Someone I met recently had a stroke years ago, and doctors are now telling her she has dementia. She lives on her own, and within the walls of her apartment, she feels quite capable.
She can cook. She can clean. She takes care of her cat. She can even work her own DVR. But things take her a bit longer. She says she messes up a lot.
One day it took her several minutes to figure out which bottle on the ledge of her bathtub was the shampoo. That’s didn’t bother her though–because she wasn’t in a hurry and she figured it out eventually.
When she leaves the house, her anxiety level increases. Doing tasks slowly and messing up is fine at home, but it’s a bigger deal in public.
One day she walked to a local coffee shop and struggled to pay for her latte. She thought she’d pay cash but had difficulty deciding if she had enough money. Then she figured she’d use her debit cared but couldn’t process which, of all the cards in her wallet, was the debit card.
In the end, she paid for her coffee with her card and all was fine.
That’s not the way she saw the situation, however. She felt she had inconvenienced the several people in line behind her. She knew they had to have been frustrated by her, and she swore she could hear a few of them sighing behind her back. As she sat down with her coffee, she thought some of them might be shooting her dirty looks.
She wished she had stayed home.
She decided she should start going out less often, and maybe only during hours when places wouldn’t be crowded.
People know themselves, and I didn’t want to judge whether or not her decision to stay home more was a good one. And I didn’t necessarily think venturing out during less busy times was a bad idea.
But what bothered me was that these thoughts were not based on the progression of dementia. Instead, they were based on her perceptions of others’ reactions to her dementia.
She felt she frustrated and annoyed people. She thought they were judging her for being slow. She perceived herself as a nuisance who was in the way.
I wasn’t with her, so I can’t say for sure, but my guess is that the people in line behind her at the coffee shop didn’t notice her in the way she perceived that they did. She explained the scene as if she was the central character, if you will, and everything that happened in the coffee shop at that moment was focused on her inability to promptly pay for her coffee.
I just don’t buy it.
In those situations where you feel embarrassment or shame, when you feel like everyone is judging your shortcomings, when you feel like your faux pas or misstep is the central plot in a scene, remember this….
You are the big stick figure in your every scene. No matter where you are in life, you are the big stick figure and all the other characters are little stick figures. You see what you do as being bigger than what everyone else is doing because you see yourself as bigger. It’s just how humans see the world.
It’s not because you’re arrogant or self-important. We all see ourselves as the big stick figure because we can only see the world from our own perspective. We are aware of what we are doing, but we are less aware of what others are doing because they’re the little stick figures.
As the woman with dementia tried to pay at the coffee shop, she saw herself as the big stick figure. She thought everyone was aware of what she perceived as incompetence because she was the big stick figure and it would be impossible to not notice her.
Of course, she wasn’t the big stick figure to the people in line behind her. She was the little stick figure to their big stick figure. They might have been noticing that their pants didn’t fit right or that they wanted whipped cream but knew they were on a diet or worrying that they had lipstick on their teeth, but they probably weren’t taking that much notice of her.
To think people noticed her incompetence was to assume that people noticed her…and perhaps that is giving us too much credit when people spend most of their time noticing what they are doing.
At most, she was a role player, or a supporting actor, in someone else’s scene.
Let’s say I happened to be behind her in line at the coffee shop that day. I hope that I would’ve been patient and maybe even helpful, but let’s say I was annoyed. Still…I maintain that I’m the big stick figure and she’s the little stick figure in my scene. If my husband had asked how my morning was, I might have responded with something like this:
Well, I was running behind for that 8:30 meeting and it was taking forever to drive across town because I got stopped at every red light but of course I had to stop for my coffee. Unfortunately this woman ahead of me in line was taking forever to pay for her coffee and I was getting more and more anxious that everyone at my meeting was going to be passive-aggressive that I was late so I kept trying to will that lady to speed it up.
You see how the woman with dementia isn’t the star of the story? She’s not the big stick figure. You know who the big stick figure is in my story? It’s me. It’s all about me. Because I’m the one telling the story.
Whether you are a person living with dementia or a care partner who might feel like the world is scrutinizing you when you assist your love one in the grocery store or a person like me who does embarrassing things in public regularly, keep in mind that you’re only the big stick person in your own head.
You are a little stick figure to the rest of the world.