I could say that last week was a busy one for me – I attended a batmitzvah of some very special friends of hours, the following day was a wedding of a relative and then it was half term. In half term there was the two day festival of Shavuot (in Israel and for reform Jews it’s one day, but that’s another matter). For various reasons to do with Jewish law I prefer to cook the vast majority of food before the festival began and we also had guests over this period and together before the festival began I calculated that, together with my husband we cooked 30 meals. To top it off it was my six year old’s birthday party on the Sunday of the half term with all that that entails (ie softplay followed by lunch). But I didn’t feel busy. I didn’t feel busy at all. And I have come to realise that the reason why I didn’t feel busy or even involved in what I was doing was because my epilepsy has some of the features of dementia.
I was aware that a good percentage (10-22% )of people with Alzheimer’s (the most common type of dementia) develop epilepsy and I wanted to find out more about it so I decided to read Sally Magnusson’s book ‘Where memories go’ about her mother who had Alzheimer’s Disease. In its’ review The Scotsman wrote the book was ‘profoundly moving’ and I think that this is because it is clear in every page how much Magnusson (whose father was Magnus of BBCs Mastermind) loved and respected her mother, Mamie Baird, and, even in her mother’s darkest days, tried to understand what it was like to actually be her mother, to think like her mother, to approach life like her mother.
As I was reading the book I noticed three features of Mamie Baird’s, illness that were like my own. Firstly Mamie Baird tells her daughter that she cannot be herself – that feels disconnected. And that is exactly how I feel. It is not that I, and I suspect Mamie Baird, do not know who I am in a philosophical way – I have a strong identity; I know who I am and what I want out of life – it is that I have lost (or didn’t have in the first place?) a sense of who I am on a minute-by-minute basis. Somehow, when I go into a shop it takes me forever to decide which sticker I should buy to decorate my son’s book; when I stand in the kitchen and the meal needs to be made, the washing needs to be put on, the children are asking me to do something, I kind of stand still (my mum says I’m prevaricating) – I just don’t know what I am doing. And that decision about where to send my child to school. How is it possible to make a decision like that? But deep underneath the mush – the indecision and the lack of focus, I know squarely and powerfully who I am – but it just seems impossible to obtain.
The second feature my illness shares with Mamie Baird is a lack of sense of time. Magnusson describes a scene where she is standing on a beach noticing the waves and all that is around her and then she thinks about the past and memories of her father and then she remembers something that she has to do in the future and then she understands that her mother cannot have these thoughts – she cannot think about the past; she cannot analyse the present and she cannot think about the future and for the most part that is how it is for me – I sit in the present without connecting to how what is happening now connects to the past or how I can make plans for the future. And by future I mean the next day, the next hour – if the kids need an early night because they are doing something the next day, it sort of doesn’t occur to me.
And the third similarity my illness shares with Mamie’s is a lack of curiosity. I know, I realise what you are thinking, ‘Sharon, you have tonnes of curiosity,’ but I will illustrate otherwise. At my son’s birthday party last weekend my daughter’s friends helped me prepare the lunchroom whilst my son and his friends were at softplay. I started to put a drink carton at each plate. ‘Should we put some drinks in the centre, ‘ my daughter’s friend said, ‘that way the children can choose which flavour drink they would like’. ‘OK’, I said flummoxed as always – how does a child put these questions in her head which simply never in a million years would occur to me? And then she changed her mind, ‘It doesn’t matter – they can just choose where they are going to sit based on which flavour drink they like’ . ‘OK,’ I said really not knowing which was the right approach and also knowing there wasn’t one whilst realising at the same time that my daughter’s friend’s brain worked on a level that mine simply could not do. I know it might seem in these blogs that I am curious – indeed I am absolutely fascinated in how the brain works; in how we can make life better for people that are suffering; in what Hope G-d can offer people in pain – but these are intellectual curiosities, without substance, because I can’t hold facts. What I mean when I say that I lack curiosity is that I am not curious in the mundane – in the seemingly trivial but somehow very important things that happen every day and thus because of that, like Mamie Baird, I suspect my life even when busy, feels boring and a little dull.
As I said the reason why I believe I share ailment with Mamie is because many people with dementia also have epilepsy. Indeed my neuropsychologist said that my symptoms are similar to those of stroke and traumatic brain injury patients (TBI) – that is probably because some of these patients also have epilepsy as well . By all accounts Mamie Baird was an extraordinary person who led a full life with joy which makes her demise, likes those who have suffered a stroke, TBI and with epilepsy all the more tragic.
Just a plug to all those in the UK – please vote in today’s election! Voting for no-one isn’t a vote for democracy and at this time it is important that we exercise our right clearly and authoritively. But please don’t vote Labour. If you want someone to run a large corporation you don’t choose someone who has never held a management post, who makes friends with people that are notoriously bad for the company, and who although purports to value those who are different in his company is quite happy to let some of his supporters aggressively and openly be racist to a group of people who have contributed so much towards the corporation, and indeed, his own financial backers over the years .