Jae De Wylde, who will be chatting about her book and signing copies at Bookmark in September. Photo (MIKE DAVISON): SG130612-04MD

Tank gave Jae time to think

Published on Friday 22 June 2012 09:31

THERE was a hissing and whooshing as the hydrogen was removed from the air and Jae felt pain in her ears as well as panic at being totally encased in a small chamber.

Trying to put aside fears over what would happen in an emergency such as fire at the hospital – because she knew it took 15 minutes to safely decompress the oxygen cylinder in which she was lying – Jae tried to settle down for another hour’s therapy... and time to think.

And think she did, for many of the hours she spent in the tank having hyperbaric oxygen therapy for a rare condition, the fear and isolation relieved only by limited contact with a nurse outside the tank and a television screen visible through the perspex cover of the chamber.

The thoughts that emerged from what she calls that “twilight world, with half my life being lost in the world of the oxygen tank”, were the initial outline for Jae’s first novel, The Thinking Tank.

Jae, who lives with husband Martin in Morton, says the book has consistently been in and out of the top 100 best sellers in Amazon’s women’s contemporary fiction section since it was published in September and went straight in at number 33 in the Independent Booksellers’ chart, “just behind Jamie Oliver,” she notes with some satisfaction.

Local book lovers will get a chance to hear Jae talk about the book – and get copies signed – when Jae visits Bookmark in Spalding later in the year.

She is at pains to make one thing clear. “It is not chic lit – it is women’s contemporary fiction,” says Jae. “The book takes place between Rutland and the south of Spain in 2003 and 1970s London so there is a dual narrative going on and there is a mother-daughter relationship at the heart of it, but it’s a mystery and a real page turner with some quite dark, intense issues. It examines whether your past has to dictate your future.”

Which brings us neatly back to Jae’s past and her time in the oxygen chamber to treat reflex sympathetic dystrophy, a virus of the sympathetic nervous system, a rare complication following an operation or trauma to a joint – Jae had had an operation on her knee.

When she sought help for the muscle wasting and pain it was thought more exercise was needed and so the real nature of her condition remained undiagnosed for 20 months, by which time it was incurable.

“It’s not anyone’s fault, it’s just one of those rare things that can happen,” says Jae, who is treated with a cocktail of drugs. They allow her to function properly during the day but knock her out at night to overcome one of the nastier parts of the illness, allodynia, an over-sensitivity of the skin on her legs which means an accidental brush with a hand or bedding feels like touching an open wound.

The oxygen therapy was suggested in the early stages of the diagnosis to help heal the nerve endings and scar tissue, and Jae spent an hour in the tank five days a week for over a year.

“It was a curious period of my life and I used to think about all sorts of things,” says Jae. “You can’t help going into your own world because it does feel as though you are completely separated from the world.

“My mind would wander in the tank and a novel started forming in my head, although the plot I wrote as a result of being in the tank changed enormously.

“The novel isn’t autobiographical, but you bring to it sensations and feelings that you have experienced, although not in the same context.”

The exhausting oxygen chamber schedule forced Jae to give up writing for a living – prior to that she taught French and German – but they gave her respite from the pain and enabled her to start exercising again, which in turn helped her condition.

Jae emphasises: “Exercise is key because it combats pain because exercise releases endorphins which are the body’s natural pain killers.”

The exercise allowed Jae to start building up muscle again and when she joined Martin, an education consultant, in Dubai, Jae discovered and became passionate about belly dancing, swiftly moving on to teaching it to others. Her physical and emotional improvement continued, as did the novel, written mostly in a coffee shop close to the dance school in between classes.

Jae is still in pain and takes heavy duty drugs and has other treatments, but she is more than halfway through her second novel, completely different to the first, although still reflecting on how decisions taken can impact on our lives.

n Jae is at Bookmark on Saturday, September 8 (10am to 4pm) to chat to customers and to sign copies of The Thinking Tank – and possibly her new novel too.

Visit www.jaedewylde.com for more information.