It was supposed to be the start of an amazing new life for us – me and my husband Alex, and our three young children, Monty, Lola and Mitzi.
Looking back, it seems slightly insane that we even did it – packing a few boxes and suitcases, getting rid of everything else, and moving a six-week-old baby, an 18-month-old toddler and a three-year-old from our home in Whitby to Les Landes, France.
We had a temporary home, no jobs and I didn’t speak a word of French.
Crazy? Definitely. But that was what life with Alex was like; he was bold and adventurous and pushed me out of my comfort zone. It was one of the many things I adored about him.
I won’t lie, it was really tough at first; raising three children under four is hard enough and the language barrier made it infinitely more difficult. I threw myself into learning French, while Alex realised his dream job – setting up an online company selling surf wear and boards.
But after that first year, everything just seemed to slot neatly into place. Our fourth child, Esmie, was born and our family was complete. That challenging first year – where we only had each other to lean on – had made us unbreakably close.
I’d found some part-time work teaching English and by then I knew enough French to easily get by; the kids were bilingual, equally comfortable with helping me with my lessons, or chattering away in French. We’d started growing fruit and our back garden was filled with ducks and chickens and children and cats – it was everything we’d dreamed of when we left the UK.
Unfortunately, the recession hit Alex’s business hard and we made the decision to shut the website down. But we refused to let it beat us, and Alex began studying to become a personal trainer. I’d always been interested in nutrition, and the big dream was that one day we’d work together – him on the physical fitness side, me advising on health and diet.
As part of his training Alex joined a local rugby team. He hadn’t played for 12 years – since he was 20 – and was really looking forward to getting back into the sport. Before his first session we all went down the local football pitch, where Alex practised kicking and throwing with the kids.
Even now, nearly nine years later, I find it difficult to look at photos that I took on that day; images of our life ‘before’, when everything was perfect and all our hopes and dreams were still intact.
Alex was home late that night. When I asked him how it went, he told me he’d had a taken a couple of hard knocks during training, including a knee to the head, and was feeling a little bit off. We put it down to sunstroke and being out of practice, but the next day he had a terrible headache and started vomiting.
Our doctor told us it was a chest infection and gave him antibiotics, but after 12 hours nothing had changed. ‘He’s allergic to the antibiotics,’ we were told, but I couldn’t get rid of the niggling worry that it was something more serious.
Alex had been concussed before, but even he said this felt different. After two days he was so ill he couldn’t even walk. With the older kids safely at school, I strapped Esme into the car and drove him to A&E.
A scan revealed a blood clot in his brain. My first reaction was disbelief, but, simultaneously, the puzzle pieces fell into place and I knew it made sense – the crippling headaches, the nausea.
I barely had time to process the news before he was admitted to the ICU. I sat by his bedside, desperately trying to quell my own panic while entertaining a restless three-year-old, and trying not to let Alex see how scared I really was.
Thankfully, the children were able to stay home with Alex’s mum, as his parents had travelled down from their home in France when he was admitted.
Alex was transferred to a specialist neurological ward, where he improved so much over the following week the doctors began preparing to discharge him. The relief was immense. ‘Thank God, it’s all over,’ I thought to myself.
The next day he seemed to take a bit of a turn for the worse, but the doctors reassured me this was totally normal. I was at home putting the children to bed when my father-in-law rang to say Alex seemed to be struggling, and he was worried.
After arranging for Alex’s mum to look after the kids, I raced back to his bedside. He told me the pain had changed. ‘It’s like a storm in my head,’ he told me. I squeezed onto the bed beside him, and stroked his head to try and soothe him, but a few hours later his eyes rolled back in his head. ‘Tamsyn, what the hell is going on?’ he cried when he came to a few seconds later, then he started fitting again.
Nurses came running in, and I was bundled out of the room. No one was telling me anything; I could make out some of the French that was being shouted back and forth, and it was terrifying.
