I sometimes wonder whether we find books or whether books, somehow, find us. I say this because I seem to discover a book just at the right time to help me understand a situation or draw strength and knowledge which can help me get through a particular time in my life. This book found me after I saw its author, Doris Brett, and her husband, Martin, at a writer's festival.
I was drawn to Doris as a fellow psychologist who was confronted with the serious illness of her husband – a stroke with its debilitating after effects. I was drawn to Doris and Martin as a couple who showed enormous commitment to each other. I was drawn to the story because at the time I was taking on a caring role, although, thankfully, not as serious as Doris’ role. I was drawn to reading the book after witnessing Martin's recovery at the festival where images of his newly found woodwork skills were shown. I wondered how they had got through this very difficult period together and hoped that the book would give me some idea of that experience.
Doris has a way of weaving the personal story with factual information about brain injury after a stroke. It was obvious that she thought like, and saw the world through the lens of, a psychologist. Yet the story was as much about her own personal struggle as it was about her husband’s condition and rehabilitation process – the intimidating experience of seeing her beloved husband suffering, her own struggling with functioning on a day to day basis, keeping up with necessary tasks at home and keeping her livelihood afloat as she continued to see clients. She was also aware of the parallels between Martin's illness and how she had previously experienced illness of herself and others. How she had faced her own battle with cancer. How she had supported her own mother prior to her death.
Doris' ability to continue to see the positive and remain hopeful throughout the journey was evident in her writing and the examples she provided. She included times when this hope was probably closer to naivety, particularly shortly after the stroke: "It feels manageable. Weird, unnerving, without explanation, but manageable." Later in her journey she acknowledged that she had thought about the possibility of Martin's death and drew courage from reading Joan Didion's "Blue Nights": "I have been lucky so far. Martin is alive. But this is where I go in the worst of imagined futures". Her ongoing and relentless hopefulness despite the many challenges seemed to flow on over time to impact significantly on the ability of her husband to not only keep going each day but also to make the remarkable recovery that he ultimately made.
Doris took us in to her world as a carer in all its forms – the practical considerations of keeping day to day life going, the factual account of the hospital and medical world as well as, importantly, the emotional roller coaster experienced as she not only bore witness to her husband’s pain and frustration but also experienced her own pain and frustration. The impact of being a carer on her own body and mind was acknowledged honestly: "Worse still is the now constant hyper-alertness I have had to adopt. When Martin is out of sight I am always listening, always alert. I am a deer in a forest of tigers."
As I reflect on what it must have been like for Doris during this time, I wondered about her life as a psychologist. Her role as a psychologist came through in her interest in reading the latest research and having the self-confidence and highly skilled capacity to engage with the health professionals to inform them of the latest neuroscientific developments she had discovered – developments they weren’t, for whatever reason, fully aware of. She used her research abilities to not only discover but also to implement these treatments. Her husband’s trust in her was evident as he went along with her ideas, willing to give them a go, appreciative of her care and attention. It seemed that Doris wasn’t going to idly sit by as her husband lingered in his hospital bed. She wanted to be proactive in his care, using her skills and knowledge when it mattered most. He valued that and seemed to be a pretty willing participant. In this way it became a journey for them both – a shared space with different roles and experiences. I have wondered since finishing the book what, if he was to write it, Martin’s story would be like. Where would their stories intersect? Where would they diverge? How much of the narrative would actually be in common? Shared understandings? Shared beliefs? How much does or can the carer really understand about the experience of the person being cared for? What’s most difficult and confronting - being the carer or the cared for?
As I read the book I was constantly impressed by Doris’ ability to write during this period. This got me thinking about the role of journaling, the value of putting one’s thoughts, worries and ideas into words on the page. I wondered how this might have helped her. I wondered what role this might have had on her ability to get up again each day and go to the hospital or to care for Martin when he returned home, keep up with her other tasks, deal with the worries she faced, put on a positive front to her husband, who desperately needed positivity, and at the same time managing the information flow to their daughter. While she wanted their daughter to be included in the experience of her father's illness, she also, as mothers like to, wanted to protect her from the worst of her own fears. I wondered if her writing was what made the difference to her capacity to keep up with all of this. Perhaps it gave her an outlet for her worries. Perhaps it provided a place to make sense of the experience in a way that gave her control and increased awareness. Actually increased her capacity to do what she needed, wanted, to do. I wondered how she made the time to do the writing, to just sit and focus when she must have been so exhausted and drained: "The drop in mood these days when I am overtired or overstressed is like a fall, followed by the beetle-on-its-back experience, without the energy to do the wriggling around necessary to right myself. Eventually I do find the energy, but what is most frightening about the experience is the sense of being completely drained, of having no energy at all, not even a skerrick in reserve."
Image by Lyn
Anyone who has been a carer, for a short time or indefinitely, will gain much from Doris’ account of her experiences. As a voyeur into Doris and Martin's world, the reader will gain have experiences where Doris' experience will resonate, when feelings are named and able to be faced, while at the same time leaving space for their own experience to come through. They may find the book empowering and strengthen their resolve to be an advocate for the person they care for. They may find the book enabling as it helps to make it acceptable to speak the unspoken, to share very real and honest feelings and thoughts. It may help to hear the positives about the journey, to see that the effort of rehabilitation and ongoing care can really pay off. It might help also to see the importance of acceptance – to see that life might not ever be the same after an illness or accident but life will still go on. New joys and energy can be found that mean an enhanced appreciation and deepening of life’s meaning can be discovered by both the carer and the cared for. This is captured beautifully and creatively by Doris in naming the book "The Twelfth Raven" to represent the "joy of tomorrow".