Jenny Ireland: Becoming Moominpappa

Nobody expects to almost kick the bucket at 32. Or at any age, really. But sure, life would be no fun without some wee surprises now and again, would it?

It was just a normal Friday night at home when all hell broke loose: Lightheadedness so bad I couldn’t walk, vomiting, then a feeling like someone had hit me in the back of the head like I was an extra in the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. Not that I’m one to be dramatic of course, but even I knew something wasn’t quite right. A phone call to my dad while my husband stayed with the kids, a trip to A&E, and fast forward a few days to my brain being drilled open on two separate occasions by Belfast Neurosurgeons inserting some kind of drain to release fluid into my stomach. Gross I know, but apparently life-saving. Perhaps I should consider myself lucky that Belfast probably is the best place for Neurosurgery as a result of all the head injuries during the Troubles. But then again, calling yourself ‘lucky’ when you’ve got meningitis might just be pushing it.

If you’ve ever woken up in ICU, you’ll know it’s not the most pleasant of experiences. To be fair, a lot of it is hazy and probably a hell of a lot worse for my family than it was for me at that point. My husband recounted a particularly unpleasant car journey with my dad in the middle of the night as I was going into one of my surgeries, during which not one word was spoken. My dad is a retired GP and one of the perks of being in the medical profession is, I guess, knowing too much. All those possible outcomes of how bad it could be. And my husband, I’m sure, not actually wanting to know. I’m kind of glad I wasn’t there. Super awkward.

The hallucinations were interesting. Perhaps it’s my own fault for watching too much Buffy the Vampire Slayer and writing a book about demons, but when I woke up from surgery and looked up to the ceiling, there they were: demons licking each other and looking down on me, even more real than the nurse who insisted on jabbing me with needles every two seconds. But the demons weren’t the most disturbing part. My poor husband got dragged into the mental chaos. Whilst clearly in a mentally unstable state, I decided that he’d dyed his hair bright orange. Not only that, but his voice had increased by about three octaves and, no matter how many times I asked him if he had dyed his hair, he denied it. Following on from his lies, he morphed into a dog shaped oxygen tank and I spent a good fifteen minutes trying to convince the long-suffering nurse that I was, in fact, married to the doberman-esque tank on the floor. More hallucinations came by the bucket load. At one stage I was convinced that I was in my parents’ house, that they’d converted it into a hospital and that of course I was able to go to the toilet ‘downstairs’ because it was in fact my old house. How annoying I must have been.

Eventually the hallucinations stopped, and the doctors were much more concerned about the actual working of my brain. It turns out, everything could have gone terribly wrong, that my brain could quite easily have been in a very different state. I did forget things – babies of friends who had been born in the last year were wiped from my memory and I even had to skim over my book again because I could barely remember writing it. To be honest it’s still a bit hazy, but seeing it with ‘fresh’ eyes again may well prove to be an editing dream. I even found twenty thousand words of a book I couldn’t remember writing at all and which seems to out me as some kind of closet pervert. Who knew?

Then there were the memory tests. The ‘magic sevens’ where the doctor made me count backwards from one hundred in sevens. It worked, hurrah! In fact, the only thing I couldn’t remember was the name of the Prime Minister. I don’t know whether that’s because I have little to no interest in politics, or I had deliberately wiped it from my mind. The doctor confessed he was jealous I couldn’t remember who she was.

I hadn’t seen my kids in almost three weeks and I’d missed my daughter’s sixth birthday which, of course, has filled me with enough guilt to last the rest of my life. But it turns out that organising a very belated disco party and booking a trip to EuroDisney softens the blow.

The rest of my time in hospital was grim. Necessary, apparently, but grim: Needles, leaking lines, tests, scans and me begging to go home to no avail. A cocktail of drugs morning and afternoon and waiting very impatiently for visiting times. But finally, a month after first ‘walking’ through those doors, I was allowed to leave.

I swear to God fresh air had never felt better. My legs had, though, and I found that I could barely walk. They looked like Twiglets and felt like jelly, but I was bloody getting out of there even if I had to crawl. My parents took us in. I think everyone, including me, knew that I couldn’t deal with two kids under seven while my husband had to work.

