Down the Dementia Rabbit Hole

I don’t always write about my visits to Mum. There’s always something new, but often there’s no new emotion left to deal with it. Nothing left to say. Nothing new to feel.

Today was pretty normal at first, as far as dementia allows for any definition of normal.

Mum asked me where my parents live. “Only in my head, honey. Only in my head.”

Of course I didn’t say that, just answered lightly and steered the conversation to safer topics. But I’m used to that one now. Then she said I was her sister. That was new. She’s an only child. But she hasn’t reliably known me for months. I’m not greatly disturbed by who she thinks I am.

We went out to lunch. She was a little odd – differently odd, even for her – but nothing particularly radical. We walked back to her house, and I waited to see her inside before leaving. She fumbled with her keys and couldn’t get the gate unlocked. This is pretty normal for Mum these days, so I waited a bit in the hope she would sort it out, and then I got out my keys and tried the lock.

It was stuck.

I had the right key – I had opened the gate with it when I arrived – but it wouldn’t turn in the lock. The lock is a deadlock and the gate is one of those spiky ornamental ones. The house is really quite a fortress, so being unable to unlock the gate makes getting in a significant challenge.

Mum immediately started to panic. Her key chain is festooned with broken keys, and she was getting more and more stressed about trying to unlock the gate. I was worried she would break her key off in the lock and then we’d have no hope. To top it off it was getting late and I needed to get home to pick up my kids.

I tried to get Mum to stop wrestling with the lock while I figured out what to do. I couldn’t open the garage, as the batteries seemed to be flat on the keypad. There is no easy place to scale the fence. I tried my key in the lock again, to no avail – it was definitely the right key, but the lock just wouldn’t move. Meanwhile Mum was becoming increasingly agitated, saying it had never happened before and she never had any trouble with the locks, why was it happening now, what were we going to do, why was it happening now… her stress levels were sky rocketing and it was impossible to isolate myself from her panic. It was infectious.

I called my husband to see if he had any suggestions, which at least calmed me a little, and I worked out that if I put my foot in the letterbox slot I could get myself up and over the gate (lucky I’ve been doing all that weights work recently is all I can say!). I had to sit on the spiky gate to get my other leg over which was no picnic, but I managed it.

I jumped down the other side to find that the lock was indeed jammed. But it was jammed outside the latch-hole. If we had tried the other handle, the gate would have opened.

This is the rabbit hole of dementia. I’ve felt for years that visits to Mum took my brain and ripped it into tiny pieces. I’ve long suspected that I didn’t ever manage to collect up all the bits, and that with every visit I, myself, become less complete. Less coherent. It’s impossible to be around that level of dysfunction without becoming somewhat dysfunctional yourself. But today I failed to open a gate that was, in fact, not locked.

I saw Mum safely inside. She became calm as soon as she was inside the house, fortunately. But her panic, her terror, her anxiety? I took them home with me. I pulled over on the side of the road halfway home and sobbed. Over a gate. Yet not over a gate at all. Over the mess that this damned disease has made of my mother, and is making of me.

I don’t want to play this game anymore.


Nerds don’t make good teachers, eh?

“Nerds don’t make good teachers, Catholic schools warn” screamed a bucket load of headlines yesterday, in response to the Government’s proposal to increase the minimum ATAR for teaching to 70.

Now, I have some reservations about this proposal. I would rather see conditions improved – especially workload – than impose a mandatory minimum score. This feels to me like a cheap and easy approach with quite uncertain outcomes, rather than a genuine attempt to improve our education system.

But it’s the comment from the Executive Director of Catholic Education Melbourne that gets so far up my nose I’m going to need surgery to extract it. To be fair, the headlines were cheap clickbait, and the actual quote is “Nerds don’t necessarily make good teachers.” Which is hard to argue with. I mean, take any group of people, even teachers, and they don’t necessarily make good teachers. There is no completely homogeneous group of people on earth. You can’t point to a race, a personality type, a socio economic group, of any kind and say “they will all make fabulous teachers”. Or train drivers. Or Executive Directors of the Catholic Education System.

Now, I will be the first to admit – no, to exclaim with pride! – that I am a nerd. So perhaps I am a little biased on this topic. But I am so very, very sick of the lazy, tired stereotype that nerds are pasty people with no social skills who never go out in the sunlight.

I work with nerds. I teach nerds. I have taught some of the smartest people I’ve ever met over the last 6 years, and there are some extraordinary teachers, communicators, and empaths among them. Sure, they’re not all like that. It’s true that smart people aren’t all the best communicators. But there is no group of people that you can say are all the best communicators.

Some of my nerds are amazing at sport. Some of them are extraordinary debaters. Some of them are the most talented musicians I have ever met. Some of them are incredible empaths. They are a rich and diverse group of people, with no two ever totally alike, but here’s what they have in common:

Nerds are intelligent and focused, especially when something engages their passion.

Nerds are passionate and often want to change the world.

Nerds are talented, often in many different areas at once.

Nerds think outside the box, and ask “why?” about problems the rest of the world takes for granted.

Nerds are creative.

Nerds are problem solvers.

Nerds made the iphone and write all the apps. They designed your tablet computer and create new drugs to treat disease. They invented wifi, the microwave, and the Airbus A380. They gave you google maps and email, hybrid cars and solar power. They can give you life saving surgery and remote controlled lights.

Just like the ASAP Science boys sing:

See I heard (oh) 
That you been out and about making fun of nerds 
Making fun of nerds 
See that's simply a mistake, know why? 
Soon they'll innovate and change our lives 
And be remembered for all of time

Most of the teachers at my school would happily, and accurately, wear the nerd label, and they are some of the most dedicated, talented, and amazing teachers I have ever known. They are brilliant communicators, passionate about their work, and would do just about anything for the students they teach. A startling number of them have PhDs – they are pretty much the definition of uber nerds – and they are fabulous.

So next time you are tempted to run with that tired old nerd stereotype, ask yourself what you’re really trying to say. And whether it’s true.