I see a lot of people lightly tossing the word senile around today. Senile was what they called Alzheimer’s before it had been officially diagnosed as a disease. There were other dementias that came under the heading of senility, the various neurodegenerative illnesses that sometime accompany old age, but Alzheimer’s is by far the most common, an epidemic becoming a pandemic. The number of cases is definitely increasing, doubling since the year 2000, though as with all neurodegenerative diseases Americans find it very uncomfortable to acknowledge. Indeed, it’s rarely mentioned anymore in celebrity obituaries. I remember that Mary Tyler Moore died of Alzheimer’s. That is about the only celebrity death from Alzheimer’s this year in which was mentioned in the media. It certainly was not the only one. You can figure that a full third of celebrities in their eighties or older either died of or with Alzheimer’s. So there is a disconnect in America in the awareness and recognition that Alzheimer’s kills millions of people annually, even when the incidence has doubled in the fifteen years. Researchers don’t know why it has doubled, but you’d think a galloping increase like that would send the nation into a panic. Instead it’s had the opposite effect. The more common it becomes, the more we pretend it isn’t there. People used to talk about Alzheimer’s, obituaries used to list it as the cause of death. You can find all kinds of lists of celebrities who died of Alzheimer’s yet oddly, they list very few from the past few years. It’s a secret condition now, embarrassing, shameful. And at the same time Americans stopped talking about Alzheimer’s you started seeing a lot of comments on Facebook about so and so (usually a celebrity or politician) being senile. It’s been a while since people have bandied the term senile about so freely. It used to be very politically incorrect. Because when you joke about someone being senile you are generally joking about them having Alzheimer’s. After all, senility is an obsolescent term for Alzheimer’s. But Alzheimer’s isn’t funny, we’ve all seen it, all known someone with it. And a lot of us will die of it. The longer people live, the more will die of or at least with Alzheimer’s. Most people live into their 80’s now, and one out of three of them will have Alzheimer’s. As other causes of death are reduced the number of people killed by complications from Alzheimer’s will only increase. That is the reality. Now I admit it’s not as funny as calling some old person senile. Not that I’m telling people what they can or cannot say. I make no judgments. Feel free to call old people senile. But it is funny when people who are so hypersensitive about other slurs make unintended Alzheimer’s slurs on Facebook. I read the comments and wonder how they forgot just what senility means. It’s almost like they’re senile.
Damn. I’m at that stage of brain rot where I really can’t figure out my bills anymore. I literally can no longer do it. I used to be a master of that stuff, had everything worked out a year in advance. Now it’s like handing a stack of papers to a chimpanzee. About the only thing I can do anymore is write. I do that really well. Apparently what’s left of my grey matter has adapted to drive me mad with hypergraphia, writing at five a.m. when I ought to be in bed. Not that mind that much. I get a lot of writing done that way. It’s weird, though, losing my sense of time. I know today, but before today and after today is pretty close to non-existent. I don’t have a week, I have trouble remembering the day of that week, I know the month only by the days we get paid. I just live blissfully day to day, each morning utterly new, devoid of the previous day and oblivious of the next.
This past Monday (I remember it was Monday, though that feels like yesterday, or maybe the day before, and actually, some of my devoted fans may recall, I thought it was Friday, i.e. today) I was noticing I was feeling stiff. Everything stiff. Like it needed loosening up. So I figured I’d run some items down the stairs the recycle bins. The night was just a tinge chilly, the breeze carried the scent of night blooming flowers, the moon bathed the deck and steps in a pasty light. It was gorgeous. I stood there a minute soaking it all in. Suddenly I realized I had not been outside the house in a week. Well, I had, a couple times, out on the deck for moments, maybe a minute or two in total. A minute or two in a whole week. I hadn’t noticed. I was busy the whole time, never bored. I was reading and writing and following the madness in Washington, I did chores and cooked and washed dishes. I had done laundry. I watched a whole mess of Alfred Hitchcock movies. But I had never left the house. A whole week had gone by and I didn’t even realize it.
A friend of mine has an epileptic cousin. You’re so different from him, she once told me. You have a day job and a writing gig and go all over the place and seem so in charge of your life. Which was true. It was a struggle, the epileptic damage was already afflicting me, but I hid it well, complained little and managed to keep very busy and productive. Not like her cousin, she said, who mostly stays in his room all day and never goes anywhere. The poor spastic bastard, I thought, thank god I’m not one of them. Most of us are, helpless and housebound and out of sight. Not me, though. Not back then. Funny how things just sneak up on you.
