13: Socializing Amidst Mental Chaos

13: Socializing Amidst Mental Chaos

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Living with Alzheimer's & Other Dementias

Socializing Amidst Mental Chaos

I am not afraid of storms for I am learning how to sail my ship.

~Louisa May Alcott

It was nearing midnight on August 25, 2012, exactly seventy-eight years and twenty-four hours since my birth at Grandmother’s house in West Virginia. Six hours ago I had entered the banquet room at Galaxy Restaurant in Wadsworth, Ohio, and met a sea of aging faces, some familiar, others less so — classmates from Copley High School’s class of 1952.

Tony, a man who has aged better than most of us, greeted me with a big smile and an anecdote I struggled to interpret. “Glad you could make it, Lois,” he said. “I think of you every time I drive through the Shenandoah Valley in Virginia.”

Greeting him, I smiled, trying to assimilate the meaning of his remark.

He explained to a bystander that a few years ago, as I had left the Shenandoah Valley, driving up the mountainside, my phone rang and a voice had announced bluntly to me that tests showed I had Alzheimer’s disease. I had that story published in Chicken Soup for the Soul: Think Positive, and I also included it in my book about my first twelve months with my diagnosis, Essays: On Living with Alzheimer’s Disease, The First Twelve Months. So now I get it. He read my story.

Others who had read my book approached me, remarking about how well I looked, and how they couldn’t believe I have Alzheimer’s because I look and sound so good. Tony thought perhaps I made up the entire story.

Reflecting on the scene, I found I agreed with them in many ways; yet I didn’t feel very well this particular night. Still I’d ponied up and put on a happy face, determined to be at my best. I gained confidence after a shower, slipping into a new outfit and having my granddaughter do my hair — thinking that after sixty years, I could finally hold my own with anyone in this group.

These old feelings of inferiority stemmed from high school, when I joined the class after the school term started, coming from southern Appalachia without social skills or friends. I never quite overcame the lack of equality even after accomplishing more educationally and professionally than most of my class members. As the years passed, I realized they had accepted me all along; some even admired me in later years.

The restrictions were set in place by my own lack of confidence; it’s strange that it wasn’t until I had dementia that I made the association.

The self-confident feeling didn’t last all evening. I cringed when I started to the restroom, turning the wrong direction. I returned and forgot which of three closed double doors opened into our banquet room. Embarrassed when I realized I opened the wrong door, I turned around and noted “Class of ’52” printed on the doors I had just passed.

I was able to endure the first two hours of the social evening quite well. My strategy was to talk to the people who had been my friends in school, who I had contact with and reason to remember in more recent times. When subjects came up that I should have known about, I smiled and nodded as if I understood. In other instances, I asked questions, which revealed my lack of knowledge. My classmates either didn’t notice, or pretended not to.

Regardless of my planning or how much I rest prior to an event, once I start getting tired — usually after two hours or so — the confusion and poor memory take over. Then I know it’s time to get to the safety of home and family. On this evening, I started counting the minutes until my daughter would drive me home, where I could close my eyes and relax. I wanted to feel safe again.

What a pretender I am! I’m fortunate to be able to put on a good act — and the reunion was my best performance in a long time — but it just doesn’t last.

How does one socialize when living with Alzheimer’s disease?

Very carefully, and with much anxiety!

~Lois Bennett

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