Still Emily?

I have lately noticed more lines around my eyes and wrinkles in my forehead, and this semester, not one of my students ventured to ask me how old I was, like they used to. When I taught English 1010 students several years ago in my late twenties, they inevitably would wonder if I was old enough to be teaching them. This semester, nobody asked. Nobody wondered. I’m officially starting to look old enough to teach college and apparently old enough to not be thought young any longer.

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This has been compounded by some strange episodes of memory failure. I say “strange” because they have been strange to me. I’ve always had a good memory, ever since winning the 4th grade spelling bee, and I’ve always thought of myself as with it and on top of things. Now, I’m forgetting what I walked into a room for, even if that walk there only took 20 seconds. I am losing words more than I used to. And most concerning, I locked my keys in my car at Target the other day, making it impossible for me to pick up my oldest daughter and her friend from ballet. I had to call her friend’s dad to pick them up, and I had to get another friend to get my spare keys from my house and bring them to me. I was grateful for the help, but it made me even more concerned about my memory and my focus. I’ve only ever locked my keys in the car once before, and that was a long time ago. Like I said, I’m usually aware of and hyper alert to my actions and what I’m focused on doing. It’s my type A personality.

When I talked with my husband about how concerning these little memory lapses were to me, he laughed and said, “Now you know what it’s like to be me.” He’s long been locking keys in his car, losing cell phones and jackets, and forgetting where he parked his car ever since we first met. I’ve always teased him about this behavior, but now I’m starting to exhibit it, and it’s not so funny.

It became even more terrifying when I began reading Still Alice (2009) by Lisa Genova. This book was made into a film last year that won Julianne Moore an Oscar for best actress, and I had been on the library waiting list for the book for the last six months. My turn to read it came just as I started feeling like I was losing my own mind.

Still Alice is a novel about Alice Howland, a Harvard psychology professor, who is diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer’s disease in her early 50s. The book traces her decline by month. At first, she’s doing well and keeping up with speaking and teaching and researching and traveling. However, one day she misses a flight to a conference, because she forgot about it. Another time, she goes running and finds herself in Harvard Square, which she is familiar with, but can’t remember which way is home. As the story progresses, her behavior becomes more and more concerning. She enters a neighbor’s house and goes through the whole kitchen for tea thinking that it was her kitchen and that it had been rearranged. She attends one of her classes and thinks she is a student. She sits in the audience for 20 minutes and then leaves, believing that the professor isn’t coming, when the professor is she. It is a terrifying narrative to read, one that pulled at my heartstrings and made me worry more than necessary about my own recent memory lapses.

Through all of this, she has her husband John and her three children, Anna, Tom, and Lydia. Interestingly, her relationship with the youngest, Lydia, improves as she loses her memory. Lydia wants to be an actress instead of going to college, and Alice doesn’t approve. However, as she is removed mentally and emotionally from her family, she tells Lydia to make her own decisions and do what is right for her, not realizing she is giving this advice to her own daughter and not remembering the volatile past they share.

Anna ends up having twins through in vitro fertilization, and she and her husband are able to screen out embryos with the Alzheimer’s gene because of her mother’s diagnosis. Anna has the gene, and will eventually face the same fate as her mother. Alice lives to see her grandchildren, although she is in some of her most confused states by this time.

Alice had written herself a quiz before she mentally declined too much. She had to answer some questions everyday that would pop up on her Blackberry. The end of the quiz said that if she has trouble answering them, she should open a file called “Butterfly” on her computer. Well, she puts her Blackberry in the freezer and it is ruined. But later on, as she’s more confused about the past and present, she stumbles on the “Butterfly” file. It tells her, in her own words to trust her past self, that if she’s reading this file then she’s too sick to go on. The file tells her to get the bottle of sleeping pills she had stashed and take them all and go to bed. It seems that Alice will follow these instructions, as she trusts her former self, but when she goes to get the pills, she forgets what she was looking for and ends up forgetting to take them.

Her husband John is an interesting character. I would certainly love to read more about this situation from his perspective. From Alice’s perspective, he seems uncaring and selfish. He’s supposed to take a sabbatical from his job at Harvard to spend a year with her as she continues to decline. Instead, he insists on taking a job in New York City as the director of some scientific foundation that will bring him prestige. While this struck me, and Alice and the children, as selfish, I could see how he would have a hard time dealing with her decline and how it would be scary for him to spend so much time with his wife in this state. The end of the book seems to resolve this by Alice staying with her daughters in Boston, while her husband goes to New York and visits on weekends.

