It was cooler than the day before. The stifling heat that had been building up over the weekend had dissipated. The mountains looked beautiful, green and lush so unlike the white blanket they wore in the ski season. Mark and I were coming to the end of our trip in the Haute Savoie region of France. We were due to return home from the classic French ski resort of Morzine via Geneva airport in the morning. I had cajoled him into booking the paragliding flight with promises of how exhilarating it would be a great end to the holiday. Our friends we were staying with had booked the flights and arranged a discount for us. They could fit us in before lunch, but that would be the last flight for the day as the weather was turning.
So it was settled. I would fly in tandem with Bruno, a great muscular chunk of a man with a twinkle in his eye and a wicked sense of humour. I had no idea how important this would be as we snaked up the mountain road towards the take-off site.
“Come on baby! Where are you?” cried Bruno again and again. We had launched into the air with a gentle jog, but now he seemed to be working hard much too hard to keep us from going into the side of the mountain. Still he kept up his cheerful refrain, flirting with the wind and laughing at the mountains. Mark and his instructor were further up the valley, skirting from side to side trying to catch the elusive thermals that Bruno was calling out to.
“We not go to other valley today I think,” Bruno finally conceded. “I land us down there, OK Sue?” He indicated across to a field at the side of the road. “Make sure you keep legs up. That is good Sue, keep legs up, up, up. Yes, good. OK, here we go, ready, legs up Sue, legs up...”
We hit the ground too hard and too fast. I felt my spine contract like an accordion. That wasn’t supposed to happen, was it? But we were down, that was the main thing.
“Merde, merde, merde,” Bruno’s swearing finally pricked my consciousness.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine Bruno. Honestly, it’s just a bit of back ache; please don’t feel bad.” But the swearing continued.
Bruno had managed to detach me from the kit so I rolled over on to all fours to arch like a cat. Dozens of muscles I’d never been aware of before were all screaming at me in pain like an angry mob. Damn. I’d sprained my back. I’d probably need a couple of days off work. That was inconvenient. We were writing business reports and planning for the Christmas promotions. Some of our biggest books were coming out and I still needed to recruit another marketing manager. I’d have to try and do some work at home.
“Sue NON! Sue, no, no, no; do not move. Lie on the ground.” Bruno stopped swearing to shout at me. “Lay still; rescue, they will come, take you to le docteur.”
“What good advice,” I thought at the time. Quite possibly, it saved my legs.
I could feel my fingers and toes so there was no point in panicking. My back was in agony and yet I was calm it was only a few sprained muscles after all. I was more worried about not getting back to work on time. I was in charge of UK sales and marketing for a publisher in London. We’d had a tough year. Sales had been hit by a retail slowdown and workloads were unbearable due to staff shortages. The financial year had just finished with some year on year growth, but way off the challenging targets we had been set. I needed to get back and put the hours in. There was too much to do to be able to take any more time off.
It’s amazing the details that I can still recall as these thoughts raced through my head. The cool mountain air washing over my face like a soothing face cloth. The colour and length of the grass, fully recovered from the two metres of snow that would have melted a couple of months before. I remember wondering where my sunglasses were, probably somewhere on the ground nearby. I must remember to ask Bruno to pick them up for me.
I started to draw up a mental list: call Ed at work and let him know I might need a couple of days off; speak to mum and dad to let them know all was fine and the holiday had been great; start writing that business plan once I got back to our house; chase the recruitment consultants for the latest batch of resumes.
When the mountain rescue arrived, it was a team of French firemen. Well versed in the retrieval of hapless tourists stuck up a mountain, they set to work on securing me to a wraparound red mattress that seemed to be filled with polystyrene balls. Of course the neck brace was just a precautionary measure, but it was put to good use as we made our way down what I now realised was steep mountainside.
Mark arrived to look with horror upon the scene of his girlfriend, six firemen, neck brace, and rescue equipment and although I was blissfully unaware of this at the time Bruno with a bone sticking out of his right leg. That explained the swearing.
“Don’t worry, I’m fine, honestly.” I cheerily said to Mark. “Just sprained my back that’s all. There’re just taking me for a checkup at the doctors.” The power of the body’s natural endorphins is quite remarkable.
Six hours on a trolley in accident and later in emergency, the reality kicked in. I had broken my back. Shit. They weren’t joking. The stone-dead face of the consultant reaffirmed what we thought he was trying to say. Even the lack of any fluent English speaker to translate from the French couldn’t obscure the meaning of his halting words. If I didn’t have an operation to put rods in to support my spine, I could lose the use of my legs on the journey home.
I looked at Mark, my rock, who hadn’t left my side since they let him through to wait in ER with me. “Whatever it takes, we’ve got to do what he says.” His words somehow cheered me, calming the knot of emotion rising in my chest.
I can’t begin to imagine what he went through during my five hours in the operating theatre. He tracked my moods during the following days in the clinic overlooking Lake Geneva. Whether it was a light squeeze of the hand or a small token my favourite French crisps brought in from the local Carrefour supermarket while he was still at the clinic I could cope.
Mark returned home with a piece of my sanity. Phone calls became more frantic; I couldn’t cope with any news of the attempts to repatriate me. I could not deal with detail. I made a couple of feeble attempts to call work. Always with the same result: me feeling helpless, work reassuring me that it was all fine. I felt I was slipping away. From what? Well, I wasn’t really sure.
Friday, July 30th came. The weather was sultry and hot. Lying in bed was unbearable. I was ready to return home.
The joy of arriving back home was almost overwhelming. Now I could get on with things, now I could get back to normal. My friends, Mark, my family, work. “Funny,” I said to Mark one day, “I’m not as concerned about work as I thought I would be.”
