8 May 2014

The injured mind

I do have happy light and trivial reminiscences, I really do, but I realise the most vivid and most memorable are the dark ones, and the most meaningful too, sadly. Happier ones await to be told, but meantime...

One day in the 1980s the Reverend William Simpson Macmillan put his bundle of papers in a zip-up pannier and lifted his leg carefully over his modest 125cc motorcycle. It was as powerful as he was allowed, having never bothered with the test. His parishioners teased him about the bright red 'L plates', sometimes asking when they might be getting a proper minister for the parish, rather than a learner. But he was happy to be restricted to 125cc, and felt very comfortable tootling along the five miles or so from church to home, and also nipping conveniently from house to house on his parishioner visits. The visiting of the sick, bereaved, old and lonely. He was a familiar sight around his village. Some of the local youths had labelled him 'Hell's Vicar', calling out at him in amusement, but with a little hidden respect, as he trundled past them in his black cape and helmet. Then some prolonged foul weather persuaded him to try out full leathers, and that sent their mirth to a higher level. He was fifty-nine, a stalwart of the community, a gentle loving and much loved soul, teased for once being heard to exclaim, 'Oh dash it all!' when he slid on a few greasy fallen leaves on a bend and tumbled into a hedge.

It was this righteous man who pulled away from his church that dark evening, motored towards home at around forty miles per hour, and then was hit by a speeding saloon car that came skidding around a tight bend. Poor old Macmillan was thrown through the air and slammed against the trunk of a beech tree. He had carelessly neglected to secure the strap of his rather antiquated helmet, and so when that protection flew free his head took much of the force of the collision, and he was found crumpled, bleeding and unconscious by the people who had heard the smash from the pub. The car driver had carried on, speeding through the village in a blur, never to be traced.

The next day he was still unconscious in the head injuries ward of the Infirmary, where the task of a young woman I knew included monitoring his condition. The Reverend regained consciousness gradually, looking at this young woman through confused eyes, but not responding to any attempts to find out how he was feeling. He was asked many questions, but just offered a rather cold and distant gaze as the only response. Had he lost the power of speech, perhaps?

But he managed to speak out loud and very clearly, for the first time since the collision, when his wife arrived, distressed but neat and proper, managing to maintain her control.

'Oh William, how are you my dear?' she enquired, approaching the bedside and cradling his hand in hers.

The Reverend looked at her, furrowed his brow, and shouted out, 'Fuck off you whore! You fucking whore! What the fuck are you here for?'

For the next few minutes, while the poor elderly woman began to sob and shake, her husband subjected her to a stream of obscenities.

Physically, he made a reasonable recovery, but the Reverend William Simpson Macmillan was no more. His personality had surely been rooted in tissue and blood and chemistry. Damaging the tissue changed the chemistry, and the man from the moment before was gone.

Things like that would have fascinated me, if they had told me about them at primary school. But instead they told me about a personality I had that was supposedly rooted in my soul, whatever that was, and yet which I could be expected to modify and mould and perfect through discipline and good thinking. They didn't tell me anything about the dependence of the mind and its personality on chemistry, other than perhaps the ability of alcohol to mess the whole concoction up. Even as a teenager, the true influence of chemistry on my mind did not become fully apparent to me until a secret and dangerous experiment with a tablet of lysergic acid diethylamide. Wow... That persuaded me overnight that I was probably nothing other than chemistry, or that at the very least the controlled chaos of chemistry could profoundly alter everything about what I was and what I thought.

And Isabella MacGregor. She was another one. She used to talk to me in her nursing home, and through whispered conversations with me I could gather important snippets about what was going on inside her head. One afternoon she looked out through her misted corneas, and saw the nurses galloping on little horses again. Vivid multicolour creatures that moved to toss their manes and bare their yellowed teeth at her as they passed. And one wild horse looked across at her, laughed, and cried out, 'Cow! You old Cow!'

But on one day, in one moment, Isabella suddenly had one of her brief realisations that the horses weren't real. That awful rushing gasp of awareness that dementia had gripped her brain. There was clearly panic. An overwhelming sadness. A desperate wish that her son could be beside her right then, so she could tell him that she knew that she was done for, and wish him goodbye during one of these last snatches of sanity. But instead she just managed to tell me, until a nurse pushed the food trolley past, bumping its wheel against her foot. I think it was a trolley for only a moment though, for her, until it was again a crazed horse with a nurse clinging to its back; and by my side, Isabella MacGregor quietly slipped into her madness again, thankfully, I think.

We are such fragile constructs of tissues and cells, and just a little damage can so easily turn us into something else, it seems. And where does that leave responsibility, morality, honour, trust and betrayal? All mushed up somewhere within a mix of wet neurons and their shifting molecules and ions and waves of electrochemical impulse over which we have no control?

What even are 'we', really?

I've said it before - I don't know. I have no idea. Nobody does.


Elephant's Child said...

I certainly don't know.
I remember a friend of my mother's who lost most of her grip on sanity. Taken for an x-ray she climbed down from the table and slapped the radiographer because he was 'taking dirty pictures through my clothes'. For a while she had lucid moments - which were a torture to her. It was a relief when they stopped.

Andrew MacLaren-Scott said...

There was a disturbing incident concerning a very close relative after a stroke, Sue, and it is not for me to write about yet, if ever, but a bit of bleeding and pressure on the brain can certainly transform a mind. And yet, while tragic, the memory brings dark laughter at how ludicrous this life can be.

John Gray said...

Head injury is the cruelest insult

Andrew MacLaren-Scott said...

Indeed John, and makes us, or at least makes me, question everything about what many people presume we are.

John Gray said...

Ohhhh errr

Andrew MacLaren-Scott said...