Who knew that was only the beginning? Probably everyone else did. Given that people had been poking about in my brain, inserting some kind of fancy valve, I could probably be forgiven for thinking I would be ‘better’ as soon as I got home. HA! How wrong I was. I was sent home with a huge bag of medication, including hardcore steroids. I’ve taken steroids before, for arthritis, but not like this. Dexamethasone, at this dose, is a whole different ball game, and notorious for messing with your head. The weeping came first. So much weeping. Then came the ‘roid rage.’ Something I’d heard about, mostly in relation to sports personalities who’d developed psychosis after taking some form of steroids and committed awful crimes. Disclaimer: no crimes have been committed thus far, but at one point the whole bag of medication did get launched across the room, in an attempt to rebalance the injustice of the situation. Needless to say, it didn’t really help. Then came the hunger. And God help anyone who mentioned what I was eating. However, living with my mum was a Godsend. She loves cooking and is very good at it, so meals were served at my pleasure. But for someone who’d stopped eating red meat, craving and eating sausage sandwiches every morning for two weeks felt like some kind of weird carnivorous betrayal of the old Jenny.

I’ve never considered myself overly vain. I’m generally not too bothered about looking one way or another as long as I leave the house with as much eyeliner as Alice Cooper. Until now. Now I have classic steroid ‘moon face,’ my stomach is swollen and hardly any of my t-shirts fit. I can’t even look at myself in the mirror because now, Moominpappa stares back at me. Awful. More awful than two brain surgeries? More awful than the fact that my legs still don’t really work properly? More awful than the fact that I could be dead or in some kind of vegetative state? It appears so. If friends want to come round, I send messages in advance to warn them what I look like. I figure it lessens the shock of opening the door to a Northern Irish version of a Moomintroll. Also, my new vanity makes it necessary to emphasise that it is the medication that makes me look like this, not just the fact that I’ve been stuffing my steroid-loaded face. I hold onto the knowledge that it is temporary, that over the summer the medication will taper-off, and in my mind I’m giving myself until September to get back to ‘me.’ Whoever ‘me’ is now.

I’ve also learnt that true hell is lovely people sending you wonderful books that you can’t read because of mind -fuckery drugs that make your head spin like a merry go round.

But it’s an ill wind that blows no good. It would seem that brain surgery has its silver lining. Who’d have thought? It seems to have cured my fear of flying. On my recent flight to France, I didn’t care that I was thousands of feet above land, nor did I have to down gin at what would have been a very inappropriate time of day in front of my children. My fear of spiders also seems to have vanished.

But most importantly, the whole ordeal has flagged up the people in my life to whom I owe so much for all the support they’ve given me: My family, which goes without saying, whose experience of the whole thing has probably been as bad as mine. Friends who came to visit and listened to the incoherent ramblings of someone who has just had brain surgery, cheering me up when my whole life got turned on its head. Friends who have booked flights to see me, friends who couldn’t visit but sent me messages and lovely things, friends who helped so much with my kids while I was otherwise engaged and half mad. And then there are the people who I least expected, showing enough kindness to give me faith in the human race for at least another few years. There is my lovely local writing community who I’m dying to get back to, and the Twitter writing community (#VWG), both of which have completely overwhelmed me with their compassion. The whole experience has given me an entirely new perspective and appreciation for life and people, which, all in all, can be no bad thing.

And even though I’ve always felt more of an affinity with Little My than any of the Moomins, a good friend said that there are definitely worse fictional characters I could look like. She’s right of course. But vanity means I still hate looking like Moominpappa, even if he does have an excellent hat.

Jenny Ireland lives just outside Belfast with her husband, two children and kitten Batman. Following completion of the Curtis Brown Creative Writing for Children course she has almost finished editing her middle grade novel Salt Blood, a contemporary fantasy with a dark twist on selkie folklore. She spends her time procrastinating on twitter @IdreamofNarnia, staring at the sea from her window and wrestling her feral children.

Also by Jenny Ireland:

Notes to My Parents
Be Careful What You Wish for
A Fear of Flying