Plastic

As I approached the Alexandra Parade intersection, the traffic lights turned red. I slowed my car to a halt. The world suddenly, and without reason, spun sharply anticlockwise, and continued to do so. “Whoa…?” The involuntary utterance paid absolutely no justice to the experience that had brought it forth. The traffic, typical for Punt road on a Thursday afternoon, was a nightmare. I was frantic, no, terrified. What was I to do when the lights turned green? I hoped that I might just be able to pull up against the gutter on the far side of the intersection.

But in the sixty seconds that it took for the lights to glare green at me, the world seemed almost normal again. I could not have imagined that, could I? Foolishly I know, I drove on to my next appointment. Three hours later, as I was sitting in an elderly patient’s lounge, planning my polite goodbye, the switch in my head clicked again and this time the world was spinning in all directions at once. “God, I’ve had a stroke!” This thought flashed neon bright in the tiny part of my mind that wasn’t whirling.

I somehow made my exit and bounced pin ball wise, down the nursing home’s corridor and out onto the street. I needed help, medical help, desperately. Yet I was deliberately staggering past a bloody nurse’s station, trying not to draw attention to myself. Not wanting to frighten a client, or some such twisted reasoning. Collapsing at the door of my car, I emptied the contents of my stomach three or four times over. With my left hand rooted to the nature strip to stop me flying off into space, I dialled 000, and between retches, I managed somehow to arrange an ambulance.

Four weeks, a battery of tests and an MRI scan later, I was able to walk unaided again, albeit with a slightly drunken stagger. In that time I had learned a hell of a lot, about that of which I previously knew very little. Vertigo. A rather broad and mundane church of ailments affecting those gyroscopes inside our heads that we blithely take for granted.

The best guess of three doctors, including a pleasantly mannered, $840 per hour, associate professor? The nerve connecting my left balance organ to my brain, wasn’t. The result of either a virus, 95% certain, or a micro stroke, a 5% possibility. The stroke was determined to be least likely, or else too small to be seen, after careful examination of my MRI scans.

Not that the cause mattered, either way the only treatment was physiotherapy. They used to say “Just rest and you will heal in time. Hopefully.” But nowadays, ‘brain plasticity’ is all the rage. If you do lots of strange little exercises, your brain can rewire itself. By forcing your brain to experience a magnification of the stresses of not having two working gyroscopes, you encourage it to create new pathways, utilising the solitary remaining inner ear to do the work of two. Of course, just like the old school approach, all of this advice finished in, “with luck”.

“The brain is amazing.” they told me. “With effort and consistent work on your part, your brain will co-opt different parts of itself to do the functions you have lost.” they said. “The main thing is persistence. People who understand this, accept it and who work hard at it, get amazing results.” I was constantly reassured. The ironic treat is that the exercises that have most effect, are apparently, the ones that make you feel most crappy.

Now, as many people who know me will happily attest, I can be somewhat pigheaded. What’s more, I really was not enjoying the perpetual dizziness, fatigue and frustration that being constantly ‘a little out of whack’ produced. So I did my exercises with an almost perverse relish. And let me tell you, those silly little exercises can really knock you about. The more conscientiously you do them, the worse you feel afterwards.

But I had the assurance of experts that they could do no possible harm, only possible good.

Six months on and I am happy I took their advice, and kept at it. Well, I almost think I am happy. My balance is back. I have none of the symptoms and I no longer have to do those annoying little exercises. Life is back on track and everything is back to the way it was before the world moved. Except…

I have a silly, but frightening doubt. I think that I now think differently. I can remember how I used to think and feel about things, but I no longer feel and think that same way. It was little things to start with. Things that I could quite easily dismiss. Some things that I used to love the smell of, now leave me cold. Certain attitudes I can remember holding, have either strengthened or dissipated to mere shadows of their former selves.

At first I put it down to imagination and the general unreliability of memory. Then I stumbled across my diary. In the past, before the vertigo, I used to be an avid diary jotter, not in a public blog, but I had a private page ‘for my eyes only’. I had not logged in to it for months, I had had no desire to. I only noticed it again when an absent minded mouse click opened it up on my computer screen.

As I started to read, my memories of what and how I used to think and feel grew stronger. At the same time the person I was reading grew less and less familiar. I could remember writing these words, but they are not mine. That is to say, they ‘were’ mine. Just not now. They are foreign to me, a different person wrote them. And looking at the dates, the writing petered to a halt not long after I started doing the rehab.

That rehab, this brain plasticity. One is supposedly to rewrite, rewire part of the brain to take on new functions. To replace the damaged or missing parts that used to fulfil those functions. Well that makes sense and in my personal experience, it works well. I have fully regained function that was lost. But none of the experts thought to talk to me about what happened to the original functions of this reassigned brain tissue. The functions those synapses were serving before I retrained them.

After all, what are we if not the memories and tastes and thoughts and desires that life writes down in those patterns of synapses in our brain tissue? I can remember me. Who I was. But I worked and worked at retraining my brain tissue. And I succeeded. I taught my brain to do other things, I rewired it.

And now I am no longer me.