For my first blog, well, it’s Shakespeare’s four-hundredth birthday this year, so nodding to his Seven Ages of Man, here are Seven Ages of Cathing…
Life’s bookended by the helpless ages – or not helpless but helped. In our first and last moments, we need assistance – some more than others.
I was born with a condition called classic bladder exstrophy. The bladder was open in two and on the outside – ‘classic’, I know. Today they see this coming thanks to scans; back in the late seventies it was only tea leaves and guesswork – especially in the hospital where I made my debut.
My mum was working there as a nurse (not on shift that very night, I don’t think). It was a surprise to her and Dad when I popped out with my bladder not where it should be. I don’t take it lightly – especially with kids of my own – the amount of worry they must have experienced.
I was transferred to Great Ormond Street Hospital in London – a short seven-hour journey, depending on traffic past Stonehenge (not for the last time in my childhood, I’d be passing some notable stones).
I was in hospital a while then, a while as a toddler, and a longer six-week spell at elementary school. In that time, any caths were indwelling.
I self-cathed from about age eight. Out with indwelling, in with independence. From then on, it was up to me. The major challenge? Fitting in with school: creating gaps in the timetable, seizing breaks, informing teachers that if I was five minutes late, or had to dive out in a rush, best give me a free pass.
Of course it’s easier to get teachers to play nice than it is with classmates. So there was that first social hurdle: the school jungle. It’s the same in any school: bullies, jocks, alpha males, future inmates, whatever you want to call them – the pupil looking for opportunities for picking-on. They’re in every school – and crucially will seize on any difference. I’d tell my younger self that, that they’ll pick on something of everyone, whether a funny name, a squint, a limp, a catheter, that time you once called teacher ‘Dad’… It can be literally anything. We had a kid who ONCE asked the dinner-lady for squash instead of water; his name became ‘Squash’ for the next five years. He possibly still answers to it.
Shake off the haters, as they’d say nowadays, and get on. For me, that meant using humor to deflect attention. Plus it turned out that a mysterious medical ailment was a great way of skiving off sports, with teachers uninterested in the nitty-gritty of my excuse, but generally aware my kidneys or something were a bit odd.
Late teens and twentysomethings need to do what they do. Pubs, clubs, mates, dates, and having a cath just meant things needed to adapt. Away with the small bag with a catheter and some hand gel. Firstly, forget the hand gel (I’d soon realise that was actually quite a good idea, when UTIs started creeping in – I’d have to get married first before my wife would remind me of this hygiene tip). And it turned out a standard cath would fit rather well inside a money belt with a zip, found in your local travel shop or Spanish market.
Armed with my trusty cath-in-a-belt, I’d go drink pints of beer. You fill up pretty swiftly that way, so that meant a good awareness of where the toilets are, and hoping they’re in good condition. Getting odd looks from nightclub toilet attendants was par for the course.
I’d develop life-hacks – pretend to be on the phone when coming back from the bathroom proved a good way of explaining why I’d taken longer than most.
By now I’d worked out which friends to trust with my cathing backstory – the two or three close pals I’d travel with, or who knew me warts ‘n’ all. But that’s okay. I knew stuff about them too. If I know he once peed on a policeman’s leg, he might as well know that I pee with a tube.
As for dating – that’s a future blog.
The family man
I never thought I’d have kids. Turns out the doctors were wrong, so we’ve now got two with fully working bladders. Toddler age was confusing. My daughter once saw me peeing and said, ‘When I’m a man, I’ll have a tube like that…’ Que sera sera.
I don’t take family life lightly; for many it’s not meant to be. Either way, you reach an age where you simply don’t care as much what the world thinks. And that has its benefits…
By now, any anxieties and neuroses from the early decades start to fall away. Cath in public? Sure. Left a cath on a train seat? Me at twenty would be mortified. Approaching forty, I won’t even blush (though I will apologize, sorry Mother Superior, carry on with your journey).
You get stuck in your routines once you’re mortgaged up and work-heavy. And routines are quite helpful where caths are concerned.
It’s a time too for looking after your health; trips to the docs might increase and exercise should definitely feature (I’m telling myself this now). Perhaps before you felt a little defined by the caths, by now it may be one of several medical complaints! Personally? I cath, but I’ve also had an unrelated corneal transplant, a spot of eczema, a few allergies, oh and my back’s giving me grief. Exercise o’clock.
…But not what it was! Life’s still for living, so the modern self-cathing pensioner may be travelling more than ever (we’ll get to travelling another time), taking up new hobbies, even back meeting new partners. You get to do it all over again – only this time with confidence, knowing it’ll all turn out alright in the end.
And we’re back where we began, wrapping up ‘this strange eventful history,’ as Shakespeare wrote, ‘is second childishness… sans teeth, sans eyes…’ – but with catheter, for many of us. Oh, we’ll all get one eventually. Folks like me? We’re just getting a head start.
The opinions expressed here are of a personal and anecdotal nature, and are in no way a substitute for professional medical advice. You should always consult your doctor or nurse if you have any questions.