Wendy Mitchell’s memoir, Somebody I Used To Know, gives us dementia from the inside out, from the first, fearful inklings that something is wrong to the nitty-gritty of daily life with a progressive disease that gradually forces her to give up those things (from her work to her running) that make her who she is.
As such it is one of the most honest, vivid accounts of living with this condition – in Wendy’s case, Alzheimer’s disease diagnosed when she was just 58 – that I’ve come across. It is also much more. It’s a multi-layered book: reflective of Wendy’s no-nonsense character yet also offering profound insights into the resilience of the human spirit.
A single mum with two daughters (their dad left when they were seven and four), Wendy has always been independent, thrifty and organised. She’s also been very busy, working for 20 years as a non-clinical team leader in the NHS and, ironically, renowned for her elephant-like memory.
This all changes when, out for one of her regular runs along the River Ouse, she falls, for no apparent reason. In fact, she’s suspected that something’s been wrong for a while though she can’t quite put her finger on it. And then she falls again. And again.
It takes over three months, hospital stays, neurological tests and scans, two months off work before the D word is mentioned in a letter from her clinical psychologist. “It is possible that this is a profile of the early stages of a dementing process”.
“But it can’t be that,” her (now adult) daughter Sarah says. “You’re so fit and healthy. It doesn’t seem fair”.
And of course, it isn’t. Wendy’s old life has veered off track, she’s on her way somewhere else – or, as she sees it and tells it, to becoming someone else. “We wouldn’t get on now, you and I,” she tells her younger self. “We like different things. You love the hustle and bustle of a busy city, whereas some days I lose hours just looking out of a window at the view. Just looking. Just still”.
It is through acknowledging the changes taking place in herself that 62-year-old Wendy realises that her dementia – hated as it is by her, as much for the havoc it will wreak on her daughters’ lives as on her own – has given her a rare perspective, focussing the mind “in a very special way”. Yes, it is gradually stealing everything that made her who she once was. Yet she is still Wendy. Still determined. Still strong. She knows that dementia cannot take away the love she feels for her daughters (which permeates the book), or they for her.
Wendy may experience “a real, visceral grief at saying another goodbye, this time to baking”, anger and frustration at being abandoned post-diagnosis by an NHS for which she’s worked for two decades, and mortification when she forgets her daughter Sarah’s birthday for the first time in 34 years. But she can, and does, start a daily blog to serve as her memory (which ultimately enables this memoir to be written), set reminders to ping on her Ipad, become a Dementia Friends Champion, campaign to raise awareness of the condition, promote and participate in research. Her new life becomes as busy, in different ways, as that of the person she used to know, and be. Continue Reading →