I paced up and down, shaking and sobbing until finally, I grabbed a doctor as she passed and begged for news. ‘I’m sorry,’ she told me, ‘he’s in the operating theatre.’
She took me to an outside balcony. ‘You need to look after yourself now,’ she told me. ‘You need to prepare for tough times ahead.’
Alex was in surgery for nine hours and I can’t even describe the fear and confusion I felt. My French friends rallied around me; some offered to look after the children, while others sat with me in the hospital. I don’t remember what we talked about – or if we even spoke at all. There was nowhere I could go, nothing I could do to escape the terror squeezing me from all sides.
I didn’t find out until later, but Alex had actually developed a cerebral oedema – a build-up of fluid on his brain – from the blow to the head. The pressure had caused him to suffer two Duret Haemorrhages – bleeding in his brainstem – 36 hours apart. In total, the surgeons spent nearly 20 hours battling for his life.
Alex was in a coma in intensive care. Every day felt like an eternity as I struggled to look after the children, and be there for Alex. The kids hadn’t even seen their Dad since the day before his relapse, as children weren’t allowed on his ward.
In a way I was glad, as I didn’t want them to see their big, strong father like that – lying in bed, surrounded by machines and looking so weak and vulnerable. I found it hard enough; sometimes, while I was waiting to go in, my legs would buckle and I’d sink to the floor.
But then I’d take a deep breath, and go in with a big smile on my face. I’d hold his hand and start chatting away, pretending everything was OK.
It was nearly 16 weeks before Alex began to wake up. But my joy was short lived, as doctors confirmed the two haemorrhages had left him permanently blind and epileptic. His brain injury and disabilities were so severe he would have to learn everything again.
But he was alive, and that was what I clung onto.
I took turns sitting by his bedside, working in shifts with his friends so he had someone with as often as possible. I had worried he wouldn’t recognise me, but when he heard my voice, he’d start crying. My Alex was still in there – trapped in that exhausted body, with its bruised and swollen brain. I vowed I’d never give up on him.
The kids were coping as well as could be expected. As much as I was looking after them, they were looking after me. But it was hard for them to truly understand what had happened; one day Daddy was there – strong and invincible – and the next he was just gone.
Their fear and confusion came out in different ways; Mitzi and Esmie became scared of the dark, because in their minds night had fallen, and their Daddy had just disappeared. They were terrified the same thing would happen to me.
Eight-year-old Monty kept asking to see his father, which I resisted for a while, but then I realised he desperately needed to see Alex to make sense of what had happened. We got special permission from the hospital, and Monty saw a psychologist to prepare him beforehand. I tried to help too, by explaining that Daddy would have lots of scary-looking machines around him and would look very different, but inside he was still the Daddy he knew and adored.
But nothing could have prepared Monty for the sight of his adored, invincible father lying there so helplessly. He grabbed around my neck, buried his head into my chest, and sobbed and sobbed.
It wasn’t all bad news – as more weeks passed Alex showed signs of improvement. He was able to squeeze my hand when I asked him to – lightly, but it was there – and would smile when I told him funny stories. His left leg regained a bit of movement, and he was blinking in response to questions.
It wasn’t the miraculous recovery I’d been praying for, but I was grateful for every tiny step forward.
We took our wins where and when we could: the day they moved Alex from ICU to a rehabilitation ward I blasted ‘Oh Happy Day’ at full volume, and the kids and I danced around the house.
I refused to give up hope, but my grief was always there, raw and barely contained. I encouraged the children to express their emotions and didn’t hide mine from them, but at the same time I shielded them from their true depth. I’d wait until they went to school to really let go, and when I cried the noise was like nothing I’d heard before.
I decided to move us back to the UK, as I felt it would be easier to get the ongoing help we would need. We had no insurance to pay for repatriation, so my sister set up a fundraising page to help cover the cost of bringing Alex back.
