on dumbness

An interesting thing happened in June this year, as I arrived at the restaurant where I was going to enjoy my thirtieth birthday with friends.

Interesting is an inappropriate word for what happened; it was my father, calling to tell me that my mother’s cancer – which we’d all thought had gone into remission – had recurred in her liver and pancreas, and were inoperably large.

Since then other factors have arisen, some of which I cannot mention here, but all of which are equivalent in their impact on my life and wellbeing. I think it’s fairly reasonable to assume that my thirties have not been the decade of security and stability that I’d hoped they’d be.

By most means (total innumeracy aside) I am an intelligent person; in some domains, very above average. It’s been more a hindrance than a help as a teacher because in many ways it’s prevented me from having empathy with many of my students for many reasons. It has been a point of frustration that skills or techniques which have come to me quite naturally and intuitively couldn’t be grasped by them the first few times around; it has certainly prevented me for feeling empathy for the students who wouldn’t do the work. As a sceptic, however, it’s prevented me from seeing the rationale of why people fall for obviously fraudulent or implausible promises and remedies. It’s been a point that I fear has alienated people who could potentially connect with my ideas because the message and style have been inextricably connected.

But now, all these factors at play, I’ve become cognitively impaired. Little executive operational things like correct names, the location of belongings, or even directions to places I travel to daily became lost. Sentences went unfinished, and basic decisions became exhausting. In conversations I became even more inappropriate, or exhausted, or irrelevant, or even at times delirious, forgetting – as I might when I drink too much – the content of conversations only minutes earlier, and in some cases permanently. I drink more. My sleep is non-existent. Writing is almost impossible. And my high pain threshold is now even more dangerous as every day I find new bumps and cuts and scrapes that I cannot account for and one day I’m worried I’m going to lose a finger to a sharp knife or a car door.

At this point in a piece from a few months earlier I probably would have thrown in something caustically sarcastic or funny but it fails me now. Some days I can laugh or poke fun or mock, but others are like this one, where I walk as though anaesthetised from one place to another, cursorily engaging with those who cross my path.

Grief is a ravenous beast and an unpredictable one; some days it leaves you be and passes by harmlessly, but on the days where it circles and attacks it takes everything that makes decision making and thinking even possible. Every avenue of my life has suffered – my friends, my colleagues, my students and my family have all, at some point, suffered or been inconvenienced because of my inability to think.

And if this happens to a relative of a very sick person who is not financially or legally responsible for their welfare, imagine being that person who is – or worse, being extremely ill yourself.

The takeaway, perhaps, is to accord sympathy and empathy in equal doses to the suffering; more importantly, however, is to lessen the potential harm to them and their loved ones by asking for greater oversight into a healthcare sector which bleeds at one end and waves a magic wand at the other. Now is the time for people who are in a position to exercise some decision-making to do so altruistically: to lobby chemists to take homeopathic products off the shelves, to report non-complying childcare and healthcare providers, to speak out at parliamentary and senate hearings to correct a sense of ‘false balance’.

Because if people like the Hughes can do as much as they have done, despite their year of tremendous and bone-splintering grief, then so ought we all.

For the time being, however, I am sure you can all forgive me for drinking my wine in non-homeopathic doses.

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