Thursday, October 6, 2016

Intinn: The Worst Pain

I'd heard of chronic pain before. It was people with sore knees who couldn't walk long distances. And it only happened to people after a nasty accident or in old age. There were drugs for it. Of course there were. It was an inconvenience. But nothing to really worry about. 

In recent years though, I'd had a couple of episodes of poor health that suggested to me that suffering may not be so manageable. They were nothing too serious. In 2010, I had a dodgy stomach for about six weeks, which was almost funny really. After visiting Morocco two years ago, I got this really unpleasant feeling of having something caught in my esophagus. That lasted about a month. Make no mistake about it: these were not life changing experiences. But they did make me think a little differently. In both cases, I had the feeling that the Doctor didn't really know what was wrong with me.

I also recoiled when another friend told me about this acute and inexplicable back pain that left her incapacitated for about six weeks. 

Then, while looking around for another topic to make a podcast about, my friend John told me about a guy he had met at a party in London.I know what John is like at parties. He's especially interested in people he hasn't met before. Specifically, he finds out what their passion is, and then proceeds to harness it through insightful questioning, until he's thoroughly enlightened. He has a good time. 

At this particular party, John had talked to another Dermot. That one, unlike this one, was a facial pain specialist. Their conversation had left a real impression on John. More than usual. And he suggested I track Dermot down for an interview. So I did. 

Pearse and I went to his surgery in Dublin and interviewed him for about an hour and a half. I had done a little research beforehand, but the depth of his knowledge was intimidating. Through the course of our conversation though, it became obvious that Dermot had a particular interest in a condition called Trigeminal Neuralgia. Without going into it here, let's just call it "Hell On Earth", or maybe "Hell in your Face."  

Dermot helped us get in touch with TN sufferer Avril Hitchens, whose story underpins the episode. It's not exactly easy listening, but I think there's a lot to be learned from it. Our aim was to strike a balance between Avril's personal story and Dermot's medical expertise. The sum of the parts is a harrowing account of one person's experience with chronic pain, and how pain itself, in general terms, is still quite mysterious. At the end of the day, people with chronic pain seem to be the real authority on what works, and what doesn't. 

On this episode, we had a total of three interviewees, as well as our own two voices. So there was a lot more weaving involved than Addiction. From a production standpoint, Pearse demonstrated a real getting to grips with things. Let's just say if he wasn't involved, this whole project would be limited to me watching YouTube about how to turn on a microphone.

The same John who started the ball rolling was also the one who put us in touch with Niamh Purcell, who's illustrations, such as above, are truly excellent.   

October 7 is International Trigeminal Neuralgia Awareness day and, in conjunction with Sarah Heavey and everyone at TN Ireland, we are looking to spread the word as much as jpossible. Look out for buildings around the country being lit up in the colour teal. And, of course, please listen in - Intinn: The Worst Pain

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Intinn: Addiction

Intinn is the Irish word for mind. It's also the name of a radio documentary series that I've been working on for a few years. Yes I know. It shouldn't take that long to make podcasts. But it has. The project is the brainchild of Pearse O'Caoimh, a lifelong acquaintance with whom I have shared many's a moment. His work in the world of radio/podcast is fruitful. Intinn is just one example. 

As is so often the case with creative endeavours, our list of suggested topics seemed at first endless, bristling with potential. Each meeting seemed to end with a sense of real affirmation.

"Yeah.. Definitely!"

"I'll email you!!"

"Have a great weekend!!!"

There were a few of these morale boosting coming-togethers before we set down to the nitty and gritty of actually putting something together. 

At first, the thinking was that we'd make something about gambling and/or online gambling. The approach would be holistic, with one part dealing specifically with brain mechanics and how they become altered by addiction. That was my particular brief.

So I set about tackling issues that most definitely did not tally with my skill-set. Science was always a weakness in education. So sifting through articles about the latest advancements in our understanding of the brain was always going to be a challenge. I spent days staring at my laptop trying to make sense of a language loaded with terms I'd heard of, but never really grasped.

Neurotransmitters, opioids, dopamine... ??

Slowly though, a picture started to emerge. In cognitive terms, the crux of addiction seemed to rest on an obscurity between "liking" and "wanting". 

There is, of course, a lot more to it than that. And by now it was clear that the ins and outs of the hijacked brain were holistic enough by themselves. The brain, it seemed, was enough to analyse. 

The American voice is that of scientist Dana Smith. Being able to get in touch with her, interview her and use her contribution in the final piece is a testament to the times we live in. I began on Twitter..

We interviewed Dana using Skype recording software called Pamela. It was a while ago now but I remember being extremely nervous. The notion of talking to an expert about neurology was daunting. Afterwards, Pearse and I noted that we had actually not heard her opening answers, so conscious were we about how we appeared to her. But after calming down and listening back to everything she said, we knew we had something we could build the piece around. 

Once we recorded the basic tracks, we started adding sound effects. Pearse showed a lot of originality on this one. I think he got a real kick about making our own effects. Most of what can be heard, and there is a lot, is very much DIY.

The music was composed by Colm O'Caoimh, Leo Pearson and Andy Byrne. In those early stages, Andy was also leaned upon heavily as Pearse and I struggled to figure out why “that microphone isn't responding”, or problems to that effect. When you embark on a project like this, it's helpful to know people whose help turns stubborn impasses into temporary stalls.

Colm and Leo's soundtrack captures the mood of the piece superbly. Certain parts remind me of something like On The Run from The Dark Side Of The Moon. They probably knew that I'd be easily bought in that respect.

There's also voice acting from Michael Norton. He's the one who asks the free-flowing tour guide “where the jacks is” and encourages the addicted user to “Go on... Just one more time”. Recording those parts was definitely the funniest part of our experience.

That Intinn is online at all is very much down to another old friend of mine, John Roche. John had originally planned to set up the site himself and had gone a long way to doing as much. Unfortunately, he was unable to keep it up because of doing too many things that he actually gets paid for. But he was able to direct me in setting up the site on Squarespace. John also called in help from illustrators Colm Brennan and Halley-Anne Kennedy. Their work, which is on the finished site, speaks for itself. A list of credits is in the About section

The second episode of Intinn will be online soon. In the meantime, if you care enough to have read this far, you might as well listen in on number one.