I knew that last Tuesday morning was coming. 365 mornings since that morning and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the anniversary of waking up as a paraplegic. None of those mornings had been quite the same as any from before my injury. Over the past few weeks, with Tuesday looming, I couldn’t help but wonder if I would ever really wake up feeling ‘normal’ again.
365 mornings on, I found my eyes fluttering open to sunlight streaming through deliberately unblinded windows and I repeated the morning ritual that has kicked off a large chunk of those days. I stretched both legs, lifting one at a time – just to make sure. Right leg? Check (pretty much). Left leg… well, it kind of works. I breathe a sigh of relief and gratitude because of the many mornings when I woke up in blind panic to find that nothing moved and I’d remember all over again the parts of me that didn’t work.
On Tuesday, my stretch is automatic and I yawn loudly. I hear laughter from the kitchen and it seems my yawn has announced to the world that I am awake. My friend Mark brings me coffee and cake.
“Cake?” I look at my imaginary watch. It can’t be more than 8am. I pretend that I couldn’t possibly!
“You have to celebrate your… whatever day this is…”
For once, he’s stuck for words.
“My injurversary.” I’ve decided.
We clink coffee cups. We probably shouldn’t. Greek superstition says that cheering with coffee causes death. I suppose it’s good that neither of us are superstitious. Or Greek.
When Mark invited me to come to Greece to visit him in his new apartment, it took about 3 seconds of deliberation and a quick search on Skyscanner for me to make my decision. I might have made it sooner if it hadn’t been for all that I had to consider – the difficulties of travelling; the costs; the likelihood that accessibility was going to be a problem; the likelihood that finding suitable toilets would be a problem; organising some time off; rearranging hospital and doctor appointments; making sure I had enough medication and medical supplies; pain management; living with chronic fatigue; coping with the procedures I need to perform daily to get my body going; paranoia about all the side effects of a Spinal Cord Injury that can and do kick in without warning; maintaining my daily regimes while away from home and probably most importantly, navigating the broken and chaotic streets of Thessaloniki.
There was a lot to consider. That’s why I afforded a full 3 seconds to ask all of the questions I needed to ask myself. The answer, of course, was ‘Fuck it!’.
I reached for my credit card.
I didn’t want to spend my injurversary in London, spending the day just like all the others. It’s been a year since my life took off in an entirely new direction. It’s changed everything. And with more rehab and hospitalisation planned from next week, I knew that sitting around in grey and dreary England would just dredge up all of the memories of what I’d lost and things I never got to do. I wanted to escape. I knew that I had to look on the bright side and give myself a reason to celebrate just how far I’ve come in 12 months.
Where brighter than Greece?
A trip to Thessaloniki made perfect sense. I spent four months in Greece – two of those in Thessaloniki – back in 2017 when I was travelling around Europe volunteering with refugees. Despite being initially terrified by a psychotic taxi driver, I fell in love with the place. I was excited about coming back. The city was familiar. I still had friends here. It was the perfect place to ease myself back into travelling.
It helped too that Mark had thought carefully about my visit. I’d made a passing comment when he first moved to Thessaloniki that he’d have to get a two bed place so that I could have my own room and he’d have to make sure it was accessible. So when he told me he’d found a two bed place with a lift and step free access, well, it would have been rude to turn down the invitation!
I’d missed just packing my bag and hitting the road. I’d missed grabbing my camera and wandering aimlessly. That’s my happy place. I’d been missing travel so much that I felt an actual pain in the pit of my stomach. But once the flights were booked, I packed my wheelchair away in a cupboard and settled on just bringing my crutches. I retrieved the Canon that had been gathering dust for the past year. I hatched a plan for adventure.
Of course, it took a lot more organising than before and I had to be sensible about what I was going to spend my time doing. It’s not like I was going to attempt to climb Mount Olympus.
Or was I?…
Since my injury, I’d regretted not hiking the mountain back when I’d spent those four months in Greece. I’d made excuses before. I didn’t have the right equipment or clothing. I didn’t think I’d be able. I laugh at that now. I don’t think I ever realised just how able I was until I really wasn’t able.
So I decided to take a trip to Olympus during the week before the injurversary. I’d passed it by car before and was mesmerised. I could completely understand why the ancient Greeks believed it was the home of twelve Gods. My reaction this time was no different. My breath caught in my throat once the mountain came into view. There is something powerful about it. If I was a God, I’d probably choose to live here too. If I couldn’t quite climb it, at least I could visit the village of Litochoro in the foothills and enjoy the view. My crutches and I would wander as far as my rubbish legs would allow.
