Chapter 11 Sussex

There are three main occurrences that in my later years have influenced my life enormously. All in a positive way and all have contributed to me not feeling so inadequate, so helpless, so ugly and a “mistake” that should have been eradicated the moment that my disability started to take form. There were times that I could not see myself going on, times when the fact that I was going to die, and that all this would end made me feel happy. These feeling were most apparent at the time I left home to go to Oxford and reached a peak when I was in Sussex during the studies for my first degree.

I have written about the years at Oxford and they were, most of the time very happy, but sometimes dark moods would overtake me and then I would go out for long drives, miss classes and be no fun to be with. Fortunately, my teachers and friends were very understanding and helpful. But as I grew older and more aware of my physical ‘difference’ from other people, especially when it came to having a loving relationship, it became more and more difficult to live with the fact that I  could not do all the things able bodied people can, and that I had a large ( to my eyes truly gross) deformity of my spine. My protected years at Oxford ended, and my next step in life was that of an undergraduate student in Sussex.

Sussex didn’t start well and neither did it end very well, after three very turbulent years of my life there. I had to start my first term at Sussex bound to a wheelchair as I just had an operation on my right foot to straighten my large toe. This operation, performed only under local anaesthetic, was an ordeal I never want to go through again: it was extremely painful. After the operation I didn’t have the strength in my left leg to be able to walk, even with my crutches at first and was therefore wheelchair-bound. On the one hand it was an advantage, as it made meeting people and thus making friends easier, because many people on my course or in my hall of residence wanted to help and so many friendships were started. My friends also had a great time wheeling me around the very hilly campus with great speed or racing round the corridors in our hall in my wheelchair. I particularly remember one harrowing trip after a disco in one of the halls of residence which was situated on top of a very steep hill. We had a bit too much to drink, especially Graham, a friend, who decided he would wheel me back to our hall. On top of the hill he suddenly had a bright idea! He stood on the back of the wheelchair leaning forward and let both of us go, hurtling down the hill. Thank God, we somehow managed to both keep the wheelchair  from overturning, and ended quite gently on the grass verge alongside the hill. I then asked someone else to be so kind and help me to get home.

 

On the other hand, being in a wheelchair for most of the time, caused me endless trouble convincing some of the lectures that I was quite able to do my work and to especially to participate in laboratory work that was so important in my biochemistry course. The worst of such occasions was when I had to get the permission to start working on the first year practicals in the chemistry lab. I had to prove to the chemistry lecturer taking our course that I wouldn’t be a hazard to the others in the lab.  He wouldn’t allow me in the lab at all until I could walk using only one crutch. Meanwhile my chemistry teacher from Oxford wrote a letter to him saying that I was quite safe in the laboratory environment. To no avail.  At last I could walk about using one crutch for short distances. Already I had missed precious weeks of laboratory work when most of my co‑students learned the basics of chemistry practical-work. I came into the lab expecting to be allowed to work and prepared to work extra hard to catch up. The lecturer, however, refused to let me in. I begged him and he ordered me to show him how well I could walk, and there, in front of the whole class I had to walk to and fro. I felt very humiliated by this, walking and being scrutinized like cattle for sale in a market. In addition the lecturer decided I could not work in his lab and made me leave. This caused me great problems later on, when I was allowed to partake in lab‑work in chemistry: I had no grounding in the basics, and I got totally lost trying to do the more advanced chemical experiments. Worst of all, when I went wrong, the people helping us would say how come I didn’t remember how to do a particular thing that I was supposed to have learned earlier in the year! Thus one of my favourite subjects, chemistry, turned into a horrific nightmare.

   In those days, although Sussex University claimed to be set up to cater for disabled students, and to their credit they have special accommodation for students in a wheelchair, (I never used this accommodation) they really only catered for students who never needed to enter a lab. Also as it is built on hills, it was difficult to get to places like the library, where you had to wait by the goods lift until someone would come and take you up. The ramps  to various building were also very narrow and steep and difficult to manage. Thankfully for me after the first term I could get around on my crutches and could leave the hated wheelchair behind  in Holland.

