May 3, 2023

My own personal braindance

It’s when the cycling postman folded into nothing next to the vanishing pensioner that I knew I had a problem.

A few Saturdays ago, I went to see Plaid. Second time in a year. They were on great form, all angular and melodic and alien. The visuals by Emma Catnip were a treat.

But the dancefloor was a strange experience. I was right at the front but floating in a void, unaware of those around me. I’d walked into a bin on the way to the gig, and when buying headache tablets from Spar, the packet read like hieroglyphics. I’d have hung around in town, but my head was exploding. And I mean that more literally than you might think.

After scans and prods and hospital trolleys, I now know the truth of what happened. I might be the first person boogying at the front of a Plaid gig having suffered a stroke earlier in the same day. I wouldn’t be diagnosed for another three days after the concert, with eye drops and brain diagrams and that Kubrickian body tube that goes bang a lot. I was disorientated because part of my visual cortex had fried, rendering me partially sighted.

The clues were there in the intervening days between my disorientating gig and my hospital stay. On my walk to my GP with what I assumed at that point to be a minor eye problem, two odd things happened. I saw a pensioner walking towards me on a leafy lane. He was on his own. Narrow pavement, casual amble, a rickety wall on one side and a rickety cottage on the other. When I glanced at him a second time, he was accompanied by a wife who definitely wasn’t there before. Shortly afterwards, a postman riding a bicycle folded out of sight then reappeared. It happened before my eyes, as real as the words are on this page. I don’t know much about modern employment conditions within the postal service, but I don’t think dimensional teleportation is part of the contract.

The stroke has destroyed half of my eyesight. In true surrealist Fat Roland style, the missing halves are the right section of each eye. Because eyes dart about and the brain is clever, I don’t have black spots. I can see everything. But if my brain hasn’t received full information about a section of what I’m looking at, it makes things up. This causes hallucinations. I have looked into the twilight sky and seen a hospital floating mid-air, in full detail. I have seen imaginary crows flapping around the edges of my vision. I have seen a cheerful dog on a lead being walked by a bush because my brain couldn’t register the difference between a dog owner and shrubbery. A quick dart of the eyes, and my visual register filled in the correct information. I think my brain is having far too much fun with this.

This also means I am learning to read again. I’ve lost the ability to laterally scan text, which is pretty essential for a horizontal writing system. I have lost definition, and may never read a paper book again. That said, I have already seen improvements. I am writing this in Word without the use of a screen reader, which I couldn’t have done a week ago. However, I’m choosing to use assistive tech because reading things – including reading back over these sentences – is a strain. Might as well use tech to preserve stamina. It was worse in the first few days after my stroke. In hospital, all signs were confusing. Words had lost their  visual symmetry entirely, and all d’s and b’s and p’s looked the same. I now have my symmetry back as my brain tries ever so hard to cope with my condition.

The damage is permanent. The fried part of my brain will never be unfried. But I’m confident about recovery as I begin what feels like Life Part Two. I will be slowly integrating back into my role at the brilliant Burgess Foundation. My work with Electronic Sound will continue, although for now will be restrained to a slightly shorter column. I’m sure I will cartoon again, although I may need to learn new techniques. I will likely have to give up running my F1 Losers League because there’s too much detailed spreadsheet and website work. And because casual social media browsing is no longer viable, I am retiring the @AngryBeetham Twitter account which I have been secretly running for ten years.

Best of all, this blog will continue. With my visual input reduced, the world of music is so much more important. Expect a 10,000 word review of the MRI scanner: its endless claustrophobic bangs at my heavily constrained body was some of the best techno I have ever heard. This stroke could be the most techno thing that has ever happened.

Featured video: Plaid’s Return to Return, aka This Is What My Brain Looks Like Now