Chapter 21: If at first you don’t succeed … (Part 2 – Feb 2022)

Over the New Year, I had taken the opportunity to step back and reflect on the findings in Chapter 19, drawing what I thought were some logical conclusions.

During that prior period, having had my follow-up appointment with the neurologist that had been arranged off the back of the issues experienced in Chapter 18, I had been subjected to a batch of further physical tests – a blood test for high cortisol (a stress hormone), plus another full-spine MRI (checking for spinal fistulae – whatever they are – which my brain injury makes me prone to, apparently).

These had all come back “normal”, so it appeared that the physical symptoms that I had been experiencing were perhaps not that serious.

Consequently, I had concluded that I had simply been overtraining on the indoor bike – both in terms of intensity and volume, especially during my manic episodes – and that if I backed off a bit, my physical symptoms would settle down.

Very quickly, it became apparent that this approach was not going to work. Any time I used the indoor trainer, despite moderating my effort I almost literally ground to a halt after 20 minutes, with a burning sensation up my inner thighs.

So, after a brief flirtation with running that yielded similar results, over the next month I experimented with swimming, taking advantage of the fact that there is a pool within walking distance of where I drop my son off for school. Nothing too vigorous – my technique is not good enough – alternating between breast stroke for one length then back stroke (minus arms) for one length, trying to ignore the fact that I was being overtaken by the old ladies in the slow lane when swimming on my back.

It was hard to tell whether swimming was helping or hindering my physical condition. I couldn’t really feel what my legs were doing during the act and afterwards I would struggle to control them properly when walking back to the car.

One clear finding though was that swimming wasn’t giving me the same cognitive recharge effect that I get from cycling or running – perhaps because my poor technique hindered how much of a workout I was getting. This meant that when I got home from the pool, rather than feeling revived – as I would have done having ridden the indoor trainer or run on the treadmill – I felt exhausted, making the chores that I had to get done all the more difficult.

I considered swimming lessons, but these were in the middle of the day, requiring an extra (unnecessary) drive, which by now I had decided was best avoided.

So I concluded that swimming was not the answer and decided to try out the gym that was part of the same sports centre.

After 2 weeks, it had become apparent that the only thing I could do without experiencing some kind of adverse physical reaction was walking on the treadmill.

Perhaps inevitably, I gravitated towards the WattBike – the gold standard when it comes to indoor cycling – but after a few sessions, I was getting similar feelings to those that I had experienced on my indoor trainer at home. That at least ruled out any deficiencies in my home set up – or so I thought at the time.

I did try other bits of apparatus too – rowing machine, recumbent bike – whilst also testing out how my legs responded to some weight training – specifically, dead lifts and squats – at moderate intensity. The results arising from the latter were not good – tightness in the groin area that gradually built up during exercise, turning into a rather intense crushing sensation which then persisted for the next few days.

Over the same period, I consulted a neuro physio – someone who specialises in the treatment of physiological difficulties arising from damage to the brain and nervous system.

At the risk of being too candid, this was a complete waste of time and money.

After examining me physically and assessing my range of movement, she sent me away with a very generic set of exercises to try out – 29 in total, covering pretty much every body part imaginable – telling me that she couldn’t see anything particularly wrong with me.

Her verdict was in stark contrast to what my body was telling me, but nevertheless I diligently carried out the exercises, settling on a core set of 7 – unweighted squats and lunges (forward and lateral), lateral jumps, planks (x 2) and hypertensions – that I felt best served my needs (and that I could successfully complete without falling over!).

After about 2 weeks of doing these every other day, it was apparent that they weren’t helping. For example, on completing the lunges, my feet would feel numb and be ghostly white in appearance, with a sort of cramping sensation up my inner thighs.

When I shared this feedback with the neuro physio, she was either unable or unwilling to offer me any further advice, so I desisted in this course of action.

Instead, I embarked upon a rigorous regime of stretching and strengthening for my adductors (inner thighs). Having researched my symptoms online, I had found examples on cycling forums of people experiencing similar adverse physical reactions to my own arising from overuse of the indoor trainer – the constant pedalling at a high tempo in a seated position putting undue strain on the adductors.

Despite – or perhaps because of? – all this experimentation, when it came down to it, there was no getting away from the fact that I had been experiencing some pretty debilitating physical symptoms across the whole period.

From a tingling / fizzing / prickling sensation up the back – in particular on the right side – when driving to physical exhaustion and weakness, discomfort when urinating with a darker than usual hue, plus significant fluctuations in body weight and cravings for sugary foods.

If I was completely honest with myself, I was now worse off physically than I had been at the start of the period, despite exerting myself less.

But if there were negatives to be taken from this period, there were some real positives too.

First and foremost, I had delivered on my obligations, driving on 39 of 45 days across the school term, with 34 of these involving giving my son instruction.

Secondly, he had made significant improvements under my guidance.

When I had started teaching him, he was by no means a complete novice, having had 8 or 9 lessons with a proper instructor in a dual control vehicle.

Nevertheless, he was still very much a “head down” driver, focusing solely on the actions required of him to keep the car under control (e.g. looking down to change gear), with limited awareness of what was happening around him.

My approach to driving tuition was a pretty straightforward one. Adopting the mantra of that renowned philosopher and thinker Roy Walker (of Catchphrase fame) – “say what you see” – I would put myself in the driver’s seat (metaphorically) and simply say out loud what was happening in my brain as we drove along. A kind of stream of consciousness, if you like.

