26 October 2016Last updated

Real Life

‘I woke up sounding Scandinavian, Scottish, then African’

Linda Pereira suffers from a rare case of foreign accent syndrome, a speech disorder that presently affects only 150 people worldwide

As told to Rosa McMahon
25 Mar 2016 | 12:00 am
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  • Linda suffered a terrifying seizure last October while relaxing on her couch, and hasn’t sounded like herself ever since.

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  • While some days can be challenging for Linda and her family in terms of understanding her accent, for the most part they laugh about it.

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Sometime last October, I was stretched out on the sofa, preparing to watch my favourite TV shows back-to-back. Having a big family is such a joy. I should know, being a mum of three, with two grandkids. It also meant that I cherished rare evenings by myself.

Only, just as I was getting comfy, my phone beeped. I wasn’t expecting to hear from any of my three kids – Kelly, 23, Emily, 28, or Andy, 30 – and my grandchildren, Brooklyn, 3, and Sadie Petersen, 1, were too young to text!

Maybe it was my husband, Phil, 55, who had gone out for the night with friends.

Peering at my mobile I saw that my mate Steve had sent me a message on Facebook. So much for my peaceful evening; I was soon drawn into a long and complicated conversation about my medical conditions, which gave us plenty to talk about!

I had been running a successful computer repair business, but after I was diagnosed with tardive akathisia and functional neurological disorder that June, I had to give up work. The rare conditions meant I tired very easily. I also suffered from seizures and unclear speech, which made working impossible.

Unable to drive and frequently confined to the house, relying on other people for help, life could be miserable at times. Luckily, I had a loving, supportive family.

Thinking about them as I wrote a text to Steve, I was suddenly overwhelmed by a wave of extreme tiredness. It was only 8pm and I was already exhausted.

Putting my sleepiness down to concentrating too hard, I lay down as I continued my text chat to see if it made it any easier. But rather than feeling relaxed, I started to feel a weird pressure in my head. It was as if something was pressing down on my brain.

Keying in the letters, my eyes and brain seemed to blur in and out. There was no point in continuing so I signed off, and moved on to something less demanding. Another friend had posted some funny photos on Facebook, so I started to type a comment. But, suddenly, what felt like a ball moving around inside my head, erupted. An alarming electrical sensation whooshed through my brain.

What was happening to me?

I went limp and couldn’t move. I desperately tried to move my limbs, but I couldn’t.

Was I paralysed?

For the next two and a half hours, I lay on the sofa, unable to make a sound or move an inch. As every second passed, all sorts of horrors spun around in my mind.

I thought about my parents, Carole, 76, and Dee Grover, 80, my grandchildren and the next generation of Pereiras.

Then I heard the door go. Thank gosh they’re home, I thought.

I heard my husband and Kelly come into the house and felt instantly relieved. I wanted to scream ‘Help me, help me’. But try as I might, no words would come out of my mouth.

Phil must have thought I was just having a rest, as I often had a little nap on the sofa. After he said hello, he started pottering around the house, unaware of my state. It took nearly half an hour for him to realise I wasn’t answering any of his questions about my relaxing night in!

‘Linda, are you having a hard time?’ he asked, peering over me, looking puzzled.

My voice was frozen in my throat. I frantically blinked in response, trying desperately to tell him that something was terribly wrong.

Luckily, the penny suddenly dropped.

Realising I was completely mute, Phil started trying to work out what I needed to recover. He rushed out of the room to fetch my emergency medication and tried to prise open my mouth so he could give me some. But I couldn’t open my mouth, move my tongue or swallow.

Had I had a stroke? Questions were spinning around in my head. My entire body was filled with panic.

I started to worry, but luckily, level-headed as ever, Phil stayed calm and rubbed a prescribed medication cream on my wrist to try to pull me out of the seizure.

Within 30 minutes, I could grunt and Phil and Kelly finally opened my mouth and placed my nightly Xanax and heart pills on my tongue to get me back to normal. Next, they poured some water into my mouth, but it was no use – I couldn’t swallow.

Patiently, they removed the pills and waited a bit longer.

After another 30 painful minutes, I could make some kind of noise and managed to get the most critical tablets into my body. Then they took me to bed, hoping everything would be OK in the morning.

But it was only when I rolled into bed and said good night, finally able to speak after four and a half hours, that I noticed my speech was strange.

‘Where’s my American accent gone?’ I thought, bewildered.

Reaching for my iPhone, I recorded my voice. I didn’t sound American at all. It was the start of a video log documenting the drastic changes in my accent.

The next morning I felt awful, especially as I sounded so completely unlike myself. When I greeted my husband at breakfast, he was taken aback.

‘You sound British,’ Phil spluttered, utterly amazed.

