2 - Rainbows and Shark Attacks

After returning home from hospital things were pretty normal, we were back to tons of love, eating cake and time at the beach. We decorated my room with rainbows - rainbow walls, rainbow bed covers, rainbow curtains, rainbow everything - in my five year old interior design brain anything other than rainbows was an offense to design. 

Surprisingly, after surviving a ball of wet sand in my lungs (see Blog Post 1) I still loved to play in the wet sand at the beach.  Life was even more colourful as the shutting down of my periphery meant that the circulation to my hands and feet would randomly malfunction, they would become very cold, very fast and change color drastically, fluctuating between true blue and purples.  The fact is that from this point on dressing up as a smurf was an easy option for me.

We learned that the excessive temperatures (and maybe the drugs) might have caused some damage to my hypothalamus, the part of the brain that controls your temperature and thus began my relationship with multicolored body parts, thermostats and hot water bottles.  There was one genuine concern however, when it was cold, as it often is on the south coast of England, my hands and feet would rapidly loose circulation, to the point where they were almost translucent.  This opened up a whole new world of fancy dress as Casper the friendly ghost.  But, this didn’t stop me or my parents ensuring that I did a ton of outdoor activities, they just ensured we were very well prepared.  

My mum would take me horse riding on a Saturday morning, in the summer this was fantastic, in the winter it was also fantastic but it came with a serious downside.  When the lesson finished I would have almost no feeling in my hands and feet.  This was before cell phones so my dad would be at home and at a set time would start preparing the kitchen sink full of warm water, as my mum carried me through the door they would whip off my little riding boots and my gloves, plonk me next to the kitchen sink, stick my hands and feet in the water and massage away.  It was excruciating as the blood came back, but I got used to it.   I think this is a testament to how much I loved horse riding as a little girl, no amount of winter cold could keep me away from those horses.

My mother had a large metal sewing machine which would be the source of much creativity.  All of my fancy dress outfits were handmade from scratch, as well as many dresses and other clothing items.  In fact, before I was born (and she had more time) my mother would make tons of clothes for herself and my dad - dresses, suits, coats, you name it.  There was the sewing machine corner - this was an artsy space of colourful fabrics, endless reels of cotton, pins, scissors, pattern sketches and cut outs.  One day she whipped up clown outfits for us, which I absolutely loved because we were wearing the same thing and we competed in a sports day wearing these ridiculous outfits.  It was my first event back at school after my illness and the fun outfits said it all, fun and games had returned!  Overall, my favourite was my ‘Mary Quite Contrary’ outfit, which I wore for a poetry day, and I loved it, still do!  Fortunately, I managed to remember my four line poem to accompany the outfit!

"Mary, Mary, quite contrary" - By Mother Goose

Mary, Mary, quite contrary

How does your garden grow?

With silver bells and cockleshells

And pretty maids all in a row.

I later learned that this is not a poem about a random lady called Mary and her garden, as I thought as a child.  It is about Queen Mary I and her reign over England (how does your garden grow), the Catholic Church (silver bells), cheating husbands (cockshells) and multiple miscarriages (pretty maids).   But, I still love that dress. 

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We spent a lot of time at the beach and I loved swimming in the sea but the fact was my brain wanted to stay in the water way past when my body could handle it, when I finally got out of the water looking like a ghost my parents would again spur into action.  My mum would get out the thermos of hot chocolate and towels and a ridiculous scene was had every time, I would sit between by dads legs facing him, with my feet under his underarms and my hands in his mouth.  It was the best technique and I am sure people thought we were weird, and that’s ok by me.   This was just what always happened at the beach, even in the height of summer, sun beating down, covered in sunscreen my circulation would just give up and my body would lap up all of my dad's heat.  I didn’t think anything of it at the time, but it must have been like holding salty sandy ice cubes in his mouth.  I guess that is what dad's are for.

My hallucinations also continued on a minor scale, occasionally bright colors would flash about the room, similar to the flow of the northern lights, and they would make the outline of shapes but nothing like the clarity of the colourful bunnies and squirrels I had hallucinated while in hospital.   But one night, things took an interesting turn.  I was laying in bed wide awake and I snook downstairs, without being noticed I watched what my dad was watching on tv through the doorway… he was watching “Jaws".

