Alzhiemer’s and habits

On being yourself when your self is gone

June 3, 2013

Today I’m thinking about habits.

I attended the funeral of a kind woman who had had Alzheimer’s. Many people, as they told stories and remembered her life, commented on the fact that, even after she could no longer remember who they were, she still welcomed them into her house, cared for them, and loved them.

It could be that there was still some glimmer of understanding, that somehow she knew that these were her children and her friends, despite no longer recognizing their faces. I think the answer is simpler. I think that generosity and hospitality were habits she had carved into herself, at a level far deeper than autobiographical memory.

Alzheimer’s is portrayed as a loss of self; and the disorientation and fear that causes is perhaps what leads to the aggressiveness associated with Alzheimer’s.

The woman for whom we mourned ingrained those gracious habits somewhere deeper than her self.

I’ve been holding that idea, handling it gingerly, for some time.

There are everyday moments when our self disappears. Some of them are transcendent — in the act of coding, or playing music, painting or dancing — any act that is rehearsed and habitual, we can sink into as into a hot pool of mud, allowing muscle and reptilian brain and limbic system to move us as the “us” disappears like an opening fist; the fingers and palm remain, but the fist is gone until the hand closes once more.

Other self-less moments look accidental — like momentary lapses of attention, failure to be present and mindful; but there, too, we sink into our habits until we vanish. The habits we are enacting in those moments — watching TV, having the same argument for the ten thousandth time, ruminating on some failure or injury — they’re not habits we like to imagine having, much less having built.

The moments in our lives when we are present — when the self emerges from the mud, when the fingers close and the fist appears — in those moments we not only gain the wondrous ability to choose our current action, but to manipulate those habits which will define us when the self ebbs.

Though mental diseases like Alzheimer’s frighten me more than almost anything else, I have a minor romance with the thought that I can conquer them in this small way: by becoming habitually the person I wish to be.