Why I am glad my mother has dementia

One of the earliest photos I have of my mother holding me, circa 1967.

One of the earliest photos I have of my mother holding me, circa 1967.

Upon first reading this title, I wouldn't blame you for thinking I must be some sort of terrible person and undeserving son for voicing such a sentence. I acknowledge that dementia is a traumatic and awful experience not only for the person suffering, but for their loved ones around them who are caught up in the painful journey.

But for me, my mother's descent into dementia has been the actual discovery of who she is (was?) as a real person. I have debated a long while about whether or not to publish this, but in the end, I feel that some of the darker sides of my family history probably needs to be told.

As a young person growing up in a close knit family, I was close to both my parents. I thought that they were the epitome of the perfect mum and dad, even though I was often troubled by some of the things my mother said and did.

You see, my parents had an arranged marriage, which is a common thing in my culture, and in Asia, where I grew up. My mother was the daughter of a well to do doctor, highly respected in the area, but unknown to most people, a demanding, controlling, tyrant around the house. For instance, my mum and her siblings were forbidden from speaking at the dinner table during a meal, and corporal punishment was dealt out to them with alarming frequency. This obviously had a detrimental effect on the emotional development of her, and her brothers and sister.

Her parents saw it fit to arrange her betrothal to my father, who was the son of a (lowly) clerk, but a brilliant, self made young man who was on the way to becoming a successful doctor in his own right. For some reason, this fact seemed to cause some sort of irrational anger in my mother towards any member of my father's family.

I mean, I think my mum and dad grew to actually love each other during their married years, but it seemed my mother always held a grudge against all members of my father's family - even those not involved in the decision around the arrangement of their marriage. As kids we were always discouraged from interacting with my dad's side of the family, and I think that grudge my mother had against them eventually was directed at me, because some of my most favourite uncles and cousins were on my father's side.

I was also lucky enough to be sent off to boarding school when I was about 15 years old. Being away from the direct influence of my mother for so many years, and getting to visit my friend's families on short holidays also helped to open my eyes that the sort of behaviour my mum exhibited was really out of the norm of what a caring, compassionate mother could be.

My returning home from my long stint away from my family is what started driving the rift into what was previously my close (almost to the point of being needy) relationship with my mother. I began to rebel against some of her more irrational methods of trying to drive wedges between extended family members, and that annoyed her because I was not being subservient and obeying her directions like my younger sister (who basically never left home) was.

Ironically, my time away from home actually made me closer to my father as I appreciated his quiet dignity and wisdom more as I grew older. And that also incurred the chagrin of my mother as she tried in many ways to curry my favour again and distance me from my father.

I tried to be the 'good son' and put up with this behaviour for many years, but it all culminated about a decade ago when my father suffered a stroke that took away his ability to communicate for a year before it degraded his health to such an extent that it eventually took his life.

Losing my father tore me up more than I expected. I realised that he was the rock that held the family together, and without him around, my mother's behaviour grew even more unbalanced as she sought to drive wedges even between my two beloved sisters and me. It made it worse when I discovered later that during my father's last year alive, when he was rendered helpless and immobile by his stroke, that my mother was regularly mentally and physically abusing him. I found out that neighbours would hear her screaming at him in frustration and called the authorities to the house on more than one occasion. I felt I could never forgive her for that.

After my dad passed away, my younger sister took my mother into their home to look after her. That act of compassionate kindness however, seemed to trigger a new level of irrationality in my mother, and she began a new complex theatre of emotional blackmail, lies and deceit to try and instil mistrust, fear and doubt in the minds of all family members. I began to distance myself from her day to day dealings as much as I could.

My visits to her were very infrequent, and would always be painful, as she struggled to weave the various fabricated stories, created to cause consternation and discomfort, together to try and trigger me. I realised that she had so many variations and lies on so many fronts, that it was getting increasingly difficult for her to make them consistent or even realistic any longer. I just sat and nodded most of the time and let her words wash over me. I long ago realised that trying to push back would just make her explode in irrational rage.

Soon, months would go by between my visits to her. I felt that whatever her love and maternal instincts were, they were simply absent from her personality now as she turned into a single minded person bent on the destruction of her own family unit who were only trying to be there for her.

In the last year or so, my sisters kept updating me on the deterioration of my mum's mental health. While she is still physically OK, she has been exhibiting the early onset of dementia.

