Chapter 20: If at first you don’t succeed … (Part 1 – Feb 2022)

I’ve always been a bit of an “all or nothing” character, even before my brain injury.

In the past, in a work or academic environment say, whenever I found something that I was good at I would thrive on it, building my knowledge and capabilities until – as arrogant as it sounds – I was the best at that particular thing.

On the flip side, when I struggled with something, I really struggled, to the point where I would lose all confidence in what I was doing and my ability to get the job done.

Perhaps that is why – having potentially found my “thing” – when the new school term arrived in January, I decided to double down and take on morning driving duties for my eldest son.

There was also a sound rationale for this decision. Doing so would give him further opportunity to practice his driving, plus take the pressure off my wife to fit this task in before work, meaning that she could start her day in a more relaxed frame of mind.

The logical extension of this reasoning saw me also taking on ad-hoc pick-ups for my youngest son during the school day, arising from an altered timetable due to mock examinations. Plus evening journeys to take my eldest son to “fight club” (MMA training) a couple of times a week.

So more like going all in, rather than just doubling down.

Did I mention that I was an “all or nothing” kind of a guy?

Having definitively proven my capability to drive – or so I thought – my hypothesis was that as long as I knew when it was required of me, I could plan around it to ensure that I was fit to do so.

As my old psychologist used to say to me “if you’ve done it once, you can do it again”.

With the benefit of hindsight, I would say that the theory was sound, but the practical implementation came with some difficulties.

The first challenge came on day 1, though not for the reasons I was expecting.

Having taken my youngest son to school for his pre-term COVID test, hanging around for the 20 minutes or so that it took to administer, then bringing him home, the manic feeling was back, seemingly out of nowhere.

After riding the indoor trainer to calm myself down, I realised that at least part of the cause for this feeling was anxiety. Not my anxiety, but his. Or rather what I perceived to be his.

Does that make it mine now?

In any event, I was getting anxious because I perceived that he was anxious.

This was something that I could address.

So, I broached the issue with him directly. Was he uncomfortable with me driving? I didn’t expect to resolve his anxiety – if indeed he felt any – but I thought it would help us both to get the issue out in the open.

It certainly helped me. He assured me that he was fine with me driving and since then the same issue has not arisen.

By confronting this particular bear head on, we had been able to face it down together.

Despite that early breakthrough, from a cognitive perspective, I would have to admit that the next few weeks were tough.

By the end of the month, I had imploded, managing to let myself – and my family – down quite badly on two occasions.

The first of these seemed to come out of nowhere.

I had been watching my youngest son play rugby against a rival school – something that I particularly enjoy, nor do I find it cognitively fatiguing.

As usual, I had chosen the far touch line as my vantage point for the game, primarily because it tends to attract fewer people. That way I avoid having to engage in conversation – something that I do find fatiguing – and can get stuck in to supporting my son’s team with gusto.

Unfortunately, this week the opposition supporters chose the same side of the pitch as me.

So there I was, fully absorbed in the game, offering vociferous encouragement from the sidelines, in amongst the opposition fans.

Now, I am not from a rugby background – with its good manners and gentlemanly conduct – rather a footballing one and as such have a tendency to get a little carried away in my support, particularly after my brain injury.

After engaging in what I thought was a spot of light hearted banter with one of the opposition players when he had just failed to score a try, suddenly I found myself surrounded by a group of parents accusing me of intimidation.

I found this ludicrous – particularly as, with my balance issues, the player in question could have knocked me down with a gentle nudge – and with my brain now starting to overload with all the unexpected inputs, combined with my new found “confidence” from driving, I misjudged the situation badly.

Rather than recognising my mistake and apologising, I sought to defend myself vigorously from what I perceived to be an unfair attack, resulting in a rather heated argument on the sidelines that only came to an end when my eldest son stepped in to lead me away, whilst seeking to excuse my behaviour with reference to my brain injury.

If having to listen to your 17 year old son apologise for you is not a chastening enough experience then the dressing down I got from my 15 year old son after the match certainly was.

The second incident was significantly less dramatic, though equally as disappointing.

The following weekend, after another long week of driving, I was forced to cry off going to my niece’s first holy communion party.

I was exhausted and couldn’t face the prospect of having to sit at a table making conversation for several hours, something that I find particularly fatiguing at the best of times.

So I stayed at home on my own, feeling disappointed with myself, yet again, this time for letting my niece down and for missing out on spending time with some of my favourite people.

I resolved to make sure this didn’t happen again.

The day on my own – spent resting and regathering my resources – enabled me to come up with a plan to make it through to the February half term break, whilst still delivering on my driving obligations.

Taking the opportunity to look back over my diary for the period, I could see that I had been on the brink of mania pretty much every day – more like agitation, perhaps.

On the whole, I had been doing a successful job of containing this feeling by using it as an outlet to get something done that I would normally find fatiguing – such as cleaning the kitchen surfaces on returning from dropping my eldest son off at school in the morning, or making the dinner after picking him up in the afternoon. Ultimately though, it had overspilled into full blown mania on the evening before and then the morning of the now infamous rugby touchline incident.

Reviewing my driving schedule for the preceding month, I could see that I had been adding in unplanned journeys at the weekend, missing out on the opportunity to rest.

So, for example, when on a Saturday my eldest son surprised me with a request to make a 20 mile round trip so he could see his girlfriend, I had agreed to it rather than suggesting that he take the train instead.

Inevitably, one trip then became two when he would message me later in the day to ask if I could come and pick him up.

Then there was the occasion when, at one o’clock in the morning, on my return home from an evening spent socialising at a friend’s house, he had asked if I could take him to the local hospital where his friend had been admitted, having fallen over and banged his head. Even though I was fatigued, I had said “yes” – I’m a sucker for a head injury story!

None of these acts might seem unreasonable for a normal person – which I so desperately wanted to be – and so I had agreed to his requests.

But the reality was that they had taken their toll, resulting in a level of accumulated cognitive fatigue that had caused me to fail as a father (and uncle) in other respects.

In simple terms, having potentially found my “thing”, I had been overindulging my eldest son – and myself, really – by seeking to make maximum use of it.

I had become a bit too sure of myself and so underestimated the cognitive toll that driving – and teaching my eldest son to drive – was having on me.

It appeared then that I had finally found my true limits as a driver and driving instructor. I had to learn when to say “no” – and so give myself the chance to rest and recover properly.

So I dialled things back a notch – always making sure that I had at least 1 day completely free of driving each week.

In this way, I managed to hold it together until the end of term with only one further incidence of mania on the 4th of February. More on that later.

During the half term break, I was even feeling sharp enough to make the trip up north with my two boys to see family and take in another football match – a victory this time!

On the journey up, any time that I was required to sit down – which is most of the time on a train – I was in considerable discomfort, that now familiar burning feeling returning in the groin, accompanied by a prickling sensation in the lower back and abdomen.

This persisted over the next few days – whilst sat down at the match or at dinner, for example. The only time that I was able to get any relief was either by laying down or when walking.

When I had tried to play football with my two sons and their cousins, I had been unable to feel my feet or generate any power when kicking the ball.

It appeared that physically I was no better off than I had been at Christmas.

Looking back over my daily diary entries for the last period, I could see that – just like in the month before Christmas – I had been walking a tightrope between cognitive fatigue and physical pain the whole time, but whilst in the heat of the battle, so to speak, I had just been pushing on through, as is my way.

It was clear to me now that whatever I had been up to this last 7 weeks – whether physical or cognitive, I wasn’t sure – had not been doing me much good.