This week, Beverley Turner revealed how her marriage to Olympic rower James Cracknell disintegrated after he suffered a brain injury in a cycling accident. Here, Mindy Hammond explains how her own marriage survived.
The phrase “brain injury” hits you like a ton of bricks. I remember hearing a doctor say those awful words over the phone in 2006 when I was driving frantically up the motorway to see my husband, Richard Hammond, who had been involved in a 288mph car accident while filming the BBC’s Top Gear. Throwing my clothes into an overnight bag and setting off for Leeds General Infirmary, I had no idea what to expect until I switched on the car radio and heard a news report about the accident.
Would he still be able to walk, talk, and take care of his two daughters, I wondered as I was escorted into Richard’s hospital room, where he was hooked up to several scary-looking medical machines? Would I have to re-fit the furniture in our new house with mobility aids? Would he be the same man I had married four years ago?
It was disconcerting when, early after the crash, Richard looked at me from his hospital bed and said: “You’re lovely, but you’re not my wife.” When I corrected him, he responded: “No, you’re not my wife, my wife is French.”
Indeed, when he was allowed home five weeks later, it became clear that Richard’s memory loss was no short-term affliction. He didn’t seem capable of retaining information for more than 10 seconds, and found himself reading the same newspaper page again and again. I became accustomed to circular conversations in which he would endlessly repeat the same sentence. Richard’s personality also changed, and he became prone to mood swings and depression.
One particularly unpleasant moment came at the breakfast table. I watched as his face morphed into a raft of different expressions, changing second by second. He later explained that he was being hit with a wave of new emotion each time.
Then, one summer’s afternoon, Richard turned to me and said: “Get the girls and get out of the house now.” I told him to relax, but he said, “No, just get out.” He could feel the anger welling up, and was afraid that he might not be able to control himself. It must have been utterly terrifying for him.
When James Cracknell left the hospital after his traumatic brain injury, a neuropsychologist told him and his wife that 75 per cent of people with such afflictions divorce; the charity Headway says that, with appropriate rehabilitation, that figure is 28 percent.
Inevitably, Richard’s illness affected our marriage, but I was always careful not to tell him that he loved me, or pressure him into thinking so. His brain had re-set after the accident, I thought, and if he decided that he no longer wanted to be my husband, that was his choice.
Fortunately, that didn’t come to pass, and instead we almost started again, rekindling our relationship from the moment he woke up in that hospital bed. That’s not to say, of course, that it was all plain sailing. On occasion, I felt myself getting exasperated with his illness, and at times it felt as if I was taking care of a teenager. But I would take a deep breath every time he forgot something I had just said and learnt to ignore hearing the same sentence on a loop through the course of a day.
It was also hard on our two daughters, who were aged six and three at the time of the accident. I tried to shield them from Daddy’s illness as much as I could, limiting their time together, and I avoided giving too much detail about his injury.
But month by month, everything began to improve. His memory began to re-form, and his mood swings became less severe. Every six months or so, I caught myself thinking, ‘Wow, he’s so much better than he was six months ago’. In some respects, he’s better than he was before the accident: he’s more patient, self-aware and (bizarrely) finds it much easier to concentrate on individual tasks.
We were lucky: not everybody who has suffered brain damage enjoys such a promising recovery, and I’m forever grateful that our marriage survived where others have disintegrated. It sounds terribly naff, but I really do believe it has made us stronger.
As told to Luke Mintz