Brain Attack Music

A true story of stroke survival

Tomorrow Never Knows

First things first, let’s be clear – ‘fatigue’ is NOT the same thing as ‘tiredness’.  I used to think it was.  Synonyms as far as I was concerned.  I now know better.  With tiredness, you go and have a rest, have a wee nap and you feel better.  Fatigue is totally different.  Rest will not help.  Sometimes it does, but very often it does not.  With fatigue, you may feel better in a few hours, maybe the next day, or maybe not for several days.  There is no logic to it, it’s not predictable, there’s no pattern.  I have tried to explain this to many people but most don’t understand.  In situations where I am starting to feel fatigued and I mention this, someone will say something like, “Have a lie down for a few minutes”.  Of course, they are very well meaning, but when I explain this won’t help I am met with a blank look.

In situations of ABI (Acquired Brain Injury, like stroke or brain attack), the fatigue will be mental as well as physical, due to the damage the brain has suffered.  I can only explain things from my experience.  In a post-brain attack world, everything takes much, much longer to do than before the brain injury.  For me, just taking a shower is a huge, physical effort.  After I’ve showered, I will often need to lie down for an hour or two (maybe longer) in order to recover from the physical effort.  However, this is reasonably manageable compared to mental fatigue.  I had never experienced mental fatigue until after my brain attack.  The way I explain it is that my brain gets totally overwhelmed.  It happens when it’s had too much sensory input, so this can be anything that involves brain activity, particularly vision and sound.  My ‘bandwidth’ to cope with sensory input has been hugely diminished, and when I reach the point of being overwhelmed I just ‘shut down’.  This is my wife’s expression, as by the time I get to this point I’m not aware – I’ve just turned into some kind of zombie!

As you will know by now, music is a huge part of my life.  When I was in hospital, my wife bought in my iPod, so I could listen to as much music as I wanted.  I was so excited when she bought this in to me.  What an opportunity!  I could catch up on all those albums I’d bought that hadn’t yet listened to.  Brilliant!  (One of the downsides of earning your living through music is that when you have some time to yourself you rarely feel like listening to yet more music.  I guess this is why professional decorators have walls that badly need decorating; coals to Newcastle, and all that).  However, my excitement was short-lived and then doused with a huge dollop of my new reality.  I plugged in my headphones and dialled up and old favourite – ‘Following Ghosts’ by Galahad.  Start with something familiar.  I lasted less than two minutes before I had to hit ‘pause’.  Boy, did that give me a headache.  And it left me feeling just plain awful.  Really ill.  Sick to the stomach.  The next day when I felt able to cope, I tried a classic – ‘Dark Side Of The Moon’ by Pink Floyd – can’t go wrong there, that’ll work, I know it really well (I used to play in a Floyd tribute band so know every note), I love the music, it’s reasonably laid back, perfect choice.  Same thing happened, two minutes in and I had to stop it.  Just an awful, awful racket.  (Oi - you just called one of your favourite albums of all time “a racket”.  What’s going on?).  Dave, Nick, Roger, Rick (RIP) – sorry boys, but it was a racket!  The next day, I tried yet again, determined to be able to listen to something.  What would I not find uneasy listening?  Best avoid early Genesis, Yes, Big Big Train, Porcupine Tree, Spock’s Beard, any intricate stuff.  Same with jazz, unless it’s a bit of Miles, maybe ‘In A Silent Way’?  Or possibly something acoustic?  Emily Barker and The Red Clay Halo?  The Unthanks?  The Henry Girls?  Oooo, I know.  Mozart.  String quartets.  How soothing is that?  How about No. 18 to start with?  Yep, perfect.  Wolfgang Amadeus, what a bloody racket, mate.  Two minutes and you’re off.  Rubbish!

It was about then that I realised I had a problem.  For me, a big one.  I could not bear to listen to music.  It was just too much.  It made my head throb, it made me really knackered, it frustrated me, it made me feel nauseous, it even made me grumpy.  What the hell was going on?  I got home after 3 weeks in hospital feeling very confused.  I love music.  I have always loved music.  The recorder group and choir at primary school, aged 8.  Loved it.  Learning the violin, aged 10 (really only because Rosalind Cartwright was learning it, too!).  Loved it.  Listening to Alan Freeman on the radio, aged 13 (“Alright, pop pickers?  Not half!”).  Loved it.  Led Zeppelin, Yes, ELP, David Bowie – ah, the 70s!  Marvellous.  But now?  Horrible.  Awful.  Painful, in every sense.

I now know that the damage to my brain had ‘blown’ some circuits that had drastically reduced my ‘bandwidth’.  For a musician, listening to music is work.  It’s a job to which we apply a professional ear.  Well, 2, in fact.  We hear all sorts of things in the music that an non-musician doesn’t.  We ‘tune in’ to different frequencies.  We can separate out the different instruments in our heads.  I can separate out the guitar, the bass, the keyboards, the vocals.  Heck, I can even separate out the individual drums, so I can listen to the bass drum and focus on the drummer’s right foot movement.  What I can’t do is just let music ‘wash over’ me.  For me, listening to music is an active experience.  My wife, as an example (a non-musician but with a fine appreciation of music), can hear music.  That is to say, a passive activity.  It’s just around her, like the air she breathes.  For me, though, I can only listen to music (an active activity).  I analyse it, dissect it, focus on chords, melodies, time signatures, the arrangement, the structure, the musicians technique, etc.  The issue for me is that, in my post-brain attack world, this is just too much work for my brain and so it overloads.  I cannot cope so it just shuts down.  It gets fatigued, in the same way that metal gets fatigued over the years and eventually breaks or becomes brittle.  Mental fatigue.  You can’t see it and it’s very difficult for the sufferer to detect.  I have been trying to develop an ‘early warning system’, so I can preempt going into shut-down mode.  So far, after 3 years of trying, I am unsuccessful at detecting the signs of this fatigue, but I’m getting a little better at it.  (The good news is that I can listen to music again, but I have to be selective in what I listen to, and when).  Maybe I just need a few more years practice . . .

Until next time,


“Lay down all thoughts, surrender to the void”.