A Cut In The Brain
Prologue – Just A Few Cells
I was 25 years old when I got the letter to tell me that I had abnormal cells on my cervix. It came with a leaflet with all the possible causes; lifestyle issues such as smoking, and having a bad diet. It didn’t quite make sense to me.
I had the odd cigarette with a drink, and my diet wasn’t too bad, was it? No worse than anyone else's I knew who had a few drinks, or smoked occasionally. But as far as I knew they didn’t get called to clinics to have their cells checked out.
Maybe it would be nothing to worry about. I’d had abnormal cells before, when I was 17. At the time, opening the letter in my parents’ hallway, and reading those words, I assumed that I had cancer, and that my life was over. And yet, I didn’t tell my parents. I made a doctor's appointment, and was told that I didn’t have cancer, and in fact, there was nothing that needed to be done at all.
'Cells go abnormal and normal all the time,' said a friend who had studied biology. I couldn’t quite understand the point of them sending you a letter to say your cells were abnormal, freak you out that you had cancer, and then explain that everything was fine and that you didn’t need treatment. But that was how it seemed to work.
Now it was different. My cells, it turned out, had been abnormal for too long. I was due an appointment to look and see if further treatment was needed. The hospital - the Western Infirmary - was just down the road from the University of Glasgow where I was studying for a masters in Creative Writing. There was a sign with all these different departments I had never heard of, and I looked for that strange word, Colposcopy, and followed the arrow.
In a tiny cubicle I changed out of my clothes and into a hospital gown. Outside, I could hear the sound of older women chatting, their voices gravelly from years of smoking. They talked about which friend had breast cancer and which had just had a hysterectomy.
I couldn’t understand what I was doing here when I was only 25. What exactly was wrong with my body, my lifestyle, my cells? Why had they always been abnormal?
I hadn’t told anyone about any of this, not the abnormal cells or the fact that they now needed to be looked at. I was hoping that it would all just turn out to be nothing, that there would be no reason to tell.
In a room with no windows, the doctor was hunched on a stool overlooking the bed. I lay with my legs in stirrups as he used a microscope to peer into my vagina, and inspect my cervix. He told me that he needed to take a biopsy of my cells and then send them away to the laboratory to see if they’d have to be removed.
'Yes' he said. 'I’m almost 90% sure that these cells will need to be removed, but it’s a very small area, just a few cells. I could just do it now if you like.'
There was no worry or sympathy in his voice. Just a matter-of-fact medical tone. His words made me think there was nothing to worry about, although my mind was clinging onto the 10% chance that it was nothing.
'It’s a very simple, minor procedure,' he explained. 'We use local anaesthetic to freeze the area, and then burn off the abnormal cells. It just takes a few minutes.'
Was there some reason to hurry, I wondered? There was something about the scenario in this windowless room, the way he was looking at my cervix, his hunched back, and slightly greasy hair, barely stopping to glance up at me, that gave me the impression that he was running late.
'No, it’s okay.' I said. 'I’ll wait for the result.'
Chapter 1 – Falling
Back in December of the previous year a strange mood had began creeping up on me. Scottish winters were much darker than I was used to. It was dark in the morning when I got up to go to work in the student enquiry office at the university, and it was dark when I returned home at the end of the day. I found myself suspended in this constant darkness and it started to effect my sleep. I would wake up at 4am, confused for a moment about whether it was night or day.
I had a strange feeling that I didn’t want to go back to England for Christmas. I was suddenly scared of being reminded of the life I used to have there, which now seemed so far away. I missed my old friends and my sister. I missed a life that stretched back more than the year and a half I’d been studying in Glasgow.
Here there was the long Great Western Road that led from the West End and the University, up to Anniesland where I lived in a flat I shared with my friend Claire. There seemed nothing much to hope for in the circle of days; work at the enquiry office, and then the late afternoon lectures, and evening literature events.
Most of the students on the course were older than me, all paired off into couples. I felt young and out of place. Claire and I had been out to a nightclub one night, and in the street outside a man she’d been chatting to was trying to persuade her to go home with him. He was drunk, and barely able to form sentences.
All through my teenage years and twenties, I had gone out, looking for the night to come alive with people and possibilities. But now as I looked at him, staggering in the street, outside a club, with music that wasn’t really my style, and people that just didn’t seem like my kind of people, in that moment, all those nights seemed to come to an end. It was time to give up the slim possibility that I might meet the man for me in a random nightclub encounter. That’s what I had been hoping for.
One evening shortly afterwards I started writing down my thoughts in a notebook, as I often did. I thought back to the last two possible men in my life. There was Alex, who moved to Brighton just as I was leaving to move to Scotland. I thought he was the most beautiful person I’d ever seen, and I’d gone back to Brighton to visit him a few times. He never came to visit me though because trains gave him panic attacks.
On the last visit we sat in a cafe in the Lanes, and he talked to me about a dilemma he had about two girls. There was one he was casually seeing who was really nice, and another, who was more mysterious, incredibly sexy, and perhaps not so 'nice'.
'It’s all getting too confusing!' he told me, as if we had never been anything more than friends.
Then there was Vincent, who was on my Creative writing course, and had a girlfriend in a different city. One night we’d been out drinking, and he’d flicked my hair out of my eyes in a gesture that felt more intimate than you would expect from an acquaintance. Another night he kissed me and then the next morning he sent a text message asking to meet for a cup of tea. He told me that he was going to try harder to stay faithful and stop kissing girls when he was drunk.
It was like every man I met was a puzzle piece that didn’t quite fit. And I thought to myself, that since these were the only two men I’d been attracted to in the last few years, then I couldn’t see how it was possible that I’d ever meet someone who was right for me. I felt suddenly like I weird and different, and, how could I meet anyone who could match my weirdness?
Throughout my teens and early twenties, there had always been a boy; whether it was someone I was actually involved with or some kind of possibility. Perhaps a boy I was infatuated with and was waiting to see if anything would happen. I was a romantic, holding onto the dream, that I would one day meet the 'one'.
Now, as all the possibilities floated away, for the first time it was as if there was a blank space in the part of my mind that had always contained an image of a man. Now it was empty. I had let go of all of them.
One evening I found myself writing in my notebook, 'please send me a man.' The words just came out of my pen. I wasn’t sure who I was talking to, whether it was a god, or the universe. Although I didn’t believe in 'him', I was open to the possibility that there might be something out there.