Nevertheless, all this made me feel worthless, and I had trouble in keeping up with all my studies. To contribute to all that misery I was extremely shy and all to often I could hardly speak and would only squeak when I was asked a question. Soon I was getting grades below those required for the degree. The dean and my personal adviser tried at first to find out what the problem was but I was too shy to say and they then tried to persuade me instead that maybe I should leave, that University was too much for me; but I was too  pigheaded and determined to continue so I did. It was, however, a vicious circle and although my grades did improve I felt that I was a failure and that therefore I shouldn’t be alive. This feeling got worse as time went by.

In my second year I and some of my friends moved off the campus and hired a house in the sea‑side town of Hove, about half an hour drive from the University. I enjoyed the drive as it went through the beautiful Sussex Downs. The first months of the second year were wonderful for me because I fell in love with one of the boys sharing our house. We were good friends and we spent a lot of time together. I knew that he didn’t love me but then it was okay, as long as we were friends. However, after Christmas, during the second term things got worse. I just turned down a place in Medical school in Holland (medicine was and always will be my first love) as I didn’t want to leave Sussex just then, I had too many friends and things to go back to. When I got back, however, I had to undergo a slight operation and this had a depressing effect on me. Work was going very badly and more and more a feeling of worthlessness crept over me. On top of that, but not unexpectedly, my ‘love‑of‑my‑life’ fell  in love in his turn with another girl and understandably spent most of his free time with her. Putting it down on paper now I have to smile at the naivety and futility of it all, but at that time it seemed to me that the world was coming to an end. I was a failure, I failed in my academic work, and I failed in love. I felt terribly alone. I wanted to be with people and yet at the same time I wanted to be alone. I hated the world and all things living, and at the same time I loved and admired the beauty of all creation that felt so out of reach. I saw myself as some kind of horrible creature, a dark‑black‑creepy insect that should hide away in a corner or creep down a deep black hole never to emerge. And crawl away I did, into my icy‑cold room (we had icicles forming inside the rooms in winter). Feeling  and feeding on my anger.

In this darkness of mind, where reality and imagination blended into one, where I could not make one simple decision without agonizing over it for hours or days, where I wanted to lash out and destroy myself and others, I suddenly one sunny Sunday, early afternoon, saw a light at the end of this darkness. I made a decision; I knew what to do, my heart filled with joy! I have had enough and would go and find out, at last, what was at the other side of life. I would know what comes after death.  Having made that decision, I was inexplicably happy: even today I remember that happiness, that feeling of total freedom as nothing and no one mattered any more.

My friends and I were having Sunday lunch together and I happily helped in the kitchen. My friends were surprised but pleased at my sudden change of mood. The sun was streaming into the kitchen through the window and the birds were singing in the early spring sunshine in tune to my happiness. As I was helping out I would sneak off and drink any alcohol I could find in the house; Gin, Whisky and so on. I took all the drugs I  could lay my hands on; Vallium, Megadon and Paracetamol. I took all I had, but slowly, not all at once. On a very high note I managed to get through lunch and then said I was going to have a rest. I made it to my room and took whatever was still left. I lay down on my bed to sleep for ever, but then I made just one mistake, a mistake that would save my life; I decided, in my bemused state of mind, to write a letter explaining why I was ending my life.  Suddenly I wasn’t happy any more, not that I wanted to live, but because all that build up anger poured out of me onto this piece of paper. Anger that had slowly been building up over many years, frustrations and disappointments. Unfortunately I poured all that fury onto one person. The person I thought I had loved so much, but who wouldn’t return that love. I blamed him for everything and I am deeply sorry for that as it was not him, it was in reality the anger at my disability and failure to excel at my work.

At last I fell into unconscious sleep. The next thing I remember was being in a white hospital room somewhere in Brighton. Apparently what had happened was that someone came into my room to ask me whether I wanted to go out, and happened to see my letter, tried to wake me up and couldn’t and so my friends took me to the university health centre from where I was taken to the hospital.

