Into the black

The Weekend Australian - Magazine - - LIFE - By Phillip Adams

Five years old. Ly­ing in bed, dread­ing be­ing dead. Look­ing up into the darkness, be­yond the stars, over­whelmed by the in­fi­nite and the eter­nal. The sense of awe and dread that is the nu­mi­nous. What would death be like? I ac­cepted I prob­a­bly wouldn’t feel any­thing. But what colour would it be? Ut­ter black­ness? Or a white blank­ness?

A few years later I re­alised that I knew the an­swers about the feel­ing, the colour, the to­tal­ity of death, of nonex­is­tence. Be­cause I’d been dead al­ready. We all had. What hap­pens at death is ex­actly the same as what hap­pened prior to birth. Noth­ing. Bil­lions of years of noth­ing. Eter­nity is be­fore as well as af­ter.

I sud­denly re­mem­ber when I couldn’t re­mem­ber. When an ill­ness gave me a pre­view not of death but of de­men­tia. It lasted about a week. A sud­den onset of am­ne­sia.

Af­ter­wards I dis­cussed it with Oliver Sacks, who’d writ­ten so per­cep­tively about al­tered states of con­scious­ness, hav­ing first brought them on him­self by reck­less use of a smor­gas­bord of drugs, then by ob­ser­va­tion as a clin­i­cian. The Man Who Mis­took His Wife for a Hat is his mas­ter­piece, de­scrib­ing about a dozen cases caused by trauma or disease. And what you learn – and what I would ex­pe­ri­ence – is that you can live within an al­tered state with­out know­ing it. The new re­al­ity is sim­ply your re­al­ity.

One of Sacks’ most haunt­ing chap­ters was about a man with no mem­ory at all. Zero. Nought. He lived in an end­less now, the past evap­o­rat­ing as it hap­pened. Imag­ine pro­ceed­ing by torch­light, a nar­row beam in en­velop­ing darkness. You can see to take the next step but not know the last.

One day in my Sydney of­fice, be­fore my sec­re­tary ar­rived, I felt vague­ness, puz­zle­ment. But I re­mem­bered a phone num­ber – and rang it. When some­one an­swered I asked, “What’s hap­pen­ing? What’s go­ing on? Talk me through it.” The num­ber was the farm’s and my wife, more mys­ti­fied than alarmed, thought I was jok­ing. But when I rang back five min­utes later and re­peated the ques­tions, she knew there was a prob­lem. Min­utes later my sec­re­tary ar­rived and the two of them com­pared notes and called my GP.

I think it was called Tran­sient Global Am­ne­sia. Some­thing like that. Can’t re­mem­ber ex­actly. But can re­call the feel­ing. I felt fine. Couldn’t un­der­stand the fuss – the suc­ces­sion of spe­cial­ists shin­ing lights into my eyes, ask­ing ques­tions, run­ning tests. My mem­ory was only partly erased. I recog­nised most peo­ple – un­like Sacks, who had no “fa­cial recog­ni­tion” abil­ity and iden­ti­fied even close friends by their voices. I knew who peo­ple were. But they didn’t know me.

De­spite my vague­ness I felt ca­pa­ble of driv­ing – and, ig­nor­ing the protests, did so. In that pre sat-nav era I man­aged to get to var­i­ous spe­cial­ists but stopped broad­cast­ing. Al­though at 2UE, who’d have no­ticed what state I was in? Laws, Jones, Ze­manek – we were all nuts at 2UE.

At the same time film­maker Fred Schep­isi got the same ill­ness and later we com­pared notes on symp­toms. And causes. Doc­tors ar­gued his am­ne­sia had been trig­gered by stress – he’d been work­ing on Evil An­gels. But I hadn’t been un­usu­ally busy. Both of us were warned off the grog but I hardly drank at all. And both of us were warned that the con­di­tion might re­turn. It didn’t. Or hasn’t.

I now bet­ter un­der­stand the early symp­toms of Alzheimer’s, the begin­nings of that pro­found be­fud­dle­ment. As lit­tle by lit­tle the world, and your iden­tity, slips away. And if it’s like my am­ne­sia, you hardly know it’s hap­pen­ing.

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