Lena is stretched out on the stairs, having what would at first glance appear to be an epileptic seizure. But there is something about the way her arms and legs drum up and down, her head nods forwards and back, her teeth clench and then release again, that make us think it’s psychogenic.
‘Slow your breathing down, Lena. Nice and slow.’
She still has the phone in her hand; I take it from her, tell the call taker on the other end we’ve arrived, then hang up.
‘Let’s sit you up and see what the problem is, shall we?’
Together we ease her forward. Her shaking subsides, and she seems to find a measure of control again.
‘What’s been going on, Lena?’
She talks in short bursts, snatched from the tics and jerks that still run through her body.
‘I have – a – movement disorder,’ she says. ‘Here – are some – papers.’
She hands us a wad of folded computer sheets, printouts from a website dedicated to neurological problems.
Frank glances over them, but I can tell he’s thinking the same as me: cyberchondriac.
‘I – have an – appointment soon,’ she says as we hand her back the papers.
‘Let’s get you sat more comfortably on a sofa, Lena, then we’ll have more of a chat about all this,’ says Frank. We help her up. It’s noticeable that when her attention is distracted, either by speaking or doing something – even something small, like reaching out to hand us the papers – her twitching subsides. She walks unsteadily though, her slight frame debilitated by months of these episodes.
Once Lena is sitting down on the sofa, she stiffens up and starts to shake again, drumming her legs up and down so the whole laminate floor vibrates, thrashing her arms on the pillows beside her, spasms twisting in her face, squeezing her eyes open and closed. It’s all strangely comprehensive, the kind of thing you might expect if you asked a member of the public to do an impression of a fit. But then, the difference is that their intention would be clearly readable; with Lena, it’s more complicated than this.
Frank carries on talking to distract her attention.
‘Where did you put that appointment letter, Lena?’ he says. ‘It’d help if we could have a read of it.’
She reaches over to the side of the sofa and pulls her handbag across. The letter is inside – a top neurological hospital. The logo stirs a memory – didn’t my father spend some time there? Is that right?
Frank quickly skims the letter then hands it to me. It’s a full account of her condition – a functional problem, with every other possible cause ruled out, from tardive dystonia as a reaction to meds, to a range of tumours and metabolic disorders. She’s being admitted for a course of botulinum injections to dampen down the tremors, and CBT to address the central cause, a complex and unconscious ‘learning’ of inappropriate physical responses to emotional stress.
Eventually Lena calms down to the level of tremors and shakes she normally copes with. There’s nothing more we can do for her other than take her to hospital, but given that her admission to the neurological centre is just days away, she elects to stay at home and self-manage until then.
We see ourselves out.
That evening I write an email to mum. I mention the neurological hospital, and ask her if I’m right in thinking Dad had been an in-patient there. Even as I write it I’m not at all sure I could have remembered it correctly. Wouldn’t something as significant as that be more clearly rooted in the family history? Maybe this memory of mine is more like déjà vu, my own kind of processing error – the kind that mistakenly dumps short term scraps straight in the long term file.
But it felt so real.
I send the email.
When mum emails me back she says that yes, Dad had been an in-patient there, back in the fifties. He had woken up one morning unable to move his legs, a paraplegic. Eventually, after lots of tests, they took him up to the neurological hospital for three weeks. A difficult time for her – three toddlers to look after, Dad’s mum sick with cancer, no clear ideas about what was wrong with him, no sense of how long it might last.
‘I suppose he must have had a nervous breakdown, looking back at it. John and Ollie used to drive me over there every day. It was a very difficult time which I’ve tried to forget.’
I immediately want to know every last detail about what happened, but then I don’t want to stir up painful memories. Instead I sit back in the chair and try to imagine what it must have felt like to be Dad, walking again, out onto the steps of the hospital, holding onto Mum’s arm (is that what he did?), looking out across the square. I try to imagine what Mum must have felt like standing next to him, the hospital behind them, the rest of the day, the weeks and months and years ahead, so traumatised they could never speak of it again.