Panic is Worse Than Pain: How Fiction Failed Me After Trauma

Jenn Ashworth on the Aftereffects of Surgery

A beginning is a cut in the onward flow of things. It is a lie too: we section out the story, slashing away what came before and after. A cut can form an opening: a hole or a door or a cave or a mine. But what kind of mine do we open? A landmine? Yes. A bomb.

Knowing already that this is the wrong place to start, we will begin with the operating table, and me upon it, abdomen gaping. The sound I hear is my blood hitting the floor.

I have been operated on once already today. In the recovery room, after the first incision was sutured closed, I started to hemorrhage. The epidural left me too numb to feel the wetness of the blood on my legs and I didn’t notice it.

The man who I live with tried to get the attention of the theater nurses discreetly, because he didn’t want to frighten me. Later, he will tell me that my blood was blooming through the sheets like poppies and before his mind could parse what he saw he thought someone had spilled a glass of Ribena.

But, befuddled and blurry as I was, I did already suspect that something was wrong. My heart was fluttering in my chest like a mad trapped bird against a window. I was hot and clammy and I couldn’t see properly: the world started to tunnel in and fade away. It was letting go of me, I think.

They wheeled me back into the operating theater and erected a sheet between my head and the rest of my body. The surgeon re-opened the wound and it was during this second opening—a present tense moment that will expand into the years that haven’t happened yet—that I heard my blood fall.

Then the epidural started to wear off. First came a great burning, then a disturbance I still don’t have a word for. Pressure? My internal organs in a wind tunnel. I felt hands inside my body. Pulling and squeezing. Unimaginable pain—like bright lights—no, like nothing else, coupled with the urge to sit up, to kick my legs, to move them away and to run—my heart thrumming with terror—but the paralysis that came with the spinal anesthesia was still near enough complete, the drug-numbness lapsing just enough for the pain to break through, but not enough so that I could move.

My legs were dream-legs: rubber, treacle. I knew the heat and pressure of the surgical stockings around my ankles but I could not move my feet. I think I spoke but my mouth was a dream-mouth. My skin turned into mist.

Panic is worse than pain. Worse still was the calm and single-pointed knowledge that if I didn’t move or speak they were going to carry on cutting me up and I would be utterly unable to defend myself. Rage at my own helplessness built hot and strong in my hands, which I could move—I felt them bat uselessly against something soft—a sheet?

The surgeon was in blue and I could see nothing of her face but her eyes above the mask.

The physical sensation of knowing where I ended and the rest of the world began faded, and with it, my rage ebbed away. I had been exploded and rubbed out. I was falling. / I still am. They had a suction machine and I heard my blood rattling away through it, as if down a drainpipe.

I’d been here before: not surgery, but this feeling of rage and helplessness. Childhood had served me a lot of that. But I’d grown up. I’d carefully built an entire adult life around a private and unarticulated vow that I would never feel it again. I was in pain and terror and fury, yes. I was panicking. But on top of all of that, I was incredulous.

This was not me, gasping on the table. I’m the type of person who would sit up and grab the sheet and take the butcher’s hook out of the hand of the Jack the Ripper who attacks me with it. I am the type of person who would threaten to lodge a complaint and who knows the words for everything they are doing to me. My rights. I’m the type of person who knows her rights.

I’m not the type of person to be cowed by the fake authority of a white coat. The surgeon was in blue and I could see nothing of her face but her eyes above the mask—pale eyes—though she’s looking at the mess she’s making and not me. I was / am so very afraid.

I started to hyperventilate and someone injected something into the cannula on the back of my hand. I immediately became drowsy—but that didn’t end the pain and the panic, it only made it more difficult to express.

“What did you give me?” I asked.

“Just a little something,” the man who did it—he sat behind me and I never saw him—replied.

Rage returned, and compared to the fear and the panic, anger was a comfort—so I held onto it as well as I could. How dare they put something into my body without asking me? Without even telling me what it is? How dare they? They were all so calm.

I told them I could still feel it. I did tell them. And I told them again. Then I—after some superhuman effort—managed to twitch a toe. They saw that: my heroic dream-legs have saved me! A glance passed between surgeon and nurse and someone in royal blue brought me a little brown glass medicine bottle with a straw in it and told me to drink it and I did, then she put a mask over my face.

There was no time to count. This wasn’t sleep. No time passed, but I lost five hours before waking for the next round.

What else to say, as we begin? Well, the sensations I felt in those moments go entirely beyond my vocabulary but I’d take those moments again—a helping of them every day—every hour—for the rest of my life—rather than the fall into madness that followed.

*

I am sitting here typing / I am in the literature tent at a Christian music and arts festival. The organizers of the literature program are particularly interested in The Friday Gospels and my impressions about religion and writing, growing up in a religious family and leaving my faith community.

I’ve never imagined myself speaking at a Christian music festival, or a Christian anything, but all the same here I am wearing muddy boots and a cagoule / sitting in bed with my laptop on my knees. It’s the August bank holiday weekend / last weekend in November, dark before the kids come home from school so of course the small audience / I’m alone sitting on blankets on the grass listening to rain patter on the roof while I read to them. When I finish reading from my novel a woman in a blue coat puts her hand up to ask me a question.

“How did you get started with the writing?” she asks / I’m alone with you and you’re not asking me for anything.

Her question is big enough for me to hide in. I could talk to her about my literary influences, or how I got an agent, or how I move from first draft to final draft, or what it was like to do a perennially controversial MA in Creative Writing. I could try to tell her something about my nasty habits: the journal keeping and the writing in library books, the stealing of other people’s stories, conversations, retold dreams and childhood memories.

