Saturday 30th March 2019. Hop Inn Mody.
Two days before I flew to Hong Kong, flicking through Netflix I stumbled upon the film ‘Still Alice’. The main role of Alice played by Julieanne Moore, who was instantly recognisable, but I had to Google to retrieve her name. Ironic and a little scary, as Alice is a linguistics Professor in her 50s who is battling Familial Alzheimers, a genetic form that attacks early and aggressively.
As we get older, Martin and I both joke about our Alzheimers’ moments. But whilst I joke, I also know the possibility that either of us might succumb to some sort of dementia scares the pants off me, having witnessed first hand, the devastating path of destruction dementia leaves.
Two scenes from the film have stayed with me. Alice out on a run, suddenly totally lost. Absolutely no idea where she is or how to get home, doubled over with fright, suffering from a panic attack, shaking figure in the foreground, whilst her surroundings are depicted out of focus, to give us a sense of the severity of what is happening. The second scene, where the disease has progressed so rapidly Alice needs 24/7 monitoring, depicts her desperately opening door after door in her own home, trying to find the toilet. She fails, and wets herself.
When I came to Hong Kong in November, I got lost easily and all too frequently, even towards the end of my 3 month stay. But I always knew that with the help of my laminated map and/or Google, I would somehow make it home. I felt waves of panic consume and shake me, especially if I was due to be someplace at a specific time, but there was within me a nugget of reassuring certainty, that I had lodged someplace in my brain sufficient navigational skills to survive. Despite this deep knowing, still, there was one time I panicked. cried with frustration, had to stop, breathe deeply, relax and give myself a good talking to, taking an hour for what should have been a 10 minute journey. Fortunately I did not wet myself. Just in case you’re wondering.
Today, after three busy days, I locked all my valuables in my under bed storage crate and handed my room key and the padlock to the Reception at my hostel. I wanted to run. Run freely, not encumbered by anything. Around these streets that I now know reasonably well. But today, something was much changed. It seems I can now sense which way I need to turn, without looking at any signs, without really thinking. Which is useful as it was busy out in Tsim Tsa Tsui today. Shoulder to shoulder. Waves of people on every street. And all without the comforters of my laminated map and phone. I realised it’s the weekend, that time when Mainlanders arrive in hoards to buy. The image of immaculately made-up women stuffing cosmetics into suitcases and discarding the packaging on the street is not my favourite memory, but it is as vivid as my memory of Alice lost in her own home. I turned the corner into Canton Road, home to Tiffany, Gucci, Chanel, Hermes et al, and there before me was exactly the scene I had remembered, a hive of immaculately dressed Chinese, frenzied squatting and cramming. Same place, different faces.
This type of reassuring flashback, this soothing confirmation that my memory serves me well, began to fire as soon as I set foot in Hong Kong. Knowing exactly where to go, and in what order at the airport. Remembering that I had a choice of ways to get from the airport to Kowloon, what the prices would be, how to top up the Octopus card that I relocated from its safely stored and well-remembered place. Differentiating between the babble of Cantonese and Mandarin, picking out a few phrases. Knowing instinctively which direction to go on which MTR line. And on arrival at my hostel, recognising the reciprocally, friendly smiling faces of the staff and not needing the initiation tour. I already knew exactly where I would find my bed, the fridge, a hot drink, the shower, the toilet.
Today, I ran and ran My body felt free and my mind felt light and expansive. There was a calmness and softness to my run. Trying to understand dementia I usually picture it as a condition that can be scaled, and Julieanne as Alice, weighs in heavy on the far, very demented end of it. My, as yet unvoiced fear, is that I’m somewhere on the scale but just don’t know it yet.
But today it felt as though coming back to HK for a second time might almost have catapulted me right off the scale, and in the event I was in it, was reducing my chances of sliding down to join Alice. As if all the neurological pathways had magically lit up in my brain, receptive, and made whole and new again. I know they say learning a new language and playing a musical instrument, eating well and regular exercise are likely to help prevent dementia. Perhaps repetitive visits to a place one yearns for, and has had to overcome challenges within might be proven to work in the same way. If anybody wants to set up some research, I’d happily volunteer to be part of THAT study.