Down to a sunless sea: memories of my dad

I’m going to be releasing a new piece every Thursday for at least 8 weeks. General content note: death, dementia, old age, mental health issues, euthanasia, suicide

in 1981 I began to travel through time

We’re all Time Travellers

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”[1]
From the moment you are born, you are travelling 
through time and through spaces
that you can never fully see
even though they move through you.

My dad was conceived
between World War 1 and World War 2.
I was conceived on a drunken New Year’s Eve
by two people whose journey had already ceased to be. 
In the space between 1980 and 1981,
my journey through time had begun.

My father is 93; he’s travelled through time from 1923.
He can access memories from almost an entire century. 
When I talk to him, I’m talking to a person from the past, 
and every time I say goodbye, I wonder if it will be the last

We measure how long we’ve been travelling, 
which decade we have found ourselves in
by what’s no longer there.

Everyone you meet is a time traveller.
When you talk to them, you talk to a person from another time. 
It’s taken me 35 years to get to this exact space I’m standing in,
and I’ve got no idea where I’m going to end up next.

Time is the longest distance between two places.
Even when we are no longer here, we are always in time.

The year that this photo of my dad has traveled from is unknown

My dad isn’t just a time traveller: he is someone reporting back from a different world, a distorted and confusing landscape. He has a different operating system from the one he used to have. Sometimes it’s like there’s someone else inhabiting my dad. Other times it’s like my dad inhabits someone else. He reports from the land of dementia now more frequently than he reports from the past.

When he first began to notice he had dementia, he thought he had Alzheimer’s Disease and went around telling everyone this very eloquently. It confused and worried them the way that big scary words do. I kept suggesting he didn’t do it. When I sat with him in the dementia clinic, the doctor told him that no one with Alzheimer’s comes in to see him thinking they have Alzheimer’s.

It took a while to get a diagnosis because my dad was defensive. He acted like questions were being asked in order to catch him out. That can be a general issue now: he is busy bluffing, concentrating on giving the appearance of normality, performing himself, pretending he can hear, pretending he understands things. But he did get a diagnosis: mild dementia caused by an undetected stroke. So now he tells everyone that he is demented. Which is technically true.

I took this on my dad’s 93rd birthday

His ability to understand and process things isn’t just limited by his memory (which has definitely got worse in the time between his diagnosis and now). It is also limited by anxiety; he becomes worried he will forget things, panics, and gives up. I can understand this as someone who experiences similar moments of anxiety where my worries and fears freeze my brain and stop me being able to make connections.

My dad is also depressed. Depression is a reasonable reaction to losing the ability to think and remember clearly and to deteriorating mobility and a loss of pretty much all senses. His hearing, sight, smell and even touch are all very much reduced. Depression is another thing that I also experience. When I’m depressed I don’t care about food or drink or any sensory experiences, but I can have them, and often they will be part of the process of making the numbness thaw. I sabotage myself by denying them, by telling myself they are meaningless. Dad is being sabotaged by his body rather than his mind; by his material conditions, rather his internal state.

I can relate to the anxiety and depression that my dad experiences, but he finds my experiences harder to relate to. He hasn’t really known depression until now, and any anxiety he may or may not have had has not been diagnosed. If he has had anxiety in the past (and looking back, I think he has) it hasn’t got in the way of him living his life. Suddenly at 93, he is dealing with having mental health issues, ones that do get in the way. Most of the advice I can give about managing those experiences is not useful to him. Most forms of self-care involve using your senses, and most of his senses are now lost. Reading, eating, watching TV, exercising, meditation, even socialising aren’t things that can bring him much solace.

I have had depression and anxiety since my teens, although I’ve only really come to understand that in the last 10 years. My mental health issues have become intertwined with my “personal brand” as a true storyteller. I have made a show about the traumatic events that have contributed to me having mental health issues. I have spent six years trying to get therapy through the NHS and am now currently getting it.

My dad and I have a very open friendship, and we talk about everything (although for a chunk of my childhood I kept him in the dark about some of the traumatic things I experienced). But now he has dementia, he can’t always remember the things we have talked about. So I find myself regularly having to retell him my mental health journey. I will say I’m going to therapy, and he will say “Why are you going to therapy?” I will say because I have anxiety and depression and he will say “Oh, I didn’t know that. Do you? When did this happen?” I will answer him, and this will lead to more questions.

