Have you, like me, sometimes marvelled at the manner in which quite major dimensions and developments (as later they may have become) can begin with a chance remark, or something equally unspectacular – mundane even? Indeed, at the time it may all have seemed to be adding up to a moment of real disappointment or personal loss, failure or defeat.
Although, throughout my ‘teens’ I had played and enjoyed competitive sports; soccer, cricket, tennis etc., and had consistently worked reasonably hard to keep fit, I had never heard tell of specific strategies and techniques of “relaxation training”, so-called “progressive” or otherwise. For me in those days, tensing and relaxing was just part of the minutiae of thousands of unconscious or subliminal movements and activities during the course of my invariably active waking day. Then in my early 20s, I began, gradually at first, then increasingly so, to feel more and more unwell. Consequently I was eventually obliged to withdraw from all of those lovely sports. Over a period of almost four years and in spite of the adoption of different treatment strategies – things, I knew, were steadily deteriorating. This was well-nigh sixty years ago, long before the days of transplant surgery and I had one kidney which was now failing badly. Moreover, because its partner was not altogether unaffected, my surgeon was reluctant to perform a nephrectomy (removal of kidney).
One day when in the single sideward (which had become more like a “second home” during university term days, I received a visit from a university tutor. We chatted for a while about this and that and at length, he rose to depart. Almost as an ‘after-thought’, he pointed meaningfully toward his well worn document case, producing from it a published paper. It described a modified and shortened version of a certain Edmund Jacobson’s method of “Progressive Relaxation”. “I came across this the other day in my meanderings in the library”, he good-naturedly informed me. “Read it and if it is of interest, well and good. If not, just discard it with your old newspapers”.
Once he had left the ward, I browsed through the paper and simply have to confess that my very first thought was, “How in the world is it possible that anyone should consider me to be in need of this kind of thing?”. After all, I had been at pains, in general, not to disclose such concerns and worries as I admittedly did have and considered that on the whole, I was making a reasonable ‘fist’ of coping with a difficult and at times frightening situation. Yes, it was probably true that I had very occasionally mooted something about my most salient fears and apprehensions to the particular individual concerned; a move which, to be perfectly frank, I was now beginning to regret. I therefore concealed (is I suppose the right term) the paper at the bottom of my bedside locker, where for a day or so it remained, that is until a member of the ward’s nursing staff came across it and wanted to know what it was about. I do not recall my precise response to her. However I do remember her fastening onto the word “gobbledygook”, commenting, “That’s not like you at all”. Then, following a brief pause, she asked the “million dollar” question, “Have you actually read it?” Well, read it I did and as a result, developed a simple script for use later that evening, based on the method outlined in the said paper.
Once the main ward had settled somewhat and I felt reasonably undisturbed, I tried it out. At first, it didn’t appear to make so much as a ‘whisker’ of difference although by the third night, I was just beginning to wonder. Then the unexpected happened again. My consultant, whilst on his morning ward round, also ‘clapped eyes’ on the Jacobson paper and after very briefly scanning the summary at the top of the first page, put it down, commenting in a kind of “throwaway” line; “Well, if it only keeps him out of mischief sister…what?”
Now it happened that some patients on the ward were under the supervision of other consultants and from time to time, the latter would join forces, so to speak, on the ward round and that is just what happened on that morning in question. About an hour later and with all the activity of the ‘round’ now over, the second consultant who had been present returned to my room. He wasted no time. “Look”, he said, “don’t be put off or discouraged by what you heard an hour ago. I actually have a great deal of faith in such behavioural approaches to medicine and I for one am interested to know what you think, having presumably tried it”. An animated discussion ensued and truth to tell, I felt quite buoyed by his enthusiasm and – as I was now beginning to perceive it – invaluable support.
During the course of our discussion, I raised a genuine difficulty with him, in that I was being required to play an active (reading) as well as a passive (listening) role and this he seemed to very well understand. “Why don’t you make a recording using my dictaphone· and try that out?” he enquired, much to my surprise. This idea appealed to me as a serious (not to mention, especially in those days, novel) way of taking things forward. Also – and as luck (or whatever) would have it – it was a Friday and he (so he informed me) was to be away from the hospital until the following Tuesday. He also agreed to speak to sister with the request that I be allowed to keep the dictaphone under the bed or wherever, adding that he would arrange to have it brought to my room promptly so that I could practice recording etc. (C)SB.
- The old-fashioned Dictaphone referred to here was, in appearance, very much like a ‘fifties/sixties’ record player, stylus-arm, stylus and all. The disc (about 6 inches in diameter) was made from a very thin and genuinely floppy vinyl. To record, one set the disc in motion whilst speaking into the hand-held ‘mike’ and played back by switching to “play” mode. To erase, one simply held a magnetic (or anti-magnetic, I never knew which) block like a blackboard eraser, over the disc whilst turning.