Chapter 19: Going back to the drawing board … and finding my “thing”? (Dec 2021)

On returning from holiday last summer, my wife was in the process of transitioning to a new job – resulting in a much needed reduction in the intensity of her working day – giving her the opportunity to make some changes to her daily routine that she was hoping to make stick.

Consequently, she unilaterally declared her intent to continue in the role of head chef, having become fed up with my rather limited menu. No complaints were forthcoming from me or the boys!

Furthermore, she staked her claim to take over dog walking duties during the working week, enabling her to get some exercise before sitting down in front of her computer each morning.

In combination with me giving up what had become a rather nasty thrice weekly habit of a trip to the shops on my bike, this presented something of a unique opportunity for me too – to up my game on the driving front by redeploying the surplus cognitive resource so generated.

The goal was for me to build up the frequency of my driving such that I could manage to do the school pick-up for my eldest son 5 days per week.

The plan was to achieve this by the time my wife started her new job on November 22nd. That way she could rely on always having a clear working day when the intensity started to ramp back up.

As you have perhaps gathered by now, things didn’t go entirely to plan.

Cutting to the chase, despite paring back my other chores to the absolute minimum – keeping the house tidy, vacuuming, laundry – by November 15th, it appeared that my upper limit for driving was … drum roll … 3 times per week.

In other words, no improvement – arguably a deterioration even, though by now it was clear to me that my previous level whilst still making trips to the shops on my bike had not been sustainable.

My experience of the preceding 2 months had revealed to me that driving any more frequently than this seemed to put me well and truly into manic mode, with the dreaded tingling sensation rising up in my legs and back. Ideally, the 3 drives would be spread out, with a day of rest in between, though 2 days in a row was just about feasible at a push – seeming to bring me to the brink of mania / tingling on the third day, without quite tipping me over the edge.

To say that this outcome left me feeling disappointed was something of an understatement. I was bloody furious! This wasn’t the deal that I had signed up for when I gave up the bike. At one point, I can vividly recall saying to myself “I’m not going to take this lying down”, whilst – you guessed it – lying down!

Yet despite what could only really be considered as an abject failure in terms of the stated objective, as I passed my 5 year anniversary around the start of November, I had what can only be described as an overwhelming feeling of positivity. Not something that I am normally prone to.

Part of this feeling was undoubtedly attributable to a couple of trips back to the hospital where I spent almost 7 weeks in the Neuro ICU ward after my accident. Although these visits – a CT scan of my brain that is carried out annually as a matter of routine, followed by an appointment to review the results – are challenging, both cognitively and emotionally, I also find them quite uplifting. There is nothing quite like seeing where you used to be to remind you how far you have come and how lucky you are to be there, even if you still desperately want to go further.

Despite my best efforts to shake it off with the fatiguing effects of my daily routine, this feeling of positivity continued to crop up over the next couple of weeks, albeit intermittently. Something else was going on.

Perhaps it was the knowledge that I had pursued every avenue available to me in trying to achieve this particular goal?

Over the previous 9 weeks since starting out on this latest endeavour, I had experimented with every possible variable that might influence my capacity for driving.

From the more obvious ones – exercising beforehand, playing familiar music, avoiding conversation with my passenger – to the more left-field – choice of footwear, drinking less coffee (due to its stimulating effects), drinking more beer (for its depressant effect – strictly after driving, I hasten to add!), concentrating on my breathing to keep calm.

Whilst some of these had an influence on how sharp I felt while driving – the obvious ones, strangely enough – none of them materially affected the tingling sensation and feelings of mania that I was experiencing afterwards.

At one point, I even tried reducing my Prozac dose.

During the travails outlined in the previous chapter that resulted in me taking a new medication (Mirtazapine) at night to help me sleep, I had learned from my GP that Prozac is actually a stimulant. Under certain circumstances – such as taking a high dose for an extended period, as I had been doing for more than 3 years now – it can give rise to feelings of mania / restlessness (known as akathisia).

Under my current – significantly reduced – cognitive load, I hypothesised that my brain no longer needed quite the same level of artificial assistance to get through each day, leaving me overstimulated.

Consequently, with the guidance of my GP, I gradually tapered down my Prozac intake, eventually coming off it completely.

Perhaps needless to say, this turned out to be a red herring.

But even here there was a positive to be taken. My mood had not deteriorated – indeed, if anything I was a little bit more feisty and willing to back myself – no bad thing, in my now not so humble opinion. More importantly, I hadn’t fallen back into the old ways of trying to push on to get more done, exhausting myself in the process. Perhaps I had graduated from bear fighting school at long last?

So, as the final week before my wife starting her new job arrived, although I hadn’t achieved my goal, I felt relatively content. I had given it my all, so perhaps I had to accept my apparent limitations?