I woke up, alone in a room, white all around me, and I wasn’t dead! A sense of deep disappointment came over me; what more did I have to do to kill myself? I looked around. I tried to get up and gingerly got out of the bed, and started to walk out of the room and hospital. A nurse stopped me and led me back to my room. I then saw something that looked like an anaesthetizing mask (it was Oxygen), and tried to turn it on to put myself to sleep. Another nurse saw me and told me patronizingly that I shouldn’t play with that and led me back to my bed. Again I failed. Then I searched through my beauty‑case that my friends had brought over. I found a shaving razor. With great difficulty I managed to get the blade out, nearly cutting my thumb off in the process. With the razor I slashed at my wrist. All this was done in a dream‑like state, all I knew was that I had to succeed. As the blood started to pour out I thought I ought to hide it somehow from the hospital staff. I found a handkerchief, and tied it loosely round my wrist, and as I started on my other wrist I fell again into a comatose sleep.

I woke to find myself, alive, in a sick‑room at the University Health Centre. How I got there I didn’t know. Sitting opposite me was one of my friends, Jacky, and I could see she had been crying. I had no concept of time or of how much time had gone by since that sunny Sunday afternoon. It was dark outside when I woke up. My friend asked me why had I done it and was very upset. It was for the first time that I seemed to be starting to be able to think more clearly. Slowly my desire to end it all started to fade, all this going to sleep in one place and finding myself alive and waking up somewhere else was beginning to be too much for me. How was it possible that I was still alive on this earth? Surely I had even cut my wrists, on TV. it seemed so easy? I looked at my wrists, one was uncut, but the thumb looked a real mess,  and to the other was stuck a handkerchief which had stopped the bleeding. I peeled it off, and my wrist started to bleed again. Horrified, my friend called the doctor that was on duty at the health centre that night. It was his first night on duty at that particular place. He had the sister stop the bleeding and give me a tetanus jab, then proceeded to have a long chat with me.  It was the start of a long climb back to ‘normality’. But it was a long road, and a long time before I totally recovered. I had many self‑destructive fall backs during the remaining time in Sussex and even when I moved to London for my further studies. My self‑destructiveness stopped only, when I met my new G.P., in London, but my self destructive thoughts didn’t stop until one of the three things happened that I mentioned earlier. That is until I started practicing martial arts in the “Budokan” way.

The recovery took many years, but the worst was the remaining time that I spent at Sussex.  While I was still in the health centre I was forced to see a psychiatrist. He tried to put me at ease at first, talking about Prague, and other interesting subjects, then, suddenly, he maintained that all my problems had to have originated with my parents and family. I got very indignant. Then he insisted that I would have to go into a ‘resting home’ for a couple of weeks. I was absolutely horrified, I saw myself shut in a psychiatric hospital, branded for life! I started to cry uncontrollably while muttering that he had no right to put me in any hospital and that I could leave the country as I wasn’t English anyway etc, etc. I was quite prepared to  take off there and then and run as far as I had to from this man and his ‘resting‑home’. He couldn’t talk to me any more and left. My G.P. was called in to talk to me, the same person that only stared his duty that week. He calmed me down and extracted a promise that I would never try to kill myself again. And although there were times that I felt desperate, and there were times that I hurt myself on purpose I never again tried to kill myself, so far I have kept my promise, a promise that kept me out of hospitals and made it possible for me to somehow get through my first degree and go on to other things.

