Into the black
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.