How Al Pacino came to my rescue

Life with a disability can sometimes give rise to unspoken questions and sensitivities, but amid the awkwardness there can be humour. The following is an edited version of a sketch performed by Frank Burton, who has non-epileptic attack disorder, at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

Illustration of Frank Burton thinking of the Al Pacino film Scarface Image copyright Geraint Hacking

I'd like to tell you about the time I was sitting in the corner of a pub blurting out the titles of Al Pacino movies, while patting my head and rubbing my stomach.

I'd probably better put this in context. I have Non-Epileptic Attack Syndrome, a condition which causes me to have partial seizures, leaving me unable to walk and half-conscious, although I can still respond up to a point.

It's a bit like being struck by lightning. Not necessarily in terms of the physical impact but the randomness, as they can hit whenever and wherever I am.

If you watch out for the warning signs, such as dizziness, you can prevent yourself from having an attack by engaging the left and right side of the brain to stop it from shutting down and helping you to stay conscious.

Something like patting your head and rubbing your stomach is perfect. It can be quite a tricky manoeuvre for novices, but I'm an absolute legend at it now.

It also helps if you think about your immediate surroundings and focus on all five senses to remind yourself what's happening around you.

What do I see? Avocado salad. What do I hear? A colleague announcement: "Can Frederick please assist with a sparkling wine spillage?" What do I smell? Organic Turkish Delight. What do I feel? Out of my depth. Where am I? Waitrose. Relax. Pretend to be middle class.

Singing helps, too, if you focus on the memorised words. It's funny how your musical tastes change over the years, particularly after becoming a parent.

The teenage raver inside me was mortified when I successfully averted a seizure for the first time by banging on the kitchen cupboards and singing "B.I.N.G.O. And Bingo was his name-o!"

Up until last year, it was assumed I had epilepsy, so I was given lots of drugs, which didn't work. It got to a point where I had several attacks a day and my wife and I moved in with my parents temporarily so they could help look after the kids.

I was eventually referred to a neuropsychiatrist and diagnosed with "non-epileptic seizures", and things got back to normal. Shortly afterwards, my dad drove me and my son home from Lancashire to Hampshire.

We stopped at a pub for lunch. I was still off my face on medication, so orange juice was all I could handle, and my dad took my little boy off for a walk. I was sat alone in the corner of the pub when dizziness kicked in - a lightening strike was imminent.

I started to pat my head and rub my stomach and the dizziness subsided a little, but not enough, so I went through my check-list.

What do I see? Red and white carpet with mysterious dark-brown blotches. What do I hear? Lionel Richie's Dancing on the Ceiling. What do I smell? Heineken and crisps. What do I feel? Slightly nauseous. Where am I? A pub. Relax. Pretend to be working class.

This wasn't quite doing the trick, so I tried another approved technique - recalling facts.

"Serpico," I said out loud. "The Godfather. The Godfather Part Two. Dog Day Afternoon."

I had my eyes closed, so I almost didn't notice the man from the opposite table asking what I was up to.

Illustration of Frank Burton participating in a pub quiz Image copyright Geraint Hacking

"I'm naming Al Pacino films," I replied. This wasn't the time or place to elaborate and he was clearly too polite to ask why I was patting my head and rubbing my stomach at the same time, so I just said: "It helps me concentrate."

"Scent of a Woman," he said.

"What?"

"Scent of a Woman, Al Pacino."

"Hang on," I said. "I'm starting at the 70s and working my way up - that one's 1992."

"So it was," he said. "Oi, Mick!" He called across the bar. "Mick's on the quiz team," he explained, "He'll help."

Sure enough, Mick was a human encyclopaedia and started to reel films off at breakneck speed: "Scarface, 1983. Revolution, 1985," all the way up to Misconduct, 2016.

"By the way, what's all of this business?" Mick said, imitating me by patting his head and rubbing his stomach.

"It's a long story," I replied. I'd come to my senses sufficiently by now to offer an explanation, but sometimes that simple phrase is enough and Mick was completely satisfied.

"You've really helped me out there, guys," I said to them. I was now fully conscious, another crisis averted and on the verge of conquering this major illness, in the most unlikely way.

My new friend Mick came over all serious, like he'd realised there was more to this exchange than some Hollywood nostalgia.

"Listen," he said. "I'm off to the bar. I'll get you another orange juice. And when I get back let's start on Robert De Niro!"

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Storytelling Live: Tales of the Misunderstood

Frank was one of seven people with a disability or mental health problem to perform a story about awkward moments as part of BBC Ouch's storytelling event at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.

You can also read:

Look out for a special TV programme which brings all the tales together.

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The seven BBC Ouch storytellers for Tales of the Misunderstood
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