And then I woke up

`I have been told it happened around midnight, close to my home. I have been told I was unconscious for 72 hours and in intensive care for two weeks. I have been told I was unrecognisable, my head swollen, my eyes puffed shut. But I do not remember the accident that had my friends and family not knowing if I'd survive'
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"The trouble with you," said the head of the out-patient psychology unit, "is, you sound like yourself, and you look like yourself. You're going to fool people into thinking you are like yourself. But you're not. You need rest - every day, 50 per cent more than you used to get."

Which, I reckoned, would up me to nine, maybe 10 out of every 24 hours. I knew he really meant 12. And I knew what he meant about "fooling people". When you're recovering from serious head injuries, you're caught in a kind of conundrum. You want to perform as well as you can, to convince people that it's only a moment before you'll be raring to get back to work. But, at the same time, you want to say: "Not quite yet. Not while I'm still so fatigued."

And not, ideally, while I still have blurred vision. I've been told that either the part of my brain that "yokes" the separate vision of my two eyes will heal, in due course, or, "eventually" the job will be taken over by another part of my brain.

This is information entirely new to me. Not having medical training, or a scientific background, I gain a sort of compensatory fascination from learning how the brain works, and how much and how little the experts know about this extraordinary organ.

I do not remember the accident that, for a brief period, left my friends and family not knowing whether I would survive. I have been told that it happened on 26 February at around midnight, close to my home in London. I have been told that at least one passer-by did not expect me to live. I have also been told that I was unconscious for 72 hours and in intensive care for almost two weeks, pinioned by life-saving tubes and pipes. I have been told that I was unrecognisable. My head was swollen, my eyes were puffed shut and my hands and arms were swollen and bruised.

They (the blessed stars of the NHS who were responsible for my initial recovery) almost carried out a tracheotomy, because my breathing was so shallow. The surgeons - the best available - who eventually operated on my facial injuries, considered slicing into my hairline to pull my scalp down, and under my eye, before realising that the whole breakage could be reached from inside my mouth, where I now have a "whopping" scar, according to my dentist. I have not seen it.

No, by the time I was sensate, weeks after the accident, I looked (with severely blurred vision) into the mirror and saw someone I recognised. Bruised, yes, and long-haired. But the image looked roughly as I remembered. And I do not recall any pain, though for a few weeks I apparently complained of hurting "all over".

The immediate post-accident condition is absurd, and often laughable. The sufferer from brain injury, of which I think I am more or less a textbook example, suffers from "post-traumatic amnesia", which not only blanks out events surrounding and immediately preceding the accident, but affects their recollection of events in the preceding 15 years, and all subsequent happenings.

Stock psychological tests ask you to name everyday objects. My score was miserably low at first. Even later I was still stumped, apparently, by "helicopter" and "pyramid".

How do I know all this, if my memory was so badly affected? Because I was attentively and lovingly cared for by my family and my partner, the BBC foreign correspondent Allan Little, who flew back from his base in Moscow when he heard the news and has been a tower of strength ever since. He made me rest and encouraged me to revive neglected or forgotten activities, setting me an example of hale and hearty normality which I try to keep up with.

He has told me about some of the things that I said in the first forgotten weeks. In amnesia veritas, I ponder, hearing his tales of my frank responses to questions on politics and current affairs. Post-amnesia delicacy prevents me repeating them, although I can reveal that I introduced my sister- in-law to another visitor as "my wife". She still teases me.

My first memories are confused and fragmented. I recall thinking that I was living in a dream, and that I would wake up to "normality" soon. I recognised friends who visited, but forgot their names, and I felt extraordinarily weak. Gradually, I began to wonder how it was that - life seeming so risky - everybody didn't, at some time, suffer a serious head injury.

To my pleasure, and relief, all manner of things have returned, including my hesitant mastery of foreign languages. And my sense of humour seems to have expanded. I found, and still find, myself laughing immoderately at jokes and in conversation.

Now, six months since the accident, how am I doing? I still suffer more fatigue than I used to. My London psychologist recommends three aerobic gym sessions a week to tackle this. I was never much of a gym- lover, but I am gritting my teeth and pumping iron. I have no illusions that this will transform me into a gorgeous chick - a slightly more energetic hen will do.

My eyesight I have mentioned. My broken finger is slowly healing, but will always be a slightly swollen, bent souvenir of that night. Mentally, psychologically, the recovery is leaving its mark. Being dependent on the care and comfort of strangers has become second nature.

"Wasn't I frustrated at not being able to work?" I was often asked.

"It's a healthy person's question," I mused, while answering politely. Having more or less lived for work, I now follow the cliched path common to many survivors of accident or illness. I now consider friends and family to be far more important. And, if you live to a degree in public life, there are also the unknown friends and supporters. They have showered me with cards and letters and flowers since Day One. Even if I were materially able to make the accident a reason for an indolent second half of my life, I feel that I owe it to my audience to get back, to prove that it is possible to survive and thrive.

But there is also an urge to make the accident a catalyst for change of some sort. I know this is a common reaction in many people who have stared death in the face and lived to tell the tale (with a lot of help from my friends, in my case). The urge to write that book, or make that film, or have that child or climb that mountain, becomes overwhelming. This is particularly so because I have no evidence that there is a life after death, despite my religious upbringing. When I pointed this out to Allan, very early on, he simply snapped: "Well, you didn't die." There may yet be more to know.

But I already know that life is precious and valuable, in all its manifestations. I knew this before the accident, but took it for granted. Now every other accident, or death, that I hear or read about strikes me far more directly than it used to.

And though I know that accidents don't miraculously turn you into a post- recovery genius in any field, they can have the effect of firming up your will-power to do some of the things that you had idly considered doing but had never got around to.

I have been warned, repeatedly, that I may in time suffer from depression. This, too, is a regular consequence of accidents and their aftermath, and I can understand why. Compared to recovery from flu, or even measles, the recovery from a head injury seems to be a laborious process - though I know that my own recovery has been remarkably speedy; even the experts have evinced surprise. The length of recovery I'm sure makes some people disconsolate, and prone to depression. I would advise any other sufferers, as I was also advised, to pace themselves and not accelerate their return to work for fear of lacking sufficient energy, and therefore confidence, to succeed.

But do expect to get better, if you're ever struck down. The rates of improvement between those with high expectations, and those with low, is marked. Set your sights low, and that's as far as you'll get. Set them high and who knows?

Who does know what the future will bring? I didn't before the accident. I certainly do not now. But I hope. I hope my dreams will come back (my brain has other work to do at the moment). I hope my work will come back, and develop. And I hope that the hundreds of folk who have been so giving and kind to me throughout these last six months will in due course feel it was worthwhile. I cannot thank them all individually, but I should like to. A year from now, I will look back on this episode with a different eye, I have no doubt. Right now, I feel lucky to be alive, in such a brave new world.

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