Surviving a Mystery Illness—with a Little Help from Her Dad
My father is a kind and intelligent man, so the doctors must have presented a convincing case to get him to agree to have my mother's brain lightning-bolted with electricity. Because agree he did. And from this improper care, a family legend was born: My mother was crazy. I not only bought into this myth, but also harbored a fear that I was destined to become crazy, too. So part of me wasn't surprised when, in January 2008, the prophecy began to bear fruit.
It was after midnight when I called my father. My heart had been racing for several days. I was tired, yet my nervous system was locked in go, go, go. My skin had turned yellow, the whites of my eyes appeared gray, and my normally pink nail beds were colorless. Though not usually one to shed tears, I couldn't stop crying. The room was flipping over. My short-term memory had all but disappeared; when I took my daily walk, I was unable to find my way home, even from a block away.
Also the pain was back. Since the late '90s, when a tabletop in a furniture showroom fell on my head, I'd experienced bouts of debilitating physical agony. Now it felt like my head was locked in an ever-tightening vice.
My 80-year-old father was not unaccustomed to my calling and asking him to bail me out. In high school, I'd sneaked out many times to clubs and parties from which he often had to collect me. At 20, when I dropped out of college and moved to New York City without a job or a contact, he was my financial and emotional support system. So though it had been a while, he knew to take a midnight phone call from me in stride. But on this night, something in my voice concerned him enough that he lurched out of bed, leaving my 79-year-old mother, who'd been healthy and self-sufficient for decades, and drove an hour to my house in his pajamas. He ended up staying three months.
"It's connected to the head injury," I'd say, as red-hot adrenaline shot up my arms. "Yes. And we're going to fix it," he would say in his charcoal London baritone.
I wasn't sure either of us was right. I'd never told anyone about my mother's hospitalization, in part out of respect for her privacy and in part because I feared they would start to see me as I saw myself—teetering on the brink. I'd gone to therapy diligently for years, working to stay sane. Now I worried it had all been for naught.
Every day, every hour, I would ask my father, "Am I going crazy?" By which I meant: Am I fulfilling my role in our lineage? Each time, he would reply, "Absolutely not." By which he meant: I won't let that happen again.
After he arrived, every week involved a visit to some sort of doctor. I told each one about the head injury. I explained that I'd lived through crushing headaches before, and though I'd never experienced symptoms this severe or wide-ranging, I knew the old injury was to blame. Doctor after doctor dismissed my self-diagnosis with a hastily scrawled prescription for a psychotropic drug. A few suggested I try not to think so much.
But my father stood by me. Every morning he made me oatmeal; lunch was always a cheddar and avocado sandwich lovingly cut into fours. On Sundays, he'd drive to his house to pick up enough of my mother's home-cooked dinners to get us through the week. When the adrenaline rushes were particularly bad, he ran with me around the kitchen table and up and down the stairs until the surges dissipated. At night he sat in the rocking chair beside my bed and read to me from Winnie-the-Pooh. More complicated plot lines confused me.
Lakeside in Michigan, 1962. Photo: Courtesy of Jane Ratcliffe.
On gray, slushy afternoons, my father would tell literal war stories—how, as a child, he'd been evacuated from London and separated from his family. And for the first time, he told me that when he and my mother arrived in America in 1954, the job he'd been promised didn't exist. So he'd trudged up and down the streets of Detroit in a woolen English suit during a muggy August, making inquiries at auto-engineering firms. "I was disconsolate," he told me. We all suffer, he seemed to be saying. You haven't been singled out.
He also encouraged me to think positively and have patience. Thanks to his profession, he had a cache of car analogies about bringing the "vehicle" into balance. He repeated them so often that I could soon speak with some authority about carburetors, pistons, and cracked aprons.
Above my kitchen sink, he posted three dots and a dash: Morse code for the letter V, echoing Winston Churchill's World War II–era V-for-victory sign. His daughter, too, would rise again.
On my worst nights, I rushed to my father in tears, wondering whether I should, at last, go to the emergency room. He'd gaze thoughtfully at me and say no. Then he would tell me a story. The evenness of his voice, coupled with his very presence, helped me feel as good as I was able to. But the next day, the cycle would begin again: "It's the head injury," I'd say. "Yes." "Am I going crazy?" "No." I didn't want to let him down.
At times I would imagine my mother in a hospital robe, being led by a stern-faced nurse down a narrow green hall to a room where she would be instructed to lie on a bed, her heart racing. There, they'd strap down her wrists and ankles, preparing her head for the electrodes. Then the image would change; it was me being led down that hall.
One day my father took me to see yet another physician. We drove an hour to Dr. Denton's office in my dad's Crown Victoria. Along the side of the road, daffodils were in bloom. The doctor, a small, straight-backed man of few words, actually believed me. In his office, my father and I finally saw an X-ray of my head and neck. It turned out my original injury hadn't healed properly, and my head was on crooked, reducing the oxygen supply to my brain.
"Worst case I've seen in 28 years," Dr. Denton said, indicating the precarious angle at which my skull was perched on my spine. (How had I not noticed this in a mirror? How had friends and family missed it? Why hadn't the previous doctors known that symptoms of anxiety are uncannily similar to those of insufficient oxygen to the brain?) "You must have a strong will," Dr. Denton told me. "Otherwise I don't know how you've been functioning." I glanced at my father, who gave me a nod of camaraderie. I wasn't crazy after all.
As my body slowly healed—with the help of Dr. Denton, chiropractors, and craniosacral therapy (no surgery or braces, yet)—I often wondered why my dad had been so keen to keep me away from the emergency room. Did he worry that if the ER workers—trained to view the world as, well, an emergency—had seen me in that state, there was a good chance I'd have been whisked away like my mother?
On the ride home from Dr. Denton's office, I gazed out the window at the passing flowers, so bright on that rare day of Michigan sun. "Thank you," I said, turning to my dad. By which I meant: for believing me. He looked surprised. "You're welcome," he said. By which he meant: I knew better this time.
We're all marked by stories—bad decisions, missed opportunities, mistakes made in distress. But sometimes, with luck and love, our histories can be transformed into the medicine that makes us whole.
Jane Ratcliffe is working on her first memoir.