Sunday, 12 July 2015

And now, for a story

My uncle had Alzheimers.

(Get back here, I'll be quick!)

Waaaay back then it wasn't called Alzheimers or dementia. We brushed it off as him just being silly. He would call up his brother-in-law and talk about past events as if it happened yesterday. I remember once he took a night bus to another state, but due to a comedy of errors he ended up back home. At the bus station, he called my aunt and said, "Wow, this town is totally like home! You should see it! Look, it even has the same coffee shop!" It took him a run-in with a friend to realise where he was, and it became a story we'd laugh over during family reunions.

Then in 2009-2010, my aunt suddenly passed away in her sleep.

My dad headed to Terengganu for the funeral (aunt was my dad's sister). In the church, my dad saw my uncle sitting near the coffin, looking so sad and forlorn. Dad sat next to him, thinking the old chap (he was 70+ then) needed a shoulder and an ear.

Uncle: It's so sad, she's gone, and I didn't have the chance to say goodbye!
Dad: *nodnod*
Uncle: She was always so kind, and gentle, and she treated us all fairly!
Dad: ... (I don't know if we're talking about my sister anymore, but okay)
Uncle: And even though I wasn't her real son, she raised me like her own!
Dad: .........what.

It dawned on my dad that my uncle thought he was attending his adopted mother's funeral (she'd died years ago).

My uncle didn't realise his wife was dead and he was at her funeral.

I don't think he ever did.

His dementia snowballed very quickly into Alzheimers. His kids brought him back to Selangor so they could take care of him, but he was slipping. Once he vanished from the nursing home and ended up 10 kilometers away in town, standing in front of a shop. The shopkeeper called my cousin, and it broke my dad's heart to see his brother-in-law not recognise his own daughter. Over the years his kids still brought him out for Sunday breakfast and family dinners, but he'd sit quietly, probably wondering why these nice people kept taking him out.

The last words he spoke to me were, "You've grown so much since I last saw you!"

I wonder which era was he stuck in; I never found out.

My uncle passed on last year.

The difference between my uncle and Terry Pratchett was that Mr Pratchett knew what was coming. Knowing that his memories will disappear, rushing against time to write one last book because his body will say 'ok that's it' and poof that's all folks, it probably hurt a lot. My uncle didn't know what hit him, and perhaps that was a blessing.

Alzheimers always sounds heart-wrenching - the stories are always about old people forgetting things, and the children are left to watch helplessly as their parents slip backwards into a mental time portal until the tunnel hits the beginning. But ultimately it's always someone else's story, and we are merely sympathetic bystanders. If we didn't experience it we write about a simulated pain, close to the real thing, but not quite the same.

I wasn't very close to my uncle, but my dad lost a brother-figure, and my cousins lost their dad.

I don't think I'll understand their loss.

I hope I never will.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Yesterday's gone (and so are all the other days)