There’s a waterfall on Mount Olympus, not far from Litochoro, where Poseidon is said to have fallen in love with Tyro. It mostly follows a well-travelled trail, but there are tricky patches of rockface, loose stone and soil. There are tree roots to climb over and slippery rock surfaces to navigate. The kind of thing I have scampered happily across a million times before all of this. I wanted so badly to make the journey.
We’d only met that morning, but we’d become instant friends. As he drove the 90km to the mountain, we chatted, chatted, chatted all the way. He was sure I could make it to the waterfall.
“Come on,” Christos urged me with a wicked grin. “Poseidon is waiting for you. You will make it if I have to carry you myself.”
I took some convincing, but with the patience of a saint, Christos walked every step of the way with me. He held my elbow or my hand when I needed support climbing on rock or roots. When I wanted to give up, he encouraged me to carry on. He waited when I needed rest. Slowly, slowly – painfully slowly for him, I imagine – we climbed the 500m to Poseidon’s waterfall.
It was worth every step.
For the first time, I felt like I was closer to being able-bodied again. I basked in sunshine and myth and achievement. I was warmed by my new friendship and my heart was happy.
Over the following days, I hung out with Christos a bit and he even took me to see a Greek rock band. Talk about a 90s throwback. The bad jeans and the bad hair which are all the rage in London as a retro look are in fashion here too, but worn without any trace of irony or nostalgia. They’re in fashion for the first time. I especially loved the oversized check shirts wrapped around the girls’ waists and I remembered my wardrobe circa 1995. I felt like Claire Danes in ‘My So Called Life’. Except that here, I stuck out like a sore thumb. The animal print shirt that I’d thought was so trendy when I picked it up on the London high street looked utterly ridiculous. Thank God denim jackets are back in vogue at home. I threw mine on to try and blend in.
Not that I cared too much. The atmosphere was unbelievable. There was an actual mosh pit and people were crowd-surfing. At one point there were two inflatable dinghies filled with bodies floating over the heads and arms of an enthusiastic crowd. It reminded me of when we were teenagers and used to hang out in ‘the band part’ in Cartown – if ‘the band part’ was on some kind of steroids. ‘Super Cartown’.
If I’d been able to join in the moshing, though, I would have absolutely given it a go. For the craic. Instead, we watched from the seats at the side and soaked it all in. I just hope that my immobility didn’t stop Christos from having a good night. We listened to the music (the band were great) and I picked up a few Greek-isms, including my new favourite word, ‘Malakas’. You don’t need a direct translation. Just know that among friends, it’s a term of endearment. Among strangers, well, rude would be a modest description!
In the days leading up to my injurversary, the upcoming occasion was never far from my mind. It seemed fortuitous then, that as I hobbled along a city street one day, I passed an art café and tattoo parlour called Tattooligans. I’d passed here many times back in 2017 and one particular time had wandered by with a friend I’d met during that visit. Catherine is English and we’ve stayed friends. We’ve met up in London a few times since and we bumped into each other on the tube once. During the early days after my surgery when I was paralysed in a hospital bed and my headphones broke, Catherine saved the day. With no way of listening to music, I was at a loss for a way to pass the time and I wasn’t quite up for reading or watching tv. She brought me a pair of her headphones to stave off insanity.
I hadn’t been talking to her for a few months and as I idly glanced in the windows of Tattooligans, I was reminded of fun days and nights out on these streets. I made a mental note to catch up with Catherine when I got back to the UK.
I half thought of popping in and getting a tattoo that’s been on my mind for a while. I’ve wanted to get two tiny footprints on my left ankle (the worst one) to celebrate getting back on my feet. It seems like the kind of achievement that demands being marked in indelible ink. Less than a year after I was told I was probably never going to walk again, I’m bossing the crutches enough to leave my wheelchair at home for 9 days. Enough to attempt climbing mountains! My injurversary seemed like exactly the right time to get inked, but I mentally swatted the idea away. I’m all about being sensible these days. Impromptu tattoos are a thing of the past. But then, so was impromptu travel a few weeks ago!
On the next street, I ensconced myself in a coffee shop to catch up on some work. I checked my phone. There was only one message. It was from Catherine.