From this moment the vividness of my hallucinations returned, but it was no longer colourful squirrels and bunnies, and it was you guessed it… sharks.  My life took two paths, the everyday happy life and the absolute horror of being chased my sharks.  I think I knew they were imaginary, but they were so real too, the fact was that I was petrified.  They could appear at anytime, day or night.  Although, it was mostly at night that they would come, and I started sleeping with the light on, that kept them at bay for a while.  But, then they came at night even when the lights were on bright.  It was always the same, they would circle about, coming over to me and moving away with their jaws shut, and then eventually would go in for the kill, head fast towards me with open jaws and disappear through me.  It happened over, and over and over.  I never got less scared.  My parents say it was one of the most scary things they experienced, their little girl screaming as I tried to protect myself, from what to them, and everyone else, looked like a normal room.  I guess, looking back, it makes sense that I went to university to study Psychology and Neuroscience.

I was sleeping in my parents' room every night and at some point they decided to buy me a second bed for their room.  Like most children I had moved out of their room into my own room and at four and a half I was moving back in.  Every night I would start the night off in my bedroom with the lights on, wait for the sharks to appear and then run in to their room.  The lights would be off in their room, and I could still see the sharks but I felt protected and dealing with the sharks, when my parents were sleeping next to me, was a lot easier than dealing with them by myself!

My brain then started to calculate absurd things.  We lived on the south coast about five miles from the beach.  At this point in my life we went to church and I believed in god, I was told at church that if you imagined something enough it would come true, they meant this, of course, in a positive sense.  They were trying to say imagine good things happening and good things will happen, but, I knew that my imagination went to sharks eating me in my bedroom.   I told this to my mum one day, petrified, I theorised that a tidal wave would occur, flood the land and that sea water and sharks would burst through my bedroom window and I would get eaten in my bedroom just as my imagination suggested.  She said that god would not allow that to happen.  But, of course, at church they also told us about the devil and in my five year old brain I thought that as bad things do happen, that sometimes the devil wins over god, and I was petrified that the devil would win, and that it was only a matter of time before an actual tidal wave of sharks came into my bedroom.  At 12 I started to write my mother notes as to why I did not believe in god, and have been an non-theist ever since.  I will revisit this when I get to writing about that point in my life as moving away from the teachings of the church is one of the best things that my brain ever did for me.

At some point my parents started to offer me £1 to stay in my own room.  This was a lot of money to me, this was the same value as a tooth.  I tried and tried not to go in their room, as I really wanted the money to buy as many “My Little Ponies” (best toys ever) as possible, but would often end up in there as I was so scared.  But, one night I discovered that sleeping in the bathroom was actually pretty comfy, I was small and I would drag all of my bedding in there and tuck in next to the bath like a hamster.  The thing I learned about the bathroom was that as the bathroom light was so bright (in hindsight a more bright white light compared to the softer yellow light of my bedroom) the hallucinations stopped.  That was that, for a while, I was making good money by sleeping in the bathroom.  My first paid job.  In a sense, although my parents were married, they were still having to pay to have sex.

Swimming lessons involved crying all the way there, standing at the side of the pool and crying and begging everyone not to make me go in the water.  I was convinced that a baby shark would come through the drain system, followed by the daddy shark and I would be chased, and eaten.  I would eventually get in the pool, a crying mess, and only swim at the side.  I really really struggled with this, I was beyond petrified.  My brain would see shadows following me in the water, I would occasionally have a very vivid moment of Jaws with massive teeth shooting up towards me from bottom of the pool and all in all it was tough.  This combined with my having to wear white plastic socks due to my verruca feet and having hands that randomly changed color meant for an all round stress nation at swimming lessons.  However, my mother was always very keen for us not to quit, and after a few years of crying and adding salty water to the pool I finally got over it and enjoyed swimming lessons.  Of course, as child logic would have it, this whole time, I was more than happy swimming in the ocean, go figure.

During this I also loved the book mailing services.  Once a year mum and I would sit down and trawl through the book catalog, I was enthralled.  The encyclopaedias were the most exciting,  the gold emblems on the front just gave them some kind of specialness.  The whole line up of encyclopaedias took pride of place on the bookshelf.  I very much enjoyed looking up random things and attempting to read them, I was still pretty young at this point and my parents would often read them to me.  Florence Nightingale was a favourite section, if you don’t know anything about her, check her out, the true definition of awesome.  

I often spent hours sitting in the garden, digging up soil and finding worms.  I was always on a mission to find a bigger worm - a similar mission to what I found myself doing later in life.  One day when I was trawling through the soil, I found an unbelievably big worm, the girth and length of this little beast was astounding.  He was instantly my favourite worm ever and in my excitement I ran into the house.  My mother had the mighty Encyclopaedia Britannica on her lap, reading about something that was clearly less interesting than my worm, and I ran over to her, and placed my worm down on the open page.  

