Enforced time out for writers

Back in June, just as the heatwave was gathering strength, I tripped down my front steps and snapped two bones in my ankle. As I lay sweltering in a hospital bed, waiting for an op to insert a strip of horrible Meccano-like metal into my leg, I reflected on all the security alarms and metal detectors I’d be setting off at airports around the world. But for this summer, at least, most travel plans would have to be cancelled. At least I’d have the luxury of more time to write.

Juggling a day job with the needs of family and friends, means time for writing gets squeezed or pushed to the margins of the ‘to do’ list. My life is calmer now but, when my children were younger and working life had no off-switch, I used to fantasise about a minor injury or insignificant illness leading to enforced time off work. How I craved a few precious weeks to focus on my novel-in-progress.

When injury struck, I underestimated the emotional impact. I was anxious to stop taking painkillers that clouded my thoughts, but I couldn’t go for a brisk walk to trigger serotonin in my brain. Enforced rest made me sluggish and being unable to drive felt like a form of house arrest. With my leg encased in plaster and, later, an Airboot, I struggled to keep it elevated. It was hard enough to find a comfortable spot to sit; balancing a laptop was seriously dodgy.  I tried cushions, trays and beanbags but finally reverted to notebook and pen. I stared into space and waited for inspiration. It didn’t come. My head was full of ridiculous disaster scenarios, such as, will I ever walk again? For several weeks I couldn’t think straight, let alone creatively. Writing fiction was impossible.

I did manage to attend to the business end of writing: planning novel three, editing novel two and promoting my current novel After Leaving the Village. Within two days of the operation, I appeared on an author panel at a local literary festival (in a wheelchair). A week later I attended a guest Q&A at a book club and, over the next two months, was able to stick to commitments to give talks to three groups – I did these sitting down. Feeling intrepid, I ventured out to book fests in Winchester and Hastings to promote and sell signed copies of my novel. At Winchester, I was still lurching round on two crutches and couldn’t carry anything, but a friendly author on the stall next to mine fetched me coffee throughout the day

After the Airboot came off, I travelled (hobbled) to France where I set up fact-checking interviews for my new novel Lies Behind the Ruin (to be published next April). I had meetings with ex-pat families, a gendarme, a bar owner, a notaire and a property agent and returned, for the third time, to the Limousin region to revisit the real and imaginary locations where my novel is set.

My advice on using recuperation as a time for writing fiction is sketchy so here are my tips on recovering from a broken ankle. I sincerely hope you won’t need them.

• When the consultant tells you to rest with your leg elevated, s/he really means it. In week one, I didn’t follow this advice and was out and about, including appearing on an author panel at Farnham Lit Fest. This was a bad move as the hospital delayed removing my stitches for an extra five days because my leg was too swollen.

• I was in a cast for ten days and an Airboot for five weeks but was told a) my ankle was weight-bearing immediately, and b) I mustn’t put my foot on the floor without the Airboot on. Go figure!

• If you are weight-bearing in a cast or Airboot, walk on the injured leg as much as possible. I discovered leg muscles waste away quickly and it takes ages to build them up.

• I was allowed to take off the Airboot at night and to shower but had to shower sitting down. I think the hospital Occupational Therapy department can provide a shower seat but we put a small plastic garden table in the shower and I sat on that. Make sure you have a chair with towels and your clothes on it very close to the shower door. You’ll need it to lean on when you stagger out of the shower to avoid putting your unbooted, injured leg to the ground.

• If you have the strength to support your body weight, crutches are a great work out for the upper arms.  Goodbye bingo wings!

• The Airboot rubbed on my wounds and was really uncomfortable so I cut up pieces of kitchen sponge (the flat kind) and inserted them at strategic places inside the boot to stop it rubbing on scars.

• When on two crutches, you can’t carry anything. We rigged up bags on lengths of string tied to the upstairs banister and dangling to downstairs so I could put my mobile and books in the bag and hoist it upstairs. Think Heath Robinson. When I went upstairs, I used the banister and one crutch to lean on and hoisted the other crutch upstairs with a string pulley.

• Or you can wear a backpack around the house to carry stuff.

• Clothes are a nightmare. Nothing fits over the boot. I couldn’t wear jeans so wore long skirts and wide legged summer trousers.

• The Airboot is very high so wearing a normal shoe on the other foot makes you hobble. You can buy a thing called a ‘level up’ from Amazon to strap over and raise the shoe on your good foot.

• Don’t go on Internet forums and google ‘when can I start running again’ and ‘how soon can I wear high heels after broken ankle’ – the answer given is ‘never’ plus you end up reading depressing sob stories from people who haven’t recovered two years after breaking an ankle. I’m determined to wear high heels again in the future but, possibly, only from car to bar.

• When the Airboot or plaster comes off you can start physiotherapy. The NHS physio will give you a sheet of exercises but no actual treatment. If you can afford a few sessions with a private physio, you will get more personalised help.

• When allowed to exercise again, start with swimming and a static exercise bike. In the pool you can do exercises and stretches that seem impossible on land, because the water holds so much of your weight.

• Keep elevating the leg regularly and use ice packs to reduce swelling. I’ve been trying contrast bathing – you put the injured foot alternately into bowls of iced water and warm water, leaving it for sixty seconds in each. This is supposed to help repair ligament and nerve damage.

• Ask for your medical records. I asked the radiographer if I could take a photo of my X-ray. I wanted this to show the physiotherapist and to understand where the screws were positioned. I wasn’t allowed to take a pic and had to apply for ‘Access to Medical Records’ but, six weeks later, I received all my files, including the X-ray. I also discovered they had cut through a vein during surgery. Strangely, this wasn’t mentioned in the letters the hospital sent to my GP and copied to me…

• I expected to be back driving after three months but I couldn’t take all my weight on my injured leg to prove I’d be safe doing an emergency stop. It took fifteen weeks, but there’s no better feeling than getting your mobility and freedom back.

• Sixteen weeks on, my leg is still stiff and walking is tiring due to ligament and nerve damage but I persist and aim to walk about 1.5 miles a day.

• It does get better. As the clichés say - one step at a time, a journey of 1,000 miles begins with a single step.

While out of action with a broken ankle or leg, there’s no better way to pass the time than reading. If you like suspense thrillers, you can find a copy of my novel After Leaving the Village on Amazon or in good bookshops.

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