I decided to resume my semi-regular visits to her. The first couple of times, I was amazed at the transformation. Her inability to recall her convoluted web of deceits meant that she simply did not bring them up at all, and simply chatted about meaningless, everyday stuff. That was such a relief for me. She simply could not remember, or summon the dark energy any longer to keep those machinations afloat, and that was a real blessing!

It actually made my visits to her pleasant again. I normally crave in depth intellectual conversation (like I had with my dad), but in this case, I was happy to just sit and chat about vacuous things like the weather and what was on TV because it didn't require the emotional wrangling of the past. I didn't even mind repeating the same stories or answering her same question repeated 3 times in the past 10 minutes, because suddenly my soul felt free again, and I felt that I was once again in the presence of my mother of old who was caring and protective over me.

My wife and kids have also resumed visitations, and they have all agreed with my sentiments that it is so much easier now to simply be with her and not have to be 'on guard' emotionally or watch what they say lest it be taken out of context and used against them.

I have noticed a gradual decline in her memory and mental faculties in the past few months, and I fear for where that will lead, but for now, at least she still remembers me and my sisters when she sees us, and while she cannot remember my wife and kids when they are not there and I visit her alone, when she sees them in person, she does recall who they are and I do see a delightful, genuine smile on her face when she sees her grandkids walk in.

The affliction that normally takes away all of a person over time has actually chosen to remove the darker aspects of her personality first, revealing the simple, but genuine soul beneath. I will cherish being in the presence of this part of her life before that too, is eventually gone.

Designers, please stop doing this...

Spotted this thread on Twitter today, these are the thoughts of a designer, retweeted by another designer I follow:

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Given the pithy responses to the original tweet, I will give the designer the benefit of the doubt that he was just yanking everyone’s chain with this thread, but I have seen designers who post stuff like this without irony.

To those that do this - Just. Stop. Please.

I applaud that you perceive that there may be a problem with something you see in the universe, and that you think it could be better. But before putting your critique’s hat on, please take the time to become more familiar with the domain of the thing/concept that you are critiquing.

To cover the above scenario: I used to be a pilot, and had to learn morse code as part of my studies to obtain my license. I initially thought the same as above - what a confusing jumble this seems. But guess what? When I actually started to USE morse code, I realised what an incredibly efficient method of communication it is. The series of dots and dashes are not seemingly random, as pointed out by one of the replies above, rather they reflect the frequency of usage (‘E’ is the most commonly used letter in the English language, and is denoted by a single dot), and are also designed to prevent ambiguity of similar sounding letters.

To suggest that the series of dots and dashes are dependent on the ‘numerical position within the set’ is flawed thinking. Quick - who can tell me the 16th letter of the alphabet? The 11th? As you can see - this is a pointless strategy.

(On the other hand, morse depiction of NUMBERS uses a flowing pattern system that is logical and consistent).

I was blocked on Twitter last year by a certain ‘high profile’ designer who is considered a darling of the Twitter Design community. She raised questions about something that is commonly used in the aviation industry, and when I (politely) pointed out the flaws in her thinking, based on my actual real world knowledge of the topic, she immediately Tweet shamed me and blocked me to prevent any further discussion on the subject.

This was quite an arrogant and myopic stance to take, and I hope that she is still not considered a role model for new up and coming designers in the field. (Note that she raised questions, but like the above example, didn’t actually use her designer expertise to come up with any sort of solution for the problem).

I know plenty of great designers. Some of them have even worked on my own creations and made them better than I could have ever envisaged.

Questioning something is perfectly valid. But before you voice your opinions on a particular facet of the existing design, please take the time to study the history and immerse yourself in the context of that design, and ask yourself WHY it is as it is currently? There are always forces that hold things in place, and sometimes those forces exist for a good reason, and shouldn’t be bent or altered unless your way forward is significantly better.

The evolving startup

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I was listening to the excellent Startup Therapy podcast this morning on my walk. More specifically, I was listening to the episode with Steve Blank, where they were talking about a startup ‘shedding its skin’.

What does that mean, in a nutshell? Well, it is really about the natural evolution of a startup through the different stages of Search, Build & Grow - roughly translated to product market fit, traction, and growth.

The hosts talked about how the different roles of employees, and even founders, within the startup will change as it progresses through these stages, and that even the founders themselves may not be the best people to lead the business through certain stages.

It kind of reminds me of a book I read as a youngster, where a plane crashed into a mountain and the surviving passengers had to work out how to get back to civilisation. The person totally in charge of the aircraft while in the air (the pilot), was different from the person who took charge of the group’s survival in the wreck of the plane in the snowy mountain, who was different again from the person who led the small expedition to try and find civilisation and help. Each had their own unique skillsets which made them natural leaders in those different scenarios. Most importantly, each person knew when to defer their leadership as the missions of the group changed.

