RSS Feed

Tag Archives: Alzheimer’s

Being Present, Part 2

presence-and-gratitude

Yesterday I met with a client whose grandmother is coming to the end of her battle with cancer and Alzheimer’s. Of all of the scenarios I can imagine, practicing mindfulness when your loved one has a degenerative disease seems the most challenging. Every day you try to be in the moment, grateful for good days, for what they are still able to do, knowing that eventually they will have fewer good days, fewer things they are able to do. But I guess there is always something to be thankful for–that their suffering is over, the pleasure of having known them, memories that you treasure.

This past month and a half has been tough. Practicing mindfulness and gratitude have become survival mechanisms rather than a choice. Sometimes I think about what my life was like in August, when my primary stressor was going back to work after being off for the summer, and it seems like a luxury. Now, in addition to the usual stressors of work and family crises, I have become a parent.

Ironically, the hardest part is the stuff that “normal” people do every day–meal planning, cooking, grocery shopping. Domestic tasks in general. I hate all of them. Even if I were married, I wouldn’t be as domestic as I am now. But I have no choice while my brother recovers from heart surgery.

In moments of weakness, I think about what my life used to be like. I never thought I’d say this, but I miss my solitude. I miss boredom. I miss the freedom of not having to go to the grocery store and eating a bowl of cereal for dinner instead. Of spending hours reading and writing in my journal, even if it was because I had no one else to talk to.

Likewise, I feel even more saddened by my single state. Before, although I didn’t love it, being single felt more like a choice–even though that was an illusion, since I hadn’t met anyone. Now dating isn’t an option. I barely have time to get ready for bed.

I know that I am not clairvoyant. I don’t know what the future holds. Things won’t be like this forever. Still, my current situation is a loss of freedom similar to what I experienced when I got divorced. Although I would have never quit my job while I was married, we could survive if I lost my job. Knowing that I had to work after I was divorced made keeping my job a necessity that caused me anxiety.

But as soon as I become aware of these thoughts about my past and future, I have to focus on the present. Not because I am trying to push myself to a higher state of happiness or enlightenment, but because it’s all I can do to get through each day. I would not have chosen my current situation, but hardship is an inevitable part of life, and my life is no exception to the rule. I cannot think about what my future holds because there are so many things to come that are overwhelming. I can only focus on this thing, in this moment.

This week that thing is returning to work full time, in the midst of the period in the semester with the highest volume of clients. Which is often the beginning of my descent into depression. Except this time, I can’t get depressed, because I have to take care of my brother. But since I can’t control whether or not I get depressed, I’m scared.

But I can’t worry about that today. Today I am not depressed. Today I will focus on getting through the day, and that will have to be enough.

One could argue that my life is worse than it was before, but I cannot afford the luxury of entertaining that thought, either. Nor do I feel that way. I just focus on the things that I can be thankful for now. Although they are different things, they are as plentiful as they were before. My brother is alive. He is getting better every day. He is able to help with more domestic tasks as he gets stronger. He is happy and appreciative. He is a football expert.

In fact, he recently informed me that Aaron Rodgers is not a fake State Farm agent. He is actually a really good quarterback. It makes pro football more interesting because now when Green Bay is playing I can cheer for the State Farm guy.

See? I can still find happiness in the little things.

What Goes Up…

Remember how I was still riding the high from my trip to Europe in my last post? Well it’s gone now. Now it’s back to boredom, sadness, anxiety, and loneliness. Interspersed with tennis and dinner with friends, thank goodness. But still. It was nice to be free from random anxiety attacks. From my drill sergeant making up chores for me to do to make my existence seem worthwhile. From figuring out what to do on days when I was not going to have any human interaction.

I guess that’s one of the disadvantages of experiencing something so wonderful: its extraordinariness is only possible when juxtaposed next to the ordinariness of your every day life.

This weekend I had no evening plans so I decided to watch “Still Alice.” I don’t know what I was thinking. I knew it was going to be depressing. Maybe my inner critic made me watch it as a way to shame me out of my sadness: At least you don’t have Early Onset Alzheimer’s, so stop moping around! And I have to say, it was effective in putting my pain in perspective.

The whole time I watched, I was bracing myself for the agony of watching Alice’s cognitive decline. And it was painful, but it was also beautiful, in a way. I was moved by how courageous and mindful Alice was about the process of losing her memory. How determined she was to stay connected to the person she was and to the people she loved.

There is a scene where Alice gives a speech at an Alzheimer’s conference about her personal experience with the disease. She tells the audience that even though she may forget this experience tomorrow, she treasures it in this moment, because speaking in front of them allows her to feel like her old ambitious self: an expert in linguistics who was fascinated with communication.

My other favorite scene is when Alice explains to her daughter why she wears a butterfly necklace. As a child she was distraught when she found out that butterflies had such a short life. Her mother reassured her that although their lives are short, butterflies have a beautiful life.

Alice’s mother and sister died in a car accident. Alice also has a short but beautiful life. She was intelligent and successful, with a great job and a loving family. In one moment, we can be on top of the world, celebrating how great our lives are. In the next moment, everything can change.

It made me think about how all of the wonderful things in our lives are gifts, and no gift lasts forever. And we don’t know when the expiration date is. The most we can do is to fully enjoy them and appreciate them while we have them.

At some level, I think I hoped that practicing mindfulness would somehow protect me from pain, like some kind of psychological talisman. But it doesn’t. Saying good-bye to vacations, to memories, and to aspects of my identity that I hold dear still terrifies me, despite my attempts to blog, meditate, and be in the moment.

But I practice mindfulness anyway, because being fully present allows me to extract all of the joy out of every experience that I possibly can. I guess that’s the most that any of us can hope for.

Photo courtesy of Allison Gentry Szuba