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A singular Christmas case

Nicholas Surridge  worked as a GP in Catford, SE London. He is currently an actor with the Canterbury Shakespeare Festival and Captain Breadbeard (captainbreadbeard.com)

 

The case

It is now more than twenty years since I was a Psych SHO at the Wenceslas Asylum. A 35-year-old man, Deepak Crispin Nevans who had recently moved to the area was admitted in mid-December with what was thought to be catatonic depression. He had shown symptoms for two weeks with sudden onset and no previous history of mental illness.

Once in hospital, Deepak remained uncommunicative with flat affect, apart from occasional agitated exclamations. Sometimes these seemed positive:” Open your eyes”, “A ray of hope”, “Look to the future now!” Mostly they appeared to be random words; “Terrible stammer”, “Thought control”, “Clown,” Puppet”, April Fool” He was not responding to treatment and was refusing to eat and drink.

A diagnostic breakthrough

The diagnostic breakthrough happened one morning as I was passing Deepak in the ward. He shouted out “A woman’s needs are manifold!”

Such a curious expression. From my youth I remembered Benny Hill’s novelty song and I triumphantly declared “His name was Ernie!” Deepak’s head momentarily raised as he responded, “And he drove the fastest milk cart in the West.”

I could not recall any more lyrics from this or any other songs by Benny Hill (some might say to my credit) and I was at a loss how to proceed. Remarkably Deepak took the lead and suggested furtively, “We don’t need no education?”  “We don’t need no thought control”, I immediately replied, as his head dropped again.

Remembering that Deepak had shouted out “Thought Control“ previously, I consulted his notes to check his other recorded exclamations. Could they all be song lyrics? With this new insight some of the random phrases became instantly recognisable. Sitting next to Deepak I intoned the immortal words of Lily the Pink, “Mr Freers had sticky out ears”. “And it made him awful shy” was his muted reply.

“I’ll be your clown or your puppet or your April fool”, I tried. “Cut my hair or even wear a mask” Deepak responded with, I thought, the hint of a smile. Thank you, Little Jimmy Osmond. As I left, I heard him mumble “There’s no-one quite like Grandma.”

To identify the songs Deepak was obsessing about and find a pattern was challenging in those far-off days before the internet, but once I had identified Jonny Mathis and Slade I wondered if Christmas was the common factor.

Hypothesis testing

The following day as I sat with Deepak , I tried “Mary’s boy child, Jesus Christ?” Immediately Deepak intoned “Was born on Christmas day.”

“Christmastime?”, I offered. “Mistletoe and Wine” Deepak replied, with a flick of eye contact.

“I wish it could be Christmas every day!” I confidently declared, but there was no response. I checked my Guinness Book of British Hit Singles. Unbelievably, Wizzard only reached No 4 in the 1973 Christmas Chart. Could Deepak be fixated only on those Christmas singles that reached the number one spot?

“Mull of Kintyre” I suggested. “Oh mist rolling in from the sea” he agreed.

I tested my theory with Dave Edmunds’ “I hear you knocking” and received the welcome response “but you can’t come in.” To my surprise and joy, Deepak reached out his hand and rested it on mine. “Is this the real life? Is this just fantasy?” he asked.

“It’s Christmastime, there’s no need to be afraid” I replied, as reassuringly as I could.

With a wistful smile he said, “There’s no one quite like Grandma.”

Over the next few hours, I was able to confirm that Deepak responded only to songs that reached the top the UK singles chart at Christmas.  With no response to Tom Jones or Shakin’ Stevens I could further refine this to specifically the hits of seventeen consecutive years.

The psychodynamics (clue – it’s always the family)

When on the following day I asked Deepak’s wife about Christmas records, much became clear.

“That’s what he must have been looking for in the roof when he had that funny turn” she declared. “He had a case of 7” singles he used to get out at Christmas.  I didn’t pack them when we moved. It’s all CDs now, isn’t it? His Granny used to buy him one every Christmas from when he was a nipper up till she died.”

“That must have been in 1985” I suggested, “the year after Band Aid?”

Psychotherapeutic action research*  **

If Deepak’s condition was caused by the loss of his record collection the next step was to try to reconstruct it. After a trip to Vintage Viny, I could place The Flying Pickets and Mud into Deepak’s hands and watch his body visibly relax. The ward staff became involved looking out for more records and the search spread through the whole hospital. When someone finally admitted to having a copy of Renée and Renato the set was complete.

Deepak frequently handled and studied his records as he slowly recovered over the next few days. He explained, as his communication improved, that it was not that he needed to play them, but it was their loss that had so affected him, reawakening again the grief he had felt at the death of his favourite grandparent.

St Winifred’s School Choir were profoundly correct: There’s no-one quite like Grandma.

 

*Approved by the Wenceslas Asylum REC.

**NB: Allegations of bribing the REC with flesh, wine and pine logs were never proven.

Featured photo by Kevin Maillefer on Unsplash

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