Dear Self…

I have a friend who is experiencing the most terrible of times.  She is heartbroken, flat, without hope, overwhelmed and filled with grief.  Her pain and suffering are not illusory (despite my continuing belief that life is a game – it’s real enough while we are playing it) and the problems seem insurmountable.

I considered writing a letter to this friend, suggesting how she might help herself emerge from these black times, but that feels wrong.  I haven’t walked in her shoes.  I can’t tell her what steps she should take.

So instead, I’ll write my letter to my Self – the Self I was in 2008: the year I had left my teaching career, my painful, trustless, crumbling marriage, my beloved grown-up children, my home and friends, and moved to London to care for my mother.  Woman, Old, Face, Portrait, White

She couldn’t acknowledge her dementia, couldn’t see why life was becoming uncomfortable and confusing, so directed all her anger, fear and spite towards me.

I’ll write to the Self who lay shaking and crying on the spare room bed, after dodging most of the vicious blows and scratches for barring the front door at 3am and not allowing Mum to ‘go to the hairdressers’.  The Self who had turned the gas tap off on the hob again, after finding it hissing, and was wondering how long before the house would explode.  The self who knew that – one way or another, even if she didn’t blow us up – we both had to be out of that house within the next three months because there was no money left.  The Self who had nowhere to go and no one to turn to.  Those are shoes I’ve walked in.

Dear Self,

I know how black it feels.  I know how heavy all those fears and injustices are.  I know it’s 3.30 in the morning and you’re at the darkest hour – in every way.

You’re asking yourself what you have done to deserve this.  The answer is: you have grown strong.  This isn’t retribution; it’s a rite of passage.  You have given yourself the opportunity to be tested as never before – and to overcome each and every difficulty, to emerge stronger and more confident.

You’re protesting that you didn’t want this ‘test’ – you want to go back to when things were easier: not great, perhaps, but easier than this.

It doesn’t work that way.  Your life has been moving towards this point for quite a time now.  It’s here, and I’m here to help you through it.

Me?  Yes, I’m yourself – one of the millions of Selves you create with your every thought and emotion.  The me who is writing this lives eight years in your future.  She’s happy, comfortable and lives a full and independent life, surrounded by like-minded friends, with a pretty home of her own, inspiring children to teach and learn from and a garden to tend.  She has all you now dream of and more.  I don’t expect you to be able to imagine that life yet, but it’s waiting for you, dear Self, once you get through this time.

You think you’re alone.  You’re not.  All your past and future Selves are there with you.  They send you exFace, Soul, Head, Smoke, Light, Sadperience, wisdom and inspiration.  They are as real as the Self you are, lying on that bed.  You are – how can I explain ideas you haven’t yet encountered? – ‘entangled’ with more other Selves than you can imagine.  Everyone you have cared for and loved, shared with and learned from is there with you.  Just like those little sub-atomic quantum whatsits you’ve read of in science books, you and those people – the ones you see as ‘living’ and the ones you think of as ‘dead’ – become forever entangled.  That means you only have to lie there in the night asking for support and comfort, and they will come flocking to you.  You know, already, that we are more than our bodies.  You know we are also spirit.  That is how they reach you, care for you and hold you up, if you can just allow them in.

Dad’s there – of course he is.  He knows exactly what you’re enduring.  Grandma, too.  She’s barely left your side.  Trust that they are with you.

Now I want you to look into your life.  Yes, I know, the one that totally sucks.  Only it doesn’t – not TOTALLY.  I want you to find something in there – and it can be a tiny, seemingly insignificant something – that is better-than-awful.

Park, Hirsch, Enclosure, Animals, AntlerYour body, for example – it’s working pretty well, isn’t it?  Certainly the sleepless, interrupted nights aren’t helping and the IBS has flared again, but your senses work, your legs, your arms…  Take that body tomorrow – once Mum’s gone to the daycare centre – and give it a treat.  Take it to the park.  Leave the sack of worries at the gates.  Stroll in the sunshine and watch the squirrels and deer, the movement of the trees and grass, the ripples in the river.  Listen and smell and immerse yourself in nature and don’t allow yourself to give a single thought to the worries or fears.  This is your healing time.

When you get back to the gates – yes – the problems will still be waiting for you.  There will be a difference, though.  You’ll have created a piece of your Self they can’t get to.  Nurture that ‘safe’ fragment of you; spoil her rotten!  She deserves it – YOU deserve it.

You don’t need others advising you about what to do, or telling you how much you matter to them or protecting you.  You’re very slowly and wonderfully growing into the Self you can be – that strong, independent woman you were born to become.

It will keep hurting for a while, and there will be problems to overcome, but trust.  You’re going to come out of all this just fine – and it will be you (with a million Selves to back you up) who does it.

Love

Your Self   (please…)

The Gift of Dementia

Hand, Old, Age, Skuril, Elderly Woman, GrandmaIf 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.

Everyday Life, Washing Dishes, Cup, GlassLet 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?