Every time my grandma tried to hold me as a little girl I’d defiantly bury my head into my mum’s stomach, refusing her outstretched arms. At the time, my mum thought it was just my shy nature that stopped me from showing my grandma any affection. Today I believe it was because I could sense that something about her was off-kilter. Years later the doctors came to visit her. She was nearly eighty and, like many elderly people, she had become forgetful. An MRI scan showed that pockets of her brain had shrunk. She had a severe cognitive disorder that, over the coming years, would rob her of her memory and eventually her life. Soon she would forget how to sign her name, draw a clock-face and turn on the TV. But the doctors found something else. She had an untreated personality disorder.
As a young woman, my grandma had given birth to half a dozen children. She’d hide their toys so they would get beaten by their father. She’d hit them for minor things (buying her a Christmas present she didn’t like earned them a spanking one year). She’d drop them off at a children’s home when they were barely older than five just to scare them. She’d tell the other kids at their school to punch them. She abandoned her youngest children when she met a new man. She would send them hate-filled letters on Christmas day and, when they were older, their wedding day. When she found her new husband innocently talking to her daughter she got so jealous she kicked her daughter out. She would construct lies, convince herself that the lies were real and use this as an excuse to manipulate and cast out the people closest to her. Most of her children now live successful lives, but they all bear emotional scars that no amount of therapy will erase. The others carry the hallmarks of the same personality disorder, following their mother’s life trajectory like an actor reading from a script. But my grandma never showed any remorse for her actions, only ever crying for herself. There is a complete absence of empathy and selflessness behind her dull grey eyes, and it really disturbed me. When I felt sick for the third time after eating at my grandma’s house my mum made sure to throw any food she gave us in the bin in case it was poisoned. It might sound like a ridiculous precaution but, if you knew my grandma and her erratic behaviour, you’d understand why.
I knew early on that I was one of her least favourite grandchildren. She liked me in part because she was a very superficial person. She made sure to tell people if she ran into someone she thought was ugly or fat or if I was eating to many ice-lollies (she actually told me that eating ice lollies made out of water and fruit juice would make me fat. She’s not very bright). And I was the cute blonde frilly-dress-wearing kid that she liked to hold for photographs. I have a photograph of her carrying me when I was asleep. Tiredness had prohibited me from acting out my usual tantrumatic ritual. But I was also a smart kid. When I came home with my first-class degree she told me that it’s more important for men to do well at school and bragged about how well my male cousin was doing. She put a lot of emphasis on being beautiful to capture a wealthy man, something she had done but something I had no interest in doing. I like to read books and draw and she likes talking about people so, apart from our DNA, we have little in common. And she made sure to let me know that I wasn’t high on her list of favourite grandchildren by taking others on holidays and buying them expensive gifts which she readily told me about, sharing intimidate details about how much money she had spent on each of them. Now, I don’t think she loves them. I don’t think she is capable of love. She has fallen out with these same grandchildren over the years and even took one of my cousins to court for no other reason than to cause her suffering. But she enjoys having a captive audience that will listen to stories about her and her perpetual victimhood. This is something I am too sceptical and/or rude to do.
I’m convinced she had the onset of dementia when she called me by my mum’s name several years ago but, because of her seamless ability to lie, manipulate, play the victim and act vulnerable, it went unrecognised. When a rational person suddenly acts out irrational it’s much easier to identify a problem. When an irrational person acts irrationally it’s understood that that’s just part and parcel of their personality. A lot of people with dementia will experience frustration, taking their angst out on their nearest and dearest. But my grandma has always sought pleasure in hurting people. Her cravings for drama at other people’s expense are constant and alarming. It’s sad when you have to check yourself before you consult a doctor about your grandma because she has pretended to play the vulnerable old woman one minute and stabbed you in the back the next. It’s hard to know if she genuinely forgot that you gave her that scarf for Christmas and re-gifted it to someone else, which she then gladly told you about, or whether she is using her illness as an excuse to justify her otherwise unjustifiable behaviour.
Mental health professionals that have come into contact with my grandma suspect that, more than the dementia itself, it is her personality disorder that is causing the bulk of her problems. People have been advised not to enter her house alone because she is perceived as a threat. She has accused people of stealing multiple times (allegations that were found to be completely groundless), hitting her (once again, there’s no evidence of this) and tried to get her carers fired for supposedly saying things that they have no recollection of saying, then, when she is caught out, blames it on the dementia. Understanding and managing her personality disorder has become first priority.
My grandma is a prime example of what can happen when dementia and sociopathy collide. She is both vulnerable and a threat, exhibiting the frailness of a debilitating disease and the destructiveness of an antisocial personality disorder. It is a relief that, at eighty years old, she has finally been diagnosed with sociopathy. We now have a better understanding of why she is the way she is. But for me too much water has gone under the bridge. There can be no redemption and, given her complete lack of self-awareness prior to dementia, I doubt there can be any real change at this late stage. She wasn’t the wholesome grandma I should have gotten in this life but she has taught me how put up with sociopaths and narcissists – don’t!