Things had changed.
Two months at home wrapped up in proverbial cotton wool and the very real white plastic corsaire (“an exclusive piece of French medical couture...” I used to call it) made me stop and shed all the anxieties and adrenalin of my last twelve years at work. Gone was the rushing about to get to work, a meeting, the sales conference, or that book launch. There were no more resources to allocate, projects to coordinate, or budgets to control.
I grew physically stronger and the change in me became more apparent. When I was off sick, I had little routines that got me through the day: wake up, wash, put clothes on, strap on the back brace, breakfast, then rest. Taking a walk down the road to the shops had become the highlight of my day. There I had seen other people going about their mundane, domestic business and had realised that this was an alternative to work: a life without deals to seal, targets to hit, staff to manage.
As I had browsed in our local bookshop I rediscovered the joy of deciding what I wanted to read, rather than how many of our books were stocked. When I had returned home to sleep, walking up the tree lined street, flashes of sunlight peeking through the leaves, I felt contentment with just living locally and enjoying the simple things in life... and I felt a growing dread at going back to the office.
“So are you looking forward to going back to work?” my neighbour asked me.
“Of course, I’m actually going a little bit stir crazy now.” I replied. This was of course true. Well, almost. A growing part of me was revelling in my peaceful existence. But then a part of me was fighting to get back in the game. With every week that passed, I felt more confused and out of touch. With every week that passed I became stronger, didn’t I?
“I’m afraid the consultant can’t see you until he has your patient number.”
I took a deep breath and spoke slowly, “I understand, but I have been waiting eight weeks for an appointment and have not had any specialist medical attention since returning to the UK. Is it not possible to get an appointment without the number?”
“I’m sorry, but he is on holiday for another week and I cannot help you until I speak to him. Goodbye.” The phone went dead. This was the fourth time I’d called the hospital. I was supposed to go back to work in one week’s time and had not seen a specialist since the day the plane landed. “So much for the National Health Service,” I thought bleakly.
Why couldn’t they see me? Why was I left on my own? I’d gone from having twenty-four hour health care in France to well, nothing in London. My dreamlike state of recuperation was slowly fragmenting. In one week I would return to work. In one week I was supposed to get on a train. In one week I would return to normal ping! Here she is: girl wonder. All pinned together and ready to go!
But I wasn’t ready. I couldn’t do it. And why wouldn’t someone help me?
I managed to get another doctor’s note. I’d started to suffer really bad mood swings. Dark clouds would gather above my head. I would sit at the kitchen table, head in hands, crying, utterly at a loss to describe how I felt. Mark looked on, as helpless as he’d been on the side of the mountain.
The idea of going back to work filled me with this stomach-churning fear of the unknown. This was crazy. I’d worked there for three and a half years. I loved my job. It defined who I was. I would often gaze out of the window, with a view of the city and Tower Bridge in the distance, and reflect on how this was it, my dream job, UK sales and marketing director for a central London publishing house. We had some really great young talent working there. Banks of open-plan desks gave a real buzz to the atmosphere. Shelves along the back wall held copies of recently published books: jazz, music, philosophy, religion. Books I wanted to read. The smell of fresh ink would linger in the air from boxes of catalogues just in from the printers, ready to mail out. The hours were long, but the job was challenging and I felt I could really make a difference.
Walking back into the office was a surreal moment. This place where I’d spent many long hours looked so familiar and yet I felt like the new kid walking into a classroom mid-term. Heads were raised and smiles were exchanged when I walked in. I went to my desk, squatted by a temp of two months, to shakily stake a claim to my world again.
My boss took me for lunch and listened sympathetically as I recounted the horror of the flight back on the air ambulance. He laughed with me over my back brace it looked ridiculous and was not designed for eating out. He reassured me that everyone had done a great job covering the workload while I was off and that it could continue for as long as I needed them to be flexible. I felt like I was floating overhead, far away, watching it all unfold. I was talking and saying all these words, but what did they mean anymore?
“You should think about how you want to work and what you can do,” Ed casually dropped into the conversation. Bang! I was back at the table all tensed up. I felt so disjointed from work that my paranoia was at fever pitch. Why was he asking me that?
“I was thinking we could change things around if we think it would help,” he continued.
Help what? And who were “we”? What was the subtext here and why was he asking me on my first day back if I wanted to change jobs? I laughed it off and asked for time to think about it, but it was the final betrayal that cut a swathe through my unravelling mind.
I’d lost the drive, the focus and the will to work. I didn’t get it. I looked around and saw all these people colleagues whom I admired, respected, and enjoyed working with they just looked like apparitions now. Tormented by huge targets and impossible schedules. I began to realise I needed to address my now apparent work/life unbalance. I thought I had achieved it (but who am I kidding, I was a workaholic).
They tried to be as supportive as they could with flexible hours and working from home, the usual concessions for the seriously ill.
Things had to change. I couldn’t maintain it anymore. I possessed neither the stamina nor the desire to live the life of a top publishing executive. I hankered after a more idyllic existence of working at home: popping to the shops at lunchtime, meeting friends for coffee, and a portfolio of varied projects. Whether this would prove true would remain to be seen, but I felt I had to try and shake off this feeling that I was slowly sinking into a very dark place.
My family and friends encouraged me to make the change. They had all suffered after the accident and were glad I was well. Anything to help me get over the mental shock would make them happy too. Or perhaps they were sick of the over-analysis of every mood swing, dark thought, or conversation I had. My sister had set up a consultancy and she said I could do some freelance work for her. That was it. I had a way out.
So I did it. I left work.
And that is when things got really interesting.