I’ve experienced something similar in my own startup, HR Partner. Over a year ago, my original co-founder of two years left the startup. It wasn’t my decision. She had self-identified that she wasn’t the best person to lead the business into the next stage of growth. I must admit that I couldn’t see it then, but over the past year, I have grown to appreciate that call, as the business has grown from strength to strength with different leadership, and indeed, I have now transitioned my startup again to bring on a new co-founder with different skill who is again raising the bar and taking us to new heights.

Kudos to my former founder to having the strength of character to realise that she had maxed out her skills and needed to step out. It has made me think about my long term role in my own company. Though I wrote 99% of the code and have spent a lot of time as a solo founder building this company, I think we will get to the stage in a year or two where I will have to relinquish my own control and ownership over the business for it to thrive.

I was never comfortable with the title of CEO, and I think that my future here lies in being more of a CTO or Product Manager with someone else (perhaps my new co-founder, or perhaps someone else altogether) at the helm, driving it forward.

Eventually, I see myself stepping out of the company entirely, as I am realistic enough to see that my personality type (and future life goals) are not compatible with growing and sustaining a large, enterprise software company, and I look forward to handing over the reins to someone much more qualified and able.

This is not to say I am losing interest in my startup - far from it. I have never been more passionate and excited to build something that is used and loved by more and more people each day. It is just that I need to be more realistic about what it is going to take for this company to be the success that it deserves to be. So in the meantime, I will enjoy my role in the journey, and I hope I am wise enough (like my old co-founder) to know when I need to take a side step.

Proud to be sinister

sinister - (a) of, relating to, or situated to the left or on the left side of something especially being or relating to the side of a heraldic shield at the left of the person bearing it (b) of ill omen by reason of being on the left


I’m left handed. Have been so for as long as I can remember.

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But what I also remember is that when I was about in grade 1 or 2, my teachers in my primary school in Malaysia tried to force me to be right handed. I do recall the raps across the knuckles and the teacher standing over me while I did my writing practice to ensure I kept using my right hand.

It was at this point that my maths grades started to suffer. I was getting 0% on tests, and all my teachers were baffled, as were my parents. No one could explain why I went from a fairly average to good student, to a poor one at this one particular subject.

And it would have remained that way if not for my habit of drawing on everything with chalk, as I loved to do around the house. One day, I used chalk to number all the stairs going up to the second floor of our home. My mum noticed this when she was carrying a basket of clean laundry upstairs, and her annoyance at me on the first flight of stairs turned to concern and realisation by the time she reached the second flight.

You see, I had numbered everything from stair 1 to 11 perfectly fine, but after that, instead of 12, 13, 14,1 5… etc., they were written as 21, 31, 41, 51 and onwards.

The forced transposition from one hand to another also resulted in a transposition of the placement of those numbers, and I was unconsciously writing the numbers back to front.

A quick check of my old maths tests from class showed the same thing. I actually had got the sums correct, however my answers were written back to front, resulting in a cross instead of a tick. To this day I am alarmed that no teacher ever looked deeper at my answers and realised what was happening. Had I not numbered our house stairs with chalk that day, who knows how long this would have gone on, and what impact this would have had on my learning to date.

Conversely, many years later in flying school, one of my proudest moments was when I scored 99.9% on a fiendishly difficult navigation examination. Only three of us in the class (of 12 students) passed that exam and I was chuffed to be one of them.

What makes this even more special is that when I asked my instructor where I had lost the 0.1%, he said that is was because I had copied down one of the numbers from the original question sheet onto my working sheet wrong. But I had come up with the right answer at the end using that wrong initial figure. That was where I had lost the 0.1%!

But the fact that my instructor didn’t just mark my answer wrong because the end result wasn’t what he expected, like my grade 2 teachers did, but instead went through the effort of completing the 2 pages of calculations with my input figures and see that I understood the problem and could come up with a solution - well, that meant so much to me, and showed me the difference between a good teacher and a bad one.

Addendum: I am actually not a strict left hander per se. I do a lot of one handed things (writing, bowling at cricket, playing tennis, eating with a spoon) left handed, but two handed things (playing guitar, batting at cricket, playing golf etc.) right handed.

Actually, I think in guitar playing especially, it helps to have my most dexterous hand doing all the hard fiddly bits on the neck and not just holding the pick and moving it up and down!