As regular readers of this blog will know, I listen to a lot of podcasts. Most are interesting and/or educational, a few really resonate with me. This podcast from the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s All In The Mind programme is one of the latter. It’s called The Day My Mother’s Head Exploded and is about Nikki Palin who at the age of 46 had a brain aneurysm, “died” twice that day, and now 25 years later is still here to talk about what happened that day, and what the long-term effects of having an aneurysm have been. The programme is based on a documentary which her daughter, Hannah Palin, compiled and it is their two voices which you hear relating the story.
Why this topic is of specific interest to me, is that as a migraine sufferer, my chances of having a stroke are higher than the average person. Although brain aneurysms and strokes are two different conditions (click on these two Wikipedia links for the early symptoms of each), they both result in brain injury. So it’s something I’ve thought about a great deal. How would I know that I was not just having a really bad migraine, but something far more serious? If it happened to me and I survived, how would I deal with my changed reality?
Nikki Palin’s story gives me some hope that the consequences may not be all bad. She has short-term memory problems now (she says “I’m not happy with it but I can live with it.”) , and her personality has changed quite radically (she says ” . . . I’m much happier now, I like myself much better, I think I’m a better person . . .“). As the presenter of the All In The Mind programme says “one hell of a glass half-full story“.
The story starts with this explanation from Hannah Palin:
Hannah Palin: Fifteen years ago my mother had a brain aneurysm when she was only 46 years old. I’ve come to refer to it as the Day My Mother’s Head Exploded. For those who don’t know — and I didn’t either — a brain aneurysm is a bulging spot on the wall of a brain artery, kind of like a thin balloon that can pop at the slightest provocation. When that happens 50% of people die within minutes.
The mother I grew up with died that day and was replaced by an entirely different person who just happens to have the same memories, and body, and family and address as my dead mother.
One of the most poignant (if that is the right word) quotes from the documentary is when Hannah Palin discusses what she’s learned from the experience. Something which I think not only applies to personal disaster like this one, but in the wake of the recent Japanese disaster, applies to us all.
Hannah Palin:You know you spend most of your life developing a persona that makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. The right clothes, attitude, outlook — and while it can be comfortable and secure it can also become a prison. When my mother’s head exploded she had a chance to start all over again, the slate was wiped clean, and for me too, really. In those months I became acutely aware of what was real, what was important, sitting at the hospital by my mother’s bedside — important; getting an audition for a telephone commercial — pointless. My mother’s illness was one of those moments when time stops, when normal disappears, when you marvel that everyone else in the world can still laugh and go to the movies and complain about the weather — that’s an explosion.
In those moments you can see life happen; it has clarity and meaning in the midst of all of its horror and pain. But then those moments pass and you’re consumed by the trivia of daily life once again. Sometimes when I’m overwhelmed by the task of making my way through the world I try to focus on the fact that the electric bill does not matter, the idiot glued to their cell phone does not matter, the mind-numbing day job truly does not matter. But welcoming the strange and the different, being open and available for my husband and my friends, my family, experiencing love and laughter as often as possible — that’s what matters, because it can all be taken away in one brilliant flash.
If you want to listen to the podcast, you can download the audio here or you can also read the transcript. I’d recommend listening to the audio version so that you can hear Nikki and Hannah’s voices tell the story.