I’ve had enough experience of this over the last 5 years that I’m actually getting pretty good at it! After all, something is better than nothing, right?

In this final week, my wife had booked the time off work so that she had the opportunity to switch off completely from her old job before starting her new one.

This had the added benefit that she was available to carry out all driving duties, taking the pressure off me to perform.

Taking the opportunity to sit back from things and review my diary for the last 2 months to see if there were any patterns I had missed, I noticed something unexpected. Whilst I had continued to become fatigued in the same way by my usual daily routine, I had been able to participate in many more meaningful activities – most notably a weekend away with my wife watching our youngest son play in a rugby festival, playing a support role in a weekly “Fatigue Group” run by my local Community Head Injury Service (aimed at helping people with acquired brain injury learn to cope with cognitive fatigue, not at fatiguing them – though in my experience the two come hand in hand!), joining my sons on a trip up north to see my family and attending a football match (my first since my accident).

Although these activities had all been challenging in their own ways, either during – for example, difficulties controlling my legs when trying to walk and talk on the way to the football – or afterwards – with an extended period of rest being required – they had nevertheless been enjoyable.

Stripping away the trips to the shops – plus the other activities that my wife had taken on – had certainly left me with more cognitive resource in the tank, which I had been able to put to good use for other purposes. I had even been needing to nap less often during the day, opening up opportunities that I would previously have discounted – though I suspect this was largely because I was now sleeping so much better at night.

So, despite not achieving my stated objective, on balance the trade I had made had most definitely been worth it.

But of course it had – I was now taking considerably more than I was giving back. In simple terms, I hadn’t kept up my end of the deal.

On the Wednesday of that week, something strange happened.

For the last few weeks, my wife and I had been talking about buying our eldest son his first car, but whilst trying to get to grips with driving I hadn’t had the headspace to start looking into it.

Whilst absentmindedly searching the internet for potential vehicles that morning, I happened upon 3 or 4 possible candidates at a garage around 40 minutes from home. On the spur of the moment my wife decided she wanted to go to see them, so we jumped in the car and drove over there.

Or rather she drove. Having been taken by surprise and coming off the back of my usual morning routine, I needed 10 minutes of quiet time in the car, concentrating on my breathing, before even being able to engage in conversation without my brain overloading.

By the time we got there, I was firing on all cylinders and able to banter with the salesman quite comfortably – an activity very much in my comfort zone. When it came time to take the first vehicle out for a test drive, I did it without even thinking and proceeded to repeat the exercise with 3 further vehicles – without experiencing any tingling sensations or mania.

Of course, when it came to making a decision I started to struggle cognitively – the conductor elbowing his way back into the picture – and so I suggested we beat a hasty (well, rather slow actually) retreat to a local cafe so that I could rest and recharge.

Having eaten an early lunch and taken some time to gather my resources, I suggested that we do a quick further search for similar vehicles in the locality. We had decided on our preferred vehicle – a 59 plate VW Polo – but based on my prior research I was unconvinced that the asking price was a fair one.

My wife was keen to get the deal done and so reluctant to follow my suggested course of action, but she acceded to my request and – lo and behold – we found virtually the same vehicle for sale a couple of miles away for £2k less.

On returning to the car yard, I pointed this out to the salesman, but he was unwilling to budge on his asking price, so we departed for home with a view to arranging a test drive of the cheaper vehicle the next day.

On the drive home, I was still feeling sharp after my pit stop at the cafe, so I offered to drive but my services were declined.

It was on this drive that something significant was revealed to me.

For a long time now, my wife has struggled with driving herself. For whatever reason – presumably anxiety related, though she has yet to get to the bottom of it – she develops surplus saliva in her mouth and so has to spit into a tissue every couple of minutes to get rid of it. As time goes on, I have observed that this tends to result in her driving ever more conservatively – for example, never leaving the inside lane of the motorway to overtake.

I have no such challenges and during that drive home from the car yard, when I felt completely fit to drive, I began to realise that here was a genuine opportunity for me to do something that could make a real difference to the life of someone who I care about a great deal – if only she would let me.

I knew from my experience preparing for my driving assessment a year ago that under the right circumstances I can drive without any difficulty and so I resolved to rediscover them.

At the end of September, early on in the 2 month experiment to up my driving frequency, I had the idea that if only I could get a clear view of what the driving demands were over the course of a given week, I would be able to measure my cognitive and physical efforts accordingly to ensure that I was always fit to drive when required.

When I had asked for this information, I struggled to explain my rationale – partly because it was largely based on instinct and partly because I was pretty fatigued at the time. Consequently, my request was denied, with my wife and eldest son rolling their eyes at each other and walking away – the metaphorical equivalent, to my perception at least, of being given a pat on the head and told to go and sit quietly in the corner.