Losing your executive functions doesn’t hurt, it doesn’t make you less intelligent (well, maybe a little), and doesn’t seem to change the personality dramatically…but it is a pain in the ass. Sometimes a mild pain in the ass. Sometimes catastrophic….though you don’t really notice until one of the catastrophes hits you. Part of it is the time thing I keep talking about. I mean you retain your 24 hour sense of time–that seems to go much deeper than all the fancy brainage humans have laid on over the eons. Hell, plants have that sense of time. It’s the calendar you lose track of. That’s an add on we probably developed tens of thousands of years ago. Maybe earlier. It’s up there in the frontal lobe, apparently, and the parts of my frontal lobe that used to do wonders with calendars (and Microsoft Office and scheduling for a dozen bosses and complex multi-tasking and writing a weekly column for a major paper and never missing an issue in seven years) has been worn away by too much electro-chemical energy. (That’s what epilepsy is: too much electro-chemical energy.) But even more of a hassle is my inability to focus on things. Shit doesn’t get done. I am utterly mystified as to why it isn’t getting done. I have tried a zillion techniques to remind me that shit isn’t getting done. But the end result is shit not getting done. Even my writing has changed and all I seem to write are brief vignettes, snippets, small little essays. It’s pretty writing, sure, but it’s impossibly short. What can you do with it? But that’s how I think anymore, with (to quote our president) a few exceptions. But what especially disturbs me lately is that I can’t seem to focus on books. I was always the type that started a book and finished it in a few days or a couple weeks if it was long and turgid and dull, but I always finished it. Lately it takes forever, and I don’t always finish. I’m working on that too. I have so many books to read. I’m not making a lot of progress. Still, life is pleasant. It shouldn’t be, because actually everything is hopelessly fucked up, two brain damaged people incapable of doing what adults need to be able to do to survive in a complex world, but it’s never been more pleasant. We have friends who look out for us, and we keep life simple and spare. I get up and write. She reads. We watch old movies. She walks back from Trader Joes with a few groceries, some flowers and a snack. She makes dinner. I wash the dishes. It’s a daily routine but doesn’t feel that way since every day is completely new. Very little stress. Very little contact with the outside world. You look at people on the short bus and they always seem to be smiling and laughing.
I have a pretty good idea of the time. Our internal clocks are very, very ancient and keep us aware of about when it is in the day. And we have calendars all over the house and if I look at them I can see the month. But man, my natural state is to have no idea what day of the week it is, or the date of the month. The calendars don’t help. The one I am looking at right now has a mother bear and three baby bears and beneath them thirty one days, each day a perfect little square. I don’t think I am supposed to see the days as perfect little squares. They are supposed to be numbered concepts. But the concepts seem to be missing and I have to keep asking my wife what day it is or what the date is. It’s kind of blissful, actually, this timelessness, but I’ve never been a fan of bliss. I was never a bliss kind of guy. So it’s a struggle not to disappear into this blissful pit, this little brain damaged heaven up here in the hills of Silver Lake. It’s not a battle I am winning. The timeless bliss is unrelenting, like a tide that comes in and never goes out again. And to think there are people who do yoga with goats to get where I am.
My latest hobby seems to be looking online for pictures of people I used to know to remember what they looked like. The good thing is they now look like I remember them. But back in 2006 my epilepsy began acting up something fierce and I woke up one morning with my facial recognition zapped away. Think they call that prosopagnosia? Some unpronounceable Greek word anyway. Even faces I knew extremely well looked alien to me, and I could walk right up to people I’d known for years and seen every day and not recognize them till they spoke. I remember looking up people’s pictures–on what I don’t know, this was before Facebook–and they looked so different. Of course, if I tried to see in my mind’s eye how I remembered them there would be a fleeting mental image that would immediately dissolve into nothing. Literally dissolve. There’d be a half second glimpse of their face and then it would just granulate into pixels and then blackness. It was a trip. For the first couple years I was always startled at how different you all looked. Even my wife. And when I spoke to you I’d find my gaze looking at things you never normally notice. Without the usual focus, my eyes would wander as if I were studying a portrait, I’d see your skin–amazing the pores we have–and hair, and facial structure. Ears. Wrinkles. Shaving scars. It was incredibly distracting.
For a while I couldn’t recognize profiles at all, even my brother’s. Some pretty funny shit went down, all of it embarrassing. Not so funny, though, was how suddenly I couldn’t read people. Talk about unnerving. I’d be talking to someone and have no idea how they were reacting. I could not tell if I was bothering them, or boring them, or what. Inevitably, I began avoiding people. Eventually I learned to visually recognize you all in other ways, by your voices, body language, whatever, and I did eventually manage to begin reading you all again, though nowhere nearly as well as I once had. It is funny when you go from being very adept at something to instantly being lousy at it. After a couple years I just got used to it. Though I still avoid people more than I did before. It’s inevitable. As a species we read each others’ faces so well. Indeed, we impart more information with facial expressions than we do speaking. Lose that skill and you’re a little fucked. And mine was a relatively mild case. I wasn’t completely face blind. Some people are.
