Read an extract from Wendy Mitchell's moving book, Somebody I Used to Know
Wendy Mitchell's Somebody I Used to Know is the first memoir ever written by someone living with dementia. Philosophical, profoundly moving, insightful and ultimately full of hope, her book gets to the very heart of what it means to be human. Read an extract below.
The upturned box of photographs is scattered across the ivory lace duvet. I pick one from the pile and turn it over in my hands; Sarah and Gemma, aged around six and three, chubby legs neatly fitted inside towelling shorts on a sandy beach. I smile as the moment comes back to me: our first holiday just the three of us, I-spy games on the journey and counting different coloured cars, favourite sweets to make the time go faster, brandnew boxes of wax crayons and bumper colouring books opened on the way. We’d arrived at our chalet on the Norfolk coast, dumped our bags and run straight to the sea, and this photograph was taken the first moment their feet sank into the sand. I could still hear their excited squeals as a far-too-cold sea ran up and tickled between their toes.
Then something else washes over me, a sadness that has been growing inside me for weeks. Am I really going to forget all this? Will I, one day soon, clutch this photograph in my hands and not know the two happy faces that smile back? It doesn’t seem possible. I feel an urgency, staring hard at the photograph, determined to outwit my fading brain, to memorise every pixel of it; a big blue Norfolk sky, the pink flip-flops in Sarah’s hands I hadn’t noticed before, Gemma’s navy-and-red-striped shorts, other holidaymakers on the beach. A photograph where once I only saw the girls is now suddenly filled with tiny details. I will store it to memory. I won’t let it slip away. I turn the photograph over and write on the back: Sarah and Gemma. Norfolk holiday. Caister? 1987.
I won’t forget.
I pick another photograph from the pile, me sitting on top of Walla Crag in Keswick. It’s a moody day, the sun squeezing through just one or two gaps in the low-slung clouds, the darkness of Derwentwater below, and me looking out at the view laid before me – beautiful despite the weather – a striped Breton top and my red rucksack cutting through the gloom of the day. I shuffle to the edge of my bed and feel the springs relent. I clutch the photograph between two fingers and I stare at the view again, burning it to memory, telling myself that from here, in my cream and olive bedroom, I can still pretend I am there, feeling the whoosh of the wind in my ears, smelling the damp moss beneath my feet, hearing the emptiness of the silence. It’s all there, the memories that I now long to hold fast to, they haven’t left me yet. I can still conjure up the feelings that go hand in hand with them, the peace that the beauty of the place brings, the warmth wrapped inside my coat on a breezy day. Those are the feelings I need to clutch more tightly; the calm, the happiness. I’m determined that even when I can’t name the place, the feelings won’t desert me.
I look around my spare room and feel a sudden desire to pin these photographs all over the blank walls, to create a space that I can wander into whenever the fog descends. I brush my hands through the pile of photographs, all the very best moments of my life captured on film, and I’m grateful for every time my finger pressed down on the shutter. I had no idea then just how much I would come to rely on these photographs, that I would develop a disease that would steal memories from me, that every day something more cherished than any of my possessions would be lost. That’s what Alzheimer’s does: it’s a thief in the night, stealing precious pictures from our lives while we sleep.
I start from the beginning then, sifting through the photographs and quickly scribbling down whatever detail I can muster; names and places and dates, an insurance policy against memory loss. I write quickly, making the most of today’s active brain, reaching from one photograph to another, my arms aching, my mind tiring, but not daring to stop in case the momentum is lost. With each one I stare harder, fixing every detail deeper inside, alert for clues I may have missed before, my life whizzing past as the pile gets smaller.
There is one photograph left, a view of the river from one of my favourite bridges in York. I scan every wave the water makes and find within it a whirlpool I’ve never noticed before, a clue to the life that dwells beneath the water’s surface, a tiny detail I’d missed when I’d been taking in the bigger picture with my lens. I make a mental note to search for it next time I pass the same spot on the bridge. Then I decide to swap a mental note for a written one. Just to be safe.
The following day I’m wandering through York, the note crumpled inside my pocket. I go to the bridge and stand looking out at the same view that I’d captured in the photograph, and there it is, as promised, the water swirling just as I knew it would be, just how it had been in the photograph. I stand on the bridge staring down, a sense of achievement I can’t quite name bubbling beneath the surface. I know it is inevitable that dementia will steal these memories from me, that in the future I might not recognise the whirlpool in the picture, or the bridge, or even the town where the photo was taken, yet I am happy to know that nature will ensure these things survive, that the whirlpool keeps on whirling, that the sea keeps on lapping on sandy shores where we had holidays filled with love and laughter. Dementia won’t steal everything, even though it can feel that way now. Even though forgetting my daughters is my worst fear, nature will ensure that the tides rise, the sun sets, the brooks keep on babbling. I am heartened to understand that dementia is nothing more than a trick of my mind, and I can outwit it if I stare at my photographs hard enough, if I find the whirlpool that is still there – the tiny gem to be appreciated in all this.
That day in York I buy all I need to create my memory room and I go home and string up dozens of photographs across the walls, securing each one with a brightly coloured miniature peg. I flick every one over as I do, and there they are, the prompts that I scribbled down yesterday – the whys, the whos, the wheres – there to help me for a time when I won’t remember.
I finish and stand back to look at my work; colourful photos of Sarah and Gemma from all different times in their childhood stare back from one line, on another all the houses I’ve ever lived in, another is filled with photographs of some of my favourite views – the Lake District, the Dorset coast, Blackpool beach. I sit on the edge of the bed in front of them, feeling that same sense of calm and happiness. When the memories have emptied on the inside, they’ll still be here on the outside – a constant, a reminder, a feeling of happier times. Will it be next week, next month, next year? I don’t know. That thought alone stirs a fear inside, an urgency to remember everything while I still have the chance, but I calm the panic by focusing on one picture, the view from Walla Crag. I’m up there again, the wind whistling in my ears, the damp moss beneath my feet. The uncertain future can wait.
Wendy Mitchell spent twenty years as a non-clinical team leader in the NHS before being diagnosed with Young Onset Dementia in July 2014 at the age of fifty-eight. Shocked by the lack of awareness about the disease, both in the community and in hospitals, she vowed to spend her time raising awareness about dementia and encouraging others to see there is life after a diagnosis. She is now an ambassador for the Alzheimer's Society. She has two daughters and lives in Yorkshire.