Initially, we moved to Oxfordshire, but it didn’t feel right being so far from the ocean Alex loved so much. So we moved again, this time to North Devon. I relished the open space, and being back near the sea soothed me. Alex was admitted to a residential care unit an hour’s drive away. I’d visit him every day, and on the weekends we’d bring him home in a car that had been specially adapted for his wheelchair.
We’d go to the beach, and just spend time together as a family. It was so important to me to bring him home as often as I could – the children loved it, and Alex came to life when he was with us.
The children made me proud every day. We’d walk along the beach, and if they saw people staring, they’d say: ‘It’s OK, it’s just my Dad – you can come over and say hello.’
Sometimes I can’t believe it’s coming up to eight years since Alex’s accident. I feel like I’ve lived two lives – the one before he was injured, and the one I’m living now. People tell me how brave I am for coping, but I didn’t have a choice – life still trundled on, regardless of the fact ours had been tipped upside down.
The good days greatly outweigh the bad now, but there are still times when the unfairness of it all slams home.
I’ve tried to approach their grieving processes separately, as it’s hit them all in different ways. Esmie, now 10, was only three when the accident happened, so has no memories of Alex before the accident. In a way it’s easier for her as she doesn’t know him any other way, but my heart also breaks because she has no special memories of him to hold dear.
Mitzi, now 12, and Lola, now 13, were five and six, so their memories are patchy. Monty, now 15, however, was seven; old enough to have some memory of life ‘before’, so in that sense his loss has been felt more keenly. He had a particularly tough time when he realised he’d never be able to talk to his dad about life and girls and growing up, but we’ve always talked very openly and honestly, and, day-by-day, we’ve worked through it.
But sometimes we seemed to take two steps forward, then one step back. In 2016 my employment support allowance was cut as part of the benefit reforms. I contested the decision, as Alex relied so heavily on me, but was unsuccessful. I was forced to return to work and could only visit him twice a week. Since then I’ve been battling to bring him home to live with us (an ongoing fight!).
Last year we were dealt a further blow: because Alex was in permanent full-time care it was decided he no longer needed the mobility car we relied on to bring him home for visits. We fundraised again to buy our own adapted car and were blown away by the support we received.
My next goal is to buy a beach buggy so we can take Alex to the ocean he’s always loved so much, and to extend and adapt our home for when he finally comes home.
I’ve accepted the fact that he’ll always need extensive specialist medical care, but I don’t care how much extra work it is – I need my husband and my children need their Dad, and Alex needs to be with us too.
I will never stop fighting until our family is whole again.
I work hard every day to find the positive; I’d always been passionate about healthy eating, so I’ve now become a qualified Nutritional Therapist and Vegan Health Coach. I set up my own company, FEED ME BEAUTIFUL, advising people on how to improve their diet and wellness, and to give advice and support to people who want to take that leap and become vegan.
It was my dream job, and something I’d often talked to Alex about before the accident. I know he’d have been immensely proud of me.
I’ve also started blogging again; I started writing ANECDOTES OF A MANIC MUM back in 2008, writing about our move to France and our daily adventures. After Alex’s accident, it became a place for me to vent some of my thoughts and emotions, and to mark his progress with open letters to him. But then life took over and my writing fell to the wayside.
Returning to the blog feels right, not just because it’s a brand new chapter in our lives and it feels cathartic to write about how far we’ve come, but also because I hope my story will help other families to find a path through their own hard times.
We’ve been through hell, but I refuse to let my family be moulded by sadness and resentment. I’m so incredibly proud of the open, loving, accepting people my children are growing up to be.
This has made us as a family – not broken us.
MORE ABOUT FEED ME BEAUTIFUL: if you’re feeling lethargic, unhappy with your weight, uninspired, unable to concentrate, unable to sleep (or sleeping too much) or simply out-of-sorts, you might benefit from the advice of a nutritional therapist. Contact Tamsyn for a free 15-minute chat.
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