My dad has seen the show I made documenting these issues numerous times, and pretty regularly listens to the podcast version. Over the years, we’ve had really long, and, for me, very useful conversations about mental health. It’s really hard for me to keep in mind that, despite all that, he can no longer reliably travel back. I assume we have a shared history and language and then realise again and again that we don’t. Not anymore.

So I tell him everything again. And when I do that, I have to see him being sad and surprised about all these things that he has already been sad and surprised about. I feel guilty again for not telling him about some of the things when they were happening. If I had, maybe they would be more embedded in his memory. I often feel like I’m stuck in a time loop. It’s Groundhog Day. Again.

Some days I don’t want to recount my mental health history, especially when pushed for time. Most days I don’t want to recount it to someone who should already know it. It’s a lot of conflicting emotions to recall during a spare hour in a busy day. My mental health history isn’t the only thing I have to repeat to my dad almost daily, but it’s the thing that makes me the saddest to repeat.

It’s really strange to hear my dad talking about his depression, saying things that resonate so strongly with my experiences, but to know that, unlike when I feel these feelings, he has physical, material reasons for them. Considering giving up at 93 is very different from doing so at 35, or 25, or 15. I have so much more life — so many different times — that I will be passing through.

A blurry picture of my dad when he was younger than me.

For him, there is only losing more and more of himself before ultimately dying. He frequently brings up euthanasia, something he thinks should be available to everyone through the state. When he does that, we talk about how I will not help him do that if the time comes, my reasoning being that, quite apart from it being illegal and so putting my liberty at risk, it is also not something that I want to live with. I don’t want to carry the experience of killing my father with me. Nor do I want to deal with the feelings my siblings might have about it.

So I remind him that there are alternatives to euthanasia: that he can take matters into his own hands. But he never really likes that idea. He wants someone else to do it for him so it can be a peaceful passing, the way that Sam, our family dog passed away: compassion and love rather than violence. “He just ate a piece of sausage and went to sleep.” Also, he doesn’t want to fail at it and find himself still alive but having lost even more. I can understand that. But these conversations always end with him saying, “It isn’t time yet.” And they always end with me wondering to myself if maybe it is the right time. Because there comes a point where you can’t take matters into your own hands anymore, and it seems to me you need to make the choice when you still can, both physically and mentally.

Sam was a rescue dog who fitted very well into my family because he was neurotic. When he joined us, my dad was living as a lodger in two rooms of my mum’s house and looking after both me and my little sister (who has a different father). We all loved Sam, but my dad was the one who really bonded with him, taking him for the most walks and spending his days with him. When we all left to live in different places, Sam went with my dad. Dogs move through time differently to humans, and when they left the house, Sam was in the prime of his life. During the next few years, Sam caught up with my dad in terms of age: he was an old dog who still thought he was a puppy; dad was an old man who still thought he was a young man. They related. But then Sam overtook dad and became very old and disabled. He couldn’t keep up with my dad anymore. He lost more and more quality of life. When we decided to put him down, it was my job to dig his grave in my dad’s back garden. As I dug down into the earth and made space for him to rest, Sam was standing above me, looking down at me digging, wagging his tail.

My dad holding a picture my mum painted of Sam in 2012

Now my dad is catching Sam up.

Without the aid of a time machine, the human body doesn’t just move through time: time moves through the human body, changing it. And as that body changes, so does the mind that inhabits it. We can only physically move one way. The only way we can reverse time is by remembering the past, and ultimately time will stop us doing even that. Our actions are always irreversible. That’s what I try to remember when I feel like I don’t want to go on: if I choose to die, it is a choice that lasts forever. But seeing my dad ravaged by time, I don’t want to last as long as he has. At 35, I have plenty of reasons to live and to keep living, but I definitely don’t want to live forever.

We often have these conversations about euthanasia on days when I have spent a big chunk of time fighting off my own (much less justified) death wishes. In some ways, it feels like we are in very similar places despite coming from very different times, and at others, all I can feel is the gulf between our understandings. But one thing I do know is that we will probably have the same conversation tomorrow or next week or the week after that. Each time, he will be reset, but I will remember.

This is part of a collection of essays that I will be releasing here on medium weekly over the next few months. Click here to read the introduction.

Read part 3 here:

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Thanks to J Adamthwaite who edited these pieces for punctuation/grammar and provided notes and support.

[1] Tennessee Williams, The Glass Menagerie