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Absolution

I once saw the movie 50 First Dates, about a young woman who had no memory. Every day she woke up as a clean slate with no past.

The movie gave me the heebie-jeebies. I’ll never watch it again. In several close relationships, both family and romantic, I’ve experienced the devastating grenade of “I forgot,” or “I don’t remember that.”

Photo by John Salvino on Unsplash

In chronically abusive and dysfunctional family systems, “I don’t remember that” effectively shuts down any way forward into mutual responsibility, understanding or healing. Our traumatic memories suddenly waver. Did we, after all, make it all up? Did we misunderstand for years and decades? Are we unforgiving, mean and petty of spirit, hateful? Most frightening of all, are we crazy? If we’ve been chronically gaslit, we certainly feel crazy.

In “romantic” relationships, this memory failure is equally damaging. It blocks conflict resolution and discussion. If it’s true, it means the forgetful partner is unable to learn and adapt to the needs of the relationship and the other partner. There can be no learning and growing together. Nothing can change.

Most of all, this kind of response feels to me like an abdication, code for “it’s not my fault and I refuse to take responsibility.” It’s a signal I’m on my own with my questions and my need to understand.

It’s like a door slammed in my face, and I don’t beat on doors slammed in my face, begging for entry. I walk away.

Now I have a relative with dementia, and it’s extraordinary. I have never felt able to get close to this person before, though I have loved them deeply all my life. I’ve also never felt I was anything but a disappointment and a burden to them. I couldn’t find a way to get past their lifetime of accumulated trauma and pain, bitterness and rewritten narratives. As a truth seeker, I’ve been continually stymied and suspicious, believing I could not trust them to ever tell me the plain truth about anything.

Most painful of all, the fullness of my love has been rejected, over and over, for decades. Nothing I am or have to give was welcome; most of it was distinctly unwelcome.

Now I am witnessing a kind of metamorphosis. Gradually, gently, like leaves falling from trees in autumn, my loved one is letting go of their memories. And in some elemental way, as I walk beside them (because I have always been beside them), I am releasing the pain of my memories.

My loved one has experienced periods of extreme agitation and distress, and those are terrible for everyone. But, as the days pass, those periods seem to have passed too, and now I’m witnessing a gentle vagueness, a dream-like drifting, and in some entirely unexpected and inexplicable way I feel I’m at last catching a glimpse of the real person I’ve always wanted to know.

Even more amazing, is I can now say “I love you very much,” that simple truth I’ve never been able to freely express, and they say it back to me. And I believe them.

After all these decades of pain and suffering, separation and bleeding wounds, I am finally able, in the words of Eden Ahbez, “just to love and be loved in return.”

This was all I ever wanted out of this relationship (and most others). Just this. To love fully and be loved in return. And I don’t care if it’s only in the moment. I don’t care that they’ll forget this elemental exchange of words of love as soon as they hang up the phone, or possibly before that.

What matters to me is they hear me, they accept my love, they return it. I’ve never had that with this person before. Maintaining bitterness, rewriting history, remembering old hurts, all require memory. And their memory is loosening, unraveling. What’s left is a person I’ve always sensed was there, a person of innocent simplicity, an undamaged personality who can participate in love. Someone who is not haunted by their past. Someone, oddly, who I trust.

Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Whatever the next interaction brings, I don’t have to go into it fully armored. Forgiveness has no meaning when dealing with dementia. Cognitive decline is unpredictable, clearly out of anyone’s control. Whatever is said in any given moment will not be remembered, whether words exchanged are of love or not. So, there’s no point in me remembering, or taking anything personally, or trying hard to be acceptable, do it right, stay safe. It feels safe to trust again, to trust the naked soul I’m dealing with now. I don’t have to try to repair our relationship. My feelings of duty and obligation are meaningless, because those expectations reside in memory, and memory flutters in the winter wind, frayed and thin.

My loved one has attained, at least periodically, a kind of peace they have never demonstrated before in my lifetime. Peace from the past. Peace from emotional pain. Because they are at peace, I, at last, can also be at peace.

I hoped death would free us both. I never expected dementia would do it first. We have both found absolution, at least for now.

Whatever comes, these interactions are precious to me. I realize now I still reside somewhere in the heart of this damaged, unhappy person. I was and am loved, at least as best they could and can. Knowing that, feeling it at last, changes everything and heals much.

I am beyond grateful. And that’s a strange feeling in this context. Dementia takes so much away … In this case, it’s loosened prison bars and chains, unlocked shackles and manacles, and left behind something pure and tender, a glimpse of someone fresh and unscarred in an aged and battered body.

I wonder how much of our identity is built from our social context memories. Too bad we can’t just delete certain files, wipe our hard drive clean in spots, and begin again.

I ask myself if it’s wrong to be so happy, so grateful, so relieved at this unexpected turn of events. I tell myself I should feel guilty. I’ve occasionally worked with Alzheimer’s patients, and I frequently work with people who are dealing with dementia and Alzheimer’s in their loved ones. I’ve never heard anyone suggest anything positive about it. Once again, I seem to be totally out of step.

I don’t take my self-doubt terribly seriously, though. I always think I’m doing life wrong. I’ve learned to tell that voice to shut up and sit down. Wrong or right, I feel a kind of exhausted joy at the lessening, maybe even the cessation of my loved one’s emotional suffering. Since I was a child I’ve wanted their health and happiness, their peace, wanted it more even than to be allowed to love and to be loved. I never expected those first passionate prayers from my child self would be answered, let alone in this manner. But here we are.

I try
to remember
my former life

and realize how quickly
the current travels
towards home

how those
dark and irretrievable
blossoms of sound
I made in that time
have traveled
far-away
on the black surface
of memory

as if they no longer
belonged
to me.

