Glass Half Full

By Sadie Long 04/02/15

In facing my mother's struggles with Alzheimer's, I learned how her relentless optimism could impact my sobriety.


It started with my mother forgetting my birthday. Confusing me with my two sisters. Leaving a burner on the stove. 

It has progressed to the point that she can't remember conversations we've had earlier in the day, can't remember what TV program she watched a few hours ago. Repeats herself over and over again because she doesn't remember discussing this same issue before. And she's quiet in a group conversation, as if she can't keep up with the banter around the table.

I get suicidal over a broken shoelace. The sky is always falling. What's the point in trying? I might as well get drunk. 

We are afraid that my mom has early Alzheimer's. My grandmother had it; all of my mother's siblings seem to have some form of memory issues.

My sister and I went with her to have a CT scan to rule out brain cancer. Fortunately, it was negative. 

Then my mom went through a grueling four-hour interview with a neuropsychiatrist to assess her specific type of cognitive impairment. According to my mom, they asked her “weird questions”: “If you were in a bank and a robber came in with a gun, what would you do?” Mom was exhausted after this session and requested that none of us ask her any questions for the rest of the night. 

We'll find out the results soon. 

It's heartbreaking to see my mom struggle to think clearly and answer a question or participate in a conversation. To see the recognition on her face, that her mind, always sharp as a tack, is now betraying her. 

At the neuropsychiatrist, the doctor asked her how long she had been married: 30 years? 40 years? 50 years? The answer was 52. But Mom couldn't come up with a response, and she was visibly embarrassed and upset. 

I hesitated to publish this essay because I don't want to embarrass or upset my mom. But the truth is, I'm so proud of her. 

My mom was—and is—a little dynamo. At barely five-feet tall, she always said that “good things come in little packages.” She was a trailblazer in her generation, going to college when most women didn't, becoming an occupational therapist. She spent a year studying in Denmark and then traveled around Europe in the late 1950s, when most of her contemporaries were cranking out babies or working as secretaries. 

My mom raised three girls, moving us all over the world to accommodate my dad's career in the navy. But, she also worked full-time and went to school. My whole childhood, Mom was in school. She ultimately achieved a Doctor of Education and was prominent in her field, gerontology. 

She is such an example of hard work, perseverance, and the belief that women can achieve whatever they put their mind to. She always supported the different interests my sisters and I were involved with. How many piano recitals and swim meets did she have to sit through? Always with an encouraging smile, always with pride in her eyes, no matter if I flubbed my Bach Invention or finished last in my race.

My mom always had—and has—a “can do,” optimistic approach to life. Problems can be bettered. Hurdles can be overcome. Tomorrow will be a better day. 

Growing up, I had the negative mind of an alcoholic from early on. I definitely saw the glass half empty in most situations. My mother would cheerfully encourage me to persevere. It drove me nuts! I hated her Pollyanna optimism. I thought she just didn't understand.

But I was the one who didn't understand. Having a positive attitude isn't the same as having blind, stupid faith. 

That's the lesson my mom is teaching me now, as she struggles with cognitive impairment, a great loss for an educated, brilliant woman like herself. 

She sees this as just another obstacle to overcome. She has done all sorts of research on how to stimulate the brain: using chopsticks instead of a fork, eating with the left hand, taking a different route on the morning walk, working crossword and jigsaw puzzles. She has completed about five 1000-piece jigsaw puzzles in the past few months. And she takes a ceramics class, which is great for stimulating her tactile senses, as well as the social aspect of the class. She faithfully eats her dose of coconut oil every day, after learning it stimulates the brain and slows dementia. 

“I can beat this thing,” she seems to believe. And while I am skeptical that jigsaw puzzles and coconut oil are going to halt the progression of this mental disease, God bless her positive attitude. It certainly can't hurt.

My mom has always been a great teacher to me, but perhaps never as much as she is right now, as I watch her face this new demon with grace and dignity, optimism and gratitude. 

Like most alcoholics, I am the opposite. I get suicidal over a broken shoelace. The sky is always falling. What's the point in trying? I might as well get drunk. 

I still have a lot to learn from my mother.

Father Martin used to tell a story about a POW in Vietnam. After years of rotting away in the Hanoi Hilton, he was losing his mind, reaching a breaking point. Then a blind female rat came into his cell and gave birth to a litter of pups. He began sharing his meager ration of disgusting rice gruel with the rat and her pups, and she became a companion for him in his isolation. She left when the pups were old enough to go on their own, but she returned each time she was pregnant in the months and years that followed.

Father Martin said that this POW, instead of cursing God for putting him in this horrible situation, was filled with gratitude toward God for sending him this companion, this friend, when he needed her most. 

When I apply this beautiful story to my mother's dementia, I see that there is much to be grateful for.

She is still sharp enough to enjoy my company, and I always have a good time when I see her. She is in excellent physical health. She still has her sense of humor.

But, perhaps the biggest gift is the fact that I am sober, and can show up for her now as she deserves.

My mother told me recently that she is so grateful I am sober and stable on meds; that she can age now without worrying about what will happen to me when she's gone. After years of my alcoholic, bipolar drama, which challenged even an optimist like my mom, she no longer dreads the late-night phone call from the police stating that I'm either arrested, in a psych ward, or dead. She no longer has to visit me in psych wards. 

And best of all, I can now repay the care and support she showed me all those years by being there for her now in whatever capacity she needs. I have told my parents that should Mom need full-time care in the future, I will move down to Virginia to fill that need. It's the least I can do, after all the support she has given me. 

In the meantime, I try to go down to see her every month, to encourage her to tell me the stories of her life. I treasure every moment we have together, every new thing I learn about her and from her. I want to soak up her cheerful optimism, in the hopes that some of it will rub off on me, a misanthropic alcoholic. 

Thank you, Mom. I love you.

Sadie Long is a pseudonym for a regular contributor to The Fix.

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