Hearing the Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a shock — one I’m still trying to assimilate. It’s like living under the sword of Damocles, not knowing how long it will be before, or when, my memory will fade away. And it’s not just a matter of fading memory — making plans for anything has also become difficult and anxiety evoking.
Biologically, this refers to the brain’s executive function, and mine seems to be increasingly out to lunch! For example, getting ready for a recent trip to Portland I became so anxious that I experienced something like paralysis and needed the encouragement of my partner, Marcia, to relax and not worry so much — get on with the packing already. Trying to write this is also accompanied by anxiety. I’m writing it because I hope I can at least give an account of what’s happening. And, in the moment, tears are close to the surface. They’re tears expressing regret, fear, and loss — all of which, for me, accompany the diagnosis. And, worst of all, I’m concerned for the wellbeing of Marcia, when the last thing I want to do is put her in the role of caregiver.
The first issue I have to address is the simple acceptance of the fact that I have a disease that’s neither curable nor reversible. I’m taking a medication that may slow its progress, but there’s no guarantee that will actually happen. It’s not easy to accept something that seems so out of control that anything I think or do has little chance of making much of a difference.
Thinking about acceptance is also anger-evoking — it pisses me off that I have to address the multitude of issues arising as a result of having Alzheimer's. Then there’s the stigma around it and the question whether or not to be “out” with it. At least I’ve answered this question for myself and the fact that I’m actually writing this is my attempt to open a dialogue about the implications of living with this damn disease.
There’s also the part of me that asks whether there’s a gift element in having Alzheimer’s.
To begin with, I have a deep awareness that I live in the midst of mystery — that mystery is actually the context out of which I’m living my life. So, for example, I can go to considerable length in describing something — an object, a person or an event. But if driven to say what anything “IS,” I immediately encounter mystery. Still, it’s also been my experience that the very essence of mystery itself is love — that everything is connected, that we are part of an evolutionary process whose ultimate end is a continual unfolding and manifesting of the Beloved. And Alzheimer’s? It’s a letting go into mystery, into love, into friendship.
Those moments when I can let go are sheer gift, an opening into a fuller, richer and ever-deepening life.
Herb Long holds a bachelor's degree from Stanford University, a bachelor's degree in divinity from the San Francisco Theological Seminary, and a doctorate in theology from Harvard University and is a Diplomate in Process Oriented Psychology, Zurich, Switzerland, and Portland, Oregon. He has served as Dean of Students and Peabody Lecturer in Theology at Harvard University Divinity School; Associate Professor of Religion, U. of Hawaii; Senior Fellow, East West Center, Honolulu; Vice President, Labo International Exchange Foundation, Tokyo, Japan; co-founder, faculty member and chairman of the Board, Process Work Institute, Portland, Oregon; faculty member, Marylhurst University; and Process Work therapist in private practice. Long moved to Ashland in 2008 and is now semi-retired. Send 600- to 700-word articles on all aspects of Inner Peace to Sally McKirgan firstname.lastname@example.org.