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Ulster writer Maggie O'Farrell recalls childhood illness that gave her zest for life

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Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel reveals her experiences of coping with the aftermath of a swelling on her brain when she was a child

Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel reveals her experiences of coping with the aftermath of a swelling on her brain when she was a child

Maggie O’Farrell’s new novel reveals her experiences of coping with the aftermath of a swelling on her brain when she was a child

A Coleraine author has told how contracting viral encephalitis at eight years old gave her "an insatiable desire" to embrace all that life could offer.

Maggie O'Farrell's new novel - I am, I am, I am: Seventeen Brushes with Death - reveals how a sudden swelling in her brain as a child meant she had to relearn how to walk, deal with classroom bullies and "exploit" life "for all it was worth".

The book, out today, is Costa Novel Award-winner O'Farrell's first work of non-fiction, and presents a frank account of a child readjusting to life limited by illness. Recalling her struggle to walk again in the Daily Mail's You magazine, Maggie described how she was the "only child in physiotherapy outpatients in 1981".

"There was hydrotherapy at a pool, where I was encouraged, again and again, to lift my foot on to a submerged step, in the hope that the surrounding water would offer the support my wasted limbs needed," she continued.

"Physiotherapy outpatients, the staff and the patients I met there, are the reason I am ambulatory today. That they didn't give up on me, that they believed I was capable of movement, of recovery, when the doctors didn't, meant that I walked. If someone says you can do something, if you see they really believe it, it puts that possibility within your grasp."

However, returning to school, O'Farrell was taunted badly.

"It gave me no preparation for what was waiting for me when I eventually went back to school, where people would call me a spaz, a moron, a joey, would demand to know what was wrong with me or what they would catch," she explained.

"Where people would trip me up just for a laugh, spit on me and pull my hair, tell me I was a retard. Where the education authorities agreed to move my classroom downstairs but not the lunch rooms, so every day I had the choice of either going without lunch or climbing the stairs the only way I could, on all fours, like a bear, like a baby, with the whole school watching."

O'Farrell says the illness left her with "shaky motor control", an occasional stammer and a weak left arm. Despite, or perhaps because of, her illness, she says she developed a "cavalier, even crazed, attitude to risk".

"I cycled blithely along what is dubbed South America's Most Dangerous Road, a vertiginous, crumbling track cut into a steep peak, the verge of which is liberally punctuated by shrines to those who have fallen to their deaths. I walked across frozen lakes. I swam in dangerous waters, both metaphorically and literally.

"I viewed my continuing life as an extra, a bonus: I could do with it what I wanted. And not only had I tricked death but I had escaped a fate of incapacity. What else was I going to do with my independence, my ambulatory state, except exploit it for all it was worth?"

Belfast Telegraph