Losing Your Mind
“I just don’t want to lose my mind!” my mother used to say as she grew older.
I was always confused by that statement, but I tried to be supportive. “Ma, if you lose your mind, you won’t know it!” I would respond, feeling that with those words I was bringing both wisdom and comfort. How wrong I was!
During my visits at the nursing home Mr. Smith grabs my hand anxiously and pleads. “What is this place? I just hope I can get out with my life!” Mr. Smith has begun to lose his mind and has been brought to the nursing home because he can no longer live alone. His children, who must work and raise their children, cannot give him all the time he needs. He has been in the nursing home for eight weeks.
When I saw him last week, he spoke fearfully, yet with some awareness of his situation – “I have a little dementia.” This week he thinks he’s trapped in an old warehouse where they keep you so they can get your money, and he is afraid that he will not be able to get out alive. Some weeks he likes to walk up and down the corridors arm-in-arm with his daughter or his son, and sometimes with me. Other weeks he cannot make it past his bedroom door without trepidation. Holding on to the doorframe, he whispers, “No, I don’t think I want to go out there.”
Losing one’s mind is in fact a terribly frightening process and it is physical, as well as mental, bringing with it a great deal of physical and emotional anguish. But only sometimes! There are moments of peace and comfort as well. “Everyone here is very kind,” says Mr. Smith. There are moments of lucidity. “My mother’s kitchen smelled like the vanilla she used in her famous vanilla cookies.” And then Mr. Smith so clearly describes his mother’s Saturday morning baking ritual that I feel I could reach out and take a vanilla cookie from the cookie plate on her Formica kitchen table.
The course of dementia varies. In the end stages there can be a settling, a withdrawal into one’s self that leaves a kind of peace in its wake. Losing one’s mind is a process. Like life, it is long and sometimes arduous, sometimes filled with beautiful experiences. Sometimes it ends well and other times the end is brutal.
Doing my work as a nursing home psychologist I witness every kind of pain imaginable, as well as all manner of love and joy! And I am reminded of my mother. Is it only after our parents are gone that we remember how much wisdom they had?
The names used in this blog are fictitious. Patients described are not real people but are composite of patients I have known and worked with.