I’m not a writer who shies away from waxing lyrical about where the ideas come from and I have a whole talk prepared to answer this question—how it begins—so there in the warm tent / here in my newly painted bedroom I give this woman, and everyone else, the spiel / I confess.

I start by telling her about reading—about how I learned to read quite early and never got over the magic trick of black marks on a piece of paper becoming a character, a story, another world entirely. About how it seemed like telepathy to me. The contents of one mind decanted into another.

The man I live with told me that when he was little he used to open the Argos catalogue to the page where the toys were. Sometimes the pictures would show children playing in plush living rooms and manicured gardens and he would lay the catalogue on the floor and try to jump into it. Jumping in—or through—worked for Jane and Michael Banks in Mary Poppins, who were able to wound time and space merely by leaping through the pavement and into (not onto) a chalk picture.

They were richly rewarded for this and got to spend a day at the fair messing about on horses and learning impossible words that promised to cure speechlessness. The trick with the Argos catalogue never worked for the man I live with (he doesn’t much enjoy reading fiction, either) but it did work for me, if you think of reading as another kind of jumping.

By the time I was five years old I had mastered the trick of moving through the page and disappearing entirely, and for most of my childhood I spent more of my time in the cartoon bright world on the other side of the chalk picture than I did in this one. So I tell her about that.

Then I tell her about the way I got above myself. Because reading was just like jumping through the skin of the world and into somewhere else—somewhere better—and because this was so impressive and necessary to me (and to everyone else, I assumed) I had to try making some chalk pictures of my own. So I started to write stories about zombies clawing themselves out of their own graves and families of field mice being chopped into smithereens by a combine harvester and armies of old-age pensioners rising up and murdering the nursing home matron who would not allow them to keep their beloved pets.

If I am making a portrait of the artist, I don’t say, then let me come clean and make it warts and all.

(I suppose one of the things I’m trying to tell you is that it didn’t all come from that terrible operation—that I was like this before , interested in cutting, in blood, in people who won’t stay dead. There was, perhaps, an earlier event that left its mark.) I wrote, and I showed the stories to my family, and I waited for them to jump.

To illustrate this arrogance further and the part it still plays in how my writing begins I go on to tell this woman (who is becoming sorrier and sorrier that she asked) the story of a girl who bullied me for a while at primary school. I make this experience into a funny story even though at the time my hair started falling out in chunks and I developed a bit of a twitch and a squint in one eye. This isn’t entirely true (my hair did fall out, but my eyes were fine—though I have to put that detail in there for the punch line of this story to work) but bear with me.

I describe the way the factual alopecia and the fictional squint made me an even more appealing target for my bully—let’s call her Debbie. I tell the woman in the blue coat about the times when I have imagined getting a prize for writing a novel—some kind of trophy—in my imagination, for the purposes of this story I am telling, for the purposes of making the audience but mainly this woman in the blue coat sitting on the grass in front of me laugh and getting her on my side and making sure she knows I am, actually, human (though what else would I be, a ghost?), the trophy is giant and glittering.

So giant I can’t quite carry it. I have been known to mime collapsing under its weight as I take it down from its shelf in my crowded trophy cabinet and take it around to Debbie’s house to show it to her and ask, “well, what do you think of my wonky eye now?”

It isn’t much of a punch line, but she does laugh, even though I am telling her this tale because I want to illustrate how petty and ugly a writer can be sometimes. If I am making a portrait of the artist, I don’t say, then let me come clean and make it warts and all. Let me talk about the ordinary and pathetic human impulses that go into works of art.

Let me tell this woman about Debbie, whose face I can hardly remember (who is easy to find on Facebook), not to make her laugh, although that’s a cowardly part of it, but because I want to demonstrate to her something I still can’t help but hope is true of art generally and might one day be true for me in particular: the things we sickly humans make can be more complex and intelligent, more humane and more precious, than the wounded people who make them. / Alone in my bed, I feel ashamed.

What I don’t tell her is that I have lost my faith in fiction, which was supposed to be able to hold and transform everything. I am writing a novel, and working on several short story commissions, but I’m typing through a lump in my throat because I can’t make a story about the most important thing I have to tell.

What if the silence spreads and in the end I end up not being able to write fiction at all? When I try to write fiction that springs from the things that have happened to me—a story about a woman who has had a baby and goes mad—another about a woman wrestling with the effects her childhood have on her relationship to her own children—a third about a teacher who begins to use her lectures to tell increasingly outlandish and self-serving lies about her life to her students—the stories fall apart and I am unable to find the necessary compassion for or even interest in my characters.

Plot becomes a logic machine that creaks under the weight of the inexplicable thing that has happened and I cannot make it acknowledge the way I need to live my life now. It feels like this: the trick is gone, the pavement is a brick wall instead of an open window; throwing myself at it hurts.

For a few months now, I haven’t even been able to read much fiction. I’ve gone off it. This is far too shocking a thing to say at a literature festival. They’re supposed to ask questions, not me.

__________________________________

Excerpted from Notes Made While Falling by Jenn Ashworth, Goldsmiths Press, Distributed by The MIT Press, 2019.

Jenn Ashworth
Jenn Ashworth
Jenn Ashworth is a Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature and author of the novels A Kind of Intimacy, Cold LightThe Friday Gospels, and Fell. She is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Literature and Creative Writing at Lancaster University.





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