HEALTH; The hole story of my life

Bizarrely, some people believe drilling a hole in your skull leads to mental liberation. Jenny Gathorne-Hardy describes her experience of an odd practice with a long record
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS a quick decision to get trepanned. I met Joe Mellen a year ago and my first thought on meeting him was how very normal he seemed. I was taken aback, for normality and drilling a hole in one's head are not as a rule associated. It was this very ordinariness that prompted me to question him on the quite horrific-sounding operation he and his former partner Amanda Feilding had performed on themselves almost 30 years ago.

He told me that with a special drill used in surgical operations he had drilled a hole of approximately six millimetres in diameter through his skull to allow the brain to pulsate again. Grimacing, I asked if it had been painful. "Not at all," he said.

I didn't relish the thought of his DIY surgery, to put it mildly, and if it hadn't been for something about him I would have refrained from taking the subject any further. All the while he had been speaking, however, I'd become more and more aware of a kind of energy in him, a vitality and freshness one normally associates with youth - not with a 56-year- old man. There was a clearness in his eyes and he exuded a sort of lightness that I've rarely seen in an adult before. It was for these reasons that my attention remained held. I wondered if trepanation could have any bearing on these attributes.

He certainly thinks so. He believes the theory that the sealing of the sutures in the skull at around the ages of 18 to 21 prevents the brain from pulsating with the heartbeat. With this the ability of the blood to reach to topmost part of the brain - the outer cortex, used to speak and think and give meaning to the world - diminishes. Suddenly, unlike in childhood, the only way to keep the blood up there is by thinking. If we stopped thinking and lost this language centre we would be incapacitated. Life would have no meaning and we would have no memory of how to survive it. This is a terrifying thought and the human being is clever enough to prevent it from happening. He continually ensures a considerable amount of energy is used for and remains available for thinking. This, in turn, robs him of that energy he once had for other things and at the same time prevents him from relaxing with such ease. The need to keep thinking is a continual source of stress.

Over the next few meetings with Joe I became more and more intrigued. Finally, I felt the only way to test the theory would be to get trepanned. I can see that this might seem an extremely reckless move, to say the least, but he was talking about something I could identify with completely - the pressure of constant thinking, the familiar mental fatigue that accompanied me through each day, a general feeling that life was pretty much an uphill struggle. And the trepanationists were giving a reason for it that made absolute sense, saying too that the condition could be relieved in a matter of minutes. I talked in detail about the operation and could see how simple it was, but I certainly hadn't the courage (some would say foolhardiness) to perform it on myself. I find it difficult enough removing a thorn from my foot, let alone a drill from my head.

Since no doctor would do it, I asked Joe if he would consider trepanning me. He declined, saying his function was to teach it, not to do it.

I was undeterred. In a few days I had thought of somebody else who might do it for me, an old friend whom I felt sure would be attracted to the idea. I'd not seen Dave for years but something brought him to mind. Amazingly, after meeting Joe and talking at length to him about the concept, and about the operation itself, he agreed to trepan me. It was an extraordinary act of courage for which I am forever grateful.

The week before was devoted to buying the necessary equipment. Trepanning is done with a special surgical drill designed to prevent penetration of soft tissue once through the skull. By Thursday we had bought everything we needed. The only thing left was for Dave to practise with the drill. Someone had given him an old human skull to use, so with Joe's assistance he was able to become completely familiar with the procedure. On the Friday evening everything was prepared and ready for the following day.

While Dave practised on the skull, I bleached and arranged the room we'd decided to use. By the end of the evening it looked like a Victorian operating theatre. A table, strong enough for me to lie on, was cushioned and covered in clean sheets. A table next to it was also covered in a white sheet and held the surgical equipment: scalpel, syringe, bottles of sterilising fluid, metal trays, etc. In the middle of the table sat the skull Dave had been using. It became more and more like a scene out of Frankenstein, and although tension was mounting, we couldn't help seeing the funny side of it.

The three of us met the following morning. Neither Dave nor I was able to look at one another: I didn't want to acknowledge the fear in his eyes reflecting my own fear. We changed into a spare, clean set of clothes. Joe and Dave kept their hair back with transparent shower caps, rather uncomfortably adding to the surreal quality of the scene. After much washing of hands and arms Dave shaved a patch of hair about the size of a 50p piece, from my head and bandaged the rest to keep the hair away. When he'd finished I looked like a boiled egg waiting to be eaten.

Suddenly I felt the most tremendous wave of terror. As the three of us entered our sterilised operating theatre, Dave and Joe in their shower caps and surgical gloves, and the skull on the table, I remember thinking: "I am in the hands of two madmen. Joe is a psychopath and Dave is simply a murderer." I lay down on the bed and each of them gave my hand a last reassuring squeeze. I closed my eyes. Dave was preparing the local anaesthetic and I was imagining Christopher Lee appearing at the door, holding in one hand the drill and in the other a brain in a jar marked "Abnormal".

I needn't have worried. The operation could not have been easier or quicker or more painless. Once the area had been anaesthetised it was a short while before it felt completely numb. There was absolutely no pain as the drill went through; the only discomfort was the loud noise resounding in my ears. The strangest feeling came from sensing the drill coming towards me as it moved through my skull; it was almost as if I was watching it. Simultaneously I had the clearest sensation that "I" is something inside my brain, not part of my skull at all.

Although the speed of the drill was kept extremely low, it was a short time before Dave was through. He removed the drill immediately and Joe came over to check and confirmed that he had done it. The drilling had taken little more than three minutes. The procedure had been as simple as we'd been told, proving to Dave and me that penetration of the brain had been an unnecessary fear.

I was lying on the bed and listening to the silence. The sun shone brightly through the window behind me. I couldn't believe it was all over. Tension had evaporated: there was just gentle murmuring from Dave and Joe as the wound was dressed and the old bandages removed. "There you are," Dave said, "all finished." I could feel him smiling.

Ten minutes later we'd cleaned and cleared up. Feelings of elation and relief filled the flat. A friend turned up and said it felt as though something had been set free. I was making tea for everyone and rapidly tidying up. I felt energetic and light. I don't know at this point if this was due to the hole in my skull or solely a result of the tremendous relief. Either way I was feeling extremely well and strangely buoyant.

Over the next few hours I began to feel a subtle but distinct change. It was as though for years I'd been a puppet with my head hung down, and now the puppeteer had taken hold of my head string and was gently pulling it up again. I felt a clarity and a gradual boosting of energy that didn't leave or diminish as time went by. I expected, and was waiting for, a mental "drop", but it never came.

In four days the wound had healed and on the fifth day I was on a plane to Thailand, a hair clip strategically pinned to the right side of my head. By the seventh day I was swimming in the sea and the memory of the week before was becoming more and more a surreal dream.

Three months later, the energy and clarity remain. I feel calmer and that particular mental exhaustion I became so used to has gone.

There is only one other person I have met with a stamina similar in quality to Joe's. It turns out that he, like a small percentage of the population, has a metopic skull, that is a skull in which the sutures never seal. Isn't it time research was done into the subject? !