When I was allowed to leave the health centre, my mother had arrived, and asked me whether I wanted to leave Sussex. Or to take a year off. I didn’t, I wanted to finish as soon as possible. I remember that when in those days I was outside, in the sun, or the rain, it all felt very unreal. I was going through life as if in a dream. I also felt cleansed as if coming so near to death I cleansed myself from my previous life. I could make a fresh start, or at least that is how I felt in the first few weeks. However, problems do not go away and are not solved by turning towards escape in death, and friends are not prepared to make a fresh start. The weeks of feeling cleansed and fresh to start again were quickly wiped away, by friends continuously accusing me of being selfish for what I had done, by being branded as if trying to get attention, and by normal day to day life. I realize now that the act of suicide is a selfish act, however, so are many other acts that people perform in their daily lives, and if anyone was entitled to blame me for being selfish it should have been my family. But they were wonderfully patient and understanding. I shall never forget the pain my attempted suicide brought to my parents and only for that alone would I never consider it again. I would also like to state that I definitely did  not want to bring attention to myself, I did as I do now hate too much attention given to me. It is embarrassing and I try and avoid it as far as possible. Maybe, as some say, it was a cry for help, as I was too shy to ask for it normally, but all I know and remember was the happiness when I decided to finish with life. And also the incredible happiness that now I would at last know what comes after death.

After the first weeks of this wonderful feeling of freshness  and after I returned from a visit to my sister Katerina and her newborn daughter Natasha in Canada, depression set in with a vengeance. I had failed at everything, work was still difficult, and I even failed to kill my self. All the people around me tried to help, my G.P. my friends and my family. But it was very difficult to respond, partly, I think now because half of me did not want to be helped, it was in a way an escape to be depressed. Not to have to cope with life. I wrote after I at last started to come out of this long lasting state of depression a little “thought” that I include below, maybe that can explain somewhat what it felt like and why it took so long for me to get back to be able to face life as it is again.

 

Enter if you dare

I fall……………………………………………………………..

I found myself in a deep ravine, a very deep gorge, so deep that not a twinkle of light penetrated the darkness surrounding me. All around me a dense darkness engulfed me. I felt I could reach out and grasp the darkness. But when I reached out I felt nothing. I was frightened yet at the same time I knew it was what I expected all along. I took some uncertain steps and reached out again, this time I felt a cold stone wall, it was totally smooth, not a cleft, crack or crevice could be felt. I started walking along the wall, and all the time my hand slid along the smooth, sleek surface. So I walked for a long time until I got too tired to continue, not once did I feel any change in the surface of my prison.

I felt fear, I wanted to get out, I cried for help, but no one heard, no one understood. I cried. I started clawing at the wall, I longed for light, but the wall only seemed to become smoother the harder I clawed, and the darkness thicker the more I strained my eyes. I felt blood, I knew I had to give up, to accept my fate, but I knew I should not. I wanted to leave yet I wanted to stay. The darkness became comforting, I had no need to see anymore, the walls became my friends, no one could penetrate them, no one could come to me. I was alone I did not want any one to come. I hated everyone and here I was safe. The darkness became thicker, the wall smoother. I felt blood.

Then my solitude was disturbed, some one was trying to reach out to me, I felt anger and relief at the same time. But I did not want to respond, I felt safe where I was.

Then a rope was thrown down to me, but it was not strong enough, I did not want to leave, I felt safe where I was.

Then a ladder was lowered down to me, but it was too weak, I did not want to leave, I felt safe where I was.

But they would not leave me alone, they fed me comfort and guilt. I had to try to get out of the deep, deep dark ravine. The darkness become thinner, the walls not as smooth, I felt fear. More rope, more ladders, but still they were not strong enough, not long enough.

Then, when walking round my walls, I felt a cold iron bar hit my hand, I let my hand slide along, it was a ladder, a rusty ladder, so rusty that my hands were cut when I touched it. But I knew it was the only ladder that would let me escape, I knew it would be a hard journey and a painful one. I recoiled from the ladder, I did not want to leave. But I knew I must. I knew that ladder was my own formation, my very own.

It took a long time before I started the long, painful climb, each forced step that I took, I wanted to sink back into the darkness. But I could not anymore, and they would not let me. I cried, and fought against myself, while climbing on. It become lighter, and I once again could see. What I saw I did not like, I saw myself. But it was too late to return I had reached the edge. Now I had to learn not to fall back into the comforting darkness that all of us can reach, so far below.

