A cleaning lady helped me cross the barrier from physical recovery to mental restoration

Photo Credit: Canva

The blackness of night surrounded me. Stars glowed faintly overhead. The rank smell of unharvested poppies filled the air. I was weighed down with a camera and heavy backpack with batteries, food, water, some spare socks, and a long cloth for sleeping under. I was also wearing heavy Kevlar plates in my bulletproof vest and a helmet – all adding up to a burden much heavier than I had imagined.

I had been walking and filming for days with the US Marines in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. It was 2012 and was the last full summer fighting season for the US and Nato before they began their initial, slow withdrawal.

We were ambushed by the Taliban sometimes as often as three times a day. So far none of the company I was with had been wounded or killed, but a few days before I had seen the officers gathering in the shadows of a mud-walled compound we were taking refuge in. Their voices were hushed, and my presence around them was awkward. They had something terrible to discuss, and I was an unwelcome spectre in their midst. I was trusted for the hard miles we had walked together and for the combat I filmed alongside them, but I was a reporter, and there are moments of human intimacy that are not always right to be shared on a public platform. Nor did they want their men to know what they were talking about.

Neal, the lieutenant whom I had become close to, pulled me aside. I don’t remember all of his words exactly, but I recall the drawn pallor of his face and the look of deep anxiety, only half-hidden, in his eyes. Someone in a nearby deployed company, he told me, “has been shot by a sniper. He was standing up in an MRAP and the Taliban shot him.”

Shock flowed through me and drew the breath out of my lungs, leaving my head spinning. It was devastating. I felt hope drain out of me, replacing it with a pounding feeling of distress quite unlike anything I had ever felt before. The days before had been very scary, but this was something added, a raw, terrifying sense of my own mortality.

I walked away from the officers, ashamed of intruding on them. We had to go on, deeper into the war; for all of us, even me, an untrained non-combatant, there was nowhere to flee. I don’t know where I found the strength to overcome my intense fear, and yet I did, learning something then of the paradox of combat – the feeling of pride that men, and now, increasingly, women, share at having lived through that hollow, hideous vertigo of utter human fragility. But of also feeling soul-sick at the killing of a comrade, even one I had never met, and at knowing that my own comrades had, and would, kill too, in the days that surrounded that pivot of terror.

As it turned out months later, the real truth was that tragic young man shot himself with his service rifle, the irrationality of battle fatigue overbalancing in his mind and driving him to suicide.
I kept on walking and feeling distant bullets that flew overhead, luckily never close enough to harm me, but there were a few mortar rounds that exploded very close in front of me in one compound, throwing up fountains of black earth that will never entirely stop flowing through my memory. I have written their time and approximate place somewhere in the small, spiral-bound notebook I carried in the side pocket of my cargo pants, but to this day I have never yet turned back that page to reread my notes. The visual and emotional memories overwhelm the need to remind myself of the details – there is some deep need not to know any longer the precise where and when.

Day after day, for two long weeks, I carried that angst with me, and it drove deep into my lower back. I remembered the words of a Pilates teacher: “Stress always finds its way to the weakest part of your body.” I had suffered back pain for years but on this journey into the heart of war, it became worse than ever.
Then one night in the poppy fields I slipped on the pale grey mud and the heavy backpack swung me around and around. A sergeant grabbed me and stopped me falling heavily into an irrigation canal as I turned on the slick mud in the darkness. I felt my back tear – just slightly, but enough to know that something had changed forever.

And yet, it was a long journey of decay that lay ahead. My body was resilient, even though the pain never went away.
Written deep into the soft tissue of my discs was a scarred palimpsest of injuries, half-restored and then torn open again, some of them decades old. There was some vague memory of jarring it at school in the house rugby competition. Then, when I was 19, I was involved in a horrendous car crash in which the bakkie I was travelling in rolled and I was thrown about inside the back canopy like an old T-shirt in a washing machine. There was the disastrous scuba dive where the dive master made us carry our tanks over slippery rocks in Plett. All of them contributed in some increasingly destructive way to the steady but invisible deterioration of the tissue separating the vertebrae.

