This story — my story — starts with writing a postcard. Writing a postcard and falling to the floor. Writing a postcard, while on holiday in Menorca, and falling onto the tiled floor. And then I woke up in intensive care and unable to speak. My 13-year-old self could see my mother and couldn’t ask her what was wrong. Why were none of the words in my head coming out of my mouth? Why couldn’t I move? What had happened to me?
Memories of my teenage self is not my subject. That’s a longer story for another time, perhaps, and likely not. My journey into motherhood is also not my subject. Women infinitely braver and more articulate than I have written about the sacrifices, internal conflicts, exhaustion, privilege and emotional rollercoaster that is motherhood. That’s not the story I wish to share. At least, not today.
Instead I want to share a particular (peculiar?) inner turmoil I’m experiencing as I fast approach my third trimester. Shortly after I turned 13 I had something called viral encephalitis. A doctor later explained it to me as being like meningitis, but instead of inflammation of the meninges it’s inflammation of the brain stem. Let me be clear, lest you pity me for even a moment — I am one of the positive statistics. I am one of the lucky ones. While I was temporarily paralysed down my left side (I am left-handed) and lost the ability to speak, all these things returned. I found my words. I learnt to walk again. I missed some school. (No operating heavy machinery. No long days.) It wasn’t quite the beginning of my teenage years that I had always imagined. Still, I managed to have my teenage rebellion many years later.
And when the kind neurologist — with glasses just like John Major, who was Prime Minister at the time — finally discharged me from his care and told me I’d made a 95% recovery, I barely paid attention to the 5%. I had recovered from paralysis! I could speak again! I was out of hospital. Adults no longer spoke in hushed tones nearby. Well-meaning devout Irish relatives ceased their desperate prayers. And I began to learn to hold things in my left hand again. Cans of beans and tinned tomatoes became my at-home therapy. We all celebrated this 95% recovery score, just as we would a 95% score on a school test.
Fast forward almost 25 years, and that 5% is now my peculiar daily conflict. As my pregnancy progresses, and I feel more kicks and movements and — like all expectant mothers — hope for the birth of a healthy baby, I also dread what feels akin to the demise of my brain. My 5% post-paralysis hangover. My 5% non-recovery. The 5% that in these pregnant days can too often feel like 100%.
Since I was 13 at times of physical or mental exertion, I experience a left-hand (and sometimes left-leg) tremor. I’ve dropped, broken and spilled a lot of things. Please don’t invite me to drink liquids on your white carpets. Exams used to entail extra writing time because I simply can’t write for more than 20 odd minutes without inducing a tremor. These days I hide my left hand under the table, or in my right hand, when I feel it shaking. A good trick for when I am doing a presentation. Less useful when eating soup.
What remains impossible to hide, however, and is getting progressively worse as my pregnancy — a form of physical exertion — develops is how I jumble my words. Pre-pregnancy it was the kind of ad hoc non-event where colleagues or friends might laugh as I called someone the wrong name. Spoonerisms and malapropisms were (and are) my jam. As my pregnancy develops, I find myself continually apologising to people for calling them by another’s name, or correcting typos in emails after the fact. I now call people the wrong name on an almost daily basis. Yesterday, I put two names together and created a new one! In other moments, I accidentally create new words from two parts of a sentence that become muddled in their neural execution. Inevitably I expend extra energy on trying not to create a word salad––as a result, I exert myself more. By the time I’m home from work, I might as well be calling my partner by any name but his own.
And so while I privately enjoy each kick, punch or movement (all those signs of development and growth) I must muddle through more back-to-front sentences. If I make it through a conversation, presentation, or meeting with no name switching, no new word creation, or simply a semblance of conversational skills intact, well, that’s an achievement. No mixed word salad. Phew. I used to pride myself on being a half decent editor, now I can’t even edit myself. Every day the baby grows my recovery hangover strengthens. His growth and impending arrival mirrors my increasingly strained brain. There is no mind over matter. My (grey) matter isn’t complying with my mind.
Why am I sharing? Perhaps I am tired of the laughter. Perhaps I am admitting defeat. Perhaps I’m forewarning you that I’m going to call you by the wrong name or send you a message with a typo. A typo that irks me. A typo that may irk you too. Maybe I’ll invent a new word when we meet. Or maybe I needed to remind myself––and others around me––that we all carry scars that we sometimes don’t want to show. Too often we hide the things that make us vulnerable.
My brain may temporarily be struggling to nurture both a baby and me, but in three months my encephalitis hangover will be back to its insignificant 5%. The endless verbal errors, broken coffee cups and shaky left hand will seem like an almost distant memory. For today, my tremor and word melange continues.