After five years of stop-start-stop-start, my first novel The Wrath of the Four Horsemen is almost finished. I have completed all the chapters and am now plugging away at some rewrites before sending the whole lot off to be proofread.
How it began: a journal
I’d been diagnosed with testicular cancer for the second time as it had come back in the lungs. I was lounging on the bed waiting for the chemo to begin when I decided to write a journal for my young daughters to read when they were older – just in case I didn’t make it through this time.
As the treatment progressed, my body deteriorated quite quickly. I’d had chemo before and thought I’d be able to cope reasonably well, but nothing could’ve prepared me for the horrors to come. GAMEC – pure evil.
The previous chemo, BEP, wasn’t pleasant either – I lost all my hair, vomited for days on end and lost two stone in weight – however, unpleasant as it was, I could cope with it. After a week or so the sickness and side effects calmed down quite quickly and I’d resume a semblance of normality again.
GAMEC though was brutal. Not only did I lose all my hair, I lost my fingernails and toenails too. The vomiting and sickness lasted for weeks at a time and were much more violent. I had diarrhoea half the time and painful mouth ulcers the other half. I was bedbound by the end of the second cycle and lost a total of four and a half stone in weight.
I was in such a bad way, the life was literally draining from me. Maybe it was my age (mid-forties) or that I’d already endured four rounds of chemo a few months earlier – perhaps my body wasn’t naturally strong enough to cope. Whatever the reason, I was going downhill pretty quickly and instinctively knew I might not last the course.
Writing for my life
I also realised that if my body couldn’t cope, my mind would have to stay strong. Anyone who’s been incarcerated – whether its a hospital bed, prison or shut in your room for being naughty – will have probably experienced that sensation of time slowing down, especially at night when it’s just you, the bed and the darkness. Fear, anxieties, suffering and pain, they’re all exacerbated and amplified to excruciating levels.
I retreated inside my own mind. Although I was on morphine to numb the pain from the mouth ulcers, it didn’t really open my mind up. I had hallucinations but they were always the same: paranoia and the bed tipping up.
Instead I created a world within a world, an inner sanctuary where I could think and offload my problems. Reality and fantasy were woven together in my imagination. I wrote down everything that came into my head. By combining my thoughts, memories, fears, hopes and funnelling them onto the paper I created a new story. When I became too ill to write, the story continued unabated in my head.
This helped me push my problems, my battles, my questions – low white cells, infections, questions about afterlife, religion – and basically everything that was bugging me into abstractions so that my mind became more involved with the character in the story than the real one. I was more concerned about fitting my real-life problems into my made-up story. In those long hours of inactivity, solitude and darkness I was working out story lines, plots and characters.
Monsters from the Id
Low white cells became snowmen battling ferocious monsters from deep within the Black Forest; transfusions to replenish red cells transformed into a quest for a haemoglobin goldfish, which belonged to a family of seaside gypsies.
It may seem strange – and at times somewhat surreal – but this was my way of getting through a life-threatening, horrific ordeal. Once my body had become totally exhausted and unable to fight any more, my mind continued to drag me through.
We are all unique; we have different fears, strengths, weaknesses, hopes and circumstances. Because of this, our traumas are personal and however strange or crazy, we have to cope using our particular idiosyncrasies and strengths. I’ve always been a slacker, someone who’s mind is hardwired to the easy option so I used my imagination, because that’s what I’m good at. If I’d tried gritting my teeth and toughing it out, I would’ve probably failed miserably.
I’m not advocating in any way that my train of thought helped defeat the cancer. My imagination helped me get through an incredibly brutal and harrowing experience, but without the chemo or the skill and help of all the doctors (especially The Guv’nor), nurses, support staff, and my family and friends, it would’ve all been in vain.
Once I’d finished my treatment and returned home I stopped writing until almost a year later when I suffered a few panic attacks and flashbacks. This propelled me to scoop up all my notes and commit them to the laptop – I was determined to finish the story. Over the course of the next four years I sporadically pieced my notes together (in between starting my own business), adding bits along the way to create the whole story.
I’m still here. I’ve almost finished writing the book. Read more about The Wrath of the Four Horsemen.