 

In this semi depressive state I ended my time at Sussex, I had to take my finals in the health centre and although that helped in one way on another it was worse because there was no one else there doing the exams and I felt I could stop when I felt like it. One particular exam on a subject I detested and had not revised for, I just signed my name, put the date and the question on it, and left it at that. When that particularly offending paper was taken away, I burst into tears, but it was too late.

        Then came the idyllic weeks of waiting for the results. I say idyllic because there was no more work, it was pointless to worry about the exams and it was summer time. We criss‑crossed  Sussex in my little car, spent days on the beach and walking on the Downs, stuffing ourselves with cream-teas in cosy little tea shops.. However, all good things come to an end and so also did the weeks of waiting, the day of judgement came. I asked my friend to get my result and write it on a piece of paper, then handed to me through the car window and leave me to drive away so that I could find out what I had all on my own. I couldn’t face to find out I had failed with lots of people around. For I was sure I had failed. I knew what I had to get to be able to do a Ph.D in London at Birkbeck college. I wanted to go on to do a Ph.D, although all my lecturers as well as the dean tried to persuade me that the academic life was not for me, that obviously I couldn’t cope and that I would never succeed if I tried to earn a doctorate. Nevertheless, I applied, and I got a provisional place. The big question now was did I have a good enough exam result. I drove off; the peace of paper on which my degree result was written was neatly folded and laying on the dashboard. It kept staring at me willing me to open it. I drove on and prayed. I drove all the way to Beachy Head and there, with the waves breaking onto the cliffs below me, the sun shining and people strolling about, I at last with shaking hands opened the tightly folded piece of white paper.

Shaking like a leaf in strong winds I ran to the nearest phone booth, placed a collect call to Holland to my parents and told them that I could go to London next November and start on my Ph.D!  What followed was the most wonderfully long holiday of all my life, and  the last one that long!

In November, refreshed and scared stiff of whether I would be able to go through with this difficult part of my study, all those warnings from my lecturers suddenly creeping endlessly into my mind I left for London and I left for what was to become over the next few years the truly turning points in my life.

END OF PART 1

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6 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Marsha
    Jan 12, 2012 @ 17:24:00

    Oh Marketa, this chapter touched me in ways you’ll never know. At some point when I’m stronger I’ll send you an e-mail about it. Thank you so much for allowing us to have this intimate look into your deepest thoughts and feelings. That takes so much courage!

    Reply

  2. spamslitterature
    Jan 19, 2012 @ 10:05:54

    What Marsha said goes for me too. I cope with feeling like a failure a lot of times too but then I think “well, compared to this one or that one I’m a failure but I got further than I thought I would by giving it a go so let’s see what else happens.”

    Reply

  3. annepetzer
    Jan 28, 2012 @ 17:52:42

    Agree with Marsha. wow Marketa I love your blog and thanks for sharing so openly. You write so well. xx

    Reply

  4. Waldo "Wally" Tomosky
    Mar 26, 2012 @ 21:06:35

    Marketa, I have to be honest. It was hard to read some of the chapters. Not because of your writing but it is hard to look at someone else’s pain. The first chapters were hard to get through and I can not imagine how hard for you to actually live them. The last chapter (and especially your gifted writing about the gorge that held you prisoner) made me realize that your mental strength pulled you through this. I also came away with the feeling that because your family was educated that this fact also made you chase education. Your goal to get an education (no matter how painful) helped you to get through the other pains (physical and mental) of your life. I hope you never face that lonliness again. Thank you very much for sharing your story with us. Very brave and very encouraging.

    Reply

    • marketaz
      Mar 26, 2012 @ 22:04:23

      Thank you so much for your kind comments, Waldo. As a child you tend not to dwell on things too much and just get on with life. It gets harder but also more fulfilling as ones gets older.

      I am in the process of writing the next chapter, and there are some great moments in my life there…like meeting the Queen (of Britain), and other interesting meetings…probably the best and most exciting time in my life…

      Again thank you very much for reading and commenting. Marketa

      Reply

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