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There is nothing funny about losing your memory

by Youmna El Halabi January 29, 2019
There is nothing funny about losing your memory

Alzheimer’s is more than just the punchline to a dark joke, and should be taken more seriously

I started my year by reading Lisa Genova’s critically acclaimed novel, Still Alice. Mostly known as the motion picture that awarded Julianne Moore with a long overdue Academy Award, Still Alice is the story of Dr. Alice Howland, a linguistics professor at Harvard University, and her journey with early onset Alzheimer’s.

I remember watching the film for the first time in 2015. I was completely awed by Moore’s performance, and how she perfectly conveyed every bit of pain, confusion, and disorientation Alice felt once diagnosed.

Throughout the movie though, all I could think about was wanting to read Alice’s feelings, rather than watch them. I wanted to read through her thought process, and how she was deeply affected by her diagnosis. I wondered how a linguistics professor goes from retaining every bit of information concerning language, to forgetting where she was while out for a run.

The reason why I wanted so desperately to read about Alice’s journey was partly for my love of books, and partly because I wanted to understand Alzheimer’s, and see beyond the defeated expression people sport on their faces once the topic is brought up.

What struck me most was Alice’s stream of thought when she was first diagnosed. “She wished she had cancer instead,” Genova writes. “She’d trade Alzheimer’s for cancer in a heartbeat… and while a bald head and a looped ribbon were seen as badges of courage and hope, her reluctant vocabulary and vanishing memories advertised mental instability and impending insanity. Those with cancer could expect to be supported by their community. Alice expected to be cast out.”

My initial reaction was horror and disbelief. Why would someone ever wish upon themselves a disease as daunting as cancer? But as I continued to read on, I started to understand where the character was coming from. With cancer, there is always a slight chance of survival, of beating the odds, of overcoming the dying cells and coming out victorious. Compared to that, Alzheimer’s seems like a dead-end.

When cancer is brought up in a conversation, voices become hushed and superstitious people begin knocking on wood, almost burning incense to avoid an Evil Eye wishing this disease upon them. Well, that’s how they do it back home in Lebanon anyway.

When one forgets the definition of a word, why they opened the fridge in the first place, or finds themselves repeating something they said not too long ago, people chime in, joking about probable Alzheimer’s.

As I get older, I realize how unfortunate it is that mental illnesses are either joked about, ignored, or never taken seriously. Most of the time, anything regarding a person’s mental state is brushed off, which explains why a disease like cancer is considered more worrisome than Alzheimer’s.

In my opinion, it all stems back to the fear of the unknown. Personally at times, when I find myself in fearful situations, sarcasm and jokes help me cope. While it certainly explains why mental illnesses are often made fun of, it does not excuse it one bit. Because let’s face it, Alzheimer’s is a monster. We do not know how to deal with fluctuating sadness, memory loss, and everyone looking at us, urging us to be ‘normal,’ whatever in the world that means.

Cancer is believed to be easier, because tumours are visible and can be treatable, lest they be metastatic. Alzheimer’s is a hopeless case. Once you’re diagnosed, as Genova writes, “your brain is oatmeal.”

Graphic by @spooky_soda

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