Sunday, October 14, 2012

Still Alice

"Still Alice" by Lisa Genova; © 2007, Simon & Schuster

Dr. Alice Howland is a Professor of Psychology at pre-eminent Harvard University. She travels and speaks all over the world, is active in research and development of psycholinguistics and is highly respected by her students, peers and fellow teachers. She has a loving husband, three highly successful children and is riding high on a successful lifetime devoted to life.

That is until she stumbles one day in the middle of a presentation. She simply cannot find the word she is looking for. While most might miss her transgression, she is flustered by this slip in her normally flawless lectures. She recovers, but is bothered by this unusual turn of events. As the weeks go by, other small incidents occur that rattle her usually confident demeanour. She is 50 years old and has always been the stalwart in the family for remembering every and any small detail. Concerns that perhaps menopause is wreaking havoc with her internal systems, she makes a trip to her family physician. That leads to further tests and other doctors. The ultimate shocking diagnosis is early-onset Alzheimer's.

As the story unfolds, the reader walks the path of confusion that Alice slowly gets ensnared in. It is far worse than confusion though, as more than just words escape her in her steady spiral out of cognitive control. No amount of drugs, hope, wishing or praying can slow this horrific disease as it steals everything that Alice has ever held dear in her life. Genova's heart-breaking telling of the story is sad in its following of Alice's descent into the worst that Alzheimer's has to offer - memory loss, inability to recognize places, words and people, inability to interact in group settings or even perform normal everyday functions (everything from handling money, going out by oneself, to cleaning and grooming one's person). All this at the age of 50 in a Harvard Professor.

My heart broke for Alice, as she struggled to maintain control on the unsteady slope she slid down. I recognized her symptoms, as those that my own grandmother has suffered and shed a tear in understanding the unfairness of it all just that little bit more. No amount of reminding, pressuring, cajoling or humouring truly makes a difference. The neurons fail and they don't come back no matter how much you wish it to be different. It steals who the person was and the loved ones that surround that person are left to cope as best they can, trying to reconcile the person they remember with the damaged soul that is left. It isn't fair to any involved and Genova makes that sadly clear. The point she so saliently makes though is that even as the former personality slips away, the individual is still there and deserving of our respect.

I came to this book through my book club, but I take it with me to heart. I have visibly seen the symptoms Genova describes on the page, but her words helped me to see the disease a little clearer. It doesn't make me feel any better, but the tears I shed helped me to understand a little more.

~Thank you Lisa~

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