So as we approached a junction, I would say something like “I’m dropping my speed before we get to the junction, changing down to second and checking whether it’s clear to go as I roll up”.

This approach seemed to work well for both of us.

For me it worked because it was entirely instinctive. I didn’t have to think what I wanted to say and how best to say it, which is usually when my brain starts to overload as I second guess myself as to whether I am saying things in the right way, meaning that I struggle to find the right words. I literally just said out loud what I would be doing if I was driving.

For him, it helped him to become more of a “head up” driver, looking around at what was happening on the road and seeking to anticipate potential dangers – like a vehicle pulling out from a side road in front of him – whilst at the same time continuing to make good progress – rather than always coming to a stop at every junction before deciding whether to proceed, for example.

Gradually, it seemed to me that he was developing into a more competent and confident driver – a view that was confirmed when, after a 2 month hiatus due to her limited availability, his driving instructor said that she didn’t think he really needed any more lessons from her.

In parallel with my son’s progress, I had also noted some improvements in my own driving capabilities.

In my eagerness to relay my driving achievements in Chapter 19, I neglected to mention that there were some significant limitations too.

Talking whilst driving was something that I had yet to master.

The flip side of this was that making an effort not to talk felt very forced and seemed to use up cognitive resource too.

Consequently, I had taken to putting on a playlist of familiar tunes as a matter of routine. This definitely seemed to make driving easier – allowing my brain to operate in a kind of autopilot mode, perhaps because the conductor was preoccupied listening to the orchestra.

Now, my youngest son is a talker when in the car – possibly due to nervousness, possibly just because he wanted to download about how his exams were going – which created a bit of a challenge for me.

Wanting him to feel relaxed in my company and able to decompress after a hard day at school, I turned the music off – multiple concurrent audible inputs are not my brain’s friend – and allowed myself to just go with the flow, letting what he was saying wash over me. Somewhat perversely, this approach seemed to work quite well for me, distracting me from focusing too much on driving – allowing me to go into autopilot mode – whilst not requiring me to actively engage in conversation.

In a similar vein, I managed my first fill up at a petrol station – something that I had previously avoided as I was concerned it would take me out of the “driving zone” in my brain.

Teaching my son to drive, it appeared to me, was increasing my own confidence behind the wheel too.

Often, in the morning, before my son drove us to school, I would doubt my capability to make the return journey on my own, having pushed myself too close to the cognitive limit with my morning routine. But as soon as I sat down next to him in the passenger seat, something seemed to click into place and by the time we had arrived at our destination I had been given a clear reminder that I was a more than capable driver.

If teaching my eldest son to drive was helping to improve my confidence behind the wheel, I was also noticing what I thought were some very small – indeed, barely perceptible – gains in my confidence in social situations.

By the end of Chapter 18, I had reached the stage where I was so cognitively fatigued all the time that I was exhausting myself by trying to participate in conversation when watching football with my two boys. When I did, I would inevitably end up saying something ridiculous which discouraged me further. Indeed, it had got to the stage where I had stopped inviting a good friend round to watch the football with us for fear of tiring myself out and/or being an embarassment.

But during this last period, I had noticed that I was a little bit more willing to join in conversations and offer an opinion in social situations – more willing to back myself that I had something worthwhile to say, I suppose. I still found myself starting to struggle with what I was trying to say – the conductor tapping me on the shoulder, raising a questioning eyebrow and asking me whether I really did know what I was talking about – but more and more, I was inclined to ignore him and try to push on with what I was saying.

This phenomenon had me intrigued. Regardless of the reasons, it was something that I was keen to explore further to see where it might lead.

So there I was, at the end of the February half term break, with a bit of a conundrum – should I continue with this latest venture of driving and teaching my son to drive? Should I fold or stay in the game?

There certainly seemed to be some quite strong reasons against doing so, but also some real positives, with the potential for more on the horizon.

In the end, the thing that swayed my decision was the manic experience that I had on the 4th of February, as mentioned in the previous chapter.

I had offered to give my wife and a friend a lift to the pub at the end of her working week. In the course of picking up the friend, whilst attempting to appear completely relaxed and “normal”, I had fluffed my lines slightly by trying to pull away without having put the car in gear.

I had then completed the drive successfully, engaging in conversation even and feeling quite relaxed. Then on return, the mania had kicked in.

It struck me that this was a similar turn of events to when I had driven my youngest son to school for his COVID test at the start of term. At the time, you may recall that I had put this down to his anxiety – or my perception of his anxiety.

This latest episode made me realise that it wasn’t other people that were the problem – it was me.

I was psyching myself out – running scared from this particular bear, if you like.

I couldn’t expect every single new person that I got in the car with to give me reassurance that I was a safe driver and that they trusted me.

I had to learn to back myself.

Not in the false, exaggerated, bullish way that I had adopted at the side of the rugby pitch in the last chapter, but in a calmer, more measured, genuine way.

As I had tried and failed at taking on new challenges on countless occasions over the last 5 years, my self confidence had taken quite a battering, ultimately becoming a very scarce commodity.

But here, perhaps, was an opportunity to start to re-build it.

To prove to others – but mostly to myself – that I could be a useful, functioning member of society.

I wasn’t going to give that up easily.