Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, Wendy Mitchell is adapting her life to compensate for the parts of her brain which aren’t working as they used to, taking part in clinical trials and research, she is raising awareness of this cruel disease and writing a blog which has become her memory.
I had always been renowned for my brilliant memory – for names, dates, facts and figures. Until I reached my mid-50s, that is, when my memory started to let me down.
I’d recognise the faces of colleagues but could not remember their names, even though these were people I’d worked closely with for years. Embarrassingly, I’d forget the simplest of words in meetings. The worst episode came last spring when I left my office and just didn’t know where I was or to whom all the voices around me belonged. It was then I knew it was more than just normal memory problems associated with ageing.
The diagnosis of Alzheimer’s was made this time last year by a neurologist after a nuclear imaging scan showed an area of my brain wasn’t functioning as it should. It was July 31– a date I will never forget, despite my memory problems. I was 58 years old, otherwise healthy and working full time as an NHS manager St James’s Hospital, Leeds. Although the diagnosis was devastating it was also, bizarrely, a relief: it finally put an end to all the uncertainties I’d been having over the previous 18 months.
Last week, researchers at Bournemouth University found that dementia is being diagnosed in people a decade earlier than it was 20 years ago. No one really knows why this is happening. I think in my case, as in most, it was totally random. I was doing all the right things for my health – I don’t drink, didn’t smoke, used to run regularly and had a good diet.
Every day is different now. Some days I feel bright and my brain feels clear. But on bad days, a fog descends on my brain and confusion reigns from the minute I wake up. I liken this feeling to the process of untangling a necklace. If I’m feeling calm, I can patiently untangle the knots and work out what day it is and what I’m supposed to be doing. But if I panic, it’s like being impatient with the necklace, so that the knots get worse. When this happens I feel as if my head wants to explode.
At these moments I tell myself the fog will clear eventually so I’ll just quietly sit and wait. It’s a bit like a game of chess – you sit waiting for your opponent to make their move and then try and outmanoeuvre them.