Originally from San Jose, California, I’d always had a west American accent. But over the next two days, neither my family nor I could believe how different my accent had become overnight. It was baffling.

Stranger still, I’d only been abroad twice, both times to Canada. So when my voice took on Scandinavian, Scottish and even South African tones, I knew I couldn’t have picked up the accents from one of our family holidays.

I kept practising my new voice. But I sounded nothing like the old me.

What on earth had happened to me?

‘Let’s go to the doctor for a check-up,’ suggested Steve.

Two days later, my physiologist and neurologist diagnosed me with a condition I had only heard about on TV.

‘We think you have foreign accent syndrome,’ they said, adding that it was so rare, it only affected 150 people globally.

They explained that it was a speech disorder, which caused a sudden change to your voice. So, a native speaker was perceived to speak with a foreign accent.

Apparently it is most often caused when tiny areas of the brain linked with language, pitch and speech patterns are damaged. The doctors said most victims had suffered a stroke or traumatic brain injury.

But they were utterly clueless about the cause of my foreign accents and had no idea how long the syndrome would last.

Thinking back to the seizure on the sofa, the only explanation I could think of was that it could have been linked to my other health conditions.

In cases documented around the world, the rare condition has caused accent changes from Japanese to Korean, English to French and American to Hungarian.

And now me – American to Scottish.

Idid some research and discovered that one of the first reported cases was in 1941 when a Norwegian woman developed a German accent after being hit by bomb shrapnel during a Second World War air raid. She was shunned by friends and neighbours afterwards, because they thought she was a German spy.

I read about other sufferers’ experiences and started to realise that my accent wasn’t going to change anytime soon. Eventually, it became a bit of a joke in my family.

My husband found it strange, my kids and grandkids thought it was hilarious, and my mother-in-law told me to ‘stop putting on that silly voice’.

But I couldn’t stop!

As huge fans of the Disney film Frozen, my family and I spent many hours laughing at my impressions of the characters when my Scandinavian twang came on.

But sounding like a tourist in my own neighbourhood can make life very strange.

Whenever I go out to a restaurant or to the shops, I get far better service now.

‘Where are you from?’ people serving me ask, thinking I’m foreign.

‘California,’ I reply, giggling inside when I see the confusion on their faces.

It’s weird though, that I no longer sound like Linda.

I’ve kept up my video diary, documenting the changes in my voice. It has helped family and friends to stay up-to-date with how I feel and sound, and has been a useful tool for me to track the curious changes, which I now believe could be irreversible.

Some days I feel fine, while on others, mixed with my other medical conditions, I feel awful. Wheelchair-bound because of these conditions, a carer looks after me during the day, while Phil works as a computer engineer.

My mouth can feel stiff and my face and jaw are sometimes sore. Living with such an unusual condition can be a real challenge.

Unfortunately, people with foreign accent syndrome have a hard time being taken seriously. There is no treatment, and neurologists can, according to some sufferers, be quite cruel about it. Others tend to think that those diagnosed are pretending, or seeking attention.

Luckily, I have been treated very well by the medical profession and my family and friends have been great.

But I know some people think I am making it up.

My daughter Kelly was sceptical about the condition because my accent changed so much. She thought I was making it up at first, but soon came around After reading about other cases online.

My latest Scottish accent doesn’t bother me, but I sometimes miss hearing my real voice and speech. Plus Phil gets fed up with asking me to repeat myself, as he hasn’t understood my accent.

It’s hard on him, because I don’t sound like the woman he married 31 years ago after meeting at a California breakfast for a choir group, where he made me laugh non-stop. He still does.

My grandchildren are very accepting. They’re great kids and it’s such fun to be with them, no matter what I sound like.

Sometimes, it can be a challenge speaking to friends and family, as other symptoms interfere with my speech. I have a hard time expressing, as my face tends to freeze, I shake and my voice sounds like a monotone.

My foreign accent syndrome is like nothing else I have ever experienced, and it’s completely changed my life.

But it has plus points, too. Sometimes I like being different to everyone else. It makes me feel unique. I’m not embarrassed about my accent and certainly not unwilling to talk about it.

If it can give at least one person hope and strength, then that’s great.

I have joined a Facebook page, where others with foreign accent syndrome share their experiences of living with this unique condition, which is yet to be fully understood.

I speak to fellow sufferers and would really like to be a part of some research project to find out more about the condition. Not enough is known about it and that needs to change.

Luckily, it doesn’t stop me from being a great mum, grandmother and wife.

But I would love to get to the bottom of why I woke up sounding Scottish.

I am determined to live life to the fullest – even if that means sounding like a woman who was born and raised 6,437km away.

Linda Pereira, 51, lives in Atlanta in the US

As told to Rosa McMahon

As told to Rosa McMahon