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

Student Life

What is the real key to happiness?

A University of the Streets Café discussion reflects on the “pursuit of happiness”

University of the Streets Café hosted yet another edition of its public discussions at Café Aux Deux Marie on St-Denis Street last Wednesday to discuss a hefty topic—the illusive pursuit of happiness.

The talk was moderated by Anurag Dhir, a community engagement coordinator for McGill University’s Social Equity and Diversity Education Office. The event featured speakers who explored the idea of purposefulness and happiness in their line of work: Peter Hartman and Juniper Belshaw. Hartman is a motivational speaker and founder of Happy For A Change, an organization that looks to spread the word about positive global initiative. Belshaw currently works for the Cirque du Soleil as a senior advisor for talent management, but she used to work and volunteer a lot in the  non-profit sector.

The atmosphere of the talk was quite relaxed. Once the speakers made their preliminary addresses, participants were encouraged to join in on the discussion.

While the intention of the talk was to discuss how to lead a life of impact within a community, the natural course of discussion led to the attendees sharing their views on what happiness means to them, and how to achieve a life of happiness. Most of the audience members agreed that living a life of happiness begins with the acceptance that things happen, and one can’t control everything.

There was a general consensus that, to live a life of positive impact, one must first find positivity in their own life. This echoed the sentiments of Belshaw, who at the end of her introduction said “maybe tonight I’m hoping to talk about how we build sustainable social change where we’re creating the world we want, but also living it as we do it.”

Peter Hartman, who also organizes discussions about finding a purpose in life through his organization Happy For A Change, said he’s used to hearing a lot of discussions turn into talks about the pursuit of happiness.

“There is overwhelmingly this focus on happiness,” he said. “I was hoping we would get beyond that… but I find it so useful, because every time we have that conversation we get a little bit further,” into what it means to lead a life of purpose.

Photo by Ana Hernandez

Hartman explained that, for him, living a life of purpose means living a life of meaningful action. “It’s when there is intention behind the actions that you do,” he said. “It’s not just that you have relationships—it’s the manner in which you have relationships that contribute to your overall purpose.”

Relationships, Hartman added, can be as basic as the contact a person has with a store clerk.

This and other guiding principles are the basis of Happy for A Change—what he calls a philosophy and a movement—with the goal of using people’s own search for happiness to make a positive change in the world.

“We understand that everybody is different and people want to work on different things, so we’re trying to find the lowest common denominator, what is the smallest action possible that we can convince people to do that would create change?” said Hartman. For the speaker, that action is going on social media. Hartman believes that going on social media is something that practically everyone does every day and he tries to harness its power by convincing people in the self-help industry to use their financial means to promote and market ideas that create a better society on social media.

Attendees discussed their thoughts on finding happiness through community engagement. Photo by Ana Hernandez

University of the Streets Café is a program part of Concordia’s Office of Community Engagement, which has existed for 15 years. According to Alex Megelas, the organizer of University of the Street Café programming, their mandate is to “promote a culture of community engagement at Concordia.” They do so by creating links between staff, students and different community based groups and organizations. University of the Streets Café is one of their initiatives.

Megelas said his principle role is to create discussions that reflect the goal of the program. This year, their goal is to look at city engagement and, more specifically, “how we live in cities as, individuals and together, [and] create shared experiences.”

The next University of the Streets Café discussion called “Representative Democracy: How do we foster citizenship literacy”, and will be held on March 9 at 7 p.m. at Temps Libre at 5606 De Gaspé St.

Exit mobile version