Thursday, June 08, 2006


Some years ago we saw the movie Awakenings, a traumatic experience. A young doctor serves a hospital ward where everyone is catatonic.

(About 1920 a dreadful epidemic broke out of a disease called Sleeping Sickness. The last catatonic sufferers may still be in the back ward of some hospital. The doctors discovered a wonder drug (L-DOPA) that brought these unfortunate invalids out of their catatonia. Unfortunately, after some days of jubilant living, they relapsed. Awakenings is a sort of docu-drama of this tremendous event, now almost forgotten.)

Then the other day Ellie brought home a book by Oliver Sacks entitled Awakenings. It's the source of the movie. In Awakenings Dr. Oliver shares with us a number of case histories of the course of the disease in the lives of people who had been catatonic since WWI, or the twenties.

John Donne figured largely in the book. Among Sacks' many quotations I found in Meditation 22:

"There is a propenseness to diseases in the body, out of which, without any other disorder, diseases will grow.."

His case histories bear considerable comparison to the suffering actors in Awakening. One primary difference is that in their treatment each patient had a somewhat different course. Some relapsed completely, others less so.

It's scary to consider how such a disease can take your neurological capability in such a startling and complete way. OMG! To be frozen physically while the brain continues to function, perhaps normally in the beginning, but surely less and less normally as the years go by.

However under the influence of L-DOPA when these people awoke they were very much in the 'present' from which they had departed so abuptly. As in the twenties, some of the women acted and seemed to think like flappers, etc.

They came to realize that they had lost 40, 50 years of their lives, but often without apparent resentment; they seemed too glad to be alive again. They had the same personalities and intellectual functions which they had surrendered back then.

I don't know whether it's instructive to meditate on something like this, or just shocking. Long ago I lost my taste for being shocked.

How does it affect you, dear reader?


xianchick said...

oddly, my mother came down with encephalitis when she was 8... one of the things that forces them to coma is lack of nutrition. apparently the immune system can not protect the brain without food.

my grandmother found the one thing that my mum could keep down was beer. grammy fed it to her by the teaspoon, and she recovered.

i really loved that movie. am always pleased to be shocked by real life rather than embellished imaginings.

the other fluff they show just to shock us is, in my very humble opinion, insulting.

when we turn off the tellies and crawl out of our suburbs, we find that truth really is stranger than fiction... and life is just a little bit more livable.

Larry said...

Good post, Chick. I would love to hear more about your mother. Do you have siblings? How were you/they affected by your mother's illness? What about your father?

You may think I'm just nosy, but I'm interested. Don't bother to reply, if you find this unwelcome. You may prefer to send it to me privately:

Your friend,


xianchick said...

well, my mother was "normal" by the time i was born.

she was a model in the 70's, and my mum and pop were very popular hairdressers with their own newspaper column and television segment on local television.

i was on the cover of Redbook with my mother when i was 6 months old.

then they got divorced and there was a big, huge custody battle (over child support more than custody). my mom had me spy on my dad and steal evidence and documents, and my dad regularly forced me to serve papers on my mom.

they spent so much money on booze, coke, luxury cars, and expensive houses that they failed to feed or properly care for their children.

i was raised knowing that i was unwanted and that "none of this would be happening if you'd never have been born".

it sucked.

i ran away from home when i was 16 and lived on the streets for almost 4 years. when i crawled back, i was 9 months pregnant, dirty, and homeless.

they still refused to take me in, but my sister grudgingly allowed me to move in with her until i could get on my feet.

my eldest is 11 now and my life is alarmingly stable.

is strange to describe my upbringing, but there you have it.


thanks for asking.