I don’t know if you believe in signs. I don’t even know if I do. But this was far too much of a coincidence. That evening, with encouragement from Catherine and armed with a design sent by my work friends Amy and Louise, I traipsed back up to Tattooligans.
Having no sensation in that damned left foot actually stood to me for once as I discovered another silver lining to Spinal Cord Injury. With his needle gun in hand, the tattoo artist warned me that he was about the get started. It might hurt.
“Knock yourself out.” I told him and I kicked back, quite content as I felt absolute nothingness.
I was living my best life. Happier than I’d been in the past year, I spent that week with brilliant people doing brilliant things. I was accumulating friends and memories at a faster rate than ever before. I suppose it had to come crashing to an end. I just didn’t expect that it would happen on the very day that I’d come here to celebrate.
After the coffee and cake, I’d gone to meet Feli, a friend who also suffers from a neurological condition. It seemed fitting to spend the day with someone who just got it. The day started with us giggling as we climbed down steps into a shop. We must have looked ridiculous – me on my crutches and her with a gait that I imagined might be a lot like mine if my sticks were magicked away; an outing of the spinally challenged.
I tried to keep up. I tried to overcome the pain and the fatique. Museum after museum, shop after shop, long walks and far too much time on my feet – I was destroyed. It had only been six days since I got tattooed, four days since I climbed on Greece’s highest mountain, four nights since a rock concert, two days since a full day of exploration, museums and late night drinking, one day since a boat ride and road trip in Northern Greece. While still working a little, writing a little, reading a little. I’d tried to balance all of these things with long naps, long rests and long nights’ sleep. It wasn’t enough.
I started to fade at some point during the afternoon of the injurversary but convinced myself that a coffee and a sit down would cure all. It did not.
Sitting under the beautiful Zongolopoulos Umbrellas with feet dangling over the edge of the promenade, I could feel exhaustion and illness wash over me. It wasn’t so much a wave as a tsunami. Feli was talking, but I couldn’t quite make out the words. I started to see spots. Nerve pain pulsed through my legs. My back ached and my stomach churned. I needed sleep. And I needed it immediately.
But I couldn’t get up. Painfully aware of my proximity to the Aegean sea, I half crawled, half dragged myself away from the water’s edge. It took a few attempts and more effort than I thought I had in me to get to my feet. I put my entire body weight through my arms and my crutches. It was just too much for my knackered legs to bear.
I said a rushed goodbye and abandoned Feli to hail a taxi. It seemed to take forever, but eventually a rattly old Toyota flashed his hazard lights and came to an abrupt and unsafe stop in front of me.
Relieved to be sitting inside the taxi, I told the driver the name of Mark’s street and I gave in to the mind fog. I completely zoned out. I didn’t watch where he was taking me. It was only when I realised I’d been in the car a little too long that I looked at my surroundings and recognised nothing. I looked at the driver’s Sat Nav. Still nothing.
“Kerkiras?” I ask him, repeating the name of Mark’s street. It’s the Greek name for Corfu and a mad idea crosses my mind that maybe he thinks I want to cross the country for a spot of island hopping. More likely, I realise, there’s more than one street called Kerkiras.
“Kerkiras.” He points to the narrow streets ahead. I’m not convinced. I remember that disastrous taxi driver from 2017 and I wonder how likely it might be for lightening to strike twice.
Another twist. Another turn. He drives further and further from the centre of the city. I know it’s not right. I don’t have enough Greek to question it. His English is even worse.
“Kerkiras?” I parrot, at a complete loss for how else to communicate.
He’s not happy.
“Kerkiras!” he shouts at me, hitting his steering wheel. He’s what I expect Zeus might look like – all thunder and storm.
I quieten down in the back. He turns into a street that’s completely alien to me.
“Kerkiras.” He insists.
That is to say, it is Kerkiras, I recognise enough of the greek characters on a street sign to read that. The problem is that it’s not the right Kerkiras. I try to explain.
“Okhey,” I tell him, meaning no. I shake my head for the avoidance of doubt, “Another Kerkiras.”
Zeus slams on his steering wheel again. I jump.
“Okhey!” he shouts. “This Kerkiras.”
I’m pretty sure I know where I’m staying.
I point to his SatNav and try to ask him to look for another Kerkiras. My phone battery has died, so I can’t even show him on Google Maps.
