A lost cat & A beside note.

The witching hour. 6pm. The high risk period when Mum would need a drink. When she couldn’t get alcohol, she would work her way through a block of cheese. Something, anything, to alleviate the high anxiety. These days she can’t get wine, so she obsesses about her cats. One in particular. Piddle.

Poor Piddle, an extremely elegant little Occicat, who went through a phase of piddling as a kitten and the name stuck. However Piddle is now wonderfully self-sufficient. She usually disappears for a day or so on the full moon, spends time roaming across the nearby golf course. She always comes back. But these days, every day, at 6pm, Mum goes outside and calls and calls and calls. Then she comes back inside and tells her caregiver that she is worried because ‘Piddle is hungry, lost and alone‘.

But Piddle is not the one who is hungry, lost and alone.

There’s no ‘medical proof’ of this of course, but my theory (and while I don’t have a psychology degree or a medical one, I have a lifetime of experience) is that as Mum becomes more childlike, she is becoming more open with her feelings. And while she can’t, has never been able to, will not ever say ‘I am hungry, lost, alone’, I know that this has how she feels. And this has how she has felt for a very long time.

The hunger, of course, is not a hunger for food, but a hunger for a very different type of nourishment. A sense of fulfillment. While she is not physically lost, she lost her way many years ago. And while she has constant company, my lovely mother feels that she is alone.

The anxiety, an almost constant presence of worry, preceded the alcohol dependence and the dementia. I have no doubt it started before I arrived on the scene. According to New Zealand’s Mental Health Foundation, New Zealand has a high prevalence of anxiety, mood and substance abuse disorders, exceeded only by the US for anxiety by the US, Ukraine and France for mood and only by the Ukraine and US for substance abuse disorders.

Recently, I read a fascinating article by a Rick Hanson PhD, a neuropsychologist on Self-Directed Neuroplasticity: A 21st-Century View of Meditation. Addressing the field of contemplative neuroscience, Dr Hanson concludes by taking the reader through a simple 5 step meditation. Becoming attuned to the breath, conscious relaxation, a feeling of safety, wellbeing and connection. What fascinates me, is that for each stage, he provides an explanation of what happens to the brain. The element of safety, struck a particular chord.

“The third suggestion focuses on feeling safe. This is a very important one, although it’s often hard for people because we have what I call “paper-tiger paranoia.” Essentially, we evolved to overestimate threats and to underestimate opportunities and resources for dealing with threats. Although that may have been a great way to pass on gene copies in Africa two million years ago, it’s a lousy way to experience quality of life in the twenty-first century. Most of us can feel safer than we normally do. I prompt people to feel as safe as they reasonably can because there is no perfect safety in life. None of us is safe from old age, disease, or death, for example, but most of us can afford to feel less guarded, less braced, and more confident in our capacities to meet life.

It sounds so very simple, but at the end of the day – and at the beginning, middle and every moment in between – isn’t that what we all want?Nourishment, mind, body and soul. A sense of purpose. To be attuned to our self, to feel relaxed, safe, well, connected.

I cannot undo a lifetime of feeling hungry, lost and alone for my mother. It took me a long time to realise that’s not my responsibility.

But she is my mother and I love her and I it makes my heart ache to think that she feels hungry, lost, alone. So next time I visit, I think I might just put a little note beside her bed which says ‘Your life has purpose. You are loved. You are safe. You are home‘…If I could, I’d sprinkle a little fairy dust and put one beside your bed too.

Hello grief, my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again.

I wish I could say it gets easier, but it doesn’t. In fact, a little like too much time in a dentist’s chair leading me to have a lower threshold of dental pain, repetitive experience of losing a family member feels like it’s decreasing my tolerance of grief. I  know what’s coming.

During the last eight years, I’ve lost a father to Lewy Body disease (a combination of Parkinson’s and Alzheimers), a grandfather to old age, two uncles to cancer and while my grandmother is still alive, I’ve lost her to advanced Alzheimer’s. Now, I am losing a mother to dementia.

I have deliberated at considerable length about whether to publish a post on this. Mum is still alive and I don’t want to betray her trust or sense of dignity in any way, but there are so many people in my position. And particularly for those of us who are only children, this can feel very lonely. So whoever you are, wherever you are, if you are losing a parent to dementia, I want you to know I am sending you love and light. I really am.

This is where is gets, well, kind of blurred around the edges. My mother has alcohol induced dementia. My mama has consumed a considerable amount of wine over the years to self-medicate severe anxiety. The medical fraternity have always referred to her first and foremost as an alcoholic, sufferer of anxiety, second. But as someone who knows her almost better than anyone, I know, without a shadow of a doubt that she used it to self-medicate. High anxiety first, next step, bottle of wine. And god knows, I get it. While I lost a grandfather and a father 6 weeks apart, she lost a beloved father and her husband who she’d seen deteriorate from a proud, immensely self-disciplined surgeon into a little old man, hunched in a chair, unable to walk or talk, hallucinating. And all the while, aware of her own mother losing her marbles.

How do we cope?

Sometimes we don’t.

Sometimes you feel a calm sense of acceptance.

Sometimes you put on a brave face when you feel anything but brave.

Sometimes, when you hear that your mother has slipped on knee-high pantyhose instead of a glove, you feel your stomach sink.

Sometimes, you want to find a quiet space, curl up in a corner and howl.

And frequently, you wish that someone would invent a miracle cream to magic away the puffy eyes. If you’re reading this and know of something (and it’s not full of chemical ingredients you can’t pronounce) I’d be extremely grateful if you’d let me know.

To be perfectly honest, right now, I don’t know how I’m going to deal with this. But what I do know, as I become aware of how quickly my mother is deteriorating, is that the time I have left with her, while she still recognises me and we can enjoy each other’s company, is hugely precious.

I do know that it’s high time I left go of any residual sense of resentment about the mother I ‘should have had’ or simply wished I’d had.

I do know that the most healthy way I can respond to this, is with grace and compassion. Not just for Mum but for me.

And tonight, just for a little while, that means that I welcome my old friend grief back into the room and together, tissues in hand, we sit and talk for a little while.