How her neurological condition inspired author Andrea J. Buchanan to write
Acclaimed author Andrea J. Buchanan was simply crossing the street one March day in 2015 when she had a severe coughing fit. After breathing normally again, she did not think much until she later found out it was something serious that would dramatically impact her health, state of mind and her family.
Buchanan had been feeling off that morning, already worrying about her fever-stricken son, whether she was succeeding enough as a mother and undergoing a divorce.
Buchanan visited the Guilderland Public Library on Tuesday, April 10 at 7 p.m. which was part of the New York State Writers Institute’s Visiting Writers series.
She spoke candidly with members of the public about her condition, her slow recovery and how she turned that painful experience into writing. This resulted in the book, “The Beginning of Everything.”
She revealed that her coughing fits gravely led to her cerebrospinal fluid seeping out of a minute tear in her dura mater, being the scientific term for the membrane blanketing the brain and spinal cord.
Her condition worsened as her brain painfully sank to the skull’s base.
She said that her condition is not well known in the public and medical field.
“A lot of times when women go to doctors with symptoms of pain, they’re not necessarily believed. It’s like you come across as an unreliable narrator in your own life,” she said. “The pain is so invisible, especially with head pain. It’s not something you can see. You can’t see a brain injury. So, it was difficult to be taken seriously.”
She also said that it was hard to “find a place of expertise to treat this…It took nine months to get into Duke University where the doctors and radiologists there had the expertise, experience and knowledge to fix this.”
Having written books prior, she worried that she would not be able to write again or fully be there for her family, especially since she and her husband were undergoing divorce at the time.
She had to learn that patience was essential in her recovery.
During the first full year of recovery while being treated at Duke University, she recalled mostly resting in bed and regaining her lifelong ability to play the piano, which she’d feared she’d lost after her condition.
She is indeed a professionally-trained pianist, holding “a bachelor of music degree in piano performance from the Boston Conservatory of Music and a master’s in piano performance from the San Francisco Conservatory.” She had also played her last recital at the prestigious Carnegie Hall’s Weill Recital Hall in Manhattan, New York.
Buchanan explained how the human brain processes two kinds of memory: implicit and explicit.
Implicit is unconscious memory, where the person automatically remembers certain facts or skills by heart, like their own name and in Buchanan’s case, her love for writing and playing piano.
Explicit is conscious memory, where the person has to actively use “energy” for their brain to remember or process something, like a newly-learned fact or less important skills.
She wrote in her book how she could not make many explicit memories due to her sunken brain’s state but her implicit memory remained.
This made it easier for her to slowly continue playing the piano and write in time, which she personally cherished with immense gratitude, previously fearing she’d lose who she was intrinsically.
With more practice and aid from Duke University, her body slowly recovered.
Although she did not detail how Duke University specifically treated her during her visit, she believed the underlying issue was how the medical field should be aware of her condition and not reject similar victims with invisible pain stories.
She noted that she learned about other victims’ journeys, particularly actor George Clooney in the mid-2000s, who’d discussed in interviews then how he almost considered taking his own life because of the sheer pain.
“It’s so bad George Clooney has it,” she half-joked, eliciting audience laughter.
She also credited her supportive family for helping her recover and regain her life back.
After chuckling that she’d initially thought of naming her book, “Leak Year,” she reiterated that there’s “so much we don’t know about the brain that it’s fascinating” and she’s thrilled to share her experiences through her writing.