As it turned out, it would take five more years for my spine to collapse. It was a common condition, but no less frightening for being that: the disc at lumbar vertebra L5 squeezed further and further out beyond the circular bone until it was pushing against a major nerve that led down into my right leg.
For a long time, it stayed at the level of chronic pain, and stretching and exercises did help somewhat. And then, inexplicably, it crippled me.
I don’t know what precipitated the final collapse. It was some minuscule shift in the position of the slowly crushed disc that drove me into agony. Finding a solution took weeks. I shook with agony for days. Every faltering step was torture as I hobbled on a cane from doctor to scan to yet another doctor. Finally, in one hospital where I went for a test, I was shaking so badly the nurses were unsure of what to do. I literally had to crawl along the corridor to my wife’s car where I lay in the back seat in torment.

I ended up lying on the floor in a specialist’s rooms, still shaking uncontrollably with the pain of it.

“I’m going to check you in to the hospital tonight, and operate on you tomorrow,” he said. Again, I was reminded of my own modest role in the story of human fragility. I was certainly in real pain, but I was also locked in the daze of my own self-protective mind; all I wanted to do was get better.

“We do this operation all the time, and it’s got a 98% chance of success.” I took it. There was no other way out.

Trapped by pain

The fog of self surrounded me. I didn’t sleep that night in the semi-darkened ward, and sometime in the next agonising, deeply uncertain 36 hours, I was operated on.

I woke after theatre to an intense throbbing in my back, and I panicked, imagining that utter disaster had befallen me. I pushed the button and called the nurse. He came quickly, thank god, and moved the plastic container which my new wound was draining into. The sharp ache disappeared, and I relaxed slightly.

But my mind and my body were trapped in the jagged claws of postoperative hurt, weakness and anxiety, like being pinned by my sliced-up spine to the floor of a dark, silent sea, thrown about by the currents of my fears and rising depression.

I wondered if I would ever be able to walk again. The 2% of possible failure loomed huge in my mind. The excruciating discomfort of the herniated disc was miraculously gone, but I had no idea what would happen to me now. The doctor said I should walk that very day. The nurses helped me off the bed and onto my feet. I managed three, floppy, jellyfish steps and collapsed into their strong, experienced arms.

I didn’t say anything, but I worried that, indeed, I would never be able to walk again. As the pale winter sun crept across the polished hospital floor, I kept my own counsel, hardly daring to think, not willing to search for the core of my doubts. I said nothing of these doubts to my wife and children and family when they came to visit that first day.

That night I managed some sleep, but woke at 4am the next morning as the ward was being tidied, swept and polished.

“How are you doing?” the cleaning lady asked as I stared at her blearily. I don’t know any more what I replied, the fog of exhaustion and nervousness was so omnipresent in the sensations I felt about the limited world around me, but it was certainly something negative and self-pitying.

She looked sternly at me over the handle of the polishing machine in the yellow electric light of the ward. “When Dr Marais [not his real name] cuts you, you will never have to come back here. You are healing now. You must let your mind trust.”

That was the moment I crossed the barrier from physical recovery to mental restoration. She was right – the surgery succeeded brilliantly, and I also know how lucky I am to have been one of the 98%. Shortly after I got out of hospital I met someone in the lobby of my office building who was on crutches. “Knee op?” I asked him, for want of something to say, as we stood waiting for the lift.
“No,” he told me. Back op. L5.”
I baulked, strangely ashamed of my own good fortune. “I had the same operation recently,” I said, trying somehow to reach out to him.
He lifted his head to look up from where he was bent down, struggling to keep his back straight. “It’s been a year for me so far. How long were you on crutches for?”

“I wasn’t,” I said, as quietly as I could.

I still feel such shame at seeing the sadness on his face. I know it wasn’t my fault, but all my greatest regrets in life are of when I have hurt other people. This was one of those times. I understood what he was going through, and I hadn’t been able to make it better for him.

Life narrowed by fear

Still, despite the blessings of my fate, there was still much to learn. For months, over a year, I couldn’t sit for long. After a time in a chair, the discomfort began to burn into my hips and up my spine into my shoulder blades. I constantly had to stand, and walk gently up and down. It was difficult to work, even to sit and do an interview.