“Another Kerkiras?” I gesture frantically. “One more Kerkiras? Kerkiras near the University?”
He demands money and tells me to get out.
I don’t budge. I don’t know where I am and have no power in my phone to find out. I can’t be left on the side of the street sick, disabled, confused and now lost. I probably should have just got out and hailed the next taxi. Hindsight is a blessing and old Ruth would have done exactly that. She would have moved on without giving the encounter a second thought, but in my brain fog, all I could feel was utter panic.
My chest tightened. My breathing came fast and frantic. A teeny tiny voice somewhere in the depths of my mind told me to calm down. This could be solved.
“What the fuck am I supposed to do now?” I asked the taxi driver, because I sure as hell couldn’t figure it out right then and there.
Neither, it turns out, could he.
A tirade of abuse came my way. A flash of Greek words. I didn’t know them, but the meaning was clear. It was time to get out of the car. I thought of refusing to pay, but to be honest, I was quite frightened. And it’s not like I was able to run. I handed over the fare and while waiting for my change, he treated me to another lightening bolt of insults. This time I recognised one of the spittly words he shot at me.
I made a show of taking note of his registration plate as he blasted off into the chaos of Greek traffic. Then I hobbled to a nearby pillar and leaned against it to catch my shallow breath. I reached for that teeny tiny voice. I call it ‘Rational Ruth’. It was becoming smaller and smaller. I looked around. There was a pharmacy across the road.
“Pharmacy. Pharmacists. Educated. English. Help.”
The random words that Rational Ruth thought. But the pharmacists weren’t helpful. I left their shop with no useful information and moist eyes. I pleaded with the little voice not to disappear into the swirling mess that was taking over my head.
I sat on a wall and took deep breaths. I looked around and recognised nothing. Suddenly the city was unfamiliar. Hostile even.
For the first time in days, I was really on my own. It didn’t come to me immediately that I’d been avoiding exactly this. Especially today. I fought back tears, but I didn’t know if I could fight hard enough.
By now, I’m painfully aware of my disability. I’m stranded, helpless, on the side of a street in a city I don’t know well enough to get lost in, and a country whose language I don’t speak well enough to get help.
Rational Ruth scolds me. Stop catastrophising. It’s not helpful. Feeling sorry for myself will achieve nothing. She’s a bit of a bitch, but she’s usually right. She reminds me that my laptop is in my backpack.
I find a café and decide I’ll get a coffee. It’ll help me to take a moment and think this through like a reasonable person would. Like the old me would.
I’m so, so tired.
I open my mouth to order a coffee, but my mouth forms the word ‘Alpha’. Looks like I’m having a beer then. It takes me at least 10 minutes to figure out the simple task of how to connect to the wifi. My bloody brain refuses to cooperate. The beer is nearly gone by the time I connect and send a message to Mark. I don’t realise that some of those pesky tears have escaped until a thoughtful bartender wordlessly slips a few napkins onto my table as he passes. I wipe one under the rim of my glasses, grateful for the kind gesture.
Mark doesn’t really know how to help, but my good friend the internet does. Once I’ve reclaimed some kind of control of my thoughts, I figure out where I am, how far I am from the correct Kerkiras and what direction I need to go in to hail a taxi. The solution seems so simple now. I feel like a complete idiot for not seeing it sooner.
The taxi driver pulls in and I ask him if he knows the Kerkiras near the University.
“Off Egnatia?” he asks.
“Neh.” I grin. Yes. I can pretty much feel my heart rate returning to normal. I get in. The driver is lovely. He speaks English and he’s surprised that I’ve ended up in this part of town. He guesses that I’ve been brought to the wrong Kerkiras. I tell him my story.
“He called me ‘Malakas’” I moan.
The lovely driver laughs the heartiest laugh I’ve heard in a long time. He slaps his steering wheel in a very different way from his colleague. This is the funniest thing he’s ever heard.
I can’t say I see the funny side just yet, but his joy must be in some way infectious because by the time I get back to the apartment, I’ve gathered myself and my head is much clearer. My mood is even bordering on good.
Mark has made dinner, so we sit and eat. I unwind. I regale my tale of woe and I sleep for 10 hours straight, until everything seems alright again.
