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Roses in December

by Joanna Cannon

Somewhere along the line, I lost my mind. A quaint turn of phrase, which implies an act of carelessness on my part. It suggests I became distracted, lost concentration for a moment, and somehow mislaid it — like a set of house keys or a Jack Russell terrier. It also implies that it was my fault. It implies that we are all responsible for our own sanity and, should we choose to shirk that responsibility, well — to be honest, we deserve all that we get.

I don’t remember how I came to be old. Quietly, one day, old age slipped into the room and tapped me on the shoulder. Now, I look in the mirror and see the last eighty years etched into my face. Every face tells a story — but I don’t know what story my face is telling me.

I don’t remember how I got here. Not just this hospital; I don’t remember how I got into this room or how I came to be sitting in this chair. I don’t remember why you’re here — or who you are, but I do remember my mother. I remember her smile. I can see her, sitting in front of the fire, darning a shirt. I can hear the clock on the mantelpiece and I can feel the warmth of the fire on my face. I remember it all as if it were yesterday.

They tell me that my mother died, and each time they tell me, I grieve for her — because in my mind, we were together only a moment before. It feels as if she has just stepped into the next room - and if I close my eyes, when I open them again we will be together and everything will be the way it’s always been.

Sometimes they show me photographs. The nurses think it might jog my memory. My memory is stuck, like a record in a groove, constantly playing the same few beats of music. They show me photographs of presidents and princesses, of musicians and movie stars — people I’ve never seen before, or if I have, they have been lost somewhere, quickly swept away by this disease into a corner of my mind I can’t seem to find. They think these photographs might be a solution, but they’re just pictures of people I don’t recognise. I don’t recognise my own face, so why should I recognise theirs?

They ask me questions. They ask me to count backwards and speak forwards. They ask me dates of wars and coronations. “No if’s and’s or but’s,” they say. Repeat after me. What date is it? What year is it? Repeat after me. They write down everything that I say and they smile and I smile back and then they walk away. But somewhere along the line, I lost my mind. And solving a puzzle will never change this.

Of course, they don’t say this to my face. They say I have a deficit. A good, strong medical word you would think. But despite its clinical acceptability, it, too, means failure. In no other specialty would you be allowed to label a patient a failure. We don’t even have renal failure anymore, we have “kidney injury.” But it’s perfectly acceptable to call a psychiatric patient a failure, it would seem.

I think I prefer “lost my mind,” because it suggests there is a possibility, however slim, that I may find it again.

Copyright © 2009 by Joanna Cannon

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