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My Dance With Alzheimer’s

Personal Perspective: Striving through imperfection with Alzheimer's disease.

“The greatest obstacle to discovery is not ignorance, it is the illusion of knowledge.” —the late Daniel J. Boorstin, distinguished historian

Source: Jill Wellington / Pixabay
Source: Jill Wellington / Pixabay

At 74, fighting advancing Alzheimer’s, I’ve found peace in imperfection—the illusion of knowledge. My mind used to be my best friend; now there’s no chance for reconciliation. So I write and think from the heart, the place of the soul.

My heart now tells me that I’m not perfect—though, arrogantly, at times, I thought I might be. But I never was perfect, no matter what my Irish mother often insisted. Yet, she had Alzheimer’s as well.

Alzheimer’s has brought me to the realization of imperfection—and it’s a gift.

I’ve learned the hard way that it’s OK not to be perfect, to have imperfect parents and children, or to not strive in risky ways for perfection. There’s no guilt here; in fact, there’s inner strength. Reality is a pill we all should swallow. Society and the advertising media continually pressure us to be faultless individuals, raising in us Superman expectations that are hazardous to our spirit and about as real as Kryptonite. Failure, as measured against success, is not an option that we generally like to declare, but acknowledgment of failure can be freeing to the soul.

Einstein had something to say about this: “There is nothing known as ‘Perfect.’ It’s only those imperfections which we choose not to see!”

And Winston Church, who scholars say suffered from depression and perhaps bipolar disorder, once observed: “Perfection is the enemy of progress.”

Alzheimer’s has enhanced my perspective. And that’s progress. I’ve found peace in my shortcomings—a perseverance to press on in the face of difficulties, which now include prostate cancer, a breakdown of my body, and deep depression. Now, as part of my limitations, I get angry with God when synapses in my brain are not working. I often explode loudly (generally privately), taking the Lord’s name in vain. I feel deep guilt about this as if I’ve just burned down a convent full of nuns.

Yet, God, or the universe, if you will, has big shoulders and forgives. In my imperfections, I see God as a cross between “Lurch” in the old Addams Family sitcom with his deep resonant groans and Kojak’s Telly Savalas: “Who loves ya, Baby!”

And so I’ve had to forgive myself.

Cautions Harvard University’s Division of Continuing Education about trying to be perfect: “For many, working hard and doing their best is achievement enough, even if they don’t get a perfect score. However, for those wrestling with perfectionism, doing their best isn’t enough, and they’ll strive to be perfect at the expense of their own health and wellness….Being human inherently means being imperfect. While it’s good to strive for your best in many situations, perfectionism says that everything you do has to be perfect—and anything less than that is unacceptable.

“Individuals with perfectionist tendencies may have historically been rewarded for good work, and are conditioned to seek that out again. They may believe they must be perfect to please their parents or earn their family’s respect….They may have a fear of failure and believe that they can avoid it by being perfect. Or they may need to meet unrealistic expectations in a world of curated, seemingly ’perfect’ lives on social media. But whatever the cause, perfectionism isn’t a healthy way to approach the world.”

My late father, who also died of dementia, once told me, quoting from someone else: “Life is like a river; you need to study it, as it goes by, then decide the right time to put your feet in the water.”

Upon my diagnosis of Alzheimer’s, my doctor and close friend, instructed me: “You need to learn to dance with Alzheimer’s.”

While I’ve always been a horrible dancer, as my friends would attest—clumsy, and no rhythm—I’ve learned over time to keep a beat with Alzheimer’s, one foot at a time.

And so it is in life, one step at a time.

So let’s dance…

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