Self possession

Healing the incurable

Russell-Olivia Brooklands


The White Rabbit put on his spectacles. ‘Where shall I begin, please your Majesty?’ he asked.
‘Begin at the beginning,’ the King said gravely, ‘and go on till you come to the end: then stop.’

It seems appropriate to open with a quote from Alice in Wonderland, for this story too – though profoundly different in character – contains much that may be considered unexpected; or even surreal.  But this one is all true.  Curiouser and curiouser though it unquestionably becomes, it all really happened to a real person: a fellow by the name of Damian Prescott.

And obvious though the King of Hearts’ words may seem, what if you can’t begin at the beginning?  What if, even as the story starts, you have no idea where it began?  What if no one does? 

After all, tales of people being possessed by devils have been recounted for millennia.  And across the centuries many of the finest minds have been brought to bear on the question of what lies behind such possessions: where and how those stories begin.

During the last hundred years or so the health profession has brought a great deal of science to the party, codifying various forms of ‘movement disorder’.  And the stories to which some of those disorders give rise – epilepsy for example – have become increasingly well understood.  But the origins of others, such as Tourette’s syndrome, remain shrouded in mystery still.  Scientists understand more about the rings of Saturn than they do about why someone may uncontrollably start swearing at strangers in the vegetable aisle of Tescos.

So just imagine a day has dawned in which you’ll discover yourself suddenly living inside one of those as-yet-unfathomed stories.  Nowadays, thanks to medical advances, such conditions can often be manageable: using drugs to suppress the symptoms or, in extreme cases, brain surgery to disrupt their mechanism.  And while these interventions may make the story harder to notice, or even stop it in its tracks, they never get to its beginning; they don’t even try.  So are they always the best choice?  After all, pharmaceuticals invariably come with unwelcome side effects, and many folk may reasonably argue that suppressing symptoms isn’t really curing them.  So the only potential cure may involve at least some irreparable brain damage, however diligently the surgeons would toil to minimise it. 

Nevertheless, some people consider these drawbacks a worthwhile trade-off to be free from the worst of their symptoms.  (A slightly altered personality may be preferable to an unaltered one that has startled shoppers edging warily behind the pre-bagged salads.)  And  if you were now living within a body which at any moment might randomly twitch, yelp, convulse, collapse, flail, or utter a stream of profanities – just as someone’s reaching for an avocado – maybe you too might be drawn to those traditional approaches. 

But what if it rapidly became obvious, from the way your particular possession was playing out, that choosing either the medical or surgical options would mean forever sacrificing your very sense of self?  Suppose it had already become clear to you that, whatever lay behind your possession, it would never allow you any kind of happy ever after – in any aspect of your life – unless you could find and heal its seemingly untraceable beginning?  You’d then be facing a couple of unpalatable options. 

In one scenario, you could go for the drugs or the surgery – which could mean resigning yourself to seeing out the rest of your decades in a sort of subdued torment: unable to feel anything but the most muted forms of joy, of love, of motivation or fulfilment.  Indeed, your own body-mind system might not allow you to feel truly safe ever again.  But at least that system would be reasonably under control.  Even so, is that really what you’d want the rest of your life to be like?

Your alternative would be to try tracking down ‘the beginning’ of your story.  The drawback here would be that you wouldn’t be able to cure or suppress your symptoms, because those involuntary tics and yips and convulsions would effectively be providing your personal Ariadne’s thread: the only thing that could lead you to their source. 

So you’d be having to tough it out with a different kind of torment: trying to cope with everyday life while having to accept your full-on seizures, screams and other indignities, so you could follow them wherever they led you.  And you couldn’t know this choice might not drag you into years of soul-sapping darkness, while you clung to the tenuous hope that one day you might find their hitherto unknown origin.  Because let’s be clear about what you’d be taking on.

Tourette’s syndrome is still officially incurable.  So,by going down this route, you’d be attempting to achieve something which has evidently eluded the entire human race since the dawn of recorded history.  (No biggie, then.) But only by doing this would you give yourself a chance – however vanishingly small – that you might eventually be able to heal whatever it was that lay behind your possession. 

Of course, there would always be a third option: you could give up absolutely, and bring the torment to an end by taking yourself out of the game altogether.

For Damian – and yes, that really was his name – option two seemed like the least worst choice (albeit sticking with it over option three often came close to a coin toss).  So he started searching for the beginning of the story, trying to track down his possession’s elusive origin.  Rightly or wrongly he was hoping that, if he could succeed in this pursuit (clearly a very big if) he might be able to use that awareness to help him seek out the end of the story.  And he would know he’d got to that ending only if he had completely healed himself.  This would mean being free not only from all his symptoms, but also the possibility of them ever returning.  Fanciful an aspiration though it might have been, that, for Damian, would be true healing. 

And then, contrary to the King of Hearts’ instructions, he surely shouldn’t “stop” when he’d got to the end.  Rather, he should go searching for the future, for a couple of reasons. 

From a purely selfish perspective – if he could arrive at the end of the story, he would inevitably want to start building that happy ever after for himself.  Who wouldn’t?  But what about other people? Getting to the end would also mean he had somehow achieved a healing which, as far as we know, has seemingly been beyond anybody else, forever.  Almost inevitably, then, he would have learned lessons from which others might be able to benefit.  So he should surely explore the medical profession’s current understanding of movement disorders to see what, if anything, his discoveries might be able to usefully add. 

What unanswered questions have long been swimming around in the fields of neurology, psychology, psychoneuroendocrinology,  obstetrics, and even haematology?  What insights might his journey be able to offer those disciplines (however uncut and un-dried those insights would inevitably be)? And what new questions might his revelations raise in those circles, which haven’t yet occurred to anybody else to even ask?  Only further research may determine which of these discoveries, if any, might be helpful to folk with similar disorders, or perhaps quite dissimilar ones. 

It’s always possible, though, that there might be nothing useful in any of it.  After all, this healing wouldn’t have happened through any heroism or brilliance on his part.  The only qualities he can truthfully claim to have brought to the party would be those of a reasonably disciplined curiosity, coupled to a sort of belligerent tenacity (of which he had never previously realised he was capable).  Nothing more than these, though.  But together they meant he kept going for long enough to see the thing through to a conclusion which – while factually irrefutable in so many ways – undoubtedly raises way more questions than it answers.

But as the great physicist, Richard Feynman, once observed: “If you want to answer a question which has never been answered, you have to leave the door to the unknown ajar.”

This, then, is a detective story – albeit an unorthodox one.  It’s also a love story, that redefines the very meaning of  ‘a triumph of the human spirit’.  Above all, it’s a true story: the unfolding of an unsuspecting fellow’s 28 years of revelations; many of them remarkable –  although  susceptible of rational explanation; plenty of them as-yet-inexplicable. And all of them  necessary for him to heal the incurable.

© Russell-Olivia Brooklands 2024