Read The Universe Versus Alex Woods Online

Authors: Gavin Extence

Tags: #General Fiction

The Universe Versus Alex Woods (8 page)

BOOK: The Universe Versus Alex Woods

He was also quite a strange man. In his own way, he was probably as weird as Dr Weir. As well as being a neurologist, he was also a committed Buddhist. This meant that he didn’t believe in God or heaven but he still thought that we should all be nice to each other because this was the most skilful way to get through life. He also believed that regular meditation made you a better, wiser person (though this was not the primary reason he suggested it for me). He said that meditation helped you to rely on your own inner resources to cultivate happiness and guide you through life’s various stresses, and in the godless Buddhist universe, being able to rely on your own inner resources was particularly important.

Dr Enderby’s views on God and meditation were definitely linked to his views about the brain. On his office wall, he had a funny little plaque with spidery black writing on it – like old, joined-up handwriting. And this is what it said:

The Brain is just the weight of God –

For – Heft them – Pound for Pound –

And they will differ – if they do –

As Syllable from Sound –

The first time I saw that plaque, I had very little idea what it meant, and absolutely no idea why there were all those dashes and random capital letters scattered all over the place. (Mr Treadstone, my then future English teacher, would have red-penned each and every one of those.) But I loved the way it sounded nevertheless.

When I eventually got round to asking Dr Enderby about the plaque, a few years later, he told me that it was the last stanza from a poem by a very old, very dead American poet called Emily Dickinson. When I asked him what it meant, he wouldn’t tell me. Instead he asked what
thought it meant.

‘I don’t know,’ I said after a few seconds of scratching my crew-cut. ‘I know what the words mean, but I can’t make sense of them all together.’

‘Hmm,’ said Dr Enderby. Then he scratched
head for a bit. ‘Well, what do you think the difference between a syllable and a sound is?’

‘There isn’t all that much difference,’ I said. ‘A sound is a sound, and a syllable’s kind of a sound too. A syllable’s a chunk of sound in a word. Or sometimes it’s the whole word. Like the word “sound” is a sound made of one syllable.’

I wasn’t too satisfied with the way I’d explained this, but Dr Enderby seemed to understand. ‘So maybe that’s the point,’ he said. ‘Maybe they
all that different. Just like God and the brain aren’t all that different.’

‘How can God and the brain not be different?’ I asked, frowning.

Dr Enderby smiled and adjusted his glasses. ‘Well, for each of us the brain creates a whole, unique universe. It contains everything we know. Everything we see or touch. Everything we feel and remember. In a sense, our brains create all of reality for us. Without the brain, there’s nothing. Some people find this idea scary, but I think it’s rather beautiful. That’s the reason I like to keep that plaque on my wall, where I can see it every day.’

I told Dr Enderby that I was still a little confused at this point – what with him being a Buddhist.

‘When I look at that poem, God’s just a metaphor,’ Dr Enderby explained.

‘So you don’t think that God created the brain?’ I asked.

‘No, I don’t think that,’ Dr Enderby replied. ‘I think that the brain created God. Because the human brain, however wonderful, is still quite fallible – as both you and I know. It’s always searching for answers, but even when it’s working as it should, its explanations are rarely perfect – especially when it comes to very big, complicated questions. That’s why we have to nurture it. We have to give it plenty of space to develop.’

That was the gist of what Dr Enderby told me. His brain had spent a tremendous amount of time thinking about the brain.

The first time we met, he said that my ‘first fit’ was probably
my first fit. It was more likely my sixth or seventh or thirteenth or twenty-third – but no one could tell me for sure. As I’ve mentioned, in the months preceding my collapse in the kitchen, I’d been having lots of strange, out-of-place thoughts – thoughts involving weird pictures and sounds, and often weird smells. I’d dismissed them as daydreams, even though they felt more like night dreams – short, peculiar night dreams that would start without warning and then, just as quickly, dissolve back into the present. Furthermore, they’d been bad enough, and frequent enough, to draw comment at school, where I’d been diagnosed with ‘concentration issues’.

After I told Dr Enderby this, he said that mine were ‘classic’ symptoms of partial epileptic seizures originating in the temporal lobes, and usually, at this point, he’d be asking me if I’d suffered any significant head injuries in the past eighteen months. But in my case, this was unnecessary. Dr Enderby could see my scar with his own eyes, and he already knew about the meteor.
knew about the meteor.

Nevertheless, I still had to go through a lot of physical tests before Dr Enderby’s final diagnosis could be made. He shone a torch in my eyes and prodded and pinched me in various places to test my sensations and reflexes. Then I had to have blood tests, and then an electroencephalography, where they attach wires to your scalp to measure the electrical activity in your brain. In case you didn’t know, epilepsy is all to do with excess electrical activity in the brain. It works as follows.

Everybody’s brain is a hive of electrical activity, and usually all the electrical signals behave as they should – they start, spread and stop as required. But in an epileptic fit, something abnormal happens. The neurons start sparking erratically, more or less at random, and instead of a narrow, regulated current, you get a chaotic flood of electricity pulsing through the brain. And the specific symptoms you experience tell you where the electricity has gone haywire. So jerks or twitches or convulsions indicate electrical activity in the motor cortex, the area of the brain responsible for controlling movement, and hallucinations indicate problems with one of the perceptual centres. And in a generalized epileptic seizure, there’s a complete loss of consciousness, which indicates that the malfunction has spread through the whole cortex to the brainstem. This is what I experienced in the kitchen and what most people would recognize as an archetypal fit. Dr Enderby said that an epileptic seizure was like a thunderstorm taking place in the brain – a storm that temporarily knocks out all the communication links so that any messages from the outside world get either lost or scrambled. All that’s left is your brain talking to itself.

