February 5, 2013
About 1% of Americans suffer from schizophrenia. More than five million people in this country are living with Alzheimer's Disease, including over 300,000 New Yorkers. As with any illness, there is also a chain of concern that includes family and friends and professional caregivers, so that it's probably safe to say that most people are affected in some way by serious health conditions that still don't have a ready cure. While some individuals suffer and withdraw, others must keep an eye on loved ones while trying to hold on to their own well-being. Sometimes the best way to stay engaged and supportive while maintaining one's own personal interests is by writing. This OFF THE PAGE program presents two authors who have shared the burden of illness and decline. In both cases the afflicted ones were their mothers.
Martha Stettinius's relationship with her mother Judy was not always easy and from the age of 16 Martha had an independent life. But when Martha was in her 40s her mother began to display symptoms of dementia. Over the next seven years, as her condition deteriorated, Judy went from assisted living to memory care and finally into a nursing home, and Martha kept a journal. A literary editor and writing instructor, Martha turned her observations into a book "Inside the Dementia Epidemic: A Daughter's Memoir".
The following weeks unfold like a test. one that both Mom and I are failing. Mom seems depressed or angry, no longer perky as she was on her first day here [living with Martha's family]. I wonder if she loked forward to moving in with us because she thought I could give her my undivided attention.. Maybe she feels neglected, ignored, judged, put down? I don't know, and for quite a while, I don't ask. I'm so accustomed to thinking primarily of myself and my husband and children that I can barely feel this seismic shift in my mother's world. It never occurs to me that her mood is perfectly normal for someone who has lost almost everything from her old life. I never ask a key question: How would I feel in her place? --from "Inside the Dementia Epidemic"
Stettinius concludes her book with a series of ten appendices that speak directly to medical issues, risk factors, medication, memory consultation and planning for long-term care. There is also an extensive bibliography.
Dave Elder could not always feel close to his mother; when he was 3 1/2 years old she began a slide into schizophrenia, which would last for the rest of her life. It was isolating within her family circle and required occasional hospitalization. Dave could go on to college, became a musician, songwriter and film-maker. He began to sense the similarities between his mother's psychiatric condition and the wasting and delusion in the rock music drug scene. Dave moved to New York City, where his romantic relationship with a woman he calls simply "M" gave him another close view of the ravages of schizophrenia, as well as the potential for treatment. He tells his story and that of the people laboring beneath the weight of mental illness in his book, "Expecting the Broken Brain to Do Mental Pushups".
Part of my newfound understanding came also from the realization that, as a psychiatrist told me regarding M, psychiatric conditions usually have a psychological trigger. This fact often confuses the family of the patient, because the patient was fine before the trigger went off. In my mother's case, she was fine until the birth of her third child. She had given birth to two other children, but the third one caused her so much stress that it pushed her over the edge. Once over that edge, she could never return to the land of the normal.
Dave Elder is joined on OFF THE PAGE by psychiatrist Dr. Edward Major of Binghamton.
Edward A. Major, M.D.