of ourselves and of those around us, we sometimes act as if we are the same beings. And to the extent to which that is true, can be said to be the extent to which we are the same. Not merely similar as in displaying the similar characteristics, but actually being, in part, the same thing. Its interesting to note that Jung thought that the worlds were of the same value in terms of experience (kinda like saying the same size) and that the collective unconscious makes up almost all of that subjective world. That’s a lot of you that’s actually something else. Or if you turn it around, that’s a lot of something else that’s you. Only that something else is tied into a much bigger structure. For me it’s easy to see how that bigger structure was conceptualised as being a level up in a way. A deity or a kind of meta-consciousness thats built up of our individual contribution to it.
Through the ramblings of Dr Jordan Peterson I learnt of may examples of myth and story which embody the idea of this kind of oneness that we share. Stories like those contained in religious texts, which are in part at least a written record of some of the stories we as humans have been telling each other for thousands of years. Stories like those contained in cultural storytelling like Dostoyevsky, Tolkien or Rowling (which are very similar to the religious stories anyways). Essentially the ‘a priori’ structure is in part, in Petersons view, transmitted to us through culture and its stories and customs. He makes connections between stories in the Bible to this idea of oneness or meta-consciousness. Ideas like man being made in God’s image; that Christ was associated with the logos (the ‘individual’ force as opposed to the all encompassing structure); and that every person could truthfully repent and be forgiven. I think the idea of unilateral forgiveness gives us a good clue here.
Let us look briefly at what we are. You were born into this life fully aware (or moment because you can’t actually remember being born), but you have no idea where you came from or how you got here. These are essentially physical questions, not why, but by which mechanism did you arrive? You truly have no idea, you can believe in some story but in the absence of that, you just don’t have the capability to know where you came from or how. So in that sense we are all the same, we arrive here with no clue and suddenly we are faced with, you guessed it, suffering. Its a raw deal to be honest, even if you’re born rich and powerful you’re still going to hit that suffering at some point. We learn from what is given to us genetically and what is transmitted to us culturally and we become an Ego. We modify the pre-existing physical and psychic worlds slightly, enough to have our own individual or subjective experience of it. An experience that we can, almost simultaneously, recall, influence and plan to modify. Our best bet is to modify those worlds so that we can reduce the suffering inherent in them, or if not reduce it then at least forge a reason for its existence. We are all part of this potential to forge reason from suffering. Each one of us is essentially potential personified. Which isn’t too far from the concept of a Commonality (potential) intertwined with the existence of an individual (action).
So the idea of unilateral forgiveness says that if we truly became aware of our shortcomings or even our own grievous malevolence, genuinely denounced that as wrong and sought to ‘repent’ by seriously turning our thoughts and actions around so as to achieve good or less suffering, then we should be given the opportunity to do so. Why? Well because we all in some way represent the potential to act and change existence. Perhaps we go on to become one of the heroes of the world or even the cosmos, who knows. Its an interesting concept that might be hard to apply in the real world as a human and we might be justifiably weary of believing it blindly. But if we dont believe that each and every one of us shares this potential, we tend fall back into that Egotistical state of contempt, distrust and warring tribes, because of course we possess this potential but its quite clear from the evidence that you do not! And there is quite a lot of evidence out there. Its no wonder that we sometimes come to think that we are so separate to ‘the other’ and special in comparison. So perhaps thinking that we are all equal on some level, the level of potential say, isn’t such a bad idea after all.
We can debate the necessity to tie that belief to some deity, but the idea that we are somehow connected and equal on some level remains. A more way out look at this concept was outlined by Deloris Cannon who, through a process she called Quantum Hypnosis Healing Technique, told of how many subjects recalled the same experience of a higher plane of consciousness and how above that there was another level still. Continued until we reach the source, the One Consciousness which has fractured itself into various sizes and shapes to try to experience all that can be experienced (all of reality) to understand what it is, where it came from and how it got there. I haven’t followed this path of research very far so I may have it a bit wrong. But whilst it sounds whack, an element of it is familiar. Another interesting look at this idea comes from the book The Law of One which was apparently scribed by a team of three people channeling the entity called Ra. Ill include a link to a video describing the seven layers of consciousness and how we all eventually tie back into the one source. An interesting perspective but I wont dwell on it here. The point I’m trying to make here is that although this idea that we are one sounds esoteric, we humans have been thinking about it for quite some time and in many different ways. It seems as if there is a large part of who we are which is effectively someone or something else. It may or may not be conscious itself but to conceptualise that as a Commonality, a ‘one consciousness’ which we are part of but that is not our individual experience, may be useful to use.
I think that to conceptualise this Commonality as being the same entity (The One Consciousness) is phenomenologically true, we can certainly experience it that way with careful reflection either theistically as a god or atheistically as an archetype. But how do we make this leap from similar to the same thing? Thats where this concept of belief comes into play again. We choose to believe it, because that necessitates that we behave in a certain way, the conviction becomes so strong that to act against it feels like committing a sin. That’s the general idea anyways. Many people do actually believe this in some form or another , we have already explored the religious and the esoteric perspective, let’s look at a more social perspective.
