I recently finished a book about a woman who’s diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and her struggle to hang on to whatever she can of herself throughout the process, hence the title Still Alice. The novel by Lisa Genova portrays Alice Howland, a 50 year-old renowned psychology professor at Harvard University who begins to notice strange occurrences in her daily routine – not recalling words mid-thought, forgetting class times and what that day’s lecture topic should be in a series and becoming disoriented a few blocks from home and not knowing how to get back home.
Alice has always been a superior mentalist, making scientific breakthroughs and setting admirable precedents in her field. She knows this behavior is anything but normal, and after wading through a lot of denial, she final seeks help. Many tests and sleepless nights later, she discovers that she has Alzheimer’s and that her whole world is about to change drastically.
She worries about her family. How will they cope with this illness? Will her husband have to sacrifice his life-long work and passion to support her? Will she eventually not recognize her daughters and son? Was this gene abnormality passed on to her children? Will anyone have the patience?
She worries about her career. How can she possibly teach cognitive psychology and linguistics without being able to tap into those well-earned mental resources anymore? How long until her students and superiors notice? What will she be if not Alice The Brilliant Professor?
She worries about societal stigma. Why is this prognosis so difficult to bring herself to explain? Will she be able to keep up in everyday conversations and activities? Will people shy away from her with a polite nod and grin as to not offend? Will she simply be ignored because that’s easier?
Alice finds that all her worst fears are true. She grapples to preserve her memories – her mother’s Christmas bread pudding recipe, her youngest daughter’s first name – and her reasoning skills – what day is it, what is that thing called. But dementia cannot be reversed and can hardly be halted. When her brain ceases to function naturally, when her mental synapses stop firing, the cells die, and it’s like fumbling in a maze to find ideas, knowing that the information is there yet not being able to reach it. That is the mild condition, until she loses control of motor abilities like walking or chewing.
You know this story is about a woman with a severely degenerative disease. You know you’re going to be saddened and confused as it progresses, as you see her desperate in an attempt to preserve even the little things that make Alice Alice.
I couldn’t have gotten a full breadth of Alzheimer’s from a fiction novel, but it made me thoughtfully consider the minutia that I take for granted and understand possibly the most about the mind and how it affects a soul that I ever discerned.
In a lecture to an Alzheimer’s related audience, Alice says, “There’s no peace in being unsure of everything all the time.” I dog-eared this page and took a moment. Of course, her’s has to be one of the worst fates to overcome an individual, and this puts a lot in perspective for the reader. The most triumphant ending is that Alice does find a way to accept her new reality and steer with love, letting raw emotions prevail in times of trial. And that’s a powerful message.