Have you ever been looking for love, and realised all that time, you’d totally taken for granted the greatest person in the world, who was standing right in front of you?
A few weeks ago, I spent a day crying in bed, because several different things got on top of me at once.
I realised that one big reason I felt so bad, was something I’d been pushing to the back of my mind for months.
I’m really worried about my mum.
Ever since the summer, when my parents were in London and we went out for dinner, I’ve been worried about my mum, because she seemed quite confused and disorientated that night.
My mum has been forgetful my whole life. When I was little, I found it absolutely hilarious when she’d say things like “can you kids put the plates in the washing machine when you’ve finished?” when she meant dishwasher. All my life she’s said the wrong words, lost things and turned up for appointments on the wrong day.
When the Spice Girls were in their heyday, when I was in my teens, my mum would talk about ‘Geri Halliday’ and ‘David Beckenham’. When I was listening to Coldplay, my mum would come in and say “oh, is this Coolplay?”
My mum really liked REM. She went to see them in concert (despite being on crutches after breaking her ankle in the Lake District) and afterwards she said “ERM were brilliant. That Michael Stitch was fantastic.”
When I asked about the support acts (Idlewild and the Zutons), she said “I didn’t think much of Edelweiss, but I quite liked the Zircons.”
She’s always been a bit scatty, but over the last few years, it’s got a bit more. I didn’t think much of it, as my parents have just turned 70, so it seemed natural.
Then, this summer, it suddenly seemed worse. We were out for dinner with my Godparents, and she seemed to forget things we’d discussed earlier in the evening, or didn’t know things she should’ve known, like how long they were staying in London.
After that dinner, I lay in bed at 2am thinking fuck, is my mum getting dementia?
Everything suddenly seemed a lot more terrifying.
All this time I’ve obsessed about not having a boyfriend. So many times, I’ve heard my phone and hoped it was a boy contacting me, and been disappointed when it was ‘just’ my mum.
But now I realise, I can live without a boyfriend. Every man I’ve pined for, I’ve totally managed to survive without.
But I don’t think I can survive without my mum.
I’ve always felt lucky with my mum, and the relationship we have.
My mum is really funny and friendly. Everyone always seems to know her. She was a Primary School teacher when I was growing up. Until I moved away for University, I’d always meet people who were taught by her, who’d say she was their favourite teacher.
Then, when she was 50, she realised she wasn’t enjoying teaching anymore, so she quit, went back to university and studied art. After that, she did a Photography qualification and became a photographer. Then everybody knew her because she’d photographed their weddings, or taken their passport photos or family portraits.
They moved to a different part of England when they retired, and everybody still knows her, because she’s so chatty. She gets to know everyone from the people who serve her in shops, to the local politicians.
I think people also know my Mum because she’s a character. She often ends up doing things that are quite entertaining, sometimes intentionally and sometimes not.
When Princess Diana died in 1997, some news reporters came to our local church to film people’s reactions to the news, because Prince Charles has a house near where I grew up.
My parents were walking into church and my mum saw them. My mum never especially liked Princess Diana when she was alive, but for some reason she went and told off the news crew, saying “if it wasn’t for people like you, she might not be dead! Now beggar off!”
She didn’t think anything of it until the Monday morning, when she went into the School where she taught, and the children came up and said “we saw you on Sky News last night!”
My mum is infinitely kind. My parents recently came to see me and when we were walking down the street, I kept realising my mum had disappeared, and then discovering she had stopped to give a homeless person some money.
“Well, I kept saying I was worried about them during the snow, I thought I’d better put my money where my mouth is.”
She got a food bank set up in her village, when she heard that people in her local area were walking miles to neighbouring food banks.
We’ve always had a very open and honest relationship. I had my first boyfriend at 13, and he already had a girlfriend. When I talked to my mum about it, she told me about how she’d been working as a barmaid in the Highlands before she met my Dad, and had a fling with a married man. One night the man’s wife came into the pub where they were together and poured their drinks over their heads.
“Whatever you do, never lose your self-respect. If you lose that, it’s hard to get it back.” She said.
When I was getting towards losing my virginity, at 17, I remember being mid-sandwich when she started a conversation about contraception.
“Don’t put all your faith in condoms. I won’t say which one, but one of the three of you was conceived when a condom broke.”
It was definitely me.
When I had anorexia, I used to write songs and poems about how I was feeling. My mum had never been into writing or music or poetry, but I guess she was trying to speak my language when she tried writing a poem for me about how one day I wouldn’t feel so bad.
The older I got, the more two-way the support has become. Now we cheer each other up when one of us has a problem.
I can’t imagine a world where I couldn’t talk to my mum if I had a problem.
Over the next few weeks, after that dinner in the summer, I felt so worried.
I decided to handle it the most mature, responsible way I could.
I decided to completely push it to the back of my mind and avoid thinking about it at all costs. I tried not to think about it and didn’t talk about it to anyone.
Then, in the Autumn, I saw my dad on his own and tried to put out some feelers.
“How’s mum, because… she seemed quite tired? When we met up in the summer?” I asked.
“Oh yes, I suppose she did.” My dad said. He wasn’t biting.
Then, in November, we went to Portugal, and she seemed a lot more like herself again. She didn’t seem confused or disorientated, but she did repeat herself a lot more than she used to. Sometimes in the same conversation.
