At this time of year, between the hustle and bustle of Christmas and the end of the year, I find myself thinking about the year and years gone by;
Seven years ago, in January 2011, I was on a military exercise in Germany. I had just arrived after a twenty six hour journey and mysteriously I couldn’t breathe properly. I thought it may be the altitude as I was in the Bavarian Alps but, long story short, I was rushed to hospital and was told I had a DVT (a blood clot) caused by sitting for too long on the journey there. The clot had travelled up my leg and was now the size of a fist in my left lung, completely blocking it, and was the size of a walnut in my right lung, partially blocking that one.
Another couple of hours and I would have been dead.
But my woes didn’t end there. That night in Intensive Care, the pressure of the blood pumping into my lungs intensified and damaged the lining of my lungs causing pleurisy – worse still, the increased back pressure split the right ventricle of my heart.
I should have died.
The military, and especially the RAF, were brilliant as they arranged an emergency flight to bring my wife out to say goodbye to me.
Miraculously (and obviously), I didn’t die.
The word “miracle” is often used but in my case, it’s the only word that fits because a cardio ultrasound taken after three days showed that the scar left by the tear had almost healed. A week later, the cardio ultrasound technician said if they hadn’t known what had happened, they would not be able to tell anything was wrong with my heart. Apparently the membrane around the heart may have collapsed onto the split ventricle and sealed it, saving my life.
I later asked what the chances of surviving a double pulmonary embolism (blood clots in the lungs) of the size mine were and the consultant said “Slim”. When I asked what are the chances of surviving a split right ventricle of the heart he said “Statistically – you are the statistic!”
Now if that’s not a miracle, I don’t know what is!
It took me a month before I was fit to be moved, by road ambulance, from Germany and a further month in hospital in Stirling (when a huge piece of blood clot passed through my heart en-route home) then Inverness (when the medication I was on sent me into cardiac shock) before I was allowed home.
I was told I wouldn’t be able to exercise again and I spent the next six months convincing my body that I wasn’t going to die every time I felt a spasm of chest pain from the pleurisy (I would black out with every twinge apparently as a defence mechanism so I had to build up the distance gradually and convince my brain that the pain was my lungs and not my heart).
But although I thought I was getting better physically, my troubles were only just beginning mentally. I had not only lost my physical health – I lost my job because I was too ill to work and there was no prospect of my recovery; I lost my wife (I was no longer the man she married); I had to move out of the family home so I lost the home of my dreams and my children.
The social enterprise company which I had been running in my spare time, providing personal safety training to survivors of violence, became my life line and I immersed myself in this work turning the business into a charity, The Scottish Centre for Personal Safety, in 2013.
I also completed an Open University Diploma course in Psychotherapy and Counselling (more about that later).
But it was hard to convince myself that all this was worth living for and so, becoming more and more depressed, and having lost everything, I decided to end my life.
It’s hard to explain to people how you come to this decision but obviously your mind is not thinking straight and to me this seemed like not only the right thing to do but the only thing to do.
I thought about ways to do it and I reasoned that the easiest way, both for me and whoever found me, was an overdose – but I wasn’t sure if I had enough pills so I devised a plan to go to my local store across the road and purchase paracetamol – three packets from each checkout assistant. That combined with the copious amounts of medication I already had, would no doubt do the job.
And this is where another miracle happened. On the way across the road to the shop, an old man collapsed in front of me. I dragged him off the road and checked his pulse. It was weak and he was foaming at the mouth – he was having some kind of seizure. I shouted for a passerby to call an ambulance while I made him comfortable and monitored his vital signs. The Police arrived but refused to take over as I was “doing such a good job”. Twenty minutes later, the ambulance arrived but I was told to wait behind to give a statement.
By the time all this was done – the shop was closed.
Either someone up there was a comedian or they had bigger plans for me on this earth.
A few weeks later, after medication for depression, I decided that I couldn’t stay in an area where I saw my ex and passed the marital home every day. It was just too painful.
