If someone had asked me, back in 2008, what gift I was being given by my mother’s encroaching dementia, I’d have been hard-pressed to give them an answer.
As anyone who has been in intimate contact with this condition will know, the hardest time is the early stage – the time when a normally functioning, intelligent human being is experiencing very specific and often debilitating gaps in memory and in the ability to cope on a day-to-day basis because of them.
It was me who grassed Mum up to the doctor. That was certainly the way she saw it. By telling her GP of my concerns, I unleashed a battery of humiliating tests and visiting busybodies. She never forgave me for that. When her condition became so bad that I had to give up work and move away from my family to become her live-in carer, she threw it in my face at least once a day.
Those were easily the hardest months of my life. So the gift? I was given the most incredible insight into the way minds work. Usually, minds are sophisticated, faster than light and keep their backs, so to speak, well covered. As Mum’s slowed, though, I was able to watch and observe – to see how a trigger experience could change and shape subsequent behaviour.
Let us take, for example, the story of the washing up liquid bottle.
While she was still living alone, an occupational therapist came to assess Mum in her house. Mum found that threatening, insulting, patronising and intrusive. She realised she was being ‘tested’ but didn’t know why. At one point, the OT held up Mum’s bottle of washing up liquid, covered the label and asked her what it was used for. We never knew whether or not Mum had been able to answer her correctly.
Mum retold that story many times afterwards, but in her version, the OT asked this question of the grandchildren. That was the only way Mum could justify someone asking such a stupid question. In her version, the grandchildren giggled, rolled their eyes and then answered correctly. In the event, Mum had had no one to giggle with. She had been face to face with a person who, in her own home, was checking whether she knew what washing up liquid was and she’d felt violated.
Several months later, when I was living there, she suddenly stopped using washing up liquid when she washed the dishes. I asked her why she didn’t put some in the water.
“Well,” she said hesitantly, “I don’t know. I just get a funny feeling about it. I mean, they keep coming in and turning the bottle around so you can’t see the label.”
I looked and saw that the bottle was on the worktop, but the label was facing the wall. Seeing the bottle with its label concealed had clearly triggered memories of the therapist’s visit that were sufficiently uncomfortable to make her want to stop using the product.
She could no longer remember the trigger, but the resulting emotion remained and affected her behaviour.
A visiting professional would have viewed Mum’s behaviour as illogical and a symptom of her disease. Because I could follow the trace of events, though, I was able to recognise that she was attempting to avoid an unpleasant feeling by ignoring the existence of the obscured bottle.
How many of our behaviour patterns, I wonder, stem from a suppressed unpleasant memory?