Stranger than fiction

At least two anecdotes from Alice Flaherty’s The Midnight Disease seem like they belong in stories by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I thought my interest in non-fiction on brain-related subjects had little or nothing to do with my love of magic realism but now I’m beginning to see that they’re related.

Here’s the first one:

My postpartum mood disorder, which had several manic as well as the more typical depressed features, came after I had given birth prematurely to twin boys who died. They were so small — one grasped my finger before he died, and his hand hardly fit around it. For ten days I was filled with sorrow. Then, suddenly, as if someone had thrown a switch, I was wildly agitated, full of ideas, all of them pressing to be written down. The world was flooded with meaning. I believed I had unique acccess to the secrets of the Kingdom of Sorrow, about which I had an obligation to enlighten my — very tolerant — friends and colleagues through essays and letters…

I became pregant again. In a strange symmetry, I delivered premature but healthy twin girls, Katerina and Elizabeth. A similar excited postpartum state started eleven days after delivery, eventually followed by a similar torpor. This time, though, I tried a mood stabilizer. Although the drug slightly increased by periods of agitation, it gave me an excruciating writer’s block. My head again filled with ideas, but this time I could not articulate them. The pressure in my head continued to build until it was a throbbing abscess that I was frantic to drain.

And here is the second one:

A young patient I met several years ago first suspected that something was wrong when he began laughing inappropriately, not just when he felt happy, but when he felt any strong emotion. His girlfriend broke up with him after he laughed all the way through her father’s funeral, yet he was sure he had felt only grief during the ceremony. He entered psychotherapy, but his problem worsened. Only after he began slurring his words and having trouble with his right arm did neurologists order a brain scan. It revealed that he had a tumor in an area that controls, among other things, emotional behavior but not emotion. His laugh did not sound mechanical; it was charming and infectious. It was hard not to laugh along with him, even as he vividly described his suffering. By the time I met him, he was laughing every thirty seconds or so. Each laugh was followed by a fleeting look of torture. What happened to him? Surgery, tumor recurrence, radiation therapy, a second tumor. He was such an engaging boy, open-faced and brave. I sometimes worry that it was his laugh that made him seem brave, though, that it blinded us to the depths of his sorrow and fear.

Oliver Sacks’s books are also full of stories like these. (Link via the very Sacks-y Ed of Danger Blog!)


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