One January morning in 2014, Christian Donlan lurched upright in bed and announced: “I think I’m having a heart attack…My hands feel like Pop-Tarts.”
In the wake of earlier symptoms, such as numbness, an occasional quaver in his voice, a new clumsiness mapped out on his body in bruises and a rushing sensation that he could only describe as “felt sounds in his spine”, this latest tingling was a serious wake-up call.
Donlan, now 39, was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis. Life in his recently purchased bungalow on the far outskirts of Brighton, with his wife Sarah and daughter Leon, carried on as normal. Yet nothing would be the same again. He would construct Lego towers during the day, and at night sizzle with energy in his search to find out as much as possible about the neurological phenomenon.
More than a century after the French neurologist Jean-Martin Charcot first described MS as “marked enfeeblement”, much about the life-altering disease remains mysterious (people talk of feeling moths on their skin as their eyelids spasm), insidious and incurable. MS can affect almost every part of the body, causing anything from gently prickling fingers to full-blown paralysis. In between you can get everything from incontinence to difficulty in swallowing, from fatigue to (in Donlan’s case) bursts of euphoria.
Yet “at its worst, multiple sclerosis is nothing,” he writes. “A literal nothingness: the stillness of spasticity, the quiet of an addled mind. Day to day, I sometimes feel I am chasing a little pool of nothingness around inside me, the way I might tilt an air bubble up and down through a spirit level. Sometimes it pools in the brain, a wordlessness, a theft of language that, on reflection, makes me wonder if I need nouns and verbs and adjectives in order to have any thoughts at all.”
All of which makes this memoir even more remarkable and revelatory. Donlan is not alone in finding his life shifting on its axis and also not alone in choosing to write a personal account of it (this is the sort of hybrid medical memoir that is proving popular on global bestseller lists), but I’m glad he did. The Unmapped Mind is a dazzling achievement.
Donlan, a freelance journalist and features editor at Eurogamer.net, charts the “perverse adventure of illness” alongside the “mysterious geometry” of new parenthood, a relationship that is made almost embarrassingly poignant by the fact that his daughter takes her first steps on the same day that he is diagnosed. It means that as Donlan (an anxious child who became a fretful man) starts to wobble, she is finding her feet and learning how to talk, while his universe starts to contract. Indeed, he ends up receiving treatment in the same NHS ward as his eldest brother, Ben, who was diagnosed with a brain tumour when he was 22.
Donlan monitors the jolting progression of the disease as symptoms flare up, fresh nerves ignite and new lesions show up on the MRI scan: double vision, a hallucination (or was the ghost real?), a stutter, his overblown blinkered egomania are all delicately described as he tries to navigate opposing sensations: “The fog of complete bewilderment, the toxic Zen of total comprehension.”
He meets fellow patients when he undergoes chemotherapy. One lady has a “taut, ruined grace to her”; and Edward “looks like he might work inside the head of a dandelion somewhere, his fine white hair a grasping of loose filaments as he tilts back and forth through the clear summer air”.
Throughout it all the tone is mainly that of kindness and keen observation, especially from his wonderfully grounded wife, and a deeper rekindling of his relationship with his father. That is not to say there are not some profound lows, including a trip to Ikea, when he found he “could not shake off this glimpse of the abyss that had opened up, so gapingly, in a suburb of Croydon”.
His latest wake-up call comes when he has to conclude that while his MS could always get worse, he has to concede that his handling of it should not deteriorate any further, both for his health and for the happiness of all those around him. “Remember that life is moments, that MS is a disease of the moments, and it says, in its swiping carelessness, that the moments matter.”
And that pretty much sums up Donlan’s unmapped mind and the power and beauty of his quietly electrifying memoir.
Viking £14.99 pp304