Sunday 28 December 2014

'Dystonia didn't stop me becoming a writer'

A childhood fall left writer Liz Nugent with a neurological disorder. She tells how it shaped her life

Liz Nugent. Photo: Ronan Lang
Liz Nugent. Photo: Ronan Lang
Liz making her Confirmation with her school, Holy Child, Killiney
As a teenager on holidays in Skibbereen with her mum and gran
Four-year-old Liz
Liz as a toddle

Most children have taken a reckless slide down the banisters in childhood but few have seen their high jinks ended as catastrophically as Liz Nugent.

Liz grew up in Dublin, the fifth of six children. When she was six years old, she fell from the banisters, landing on her head.

"I had a brain haemorrhage as a result of my slide down the banisters. I had the effects of a stroke. It's to do with nerves and muscles and how they react with each other. The messages that the brain is sending are distorted so your limbs don't work as they should."

When Liz recovered, she found that after months of painful physiotherapy she could no longer write. "I was a voracious reader and I had just learned to write. Suddenly, I could no longer write. When I picked up a pen it would just tear through the page because the hand would spasm. I was writing upside down for a few months."

She had spasms and contractions in her right leg, which meant that her right foot dragged and she describes herself as walking as if one leg were shorter than the other.

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Liz as a toddler

Physically, there were some remaining effects of Liz's haemorrhage but many remained dormant. She never regained the full power of her right hand but, gradually, her left hand took over.

"That's the amazing power of the brain," she says. "It will find a way to do something even if you can't do it. Even if my writing was illegible or upside down, I was still going to do it."

When she finished school, Liz went to London where she got a job as an assistant buyer in a construction company during the mid-1980s building boom.

One night, at the age of 20, she fell in the shower. "I dislocated my kneecap and set off a chain of reactions of spasms up my right leg. It completely contorted itself."

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Four-year-old Liz

Unable to work, or walk, Liz returned to Dublin and spent the best part of a year in and out of hospital having unsuccessful operations until she was finally diagnosed with dystonia, a neurological disorder that affects the muscles. She was left with a serious limp.

She began to work as a freelance stage manager on profit-share shows, which she says usually meant that there was no profit at all and everyone worked for free, but eventually she began working for professional theatre companies, including the Gate Theatre in Dublin.

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As a teenager on holidays in Skibbereen with her mum and gran

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