Monday 20 November 2017

'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

Edel Coffey

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.

Liz as a toddle

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."

Four-year-old Liz

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.

It was at this time that Liz started to think about what she would really like to do with her life. "I was in and out of hospital and I thought, 'what do I want to do when I grow up?' I wanted to be an actress. I signed up with the newly opened Gaiety School of Acting.

"Fortunately, I realised I was rubbish at acting but I really loved the theatre and would read plays for pleasure. I started going as much as I could and then I got into stage management."

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.

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

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

By 1997, she was working as a production manager with 'Riverdance' and touring the world with the production. She met her husband, Richard, when they were preparing to open the Broadway show in 2000 and three weeks later, they had moved into a house together in Dublin. They married in 2007.

As technology started to become a part of everyday working life, Liz started to use computers. At first, this presented problems. "I had always avoided a job where I had to use a computer because I couldn't, but by 1999/2000 you had to type up a show report and fax it back to Dublin. This was before email was very common."

Once Liz had to use a computer, she found that she could type with one hand and suddenly writing became possible. "I didn't think it was possible beforehand. I knew submissions had to be typed and I couldn't afford to dictate something to someone, it just didn't seem possible. I bought my own laptop in 1999 and I thought I was the bee's knees.

"I had always been scribbling but I never finished anything because I didn't think there was any point. But the first thing I ever wrote was a piece for RTE's 'Sunday Miscellany' in 2002/2003 and that gave me the confidence."

By that time she had left the world of theatre and was working as a story associate on 'Fair City'. During her time there she was commissioned to write a five-part animation series for TG4 and also wrote a full-length radio play.

Liz making her Confirmation with her school, Holy Child, Killiney

Liz making her Confirmation with her school, Holy Child, Killiney

She went on to win a European Broadcasting Union competition for a TV pilot and had a short story shortlisted for the Francis McManus competition. That story stayed in her head and wouldn't leave her alone. It began to grow and eventually became her debut novel, 'Unravelling Oliver', which has just been published by Penguin Ireland.

With no cure, so to speak, for dystonia, Liz's treatment focuses on the symptoms. However, since the discovery of Botox's positive effects on muscle spasms, things have improved. She jokes that her Botox treatment doesn't have any rejuvenating effects on her arm and leg.

"My right arm and right leg look exactly the same age as my left. It's the only really effective treatment for spasms. I go to St Vincent's one day every month. It's given me a lot more freedom.

"I used to have to get physiotherapy once a week and I don't have to now. I would disappear from work at lunchtime and have therapy and come back exhausted having done all these exercises. That went on for years. Now I don't think I've been for physiotherapy in five months."

With her first book now under her belt, Liz says in some ways her condition has shaped her writing style. "Because it takes more physical energy, the words cost me so much, I don't use any padding. Everything is fairly crucial to the plot. I don't like to waste words."

'Unravelling Oliver' by Liz Nugent is published by Penguin Ireland

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