Book Review – Somebody I Used to Know: A Memoir by Wendy Mitchell

Last year I read a lot of books; I averaged a book a week, and I definitely saw an improvement in my writing. So far this year, I’ve been doing alllll the writing, and comparatively little reading, and I can feel my writing abilities slipping. My last book review was published last November, so I figured it was time to get reading again. This time I went for something a bit heavier than my previous popular science books, because *gasp* it’s one that doesn’t just explain science, it actually makes the science and research that many of us do every day, much more human. Wendy Mitchell’s ‘Somebody I Used To Know’ came out early last month, and I sped through it in a matter of days, get it here.

What the publisher says

What do you lose when you lose your memories? What do you value when this loss reframes how you’ve lived, and how you will live in the future? How do you conceive of love when you can no longer recognise those who are supposed to mean the most to you?

When she was diagnosed with dementia at the age of fifty-eight, Wendy Mitchell was confronted with the most profound questions about life and identity. All at once, she had to say goodbye to the woman she used to be. Her demanding career in the NHS, her ability to drive, cook and run – the various shades of her independence – were suddenly gone.

Philosophical, profoundly moving, insightful and ultimately full of hope, Somebody I Used to Know is both a heart-rending tribute to the woman Wendy once was, and a brave affirmation of the woman dementia has seen her become.

What the critics say

“A brave and illuminating journey inside the mind, heart, and life of young-onset Alzheimer’s disease.” (Lisa Genova, neuroscientist and author of Still Alice)

“Nothing is more frightening than dementia, says Wendy – and yet, every day, she chooses to face her fears head on. By sharing her story Wendy challenges assumptions and ignorance about dementia. Read this amazing book. It will change a lot of people’s minds about what it means to have the disease” (Professor Pat Sikes, University of Sheffield)

“A lucid, candid and gallant portrayal of what the early stages of dementia feel like … This memoir, with its humour and its sense of resilience, demonstrates how the diagnosis of dementia is not a clear line that a person crosses; they are no different than they were the day before” – (Nicci Gerrard, Observer) (Note – this piece, also written by Nicci Gerrard for the Observer provides a really lovely picture of Wendy that makes the book all the more emotional).

My thoughts

I’ve followed Wendy Mitchell on Twitter for a long time (here if you don’t follow her already!), and I’ve also been eading her blog for over a year (again, here if you haven’t checked it out already), so when she announced that she was writing a book I preordered straight away. Wendy is very involved with research; as the book tells you, she no longer ‘works’ – I say that reluctantly, meaning she doesn’t work in her previous NHS role, but she’s an absolute trooper when it comes to supporting researchers, educating early career nurses, explaining what it’s like to live with dementia to businesses, members of the public.. the list really does go on.

Honestly, I expected the book to be a sort of expanded version of her blog. I expected snippets of her every day, stories of her daughters growing up, and maybe the odd look back on diagnosis etc. What I actually got was Wendy Mitchell’s character, habits, and most poignant memories all wrapped in a book that genuinely made me feel like I was getting to know her, her daughters Gemma and Sarah, and even Billy the cat.
I very rarely read books that enable me to really get to know the characters within them, but once I’d finished reading Somebody I Used to Know, I genuinely felt like I’d had a conversation with Wendy over a cup of her beloved Yorkshire tea (side note – Yorkshire tea is the best tea, she’s absolutely right). Parts of the book made me want to cry, parts of it made me feel anger and frustration similar to what I expect Wendy’s family and friends must have felt when she was diagnosed, but the overarching feeling I had throughout the entire book was hope. Wendy is inspirational, at no point does she give up; she’s a problem solver – she just figures it out and gets on with it. Even as I was fighting back tears I found myself trying to think how I’d ‘get around’ dementia if I was her.

This book is not only a brilliant reference point for people who have a close connection to those living with dementia (whether that’s a family/friend, or contact within their working life), it’s a really good way to take the fear out of dementia generally. Dementia is a disease so terrifying and mysterious that many of us avoid thinking or talking about it entirely, but Wendy’s perspective and positive attitude made me rethink my views on how I might cope with living with dementia. She makes it very clear that dementia is not simply the end stage, it’s a disease with a start, middle and end just like any other – and it’s completely reasonable to live a happy and independent life with dementia.

Would I recommend it?

Part of me wants to be very enthusiastic and shout ‘YES PLEASE READ THIS BOOK’, but I’m hesitant to. This hesitation is itself hesitant because it is a brilliant book… let me explain. I don’t have any relatives that are living with dementia right now, in the past I have had, and this book provided me with a chance to look back on my memories with that person fondly. I think this book should be read by people that have contact with people living with dementia, but I know that the emotion required to get through it could be draining for people with close friends/family living with the condition. Put simply, I’d recommend it, but with an emotional warning – read this when you feel like you’re in a good place to do so, sometimes it’s important to be selfish and look after your own mental health, first.

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