For those of you who don’t know Hell Week is a 5 ½ day period fairly early in US Navy SEAL training designed to whittle out the less determined, weaker candidates. It comprises some of the most brutal physical and mental challenges in the US Military. During this time potential SEALs experience intense physical pain, cold, exhaustion and have to survive on less than 4 hours sleep in total. Generally, it is expected that 80% of the starting SEAL candidates will quit during Hell Week, but those that finish almost always go on to complete the rest of the course. Why? Because they feel invincible. Because they pushed themselves further than they thought they could, came out the other side and now nothing can stop them. Many SEAL Instructors say that it is not necessarily the physically strongest who pass but those with the greatest mental fortitude and determination.
I have always had an interest in the Special Forces ever since I was a young lad. I remember seeing my Grandfather’s medals from the Second World War and just feeling so immensely proud of him. I hoped that one day I would do something that would make others, and myself I guess, as proud of me. If I could live my life again I would have joined the military, as I had always wanted to. But I put others needs first and did what I thought I should do rather than what I wanted to do, and life ran away from me and the opportunity was lost. Now I sit at home, for days at a time, and I wonder what might have been. It is a horrible, sickening feeling to have put off what you always wanted to do because others convinced you that it was wrong or selfish, even though you knew it wasn’t, only to find that at the last moment when you thought you could make things right the door has been firmly slammed in your face. I will never achieve my life’s ambition – I never even got to try.
So what had Hell Week got to do with anything anyway? Well, a few weeks ago I had some tests because I was getting some chest pains. My ECG came back normal but my blood showed deranged liver function. My GP and I chatted about this and we thought it may have been because I had started Amitriptyline a few weeks earlier for pain relief. As there was a little bit of urgency stopped the Amitriptyline immediately. This was not a fun experience. Amitriptyline withdrawal is awful, I barely slept for around two weeks and obviously lost the benefit of the pain relief it had been providing.
The following blood test showed no improvement so the next step was to stop all pain relief plus the supplements I was taking. I had to ensure nothing entered my system for over a week to rule out drug-induced hepatitis. At first, I didn’t think it was going to be that bad. The first day without pain relief was definitely more uncomfortable than I was used to, but it was bearable. However, in the following days, the pain just went to another level entirely. I was in agony – nerve pain, aching joints, and burning twitching cramping muscles. Intense nausea returned and my fatigue was off the charts. I could hardly do anything. Eating was exhausting. Showering was out of the question, even cleaning my teeth took some serious effort. And throughout all of this, I barely slept.
After a week went back to the Health Centre for another round of blood tests. My GP was on holiday so one of her colleagues called me with the results. She advised me that my bloods were worse than they were before. She suggested that I stay off the pain medication for a further two weeks and repeat the blood test. I felt as if I had been punched in the stomach. I told her there was absolutely no way I could manage that, so she agreed that I can start taking my pain medication again. What a relief, but it is not like a switch has been flicked and I feel better. I am having to undo all the harm that week did to me. My energy reserves were not just drained they were damaged and I am still so sore. I feel as ill as I did when I was first diagnosed and getting to where I was prior to these tests, which wasn’t exactly amazing anyway, took me months. Now I face the challenge of rebuilding my shattered body once again.
Whilst I may not have been rolling around in the north Pacific surf or carrying logs and dinghies over my head for hours at a time like the SEALs, I feel like I have completed my own Hell Week. Here, though, there was no welcome into an elite brotherhood, no fanfare or congratulations. No one will look at me in awe for surviving a week, in fact, 10 days, of exquisite pain and sleep deprivation, and no badge of honour will be pinned to my chest.
Speaking of honour, I have not earned a beret or coat of arms to prove my worth. Nor do I have medals to evidence the hardships I’ve faced or even the respect of my peers. But I do have pride in that I have coped and yet I feel further withdrawn from society. I guess in some ways the same way Special Forces operatives have pride in what they have achieved but can’t tell anyone due to it being classified. Whereas I can tell people but they don’t understand. If I’d said I have had a bad reaction to chemotherapy everyone would get that, but to say I had a bad M.E. flare up there simply isn’t the recognition in my community or this society that they fully, or even begin to comprehend what that means. This has to change, I am going to do something about this, I simply can’t put up with it any longer.