Image: Barney Beech

Rebecca Armstrong is 37. A little over four years ago, her husband, Nick, was knocked down by a car on the high-street around the corner from their flat in Kentish Town, North London…

I was having a post-work drink in a chilly beer garden on the other side of London when an unknown number appeared on my mobile. The policeman on the other end on the line told me to get to the scene as quickly as possible. He then called back 10 minutes later, as I gripped the door handle of the taxi I’d jumped into, trying not to think, and said the police would pick me up. Nick was being airlifted to hospital, he added, and they would take me there to be with him. It felt like my stomach had sunk to the floor, and the bottom had fallen out of my world. Surely this couldn’t be happening. And yet, there were the sirens, the blue lights – and there was the unconscious man I loved lying on a stretcher in A+E.

What kept me sane, then and now – sane-ish, at least – was a combination of hope, determination and wine. I turned up every day to the hospital, finding new people to ask questions to and new ways to try and make things better. Talking to Nick, reading to him, bringing in stuffed animals, trying to learn what the monitors he was hooked up to meant – these things all became part of my armour. I was determined to do this to the best of my ability. I took notes, recorded conversations, using my profession as a journalist as both a shield and a weapon. And then I went home, to an empty flat, and drained bottles of wine wondering who I even was without Nick. The wine helped dull the pain, temporarily at least, and blunt my madder thoughts.

A traumatic brain injury, as a result of being hit by the car, has left Nick with severely limited mobility, impaired speech and other complications that mean he has to live in residential care to receive the support he needs. Today, I look back on the past four years with a mixture of emotions. I feel pride for Nick, for the gains he’s made despite five months in a coma. Pride for me, too – for the me who navigated the NHS, social services, funding nightmares and hospitals, not to mention care homes in all manner of places. Who kept a job, rode out redundancy, made friends, sat through endless legal meetings as a result of the accident, survived and thrived. But I feel for her, and what she went through, and wonder if the at-any-cost approach I adopted was the right way to go.

Writing about Nick also helped. An inconsequential column that I used to write for one of the newspapers I worked for became something far more raw and important, to me at least. My column, In Sickness and in Health, became a kind of diary and a way to keep people up-to-date with Nick’s story, and then a source of delight to Nick once he was aware enough for me to read it to him each week. Recently, though, I took a break from writing it. I intend to return, but with a different slant. Less personal, for one thing, because I feel that I have shared so much of my life, and Nick’s, and what we’ve we’ve been through and what we’ve lost, that now it’s time to tell some different stories.

But I do like to think the stories that I have told have helped other people, too. The letters, cards and emails that I’ve received have been an incredible support, and the messages people have shared with me about their own experiences have made me feel I’m in good company. I’ve read endless books about brain injury (misery books, I call them, although many of them have been, ultimately, uplifting): Where Is the Mango Princess?: A Journey Back From Brain Injur  by Cathy Crimmins; Over My Head: A Doctor’s Own Story of Head Injury from the Inside Looking Out by Claudia L Osborn. I prefer to read titles like these than spend time with other relatives of the brain injured. I’m sure that can be a comfort for some, but I feel as though brain injury has stolen enough of my life; I’m not sure I’m ready to give it any more.

I also read accounts of mad journeys and brave adventures, possibly because while I can’t run off to foreign parts, I’m on quite the trip myself: Wild by Cheryl Strayed; A Time of Gifts, by Patrick Leigh Fermor. Reading has saved me, but so have friends and family. Ultimately, I’m desperately sad for the life that Nick has lost, and that no matter what I do, I can’t give back to him. I’m heartbroken for his daughter, Mia, who is 15 and will never know the man he used to be. I’m sorry that, while we love each other, I now see him more as my child than my equal.

But as an old editor of mine used to say, we live. To which I’d add: We live, we laugh, we make the best of things. My attitude can be summed up with two quotations, ultimately. One by a certain Mr Churchill: “If you’re going through hell, keep going”. And one that Brown Owl drummed into me in a church hall many years ago: “I promise to do my best”.

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