“I wasn’t,” I said, as quietly as I could.

I still feel such shame at seeing the sadness on his face. I know it wasn’t my fault, but all my greatest regrets in life are of when I have hurt other people. This was one of those times. I understood what he was going through, and I hadn’t been able to make it better for him.

Life narrowed by fear

Still, despite the blessings of my fate, there was still much to learn. For months, over a year, I couldn’t sit for long. After a time in a chair, the discomfort began to burn into my hips and up my spine into my shoulder blades. I constantly had to stand, and walk gently up and down. It was difficult to work, even to sit and do an interview.

Certainly, it was obvious that bungee-jumping, parachuting, even carrying scuba tanks and such things were out of the question forever now. I had no real problem with saying goodbye to such largely extreme youthful adventures, but I was still overwhelmed by uncertainty.

Somehow, my back got stronger. I did get on that first flight, I stopped worrying about SUVs, but, crucially, I didn’t know what to believe about what I could do any more.

That inner moment of renewed possibility came in the simplest of ways. In my late teens and early twenties, my dad and I worked on cars together. We stripped and rebuilt a Beetle and a Triumph Spitfire from chassis to gleaming, newly painted wonders, so I know my way around a car pretty well and have always been able to do most basic maintenance.

My wife’s car suddenly ran through a spate of flat tyres that the garage dealt with, but the final one came when we were out of town and a sliver of sharp metal sliced into the rubber, deflating the tyre rapidly. There was no one else to turn to. It was the kind of thing I had always sorted out quickly and easily, but now I froze inside. How was I to do this? Loosening the wheel nuts, jacking it up, pulling the spare out of the boot, swapping the two heavy wheels around – it all seemed too much for me to handle any more.

But I had no choice. There was no one to help us. I changed the tyre. It actually wasn’t as easy as it once had been, and I did have to be careful, and I did ache slightly all over afterwards. But I did it – nothing spectacular, but another real step in the ongoing journey of mental recuperation.

For too long I had been constantly scared of the consequences of doing something that would throw me back into those dark anxieties of the hospital bed. I was trapped by my own fragility.

We all are, of course, as I had learnt so shockingly and definitively in the hot desert of Helmand Province, but I had also learnt after that simple moment of changing a tyre and being forced to turn inwards to my own self-reliance, that the thing is to find some way to believe in ourselves without being heedless of our real limitations.

Most of us, all of us in fact, will spend some significant parts of our lives trapped in the cold solitariness of waiting for healing.

A stern look, followed by kind words, from someone I had never met, had begun the journey outwards, and then, over months and now years, in a series of the simplest of moments, I had found the tentative beginnings of a new self-belief.

Those simple moments continue to sustain me, as I remember humbly how lucky I truly am. Every journey to wellness is different, but I am telling mine, for whatever power of hope it might carry, to pass onto all of you who are trapped in those dark currents of doubt swirling through the early days of healing from whatever has smashed into your life, when you least expected it.



This story appeared in the Daily Maverick.

Hamilton Wende

Winner of the Standard Bank Sikuvile Journalism Awards for Columns and Opinion, 2023.

Winner of the 2022 National Press Club’s Journalist of the Year: Print/Online Features/ Investigative Journalism Award.

Author of 10 novels, including Red Air and House of War.

Author of a best-selling children’s adventure series called Arabella.

In television, he has worked for a number of international networks, including National Geographic, CNN, BBC, NBC, Al Jazeera English, ZDF, and ARD.

He has written hundreds of articles for publications including BBC, National Geographic Traveler, GQ, Maclean’s Magazine in Canada, TravelAfrica in the UK, The New Zealand Herald, The Buffalo News in the US, The Sunday Times, Business Day, The Sunday Independent in Johannesburg and many others.

In these high-stress, sometimes chilling and terrifying theatres of conflict; volatility, uncertainty, complexity, and ambiguity are commonplace.
Nothing is static, everything is fluid, and inevitably “no plan survives contact with the enemy”. If things can go wrong, they will go wrong.


Hamilton Wende

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