But now my mind’s eye images seems to match your looks. That’s a relief. Even pictures of people I haven’t seen in years match my memory of them. It’s a significant recovery. I’ve long dreaded a repeat of my bad epilepsy year of 2006, because among other things I didn’t want to go though that prosopagnosia bullshit again. It was really inconvenient. Crippling even. And it was also embarrassing. I took to wearing shades because I realized that people could tell I wasn’t looking at what people normally look at when they are talking to you. Mainly the eyes, I think. You can tell when some idiot is looking at your hair or chin or ears when you are trying to talk to him. So shades helped.
Although there was a downside to wearing shades. Like the time I was walking into work and found myself behind a lady I didn’t recognize. Must be a new employee, I figured. I caught her profile as she slipped in the door ahead of me. Didn’t know who she was, but she was definitely hot. Safely behind my shades I was checking her out. I was forty nine years old and safely behind my sunglasses acting like a high school kid. I watched her walk ahead of me, her hips sliding this way, then that, like dancing a slow salsa. That’s America to me, I thought to myself. What it meant I do not know but I distinctly remember thinking that to myself because suddenly the lady in front of me stopped and turned around. What are you looking at, she asked. I knew that voice instantly. It was the lady I’d worked with for a decade. Probably my closest friend in the whole building. We talked every single day. We’d sat next to each other for years. She was gorgeous, sure, but I had never ogled her once. I worked with her. She was a friend. There are rules about those things.
But unfortunately I hadn’t recognized her by her profile and besides I hadn’t been looking at her face anyway. Suddenly I felt so stupid, like a forty nine year old man caught acting like a high school kid. I’d never been so busted in my life, not even as a teenaged high school kid. But she was also one of the very few people at work who knew about my sudden face blindness. I spluttered an apology that I hadn’t recognized her. I know you didn’t, she said, that’s why you were checking out my ass. The epilepsy had also rendered me with one hell of a stutter, and thoroughly flustered I stammered something inane. You idiot, she said, take off those stupid sunglasses, you’re inside. I shoved them in my pocket. You’re blushing, she said, and cackling a pinay laugh went up the stairs to her desk. Aren’t you coming she asked. I said I’ll take the elevator. My knee, I said. My knee was fine. I just needed a few minutes alone to stop blushing. Sometimes it takes minutes. And then sometimes it takes forever. On my way to the lobby I stopped by the restroom and splashed my face with cold water. It didn’t help. I made my way to the elevator. Just as the doors were closing someone yelled hold that elevator! Half a dozen women got on, still feeling their two martini lunch. I knew all of them. Why are you blushing? the loudest of them asked. What did you do? They started snickering. He probably got busted checking out some babe’s ass! Instantly I flushed crimson again, and you’d think it was the funniest thing they’d ever seen. How do women know these things? I tried to say something and stammered.
Mortified, I made a mental note that sunglasses and epilepsy don’t mix.
One of the more annoying things about having your executive functions rot away is how you keep forgetting how to do things you’ve done a zillion times. I’ve blogged thousands of times on WordPress by now, but I still forget how to do the most basic things on it. Simple little tasks that ordinarily took a few quick steps, just a couple seconds. Now I just stare at the screen, and if I get too stuck I start to get numb all over, then queasy, then realize the epilepsy is totally fucking with me, and soon I find myself writing about what I was trying to do it instead of actually doing it. Jesus Christ, a half century of this shit. You’d think I’d be used to it by now. I need a smartphone but dread getting one as I’ll be so bewildered by it, it’ll be this little screen that opens onto a multi-dimensional warren of a zillion options, each requiring the ability to remember a few simple steps. Sounds so easy. One man’s app is another man’s seizure.
Losing my arithmetic skills is driving me nuts. I calculate things in my head, then when I use a calculator later I discover that my calculations were completely wrong. You’d me amazed at how often we make calculations in our heads, even rough calculations, and you don’t notice it until you discover that your ability to do so is badly flawed. Suddenly the running tallies I keep in my head are nowhere near accurate. We live in an arithmetical world, adding and subtracting all the time. I can’t do it well. My wife can’t do it at all. Money runs out when I didn’t think it would run out, checks bounce that I swore had sufficient funds. It’s a creepy feeling. Basic human skills, the things that make people people and not chimpanzees, and once made us homo sapiens and not homo neanderthals, they’re slipping away in a mental mist.
Combine that with falling off the calendar, days just running one after another without months or weeks or years, and I’m having severe doubts about our ability to run our own affairs. If it were only one of us it wouldn’t be an issue. But we won the big wazoo, both husband and wife with the same brain damage but from entirely different causes. What are the odds, an old boss of mine used to say, what are the odds. Then he went nuts, stark raving bonkers, and they had to let him go. Brains are fragile, funny things. Think I’ll go hide myself in a book and worry about all this tomorrow.