Tuesday, 14 October 2014

The Day I lost My Mind

In the mid nineties I ran the script department of Neighbours, an iconic Australian television show that, back then, played to millions of people everyday across at least two continents.

I had recently taken over the script department and my good friend Ray Kolle came up with an idea to help revive the show - re-introduce a number of former characters including the much loved Harold Bishop.

My first reaction was - Isn't he dead? The answer was yes and no. He had died, been mourned and forgotten many years before on the show, but where television is concerned if the body isn't found the death isn't forever. In TV land that means Harold could still be alive, but it would be my job to explain how.

In the original story Harold had been swept out to sea off the south coast of Australia. His only remains, a pair of glasses in a shallow rock pool found by his teary wife, Madge.

My job was to find a story that explained how Harold survived. Easy - he drifted across one of the most treacherous seas in the world, Bass Strait, then was picked up by a fishing boat. It was never stated, but I imagine Japanese whalers mistook him for a humpback. Then I had to explain how and why he remained quiet about his survival for the best part of half a decade.

For this I pulled out the equivalent of  'storytelling' liquid paper and gave Harold amnesia - easy peasy - job done. He was taken in by the salvation army, joined their marching band and eventually came back to the mainland as the back up tuba player in the Salvation Army marching band with no memory of his former life.

Amnesia is almost the worst way to undo a story on TV. It is second only to waking up from a dream and telling your audience nothing they've just invested in actually happened.

The famous and undisputed worst storyline ever -
Bobby's death in Dallas was just a dream.

Amnesia is so widely criticised as a plot twist because the number of cases are very small and therefore the 'amnesia' excuse is wildly implausible.

So imagine my surprise when on June twenty five this year I headed to the gym before work and then quietly lost my mind.

I woke up in the emergency department of the Epworth hospital six hours later. Two doctors had diagnosed me with a stroke.

The only thing that made them hesitate was that I seemed fine except for a memory like a gold fish. My mind was on a loop that re-set every few seconds, retaining nothing but my name and age.

After many hours my memory began to retain longer 'loops' and a neurologist was called and diagnosed Global Transient Amnesia, (GTA).

Harold Bishop had just ridden back into my life on a horse called Karma!

The first thing I remember was my sister thrusting a piece of paper into my hand with a list of answers to questions I wanted to ask. She seemed in that moment psychic - how could she possibly know I wanted answers to exactly those questions? That was the start of the weirdest four hours of my life, but only because I couldn't remember the previous six.

As my memory slowly came back the rest of my family arrived, my boyfriend, my mother, then a long line of interested doctors and nurses. Everyone seemed to be happy and relieved. I was just confused.

I was wheeled through what looked like a cafe, a unique experience for patients at the Epworth, although most are wheeled from surgery to ward while still under anaesthetic. I wasn't. My mind was still not my own, but it made enough sense to realise being wheeled through a cafe in a backless gown in a bed was unusual, so I gave the royal wave to those looking on as I went by.

I was placed in a ward and minutes or hours later, it was still hard to tell, my family left and I was alone and told again what had happened by doctors and nurses. They tried to assure me it wasn't going to be permanent, it wasn't likely to reoccur and it couldn't be explained. They were very worried I would freak out as my mind caught up to me. I wasn't at all fussed, but only because I couldn't remember any of it. For me it simply didn't happen and I think that was the best thing. It meant everyone else worried and I simply moved on.

At around ten O'clock I remember looking at the others in the ward. There were three and I knew them all, but couldn't place from where. It turns out I knew them from hours before and it was explained again what had happened and my deja vu moments were older memories slowly being retained.

A few times during the night the nurse woke me to take vital signs and make sure the diagnosis was correct and not the still remote chance of something more serious. I had to wait until the next day to have an MRI because they worried putting me into that small confined space while my memory was still scattered may cause me to panic if I forgot where I was.

I sort of slept, or at very least forgot the night and by early morning I was pretty much back to normal and able to chat to my ward-mates. They had all been in for operations and were heavily drugged up the night before, but still told me I had seemed 'pretty out of it' when I was brought in. It slowly dawned on me just how close to disaster I'd come. My brain had done the equivalent of a reset and now, mercilessly, had started back up with everything working.

I had my MRI mid morning and the neurologist explained they had found a small white dot on my brain that was exactly what they were looking for and the only sign of a GTA episode. The dot would fade over the next few weeks and he again reassured me there would be no residual affect and only a twenty percent chance of it ever happening again.

It was then that I first really came to terms with what had happened and I looked at my phone's history trying to find those missing hours. In those lost first forty minutes I had made over twenty calls. It was eerie to look at the list and not have any memory of any of those calls. The calls were to work, my boyfriend, my mother and sister.

I am told I was lost and scared. Stroke was diagnosed early and my mother later told me I asked her in a very scared voice, "What is happening to me?" My work supervisor took five calls from me, all identical. It took him three calls before he realised I had a serious problem and he told me to find someone and get help. Then I rang him again to tell him I would be late for work and he told me very clearly not to hang up the phone and he talked me to the nearest shop and instructed me to hand the phone over to the shop assistant. That's when medical help was called.

Even while I was waiting for that help I called my work supervisor again to tell him I would be late for work.

We laughed about it later, but I will always feel lucky someone with enough sense and a calm head was on the other end of that phone. If I could remember any of it I would probably be embarrassed and far more scared about the whole thing, but that's the one benefit of having your memory wiped like an Etch-a-Sketch.

I know my boyfriend freaked out on the second call I made to him, but he was smart enough to send out the call for help and it was my sister who found out where I was and dropped everything to come to me.

The literature on GTA indicates stress and exhaustion as a major cause. Four days earlier I met with the top executives of one of our TV networks about a new TV show I have created and am writing. It was our second meeting since the initial green light had been given in February and the first since they'd had the new drafts of the scripts. It was the meeting that would determine the entire development process of the show, many of the production details and my ongoing hope to be the primary writer and story producer. The meeting went extraordinarily well, but the pressure and work leading up to it had been extreme - especially as I was holding down a full time 'real world' job alongside all that added work and stress on the TV project.

Triggers to GTA are thought to be: a sudden immersion in cold or hot water, strenuous physical activity, sexual intercourse, medical procedures, such as angiography or endoscopy, mild head trauma, acute emotional distress as might be provoked by bad news, conflict or overwork.

Sadly my bout wasn't brought on by sex, but I had just been to the gym, came from a warm environment to my push bike in the middle of winter and had the overwork and stress well and truly covered.

I worried for a short time about it happening again or about part of my mind being impaired in some way, but days later I redrafted a script that has since stood up to network scrutiny, so that fear seems to be baseless.

Four days after the episode I was back driving a public transport bus which is how I've been paying my mortgage for the last eighteen months.

I am very close to blogging the full story of my new show if anyone's interested in how you create and then sell a TV show to a network. Special interest for anyone who wants to do this while driving a public transport bus - although that last step isn't something I would recommend of wish on anyone!

That's the story of how I lost my mind. I'm so thankful to family and friends who came to my rescue when I was unable to look after myself. It also reminded me of how fragile we really are. I'm just thankful, this time, it wasn't more serious.

And just like a bout of amnesia in an ongoing series, I will quickly move on and never speak of it again.

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