I was biking down to Kennedy Center last night and rode into Washington Circle. It was dusk, but I could see clearly enough. Suddenly, everything looked unfamiliar. I tried to figure out where I was. In retrospect, it felt like I had just biked through the back of the wardrobe and into Narnia, and the doorway back was no longer available. The ambient light seemed soft, almost dream-like. I knew I had to find New Hampshire Ave, but I was at a multi-street intersection that confused me. I could see the street signs for I St and for K St, but somehow they didn’t orient me. I kept thinking that those streets didn’t come this far south. I got confused about which direction the numbered streets went. New Hampshire Ave was less than 100 feet away, but eventually I had to ask someone to help and, even after that person gave me directions, I had to ask another person after I’d walked a little way.
This is the confusion-event that nails down for me the diagnosis of “progressive cognitive impairment.” I’m ordinarily good at directions, and I’ve passed through that circle hundreds of times. I got lost when there was no reason to get lost.
It doesn’t seem real to me yet, but it’s time to stop pretending that it only might be; the days we can say “we’re not yet sure of the diagnosis” are over. I have a progressive cognitive impairment, which is almost certainly Alzheimer’s Disease.
O my! The physical sense of anxiety soaks through me and settles in the core. My mind is numb. I’ve done just fine preparing this paper for the talk at Salt Lake City next week (both Fred and Marja have read it). Details and nuances are clear. But I get confused riding into Washington Circle! I feel so normal. How can I have such a disease?!! I don’t feel different from before; these confusion events must be happening to someone else. But, no! This is me and this is Alzheimer’s.
I’m already thinking ahead to the embarrassment I (and, more importantly, others) will feel as this worsens. Will I be shunned as (I’m ashamed to admit) I have usually shunned “such people”? What will I do? My spiritual director suggested in mid-summer taking a sabbatical from analytic thinking (talk about irony), but my conscious efforts have accomplished little. Now the sabbatical will feel more like retirement.
But I’m not only an “analytic thinker.” I experience myself as all kinds of awareness. My self-image is of a person who usually understands what is going; who is curious to understand more; who can share with others, listen to them, empathize with them;. But those senses of self will change, too.
The emotional work I have to do is to sit with the Buddhist sense of “no-self.” It is not “I” that will gradually deteriorate but only my current experience of myself. And as I worsen, my demented sense of self will not be “I,” either. It will still be only my current experience of myself. Contrary to Christian belief as usually understood. there is no permanent self or soul. Some sort of experience of “I,” I suppose, will still be here, but that won’t be the “real me,” either. There is no “real me.”
I must let go, let go, let go.