It’s not really alright though. The next day, although I try to force myself to get through the day, I know that all my adventuring has taken its’ toll. By evening, I’m feverish and shaking. The nerve pain has reached new levels and I’ve got a worrying pain somewhere in my innards that I can’t even start to identify. We go for dinner, but I lose the ability to even talk. The mossies have the biggest feast of the evening and I count a bite toll totalling 11 since I arrived. I’m pretty sure I feel an infection coming on – an unfortunate inevitability with Spinal Cord Injuries, especially with a busy lifestyle. I’m glad I had the good sense to bring antibiotics, just in case. I take one before bed and realise that my dosette box is still almost full. I’ve been completely neglecting my medication. No wonder I’m a mess.
For only the second time in my travelling life, I’m glad my trip is coming to an end. (The first was a whole other story that can be told in two words; Thailand. Dysentery). I begin to appreciate my pokey little London flat more than I have since I moved in after rehab. It’s home now and I love it. All I want is to get back to it.
Could it be that this wanderer is finally settling down?
There’s no special assistance area at Thessaloniki airport. I know this because I searched for it. Burning up, confused and alone, exhausted beyond any tiredness I can remember, I scan the signage. Nothing indicates any kind of help available. I find an information desk and once the staff there have finished their lengthy chat, they notice the sweating and distressed customer leaning on the counter. From their disinterested expressions, I take it that I have interrupted them from the important task of gossiping.
They don’t understand what I mean when I ask for the special assistance area. I’m sent away to check in as usual, to stand in a queue of about twenty people. Nobody offers to take my suitcase. Nobody offers a seat. Nobody helps.
I don’t go to the check in area. I don’t know how much longer I can stand before I pass out. Rational Ruth has left the building and what’s left behind is a woman on the edge.
“I need a wheelchair.” I tell the information team for the second or third time. This time it’s a demand, though my voice is shaking and my eyes are moist. It turns out that non-rational Ruth is a bitch too, but I don’t care. I’m sick of chaos and disorganisation. I need someone to actually do something.
One girl eventually does. Kind of. She tells me to sit down and she will get someone to help. I see an available seat in the distance and drag my suitcase past about 20 seated people who stare and watch me struggle. All able bodied. All rooted to their seats, forcing me to continue through the crowd. I ask people in the aisles to ‘excuse me’ as I manoeuvre my way through them, darting death stares at each and every one of them. They reluctantly move out of the way. None of them do it voluntarily.
I’m often criticised for not asking for help. Here’s a perfect example of why. I learned early on my road to recovery that there’s nothing more heartbreaking than asking for help and not getting it. There’s nothing more disappointing than believing someone will take some of the weight off your shoulders, only to be left to figure it all out for yourself. Never mind mobility issues or failing organs, it’s the vulnerability that’s the worst side effect of a Spinal Cord Injury.
I make a plan for my arrival home, where there are assistance areas and priority seats and people who help. Where people step out of your way in the street to let you pass. Where my own four walls, my own bed and my own company are enough. Where I can sleep and nap as much as I like. Where the tears can flow freely.
I curse this Spinal Cord Injury and what it’s taken from me. The simple things like zipping carelessly through an airport, like thinking clearly, like getting a taxi, like taking a damn piss without tubes and pills and the promise of infection.
It turns out that escaping England didn’t mean getting away from the greyness after all.
But I know that this sadness will pass. It’s part of that boom/bust cycle that I keep bringing on myself by insisting that I can do far too much and then crashing spectacularly. I won’t let it take control of me. Because my life is rich and full and wonderful. There is so much that I can do and that deserves celebration. I just have to stop answering questions with ‘Fuck it’.
I realise how much I took for granted before. The stakes are raised now and a year on, I’m learning that this isn’t going away any time soon. There’s a price to pay for living my best life and it’s not just about the money for an airfare any more. I have to make sure that it’s worth all of the costs.
Sitting now in the boarding area after assistance was finally organised and a very helpful porter took great care of me, I think back over the past 9 days and I find that I’m smiling despite the fever and the infection, the exhaustion, the pain and the muddled head. The good has outweighed the bad by a long shot. They’re not even comparable.
Snapshots of my trip pass through my mind; laughing with friends old and new; seafronts and towers; delicious Greek food and drink; tattoos; boat trips; comfortable silences with relative strangers; ancient theatres and histories; myths and deities and nymphs; sunshine and the smell of the sea; my hand held when I needed it; my hand held when I didn’t; nights in and out; new Greek words and customs and culture. And all the rest.
I climbed a mountain fit for the Gods.
And it was all so, so worth it.