Here’s to Hoping We Lose Bad Memories If We End Up in Dementialand

There are certain memories that never fail to make me smile.

In elementary school, my friend Heather and I spent a lot of time producing radio commercials. We had a tape recorder that was state-of-the-art. We wrote a script. There were sound effects. Heather’s little brother, Brian, played a supporting role. I specifically remember making commercials for vacuum cleaners. We said they “sucked” but in a good way. (See what we did there? Looking back, we were pretty clever.)

I don’t think our mothers were all that impressed with that particular commercial. In 1985, second-graders weren’t really supposed to be using the word “sucks.” We were in uncharted territory. You might call us rebels. I’m smiling just thinking about it.

Then there’s our wedding. It’s a good memory for all the reasons people typically say their wedding is a good memory, but what makes me smile the most is when I think about a specific moment when my stepfather, Dennis, was taking some pictures of my husband and me. He didn’t like the shadow that the sun was creating. My dad, who is quite tall, stepped in awkwardly right behind my stepfather with his arms arching over him–practically on top of him–to block the sun. Then there was my mom standing about ten feet away yelling directions at her ex-husband and current husband on how to work together to avoid the shadows in pictures. (As in, “Roy, step to the left and lean over Dennis a little more! Dennis, get down lower! Bend your knees!”) I am laughing as I write about it.

I also have memories that aren’t so positive. I’m not trying to portray myself as a pitiful victim, but I’ve been through some rough times. I’m not unique in this. I know you’ve probably been through rough times, too. Life isn’t all roses and unicorns, after all. I know you likely have a few images that pop up at night when you can’t sleep. You tell them to get lost, but they don’t.

They are memories I’d like to forget, but I can’t. They relate to painful times in my life. Things I saw happen that I would give anything to have not seen…or that I would give anything to have not happened at all. But that’s not an option. Just like those good memories that are imprinted in my mind, those bad memories aren’t going anywhere. I’m stuck with them.

I’d like to say those awful memories make me a stronger and better person. I’d love to tell you that they’ve forced me to grow and helped me to develop valuable new self-insights. Maybe some of that is true in a small way. Yet…really…bad memories just suck. (I can use that word now because I’m no longer in the second grade…unless Heather’s mom or my mom want to chime in here and veto it, which I would completely respect.)

Dementia can take those good memories. Dementia can take those bad memories, too.

I had to laugh uncomfortably recently when someone said to me, “The bad news is that Dad has Alzheimer’s. The good news is that he doesn’t have PTSD anymore.” It sounded like the punch line to a bad dementia joke. (Note: I’ll talk about dementia jokes in an upcoming post. I thought I had heard them all until I heard one the other day that happened to be both derogatory to people with dementia and racist, but I digress.)

If you can’t remember the traumatic event anymore, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) is often relieved. This woman told me that her father had been in Vietnam. He came home and struggled with depression, fatigue, nightmares, flashbacks, and aggressive episodes. This cost him his marriage and strained his relationships with friends and family members. Then along came Alzheimer’s. As he gradually lost his memories of Vietnam, his PTSD subsided.

Certain types of dementia, such as Alzheimer’s, often work by impacting short-term memory at the start of the disease. Then you don’t remember the last year. Gradually, you lose the last 5 years, 10 years, 20 years….And if you don’t remember the last 60, maybe you see yourself as a child. You look in the mirror and don’t recognize that old person looking back at you. With Alzheimer’s and memory loss, we often use the phrase, “Last in, first out.”

Sometimes with Alzheimer’s, and even more so with some other types of dementia, the memory loss isn’t so predictable. The progression doesn’t always make sense. I once met a man with Alzheimer’s who remembered that his son had committed suicide five years earlier. However, he didn’t remember the wife that he had been married to for over thirty years or that he had been a well-respected lawyer. He couldn’t name the last four presidents.

I found it cruel that Alzheimer’s had stolen so many memories but left him with what was likely the most traumatic memory of his life. Dementia should have to take the bad memories if it’s gonna take the good ones. That only seems fair. But when it comes to dementia, what’s fair is irrelevant. Dementia, like life itself, is tremendously unfair.

If I have dementia in my future, I want to forget those life events that I can’t forget now as hard as I try. And I want to remember making commercials about vacuum cleaners that suck and how my dad and my stepfather ended up making the world’s oddest and most awkward pose in order to get the perfect wedding picture.

But dementia doesn’t let you choose.

4 thoughts on “Here’s to Hoping We Lose Bad Memories If We End Up in Dementialand

  1. This is another great blog, thank you. As a person with early onset of alzheimer’s its been a battle in regards to memory. On top of that, my mom who is 82 (I’m 45), has Alzheimer’s also. With that – also – my father died last year and my brother died in 2005. My mom remembers both some days, other days she does not. For me, I still remember both. I wish I could forget that part, but then again, as with my mom on some days, if I did forget losing both of them, I would question “why cant i call them or see them”. I wish there was an easy answer, not that there will ever be. Also wish I’ve never heard the comment as its been said to me and my sister (who my mom lives with) several times, “well at least she doesn’t remember they have died.” So is it easier, no, but neither is the opposite. This is truly a horrible disease and yes, many, many times I wish I could erase all the bad that has happened to me in my life, but at the same time, perhaps as you mentioned also, it’s what built me.. and maybe, just maybe it is what has “helped” me through this battle now. With your experience with a gentleman with Alzheimer’s who does remember one thing but not another – sadly, this is more common than what most people think. Alzheimer’s is truly not just a “memory” problem. If it does involve a memory problem, then it’s far from consistent. Wish it was cut and dry. Maybe that would help us, but then again, maybe not.. also maybe help others understand. But unfortunately, in the 6 years I’ve been dealing with this, every scenario, nothing seems to help. I wish I could be more positive and more upbeat.. a bad day in my world unfortunately tends to show a less than positive attitude. But I can say, people like you and others with and without the disease are truly helping. I’m always told “baby steps” and that’s true. So hopefully all of yours and others baby steps will lead to huge steps and even bigger results in the future. A cure (hopefully before my daughter (who is 22) starts showing the signs because she tested positive to the same disease as I have) will be found but with that, and definitely sooner than later, a better way for all of us diagnosed to live a much fuller and happier life surrounded with less “stigmas” and educated people. I know that’s a lot to ask, but we’ve come a long way all ready, I think this is coming too. 🙂 Thank you again!! I look forward to reading more of your blogs ❤

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    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences. I owe so much to people who have been diagnosed and continue to share what they go through in whatever way they are able. And I am continually frustrated with the stigma that still accompanies this disease in 2015. Please don’t beat yourself up for not always being able to put on a “happy face” everyday when you live with this disease. You are doing the best that you can and by being honest about what you are going through you are making a difference.

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  2. I’ve thought about this before…it makes me sad to think that someone could be in a vicious cycle of only bad memories….with all of the pain and sadness over and over.


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