Friday, April 16, 2010

Dementia, God, and You

Though it may not seem like it, every human being has a brain.

And each person's brain tends to look roughly the same to the naked eye. And for the most part, each human brain is the same overall. But the details underneath the hard-wired similarities of our brains produce a world teeming with billions of unique individuals.

Our brains seem to act as the seat of our consciousness and awareness. And should our brains ever deteriorate, our ability to interact with the outside world deteriorates right along with our brains.

I've seen one case of dementia up close in my life. When I was young, my mother made the decision to be the primary care taker of her aunt who had started developing dementia. I had no clue as to why my mother uprooted us.

I soon found out.

One afternoon, my (great) aunt was staring out of a window while muttering to herself. I innocently asked her what she was looking at as I too began to peer through the window. I also wanted to know who she was talking to. While she was muttering to herself, her tone was somehow conversational. Who in the world was she talking with?

I was only about ten years old at the time.

She responded to my childhood curiosity by accosting me. "Who are you? What are you doing in my house? How did you get in here? I'm calling the police on you if you don't get out of my house!"

I scurried away. She had never talked to me like that before.

And we never had a normal, coherent conversation ever since.

Often she would talk to "herself". At any given moment, she would burst out singing praises to God and acting like she was in church. Then moments later, she would seem to behave as though her personality had split in two. She would role play a little child being fussed at by her aggressive, angry, overbearing mother. (I often wondered if this display was a faint echo of my aunt's actual childhood. How horrible if so!) My aunt would play both roles out loud in "real time". She displayed the personality of both the parent and the child.

Think "Norman Bates". . . but not nearly as sinister.

As the dementia worsened, my aunt was prone to do other odd things. She would sometimes eat raw meat out of the refrigerator. She'd cry like a three year old sometimes when we'd try to convince her to do something for her own good. She would hit at us because, to her, we were unwanted strangers in her house. She'd call the police on us numerous times. She'd wander off for hours until the police would finally find her and bring her home.

The police in the area became really familiar with us.

Over the years, she became sickly and frail. Eventually, she had stopped eating. Then she stopped swallowing water.

Soon thereafter, she stopped living.

Today, my wife's grandmother (our kid's great grandma) is slowly developing dementia.

She's blind and bedridden, but still has a lot of spunk about her regardless.

Unfortunately, her jaw often becomes dislocated and she has to visit a doctor to have it moved back in place.

Excruciating, I imagine.

Since she's is known to be religious, the doctor often tells her to call on Jesus as he tries to reset her jaw. One particular time, she told the doctor as he manipulated her chin, "I'll whoop yo' ass with Jesus!"

Apparently, this round of jaw resetting hurt extra bad!

If my great aunt's brain had never deteriorated, she would never have treated us as she did. Before dementia set in, she was hospitable, recognized us all, and never exhibited a split personality. She was a church goer and loved God for sure. But, she wouldn't have sang spiritual hymns one moment, then performed a split personality freak show the next.

My wife's grandmother would not have made such a vulgar (but hilarious) statement towards the doctor if her brain wasn't deteriorating. Well . . . I dunno. I could be wrong about her . . . I hear she was quite a spitfire in the past.

My mother-in-law has endured brain surgery from years ago. She couldn't talk for weeks afterwards and had to learn family members all over again. She remember us to some extent, but our names were gone as well as some of the details of our lives. That information was lifted out of her mind right along with the brain cells she lost when her tumor was surgically removed.

She has come a very long way and is independent again. Yet, she still grapples with expressing herself clearly. Imagine a pentecostal minister who was once a fluent speaker before audiences-- but now challenged in expressing herself.

All because of physiological changes in her brain.

It's not religion that made any of my loved ones this way at all. I don't mean to imply that.

And I don't mean to make fun of dementia or any other form mental illness or retardation. Sometimes you have to laugh at some of the things your loved ones say and do when they have any sort of mental impediment. Otherwise, you'll simply cry all the time. But I don't make fun of the ailments themselves and I hope I haven't come across as showing any disrespect to my family.

And while that sentiment may seem like a cliché, it's true nonetheless.

So . . . what's my point?

I find it interesting that when the brain deteriorates, the sufferer of such conditions becomes a different person. Personality is controlled by a single organ in our bodies-- the brain. When that organ fails, our very selves change into something else.

Where do you go when your brain deteriorates and dementia sets in?

And where is God when all of this is happening to you?

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