Needless to say, my electroencephalography showed lots of abnormal spikes. Along with all the other evidence, this pretty much confirmed the provisional diagnosis of epilepsy, but it couldn’t give any insight into the underlying cause – for this, I had to have an MRI scan, which uses giant magnets and radio waves to create a 3-D map of your brain’s structure. Dr Enderby warned me that in more than half of all cases, no physiological cause for epilepsy is ever found. But in my case, there was good reason to suspect that a physiological cause
soon be discovered – as indeed it was.

The MRI scan showed subtle damage to my right temporal lobe, which was exactly where Dr Enderby expected to find it. But discovering a physiological cause for my epilepsy was not necessarily a good thing. Structural brain damage made it highly unlikely that my symptoms would clear up of their own accord. I’d probably suffer further seizures, which would have to be controlled with anti-epileptic drugs.

Two weeks later, this is exactly what happened. I had another generalized seizure and was put on anti-epileptic drugs. I’ve been on them ever since.


Here’s what came next, condensed.

My fits got worse. I could no longer go to school. We had to house-swap with Sam and Justine so that I could stay home while my mother continued to work. My world shrank down to five small rooms. I had strange visions. I read a lot. I continued my correspondence with Dr Weir. I got used to managing my condition. I gradually got better. And one day, about a year down the line, I was well enough to return to school. We got our house back.

Now here’s the expanded version.

Things got much worse before they started to get better. Shortly after my original diagnosis, I was having generalized seizures every week and complex partial seizures most days. My epilepsy was severe and poorly controlled, and seemed, at first, completely unpredictable, which is what made it so debilitating. I couldn’t go to the supermarket with my mother for fear of collapsing in the cereal aisle. Of course, during a full seizure, I’d be happily oblivious to all the drama. It was only in the woozy aftermath that I could take stock of my humiliation. Often there’d be tears and dribble. Often there’d be a fair amount of urine. Often there’d be a small circle of gawking onlookers. People are always drawn to scary and embarrassing public displays, and they don’t come much more scary or embarrassing than watching an eleven-year-old boy convulsing in a puddle of pee.

Soon, going outside became one of my main triggers. Or more specifically, as Dr Enderby told me, it was the heightened stress of worrying about public seizures that was triggering my public seizures. I had to learn to manage my anxiety.

This was not something I had much chance of managing. Every time my mother tried to take me anywhere, I’d immediately start to panic, which would trigger a fit. The only places I felt safe were at our house, at the shop, in the car and at the hospital. It doesn’t matter if you have a fit in the hospital, because everybody expects that kind of behaviour in hospitals and there are hundreds of people ready to take care of you. I wasn’t even
worried about having a fit in the hospital; and, for this reason, I never had a fit in the hospital. My condition was cruel and stupid.

But in those early days, it wasn’t just the frequency of my epileptic fits that kept me at home. It was also the side effects of the anti-epileptic drugs. For the first couple of months, before my system had properly adjusted to the carbamazepine, I was all over the place. My mind felt dull and foggy. I was constantly tired. I often felt sick and dizzy. My head hurt. My vision wobbled. My legs wobbled. I started to acquire what my mother generously called ‘puppy fat’. Eventually, I was prescribed more drugs – strong painkillers and anti-sickness pills – to counterbalance the effects of my other drugs. This helped for a while, but the fits still showed no sign of improvement. So my dose of carbamazepine was increased and the side effects, having begun to die down, enjoyed a new lease of life. Dr Enderby said that we shouldn’t be worried. Each patient was an individual, and often it took many months to get a prescription just right.

In the meantime, my mother said that she wanted to start me on a complementary therapy – something homeopathic. Dr Enderby was reluctant to support this decision. He said that while there were some alternative therapies that had been proven helpful in treating epilepsy, homeopathy was not one of them. From a scientific standpoint, homeopathy had never been proven helpful in treating
. And often it could be a distraction (an expensive distraction) from those treatments that
been proven effective.

My mother calmly pointed out that she knew several people who had benefited enormously from homeopathic medicine.

Dr Enderby calmly pointed out that he knew of lots of people who hadn’t. Then he started talking about placebos.

A long, patient and fruitless argument followed.

Eventually, Dr Enderby conceded that it would be okay for my mother to try me on a homeopathic treatment as long as I also continued to take my prescribed medications. To be more specific, this is what he said: at worst, a homeopathic treatment certainly couldn’t harm me.

After consulting a homeopath, my mother put me on
cuprum metallicum
– copper and deadly nightshade. I started on a 12X concentration of each, which meant that the active ingredient had been diluted down to one part in a trillion. Later, when this had no noticeable effect, the dose was increased to 24X – one part per trillion trillion. Later still, I was put on a 100X deadly nightshade pill. This dosage was even more diluted and potent. In fact, it was so diluted that its very existence was like a raised middle finger to four hundred years of scientific progress. Specifically (and I’m not making this up), if you took a single molecule of the active ingredient in deadly nightshade and dropped it into a glass of water the size of the known universe – well, the
pill I was taking was approximately one hundred million trillion times more diluted than that.

This was probably why Dr Enderby didn’t think a homeopathic remedy would do me any harm. In that concentration, deadly nightshade is no longer deadly. But I only realized all this much later on. At the time, aged eleven and a half, the homeopathic pills were just two more pills on the daily pill pile. I was taking at least six a day at one point, and asking zero questions.

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