It’s Sunday afternoon-ish and I’m sat at Mettricks, a local cafe. On my own. Enjoying a scrummy smoothie.
I sat at a cafe on my own before, but is the first time I’ve done it in a while. And for some reason I felt nervous on my way here. I don’t really know why. But as soon as I sat down I forgot all about it. I spend a lot of time on my own lately, mostly by choice. I can’t believe a year ago I struggled to get used to living on my own and now I can’t imagine my life any other way. We humans are incredible. It always amazes me how we can adapt and change through time.
Anyway, I thought instead of writing my posts at home, I’ll start going to local, independent cafes (not chains, soz fans of Starbucks and Costa’s, they already earn HUGE money, better to support your community instead).
So today, I’m at Mettricks. I like it here. I come here often as is close to work and home. Great food and drinks, probably the best coffee in town, lovely service (just been served my smoothie by this cute waiter who thought I was knitting-I was unravelling the lead of my headphones-, little did he know I have all the knitting equipment- a birthday gift by my lovely colleagues as I always wanted to learn how to make my own hairbands- I just didn’t get around to it, although it would have been hilarious if I brought everything at the cafe and started knitting) and most of the time is not crazy busy. Although right now there are some loud Greeks sitting opposite me (Greeks and Cypriots are probably the loudest, being a Cypriot myself I can spot them from a distance), which is annoying as I can’t hear my own thoughts, but hey, that’s what headphones are for.
So… back to the theme of this post. Awakenings!
A couple of months ago I went to the Uni’s library to grab some books on CBT. I couldn’t find the ones I wanted but I was drawn to a book with the eye catching title ‘The Man Who Mistook His Wife For a Hat’ by the famous British Neurologist Oliver Sacks. Gutted I haven’t discovered him earlier, I’d have loved to meet him if possible or at least email him, but unfortunately he died two years ago.
In the book Dr Sack describes his weirdest, most unique cases, including autistic twins who could quickly calculate what day any date in the future would be but couldn’t do simple maths, extreme cases of amnesia (the Lost Mariner was one of my favourite), music epilepsy (one lady could hear music in her head ALL the time and it turns out the song she could hear was of a childhood memory she could not remember before) and the one which inspired the title of the book. I won’t go into more detail otherwise the post will only be about this book but I’ll briefly tell you about the story behind the title.
This highly intelligent, music lover, incredible man, who mistook his wife for a hat was suffering from visual agnosia, which meant although his vision was intact, he couldn’t recognise objects or faces, and at one of his visits at the doctor’s, whilst trying to find his hat he grabbed his wife’s head by accident instead.
It’s fascinating to read and highly recommended. You’ll learn a lot about the brain and how a small brain dysfunction can severely disrupt someone’s life but also how people learn how to cope and come up with ingenious ways to learn to help them live with their illness.
I finished that book in three days and I was so impressed by Dr Sacks I bought, probably his most famous book, Awakenings (which has now adapted to theatre plays, podcasts and the infamous Awakenings movie with Robert De Niro and Robin Williams, more on the movie below).
It took me a while to finish it, as I was on holiday and I finally read the last page a week ago.
Awakenings, if you haven’t heard of it or watched the movie, is about a group of Dr Sacks’ patients at a hospital in New York who suffered from the 1920’s encephalitis lethargica epidemic. This horrible disease attacks the brain and leaves most victims speechless, motionless, trapped in their own body, never asleep but never fully awake.
Dr Sacks came across the ‘miracle’ drug L-Dopa that used to treat his patients in the hope they ‘ll come back to life. And something amazing happened. They all ‘woke up’. They could now move, talk, feed themselves. Some went on to live a relatively normal life but for a lot of them it didn’t last long.
Administering chemicals to the brain has unpredictable consequences and the majority of his patients had horrible side effects, some of which never went away.
Every single case he describes is sad, emotional and inspiring all at once.
But I haven’t only learned that any drug that affects the brain cannot be expected to behave as any other drugs. The amount of chemicals in the brain and the complex interactions between the different parts of it will never allow a simple reaction to any drug.
I learnt how amazing human interaction and affection can be and how it can really do miracles. The majority, if not all patients would react better to the drug if they felt loved and if others, their doctors and nurses, their loved ones, cared about them. How magnificent that is. Even when suffering from one of the most debilitating, complicating brain illnesses, other humans can make or break you.
When the hospital was briefly under a different direction, it became more ‘institutionalised’ and less ‘human’. During that short time, all patients’ side effects became dramatically worse.
Treatment is not just about dealing with the physical symptoms, is not just ‘mechanical’ but should take into consideration the human, emotional, psychological element, the individual, something Dr Sacks was very passionate about, and at the time was not common practice (unfortunately it still happens nowadays, we’ve all came across a doctor who would not pay too much attention to what we are saying and how an illness can affects us and will just prescribe us some drugs and that’s it).
I was impressed on how well or equally bad patients reacted to ‘waking up’. Some could not handle at all how they came back to life 30 years later, they were older and the world as they knew it ceased to exist. Others never felt bitter or regret but were grateful they were given another chance in life.
And finally what shines through the book is Dr Sacks’ love for his patients. For him they were never ‘just patients’. He deeply cared about every single one of them until he died.
As I mentioned earlier, the book has been adapted into films, podcasts and so on but the most famous adaptation was the 1990 Oscar-nominated film ‘Awakenings’.
On one of the last chapters, Dr Sacks talks about all the book adaptations at the time, especially the ones he found closest to reality.
I didn’t watch the film before finishing the book (although I might have watched it years ago but I could remember very little), and I’m glad I didn’t. As vividly described in the book, the whole movie cast visited the hospital and watched the patients to try and portray their behavior as accurately as possible. Robin Williams (one of my favourite actors of all time) who played Dr Sacks spent hours and days with him, studying his mannerisms, the way he spoke, the way he talked and Dr Sacks himself was impressed on how well he played him in the film.
Most amazingly Robert De Niro not only spent days with patients, he even visited some of Dr Sacks’ patients in the UK. He would stay in role even when they were not filming. At one occasion he would walk as if he was still Leonard (the patient he portrays in the film) with his feet twisted and he wouldn’t even realise.
If you happen to watch the movie, pay attention to all his tics, the scene were he has a major oculogyric crisis, the way he walks and talks. Based on Dr Sacks’ observations, you wouldn’t know that he was acting. That’s how a encephalitis lethargica patient behaved in real life.
Leonard was one of Dr Sacks’ favourite patients. He was extremely intelligent, loved reading (he graduated from Harvard and almost finished his PhD before his illness became too severe) and although he couldn’t speak at all he could spell on his little board. After his miracle awakening, his reaction to L-Dopa was horrendous and he asked to be taken off it. He died years later from infection, just after the drug started working for him again. How sad but what an amazing man he was.
There is a 1973 documentary with the original patients and Dr Sacks himself which I just found online and can’t wait to watch. It wasn’t easy to find. If you are interested let me know and I’ll send you a link.
The film differs to the movie as you’d expect with any film adaptation but is one of the very few if not the only book-to-film adaptation I actually liked. It’s sad, emotional and inspirational all at once, just like the book.
I’ve learned more than I’d expect from Awakenings and that’s why I love reading.
So, that’s it for today! I hope you enjoyed it.
It’s much easier to concentrate and write a post here rather than home. I think that’s my new thing. I might try Mettricks again maybe when it’s a bit quieter but any recommendations of local cafes in the city will be appreciated 🙂
Until next time… take care.