2018: My Annus Horribilis

It was in a speech in November 1992 that Queen Elizabeth II referred to the year just passed as an ‘Annus Horribilis’ (Latin, Horrible Year). The way this year has turned out for me led my wife Angela to suggest that 2018 has become an Annus Horribilis for me, and I should write about it. This will not replace my review of the year, which will have some more positive things in it!

It all really started before 2018 began, in November 2017, when my phone was stolen in London (see separate post). This really shook me. However, I got back on track, and enjoyed the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

For the first three months of 2018, I was still Acting Head of School. This coincided with a strike by the UCU, which affected my School quite seriously. Our Management expected Heads to ‘manage’ the strike, by informing them, and students, when teaching sessions were affected, but this was a no-go because striking staff had the right not to tell anyone they were going to strike! My attempts to implement this policy were met with bad grace (probably justifiably so, but I was in a no-win situation anyway). It affected relations with some colleagues, and for some there will simply be no going back. Eventually the strike came to a temporary pause, with the possibility of its extension into the summer exam period. But in the end it didn’t, so when my successor as Head took over on 1st April, it had finished. I had rejoined the UCU while Head (largely as an insurance policy, see ‘Part of the Union’ post), but I left as soon as I stepped down from the post. My experience of dealing with the Keele UCU was enough to put me off, plus it is quite an expensive insurance policy! (I wrote several posts about the strike, including re-posting one of Angela’s posts, so I refer to those for more detail).

The stress of the last three months of being Head of School probably contributed to a return of my anxiety issues, particularly relating to travel, but also my tendency to worry about all manner of things, whether I can do anything about them or not. This led me to try once again to get some support, and as described in another post, I got help from three sources, which I hope has helped me to face these problems. But I was in a very low state initially, and the counselling definitely helped.

For a number of years I have had hearing problems, mainly (I thought) due to a build-up of wax in my ears. Previous attempts to get my ears syringed by our local Health Centre had only been partly successful, and they were always very unwilling to do anything, possibly due to fears that they might damage my ear drums. I decided this year to do something about this, and I tried ear candle treatment at a Chinese Medical Centre in Newcastle. This helped a lot, but I had finally to go to Specsavers Audiologists to get the last of the wax removed by vacuum pumping. I then went to Amplifon for a hearing test, and discovered that I had about 60% hearing (in my best ear, less in the other one), even having had the wax removed. The result was that I had hearing aids fitted, at considerable expense (but worth it), and I now have what Angela refers to as bionic hearing when wearing them! (This is actually a positive development, but it took a long time to sort out, and contributed to the stresses of the year).

The final, and probably worst thing, happened (or started happening) in early November. I initially noticed low back pain, which spread down my left leg. I tried to ignore it initially, hoping it would go away with rest, but it didn’t. It became clear that I had to seek medical advice, and I was aware that it would probably take a long time to get the relevant appointments. So, to get things started, I tried the Chinese Medical Centre again. Annie (who runs the Centre) diagnosed sciatica, and gave me acupuncture and massage, which helped. I also booked an appointment with my doctor, who agreed with the diagnosis (although I didn’t mention it, of course!) He initially prescribed paracetamol and naproxen, which seemed to make very little difference, so after a couple of weeks when things got so bad I could hardly walk I went back, and he added amitriptyline (an anti-depressant!), which again didn’t make a big difference, although it was possibly working in the background. Finally, he agreed to prescribe tramadol, which is a serious painkiller (when things got so bad, and with virtual begging from Angela and then myself), and which at last helped to deal with the pain. This got me back on my feet, although I wasn’t up to going to my Christmas conference (for the first time ever in 37 years), and in the previous week I signed off sick for 4 days, again for the first time ever). And then, the sting in the tail! Tramadol has a known side-effect, constipation, and I got a bad case of this, culminating in the Keele Health Centre calling an ambulance for me on Christmas Eve afternoon. By the time it arrived, things were already looking better, but the paramedics gave me a thorough check-up, and arranged for me to speak to an emergency on-call doctor about my medication. This was an awful day which Angela helped me get through. As I write this, 2 days later on Boxing Day, sciatic pains remain. However, I would rather put up with them than risk another constipation episode. I will be seeing my doctor to decide on the best way forward, but for now I am OK, and hoping the rest of 2018 will be quiet!

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