The phrase “I remember it like it was yesterday” becomes somewhat meaningless when you realise that yesterday, like every other day since the beginning of time, is gone forever – and therefore can't be easily referred to for a quick fact-check.
One of the first things they teach you when you become a copper (or so I am told) is to take eyewitness accounts with a generous helping of salt. This goes double for witnesses to an event that was both entirely unexpected and began and ended within an extremely short space of time. This can be largely explained through the concept of schematic thinking – an idea that fascinated me in sixth form psychology, and which I shall now explain to you in what is probably a mangled and misinterpreted manner so heaving with irony, it just might melt my laptop.
A schema is sort of like one of those crossword solvers used by people who miss the point of a crossword. For those of you who don't know about crossword solvers, they're programs and/or websites you can use to solve crossword puzzles for you and, oh dear, I've probably encouraged a few of you to use them. Anyway, the point is this. A crossword solver works by taking what limited information you have – three letters from a six letter word, say – and then using this to almost instantly present you with one or more solutions to save you thinking. A schema will similarly take limited information – perhaps scrappy memories, or an unfamiliar sight or sound – and instantly fill in the gaps to proffer some kind of understanding/solution. It does this, essentially, by making it fit in with existing beliefs or experience. This isn't a conscious process, which is where the trouble comes in.
To go back to the idea of eyewitness reports, let's take the hypothetical crime of a purse snatching in a busy shop. A dastardly fiend snatches a bag from a woman's shoulder and makes good his escape, grabbing his ill-gotten gains and leaving the shop all within the space of less than five seconds. There are ten witnesses. Thanks to schematic thinking, no two eyewitness accounts match exactly. Eight witnesses say the bag was over the woman's right shoulder, because they are right-handed; two witnesses say it was the left shoulder, because they are left-handed. The bag itself was red, but will be reported by some as blue, because the theft took place in a section of the shop selling mostly blue bags. The criminal was clean shaven, but is reported by four witnesses as having noticeable stubble or the beginnings of a beard, because that's how dirty purse-snatchers look, isn't it? The criminal was wearing smart shoes, but six witnesses swear he was wearing black (or dark blue) trainers, because he was running. And so on. I'm obviously just pulling these numbers out of the air, but the principle rings true.
Tempting as it is to explore how and why schemas are at the rotten core of various prejudices (it's currently fashionable amongst racists, for example, to consider certain terrorists representative of all Muslims, while ignoring acts of heroism carried out by Muslims such as those in the recent horrors of France and Tunisia), I don't want to go off on too much of a tangent here. The point is that at a fundamental level, we all have some of our memories and perceptions subtly altered without our permission by a sort of internal editor. An overzealous editor who wants to ensure that everything is understood with no loose ends, in a way that doesn't challenge the audience's expectations. On top of this, our memories can be altered by other people – both intentionally and unintentionally.
If life events act like cookie cutters, leaving clearly defined shapes in our minds, then those shapes are cut from an extremely malleable clay that never hardens. I'll leave the explanation of this to an expert. There's a brilliant Ted Talk by psychologist Elizabeth Loftus that I strongly recommend you watch. It will take less than eighteen minutes of your time, and will open your eyes to just how fragile the accuracy of human memory is.
Wandering back to the idea of memory and the legal system; results from polygraph (so called 'lie detector') tests are not- despite what you may have heard – admissible as evidence in a UK court of law. There are several reasons for this, one of the chief ones being the fact that their margin of error remains fiercely contested to this day. Even ignoring that, and the techniques that can be employed to fool such a test (yes, it can be done), all a polygraph test can be said to prove – at best – is what a person believes to be true. And those pesky schemas can then come into play to interfere.
Let's say that, on a day of remarkable coincidence, three people in three different cities have a virtually identical experience in the middle of the night; one a devout and enthusiastic Christian, one a strong believer in UFOs and alien life, and one an atheist. Each person wakes up in the early hours of the morning, and sees mysterious figures surrounding their bed making strange noises for a minute or more. The mysterious figures then suddenly disappear. The devout Christian will swear they were visited by angels, as this slots in perfectly with the world view that their religious schemas provide. The UFO fanatic will swear that they were visited by aliens, as this slots in perfectly with the world view that their very different, but equally strong, belief provides. The atheist, with no existing schemas that smoothly wrap around the experience, won't immediately know what to make of it; but after research, may well conclude that it was a hypnopompic hallucination.
To put it in a way that even somebody like me can understand, 'hypnopompic' basically refers to a state where asleep and awake melt into one another. You're seeing the real world, but your dream brain is allowing your imagination to drop things into your vision, sometimes with accompanying sound. In essence, a waking dream. I had a hypnopompic hallucination once, and it was bloody terrifying.
I didn't know it was a hypnopompic hallucination at the time. I certainly wouldn't have used those words, as I was probably about seven or eight years old. Poor little me; I woke up (more or less) in the morning, and immediately saw a small creature sitting on the end of my bed staring at me. It was as big as a fair sized TV. It was a cardboard box with eyes and a downturned mouth cut out, with arms ending in gloves and legs ending in shoes. The arms and legs suggested that whatever was inside the box (if anything was indeed in it) was wearing a tight-fitting stripy onesie.
Look, I was seven or eight.
It looked straight at me and said, in an unnaturally slow and deep voice that chilled me to my young bones:
Wide awake club”.
It was scary at the time, okay? I leapt out of bed, straight past the demon, and hurtled into my parents' room. When I returned to my bedroom the thing was gone of course, and I tell you what, I really bloody hope it was a hallucination. I think that may have scarred me for life. I'm never going to forget that, and I remember it in horrifying detail even today.

I remember it like it was yesterday.