We had a lovely time, and I felt partially reassured. She talked to me about not feeling very confident recently, so I told her some CBT things that might help, which she was enthusiastic about.
One of the things she repeated 5-10 times that week, was “you do know how proud we are of you, don’t you?” which was lovely but broke my heart a bit.
Then, a few weeks before Christmas I was speaking to them on the phone and she said a joke in passing about losing her marbles.
I asked what she meant and she said she had been to the doctor as she was worried about her memory. They did a memory test and she got 28 out of 30 questions right, but at the start the doctor gave her three words to remember, and then after the 30 questions, he asked her for the 3 words, but she couldn’t remember them. She had the impression the 3 words were more important than the 30 questions. The doctor had arranged for her to have some blood tests.
She said she was really struggling with her memory and concentration in the summer, but it had got better, but not completely. She said now she forgets things more, and repeats herself more, and sometimes can’t find the word.
The next morning, my mum texted me saying “please don’t worry about me!”.
I choked back tears most of the drive to work. When I was in my late teens and early twenties, I worked in a nursing home and looked after people with dementia. I couldn’t stop imagining the worst and how things might end up.
Over Christmas, we talked about her memory quite a lot. It felt better that we were talking about it, but also made it more real.
On Christmas Day, my mum said she hadn’t bothered to make bread sauce for the Christmas dinner, as it’s a lot of faff to make and no one actually likes it.
Later on, she opened the fridge and said “oh! Looks like I did make bread sauce after all!”
One day we went out for a walk and she said “I like your… hearing muffs” because she couldn’t find the word ‘earmuffs.’
My mum kind of made it fun – we developed an in-joke about ‘the Repeating Police’ because everyone kept telling her when she was repeating herself. When any of us accidentally repeated ourselves she gleefully said “you’re repeating yourself!”
I told her there was a thing called Mild Cognitive Impairment which is less severe than dementia, did she enthusiastically researched that.
My mum is still doing all the things she used to, like writing the church magazine with my dad, volunteering at the local Primary School, swimming and going on long walks with her walking club. She’s also just given a talk about the wife of a local historical figure.
If everything stayed as it is now, it would be fine. Apart from not remembering conversations she’s had, and things she’s only just done, she told me she’s finding she’s less able to do some mental tasks, like working things out or remembering certain facts. My dad is taking more of a front seat with their plans and making sure she’s in the right place at the right time, and this has had a negative effect on her confidence.
However, it’s not that bad currently. What’s worse, is imagining how bad it might get. Having looked after people with dementia, I’m terrified to think of her suffering or becoming different to the person she is now.
I think that my friend having her baby triggered an existential crisis for me, because I know my mum is desperate for a grandchild. I suddenly thought what if my mum is not well enough to enjoy it, if I ever do have a baby?
Since that day when I cried in bed, I’ve started talking to my friends more about my mum’s memory and it has helped.
The friend who had the baby said she’d listened to a lot of things on Radio 4 about dementia and apparently, there have been advances in medication which can slow down dementia. Talking about it made me realise that my main experiences of people with dementia were those people at the very extreme end of severity, because of the job I had. Lots of people don’t end up like that. And I stopped working there over 10 years ago, and things are changing all the time.
I went for a Sunday lunch with another friend and had forgotten he wrote his thesis on dementia. He told me that, in the memory test my mum did, the 30 questions were important after all. He told me 28 was not a bad score.
Talking about it was helping me handle it better. I thought about how else I can handle it better.
Whenever I let myself think about it, I felt overwhelmed with worry, imagining my mum getting really severe dementia. Then I felt choked up with a sense of grief and loss for something that hasn’t even happened yet.
When we worry, our minds are trying to help us. We’re trying to reduce uncertainty by imagining everything bad that could happen, and planning what we would do.
The problem is, most of the things we worry about it are never going to happen. And when we worry about things that really are problems, we are problem-solving in a chaotic, scribbly, unsystematic, hyped up way that doesn’t get us anywhere.
There are two things that are not worth worrying about
- things you can do something about
- things you can’t do anything about.
Most of the time, I think me worrying isn’t going to change the outcome, so I might as well not worry about it. That has helped me with Brexit.
With my mum, trying to block it out of my mind altogether didn’t help, as it always snuck back in.
The only good thing about worrying about it was that it reminded me not to take my mum for granted.
The bad side was that every time I felt happy or something nice happened with my mum, it made me think this could all end, maybe soon.
I decide the best way to handle it was to
- keep talking about it to my mum and my friends
- keep making sure I don’t take her granted, especially replying to texts more quickly, speaking on the phone more, telling her I love her more often.
- try and focus on the present instead of the future. If we’re having a nice time together, just focus on enjoying that rather than planning ahead for the heartache this memory will cause me in the future
Then, a few weeks ago, my mum called me to say she had some good news. She had been to see her GP again. After she had told me all about how the GP’s dad died recently, she said “he thinks it isn’t dementia, it’s the thing you said.”
Then she asked my Dad “what’s it called again, the thing I’ve got? Not ADHD.”
My dad couldn’t remember either.
“Is it Mild Cognitive Impairment?” I asked.
“Yes! That’s it.”
Mild Cognitive Impairment is where someone has more difficulties with their memory and mental tasks than would be expected for someone of their age, but not as severe as dementia. People with Mild Cognitive Impairment are more likely to go on to develop dementia, but my Mum has seemed a lot more confident and happier since she was told she doesn’t have dementia.