From “The Sound of the Wild” by David Whyte

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.

 

Witness

I was taught, as a child, it was my job to alleviate distress. One must always respond immediately and help the sufferer. It went far beyond duty and obligation. If I did not fix the distress of others, my childish world would fall apart. Everyone would leave.

Photo by Cristian Newman on Unsplash

For a child, such consequences are death.

I was also taught “help” meant doing anything and everything I was asked to do, immediately, unquestioningly, and unendingly. My own distress was of no consequence at best and a direct threat, an unwelcome competition, at worst.

That core teaching stayed with me as I grew up, and has been a keynote of my behavior and experience most of my life. I wanted to help people. When people around me suffered, I felt an overwhelming, painful panic, as well as complete responsibility. I had to do everything I could, give the situation my all in order to “help.”

I also grew up with an inability to respond to my own distress. Hunger, thirst, fatigue, emotional and physical pain, were all ignored. My disconnection from my own needs and experience led me into chronic pain, eating disorder, depression, and anxiety. I was unaware of my traumatic wounds. I had no interest in helping myself. Helping myself was selfish, bad, and unloving.

Then I studied emotional intelligence and all the work and therapy I’d done over the years with guides and teachers as well as on my own (see my Resources page) wove together into an intention to reclaim my health and my self.

This blog has been a key part of that work.

I still don’t like to watch people suffer, but I’m more careful now about “helping.” I’ve learned suffering is not necessarily the enemy. We get ill, have painful emotional and physical injuries, have uncomfortable feelings. We age and our bodies and sometimes our minds wear out. To be human is to experience these things; they’re inescapable. We can’t control what happens to us, but we can control how we deal with such events. When someone is suffering, I’ve learned to be less reactive, to remember it’s not my fault or my responsibility to fix it. I’ve learned to notice whether the sufferer is helping themselves before I jump in.

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

I have learned a bitter lesson: No one can help someone who will not help themselves.

I realize now we can’t always go back to where we were before we were wounded; we can’t always heal the wound itself. Sometimes our wounds and suffering are taking us into something new and what’s called for is not healing, but tolerance and patience.

What does “help” mean? This is an important question. Does help mean we respond promptly to all demands, whether or not they are safe, sustainable, or even possible? Does help mean we make thoughtful, intentional choices for safety and practicality even if those choices go against what we are being asked to do in terms of “help?” Do we decide what the best “help” is, or does the sufferer get to choose what kind of “help” they want?

I’m still uncomfortable talking about my own pain. Honestly, I’m still uncomfortable even noticing it, but I practice every day at staying present with how things are with me. It feels selfish and wrong, but I know that feeling doesn’t mean it is selfish and wrong, just that it’s very different from my early training. Sometimes the choice that feels worst is the best choice. Sometimes suffering is the only possible road forward into peace, growth and resilience.

None of us has the power to help anyone avoid suffering. I confess I’ve argued with that reality all my life, but it hasn’t done a bit of good. In fact, it’s done harm, most of all to myself.

I have occasionally, in the depths of anguish, asked for help. When I do that, what am I asking for?

Nothing tangible. Not money or a thing. Not love. Not sex. Not a gallon of ice cream. I’m not asking for someone to come along and fix it all, or take responsibility.

I’m asking to be heard. I’m asking for someone to say, “I’m here. You’re not alone. I believe in you. I know your goodness, your strength, your courage.” I’m asking for a safe place to discharge my feelings. This might involve snot, wet Kleenexes, rage, and a raised voice.

A safe place is not a place where someone else takes responsibility and fixes, or asks me to stop feeling my feelings, or is clearly uncomfortable with my suffering. A safe place is provided by someone with healthy boundaries who is willing to witness my distress without feeling compelled to fix it.

Witness. A witness. That’s ultimately what I want. Just someone to be there with me for a little while. I can face my own demons and challenges, but I can’t do it all alone.

Photo by Gemma Chua Tran on Unsplash

None of us can. We are social animals. But we can witness for one another. We can sit quietly, holding a safe space without judgment or a fix or advice, and just witness. Pass the Kleenex.

It’s the hardest thing in the world for me to do. Simply witnessing seems so passive, so weak, so useless. Someone right in front of me is deeply distressed and I simply sit like a bump on a log witnessing? Are you kidding me?

Surely, I can do better than that. I can do more than that. It’s up to me to make their suffering stop!

And yet. And yet. Isn’t finding a witness incredibly hard? How many people in our lives can take on such a role? What an inestimable gift, to be willing to walk beside someone who is suffering, to be willing to stay, to not look away. What if our boundaries were so healthy we could do that? What if we weren’t afraid of suffering? What if we were wise enough, strong enough, to make room for it and sit down beside it?

Someone I love is in great anguish of spirit. They beg me for help, but a very specific kind of help which is ethically and practically impossible for me or anyone else to give. Which makes me an enemy. Which makes my loved one even more alone than they already feel, more victimized, more powerless, more confused.

There is nothing about this that doesn’t suck. I dread the phone calls beyond words because I don’t want to witness this suffering. It feels unbearable. But my loved one must bear it, and if they have to, I can. I choose to witness. It feels like nothing. It’s not what’s wanted. But at this point it’s all I can do. So I will keep calling and answering calls. I will get up in the morning and talk to case managers, nurses, CNAs, palliative care consultants, nursing homes, and whoever else will talk to me. I will update friends and family. Then I will get up the next morning and do it again.

I pray there is some power in witnessing, some rightness. I pray that somehow my love and willingness to remain a witness does a little bit of good, provides some small comfort, lights a candle in the darkness of dementia, even for a moment.

And I search inside my own suffering for wisdom, for healing, for grace, and for faith.

To read my fiction, serially published free every week, go here.