I won’t deny that at the time I took this badly. But now – 6 weeks later and with all traces of Prozac out of my system – I was confident that I had been right and more inclined to stand my ground.

So that evening, I insisted – politely, but firmly – on being given the information.

The next day, rather than asking, I told my wife that I would be driving us to test drive the cheaper alternative vehicle that I had identified.

This clearly made her feel apprehensive, but to her credit she went along with my plan.

As I had anticipated, I drove there and back – 40 minutes each way, including a stretch of motorway – without experiencing any mania or tingling sensations.

Indeed, after taking my now customary rest and recharge in a local cafe, I had been able to undertake the test drive, plus accompanying used car salesman banter, sealing the deal and saving us a significant amount of money in the process.

So in the end, I managed to hit my delivery date of 22nd November with a few days to spare – not something I can ever claim to have done when I had performed the role of project manager in my old line of work as a management consultant.

Between that day and the end of term, I drove every day required of me bar one – a long awaited trip into London to make my farewells to former work colleagues that had been delayed since January due to lockdown. I even managed to chip in with a few extra drives here and there outside of my allotted hours.

One such – my driving highlight thus far – was being allowed to drive my wife and youngest son home from Rugby where we had watched him play the game so named. This was a 70 mile run on a mix of unfamiliar, unlit single carriageway A roads, plus motorway – all of which was navigated in relative cognitive comfort. As with our trip to the second test drive location, I had declared my intent in advance – having noticed my wife appearing to struggle on the outbound journey – and then measured my cognitive efforts across the day so that I was ready to drive at the appointed hour.

So what was behind this remarkable turnaround?

At the time, my theory went something like this:

During the previous 2 months, I had come out of the traps way too hard – as is my way – offering to drive at every possible opportunity.

Needing to regulate my efforts due to my apparent limitations, in response my wife had taken to calling on my services only when she had no other option. So we had fallen into the trap of using me as second line support – being called upon to fill in on the driving front at the last minute, when my wife was unavailable.

From my perspective, this had led to a scenario where I was constantly on high alert – operating in a “fight or flight” mode, if you like – but with only a limited outlet for my heightened state of readiness.

The data from my indoor trainer seemed to bear this out – when riding to dampen down the feelings of mania that I was experiencing after driving, my average speed was around 2 kph quicker, yet I did not feel that I was trying any harder.

Regardless of the reasons, I was delighted with what I had achieved and so during the school break over the Christmas period – with my driving commitments significantly reduced – I prepared to blow my own trumpet to the world via this blog.

Then over Christmas, I had a rather unpleasant experience that stopped me in my tracks.

We had travelled to stay with my mother-in-law, which I had found really quite uncomfortable – the journey that is!

Over the course of the week that we spent there, this discomfort worsened, ultimately becoming an excruciating burning sensation in the groin area when I sat with any kind of weight bearing down on my pelvis. At the same time, my quads and abdominals seemed to become rock hard even though I wasn’t training – making me realise that I had been unable to feel them contracting properly for quite some time now.

This caused me to question whether my experiences of driving over the last month had really been as straightforward as I had been making out.

When I checked back over the daily entries in my diary for that period, I could see that I had actually been in some sort of discomfort most of the time.

Whilst I had managed to completely eliminate the feelings of mania that I was experiencing after driving, I had been on the brink of tingling pretty much all the time – more like a crinkling sensation that started around the waist and gradually rose up through the midriff to the upper back and chest during the course of the week as I continued to drive. It wasn’t there all the time – I could dampen it down temporarily by bathing or riding the indoor trainer – nor was it exclusive to driving, but pretty much every time I got behind the wheel it kicked in.

In the absence of being able to undertake either of these activities over the Christmas period, was I starting to feel the true effects of all the driving I had been doing?

I could see now that I had been close to my limit cognitively and physically for the whole period. This “great achievement” had come at a significant cost – or so it appeared.

As noted on numerous occasions elsewhere in this blog, I have known for some time now that there is an interplay between my cognitive and physical resources, with overuse of the former seeming to deplete the latter.

Nevertheless, when I had described the bear that is driving as “gnawing away at your legs” in the last chapter, I had intended it as a metaphor rather than literally.

Yet here I was, experiencing really quite extreme physical difficulties, having removed what I had thought was the offending article – namely my bike, or rather my propensity to overreach myself physically whilst riding it when in a state of cognitive fatigue – from the equation.

But if I had qualms about the wisdom of continuing with this latest escapade, those had long since been discounted.

That decision had been made back on the 29th of November, when I had first been granted the very great privilege of performing the role of driving instructor to my son.

After 5 years of trying, perhaps I had found my “thing”?