This oversized, wriggly worm had a different impression on my mother, in total shock she slammed the encyclopaedia closed.  That was the end of worm.  Fact is that our brand new book was the location of a murder scene, but since we knew what happened, the investigation was closed, as was the book, it was then placed back on the bookshelf with worms splat inside.  I remember she was reading something in the middle of the encyclopaedia, which is a shame, if she was reading near the end in the W section people would have just thought they got very ‘real’ for the worm section.  From the outside, the encyclopaedia line up looked perfect, but every family has their secret.  I just remember that if something between “J" and “K” needed to be researched the whole family got weird and suggested we looked up something that began with other letters.  Luckily Google was only a decade or so away.  Now they deal with their own version of worms and data corruption.

Another issue from having poor circulation was verrucas (for American translation that is ‘foot warts’) but not just an occasional verruca, endless verruca coverage on my feet.  It got so bad at one point I had to get a walking stick as the bottom of my feet were pretty much just open sores.  I had acid treatment, salt treatment, liquid nitrogen and my mother even tried out a few old wives tales ‘just in case’. 

One involved burying meat in the garden, genuinely, we bought pieces of meat and then my parents buried them in the garden, but I was not allowed to know where.  Apparently me not knowing where the meat was, was a big part of the treatment working.  Clearly I could guess the areas where the meat was, one because I could see areas of disturbed grass and secondly because my parents were very keen for me to play in those areas.  Apparently, as I walked over those areas the buried meat would somehow help my verrucas, through all the bandages the meat healing power could make it’s way through - fact is, this is, absurd, and of course, my parents only tried it as they were desperate to stop their daughter's agony.  It’s no surprise that I am not a fan of pseudo science considering we lost a lot of tasty meat to this ridiculousness.

They also tried rubbing toad bellies on my verrucas.  My mum would not hold the toad, so my dad was the toad holder as my mother directed.  We had toads at the bottom of the garden so it was easy to grab one, but imagine the story the toad told to all the other toads when we put him back.  He was taken from his home, had his belly rubbed up and down my verucca feet.  It must have seemed like some really messed up version of “The Princess and the Frog”, “The Verucca Foot and the Toad".  I just hope that toads cannot get belly verucas.  Fact is, I loved toads, and having cold slimey toad belly glide across the bottom of your painful feet is actually quite a lovely feeling.  As you may have guessed it did not improve the issue.

We did finally solve the dilemma with foot massages.  My dad decided to start massaging my feet multiple times a day and within a couple of weeks my feet were healed, we decided that increased blood flow was the reason, and certainly not a delayed response from hidden meat or toad bellies.  This started a foot massaging family tradition and nearly every night whenever our family are together we all massage each others feet.  I know that people find this weird, many friends have told me this, but it is not weird to me and after a stressful day a quick foot massage before bed is probably the best thing in the history of the world.

Bedtime stories are a staple of any wonderful childhood and I certainly enjoyed story time every night with my mum.  We had insane numbers of books and stories but there is one book that stands out above all others - The Tale of Two Bad Mice by Beatrix Potter.  It is a tale about two mice vandalising a dolls house and it is absolutely hilarious, or at least it was to my five year old brain.  There is a scene where the two mice steal plastic dolls house food, particularly a plastic ham hock and try to cook it over a plastic dolls house fireplace and they get frustrated when it does not work. I found this fools errand scene so funny and laughed outrageously every time my mother read it.  The whole story is super fun and actually touches on the issues of domesticity of women, so I guess it is no surprise that one of my favourite phrases as an adult is ‘A tidy house is the sign of a wasted life’, I absolutely love my home to be full of creative clutter, gear and everything else that goes with having fun days and not enough time to put things away.  

Muddled in with all of this we had endless baking (mostly while wearing my Carebear apron), cuddling with my cat Suky, riding bikes, playing in the paddling pool, playing with friends and learning about life… a colourful, wonderful time in my life, I am very aware that I was beyond fortunate to have such an amazing childhood.

Oh, and it was during this time that I also learned what it is to be truly English... tea and biscuits in bed became a regular occurrence.  Evidently, I was too busy staring at the biscuit tin to care about the camera!

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Through all of this, although I loved our family and everything we did, I remember wanting a brother.  I was now five years old, and I had a bunch of dolls that I played with, I played with many friends, but selfishly I wanted a friend who would never have to leave.  There would never be the ‘It’s time for him/her to go home now’.  It would be ‘oh, he never has to leave because this is his home too’.  My campaigning paid off, before I knew it I was told that my little brother was on the way, my best friend, was on his way, now this was exciting!