45 Seconds in Dementialand

I’ve known Erin Payne-Christiansen since I was in the first grade. She saw me through my awkward middle school years, which lasted until I was about 26. She was with me the first time I got to drive out-of-town after I got my driver’s license. The muffler fell off my Ford Escort on a busy road. We did the logical thing–stopped the car, ran out into traffic, picked up the muffler, and put it in the trunk. Yes, we burnt the crap out of our hands. And I was proud when Erin was named the homecoming queen at our high school. Not only of Erin, but of our high school. We had actually elected someone who was kind and genuine. After high school, she became my college roommate (the first person with whom this only child ever shared a room).

No matter where Erin has lived, it’s always seemed like home to me. Even when I visit her parents’ house 30 years after I first “slept-over,” it feels like home. (On a related note, I can recite her parents’ home phone number more easily than I can my husband’s cell phone number.) Several years ago, Erin returned from living in New Zealand with her husband and moved into a new house. As soon as I stepped into the house, it felt like home–because Erin lived there. She’s just that type of friend.

I went to bed that night in Erin’s basement. It was one of those really dark basements that is perfect for when you want to sleep late.

I didn’t sleep through the night. I woke up. It was pitch black. The world didn’t look any different with my eyes open than it did with my eyes closed. I couldn’t find a clock. I couldn’t locate my cell phone. And I had no idea where the hell I was.

I sat up and looked around. I guess I was looking for clues to try to figure out where I was. Not seeing anything useful (or anything at all, really), I got up and started wondering around. I slammed into something, probably a couch, and kept my arms out to feel for a wall. If I could find a wall, I could likely find a light switch. But I couldn’t. I wandered around a bit more.

Then I stopped and forced myself to think. I kept telling myself there was no reason to panic, but I was in panic mode. And it was moving toward terror mode. There had to be a logical reason I was in this place with no recollection of how I got here. My eyes adjusted a little. I could see shapes. I could see a large TV. A couch. A table.

Finally, I realized I was at Erin’s. I recalled driving down the night before, having dinner, drinking wine before bed. I took a couple of breaths. Eventually I went back to sleep. The whole panicky incident probably lasted fewer than 45 seconds.

45 seconds.

Whenever I see someone with dementia anxiously wandering around looking for clues to make sense of their environment, I think of those 45 seconds.

My senses and recall were able to help me identify where I was and alleviate my panic, but that might not be the case if I had dementia.

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