Coincidentally, at the same time, the Board of my charity had agreed that the charity should look for a hall to work out of in the Central belt area where we were needed most.
And this is where the third miracle occurred; after looking at several possibilities, the Barony St John church and hall came up.
Coincidentally (there’s that word again), I lived in a tiny Highland village called Ardross and this hall was in Ardrossan. There followed a number of other amazing coincidences or omens as I began to call them – ten in total, including the Instructor Omen, the Star of David Omen, the Church Omen, the SAS Omen, the Elder Omen, the Wolf Omen, the Wallace Omen, the Haining Omen and the really impressive Owner Omen which revealed that the only other person on the title deeds to the church buildings was a Robert Bell in December 1844 – and here I was in December 2014 putting my name on the deeds on behalf of the charity, Alan Bell.
Only two names on the title deeds, both named Bell and exactly 170 years between them to the month! Coincidence or omen? You decide.
It took me from January 2015 to August 2016 to get the funding and finances to restore and equip the hall room, toilets and kitchen area of the hall building. It took another year until August 2017 to renovate and open the Training Room but throughout that time we have been helping those most in need. We ran weekly classes for the blind and visually impaired; individual training and counselling for survivors of rape and domestic violence; workshops for LGBT youth groups; courses for ethnic minority groups; the list goes on.
Coincidentally, my period of depression combined with my Counselling diploma have come in handy because many of our clients have either been through severe depression or are going through it and it helps them to know that someone has been through the same and come out the other side, medication free and enjoying life. It also helps me to empathise with their situation, something many counsellors cannot easily do when it comes to suicidal thoughts.
Additionally, our efforts as a charity have not gone unrecognized as we have been privileged enough to have been nominated for various awards in 2017 – in June, I was honoured to be nominated for The Ayrshire Community Trust’s Volunteer Awards winning their “Tremendous Trustee Volunteer Award” (most people think I get paid to run the charity but I don’t. I just about manage to live off my military pension and volunteer my time free of charge like all of our instructors and helpers).
In July, our registered blind instructor Michael McAllister won the Martial Arts Illustrated’s Hall of Fame Student Award 2017 which was presented to him by the MP for Ayrshire & Arran, Patricia Gibson.
In September, our charity became runner-up in West FM’s Cream of Ayrshire Award 2017 under the category of “Best Local Charity” and in November, I reached the final of the RNIB Vision Pioneer Awards 2017 in the category of “Teacher of the Year”.
In December we were told we had reached the final (being held in London in March 2018) of The British Quality Foundation’s UK Excellence Awards in the category of “Equality and Diversity Excellence”. This nomination acknowledges the work we have done, not only with vulnerable women and children, but also with the various disability groups we have worked alongside, the LGBT+ groups we have trained and the ethnic minority groups we have helped.
But all of these achievements paled when we were told that the charity had been nominated for the Queen’s Award for Voluntary Service. This is a huge honour as this is the highest award given to volunteer groups across the UK and is frequently known as the MBE for volunteer services. Wow!
So what is the purpose of this article? Well, it is to remind everyone that we all have our ups and downs, but in life, you will eventually realise that everything happens for a reason and everyone you meet has their role to play;
Some people will test you; some will use you; some will stab you in the back; some will help you; some will teach you; some will love you. But the ones who will bring about the best in you are the most important because they can change or even save your life. They are the rare and amazing people who remind you why it’s all worth it. For me it is the people we help and train, the community that supports us by using the hall, and the instructors and volunteers who help make this all happen.
My thanks and never ending gratitude goes to you all.
If you would like to find out more about the work we do, please visit our website http://www.ScotCPS.org.uk or look us up (ScotCPS) on Facebook or Twitter. Or if you would like to hear about our discoveries and the renovation work in the Barony St. John buildings, please visit my blog at http://www.ardrossman.wordpress.com
Until next time, goodbye for now and best wishes for 2018.