We can see this idea manifested in the legal code which governs the ‘western’ world, although it can be poorly implemented at times. This code says that you are innocent before proven guilty and even then are permitted to lay forth any mitigating factors which you think may show your dedication to lessening the suffering after the fact. An astounding concept given that we are so quick to generate contempt through our Egos. We have moved from “He’s on the other side, kill him” to “Ok so he might have done wrong, but let him speak, perhaps he’s the same as us and can help in some small way to ease the way through this journey of suffering”. Even when someone is convicted it seems we are loath the condemn them to death lest they still have some value. Although we do use capital punishment, I’ll wager there are more people in prison currently than ever executed by the modern civilised world. Why bother, if we have decided they are criminals and can no longer help us to create a better world, why not just get rid of them? Well that’s what the Socialists thought in Russia, the Fascists thought in Germany and the Communists thought in China: We are not one and you are beneath us! That didn’t seem to work out well for us as a species.
Another manifestation of this idea is Human Rights. As a collective we have decided that there are certain inalienable rights transferred to each and every human by virtue of them being born. Whilst this idea has not been adopted by the entire of humanity, we in the ‘civilised western’ world certainly do believe this. Institutions like the United Nations and The Peace Palace in The Hague are built in part to protect and ‘enforce’ human rights globally. It is clearly offensive to people if you so much as glance at their sheet of rights, but we struggle to conceptualise the structure of belief needed to bring such a bill of rights into existence.
The way I see it if we are part of one consciousness then there is a cause for hope, hope that the future can be better than the present. Hope that the aggregation of experience over many individual lives will help guide us to a place of greater complexity. If we believe that all people are valuable and that they help to build this complexity then we can begin to see differently, we can see past the Ego and its workings and connect on a much more meaningful level. Even if we cannot identify with an experience, at least we can understand that that experience is necessary for the Commonality. That every experience (which is an act of doing in some way) is a’test’ answer to the existential questions of life and that that experience could just as well have been manifested by our own individual form as by another’s. A failed test, a test of suffering or perhaps successful test somehow but necessary nonetheless.
So lets try another though experiment, this time closer to home. Pretend that you are you, ever so briefly. Imagine that you’ve arrived here in this world and you have no idea what you really are, where you come from and what happens when you die. Thank god this is only a thought experiment right, thats a lot of existential angst to deal with. Now imagine that everyone is like this, with no concrete knowledge regarding the meta-questions of life. In this experiment, I’d like you (remember that you have no idea whats really going on here) to judge and condemn another individual next to you for their thoughts and actions, understand too that they will judge and condemn you for yours (and they also have no idea whats really going on). How did that feel? Hollow in some way, ‘you’re wrong go to hell, but wait so am I in that case and where is this Hell anyways?’. Where would we get the knowledge and experience to judge? Not from our individual selves, we don’t possess the ability to accumulate an understanding of the necessary structure (in one lifetime) to make such judgements. We need some kind of ‘a priori’ structure to guide us. Some kind of accumulated knowledge from many many individuals, perhaps all the individuals, that creates a structure or guide for us to ‘fit’ into. If we, as a collective species or individuals, posit that a core part of this structure is that we are in some ironically intangible way all part of the same thing, we seem to fare better. But we needed all that experience to get to that understanding, all the evil and all the good.
Now I would like to invite you to conduct a real experiment, try to believe this axiom in the next few dealings with other people. Try to believe that the person you are engaging with also has no idea what is going on, on an existential level. That they, like you, were suddenly awakened in this reality and they too are striving to make sense of it all. The probability of them or you being born who you are is so close to zero that it eliminates any specialness that you might possess as you, outside of your own subjective experience. Their experiences are accumulated through a random but mostly deterministic process which has shaped them into who they are. In this way they are you, or at least try to believe that and see how that changes the way you act. When I do that, I become acutely aware that my own limitations as an individual are also the limitations of others. That my problems are also the problems of others and theirs, mine. That on some level we are all connected, we are all God, we are all Complex. On some level, we are all one and its worth respecting that. It certainly seems that when we don’t, all Hell breaks loose.
How often do I actually get that right? Well, I’ll leave that answer up to those who know me. Its not easy to think of that person who has in my mind been incarnated as the epitome of malevolence as being the same being as myself, suffering from the same burden of existence. But if we can manage that or at least move towards that understanding, then perhaps we can tolerate each other long enough to get things done, to live here in the same place and not create Hell on earth, just for a few hours at least.
I think that this principle is one of the foundational reasons for the support I’ve received after the accident. This idea has helped me connect with a wide range of people, people whose ideas are far different to my own but no less valuable. It is this diversity which has ultimately allowed me to find the ideas which prepared me for the accident and support me through its aftermath. Contrast this with my previous conviction to disconnected individual nihilism and its easy to imagine that without this idea, I would never have had the courage, the ability nor the support needed to survive this ordeal.