Overall, this is a heartbreaking novel. I enjoyed reading it, but I was filled with anxiety and worry as Alice continued to lose her mind and her will. Of course, I wasn’t expecting a perfect outcome or for the clinical drug trial to magically cure her. This book was realistic, and it helped me to understand just how hard and scary Alzheimer’s, and many other diseases, can be for those experiencing it and for their family members.

I can’t wait to see the film.

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53 thoughts on “Still Emily?

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  1. I’ve had this on my TBR list for a while, and each time I think to give it a go, it makes me think I’ll get too anxious reading it. I don’t think it’s the right time for me to be reading it right now, if that makes sense??

    Totally hear you on the whole age thing…in my career, I have struggled to be taken seriously as people (usually older, more senior people) often think I’m in my early 20’s. That is slowly changing as I get older though, and I expect at some stage, it will stop becoming an issue altogether, and then I’ll wish it were …ahh life 🙂

    1. Yep, I used to be mistaken for a younger person all the time. Now I get called “ma’am” at the grocery store. I guess those days are over! And yes, don’t read this if you’re not ready. It is a hard book because of the emotion.

  2. I loved this book, and have recommended it to many people. It is scary, though, and a friend of mine whose mother is having trouble with her memory didn’t want to read it. I think, though, that it could help us help them better if we can get a better understanding of what it feels like for them. This is easy for me to say, as I have not gone through this with anyone (yet), and hopefully never will.
    I’m with you on the small memory lapses – especially walking into rooms and forgetting what it was I wanted to do. I think it’s normal, though. Let’s hope so! 🙂

    1. I do think this book could be beneficial for those who may be resisting diagnosis or for their family members. It raises a lot of the stressful issues that come with such a disease for everybody involved. I liked how the author had a page or two at the end encouraging more awareness with some links and information about the disease. That could be helpful too.

  3. At lot of memory lapses occur because you’re preoccupied about something. I don’t think you’re old enough for it to be anything else. As you get older, you have more things to think about and you find yourself thinking about them instead of thinking about what you’re doing. That’s probably what’s going on with the car keys and forgetting what you were doing. Wait until you get to be my age!

  4. This sounds like a great book, by the way, albeit scary for all of us. When I was in my 20’s I had a complicated job and my mind was like a steel trap. I didn’t forget anything. No any more.

    1. That sharpness and perception just doesn’t last! I remember being in my early twenties and even feeling a slight shift down from when I was younger. I guess that decline is just continuing.

  5. First off, I think your “memory loss” is pretty normal, don’t worry. 🙂 I am hitting 40 this week (ouch! Where has the time gone?) and these little glitches seem to be a part of most people’s lives.

    I really want to read this book, but I’m not sure when (if ever) I will. My dad was early-onset Alzheimer’s and passed away four months ago. The topic is pretty close to home. Alzheimer’s is a scary and sad disease. It was bad enough living through it as his daughter, I’m not sure if I could read about it from the perspective of the Alzheimer’s sufferer. Hopefully one day I will read this, I’ve heard it is a very powerful read from many people.

    1. I’m glad to hear that it is normal! My husband just turned 40, and like I mentioned before, he’s been doing this stuff for years. As to you reading it, I do think you should give yourself some time and space before doing so, if you ever decide to. I’m sorry for your loss, and yes this book is very powerful. I imagine you would have a very emotional reaction to it. That could be either a good thing or a traumatic thing.

  6. Thanks for your review and personal take on this book. I’ve heard about both the book and author. I wonder if for many of us those absent-minded moments are simply the function of a lot of stress compounded with the fact that we need more sleep than when we were in our 20’s. Have had those momentary lapses for 30 years but it has never progressed to something worse–so I think! Still I get the scary as I’ve seen Alzheimer’s, and other late-in-life dementia with parents. We watched a wonderful woman in our church care for her early onset Alzheimer husband. It broke our hearts to watch his decline, and lifted them at the same time to see her love grow deeper and stronger. She spoke, when she did speak (she was more a person of actions than words) not of the burden, but the privilege of loving the man she had loved and who had loved her for so many years. There is a mystery of how tragedy and beauty sometimes weave together.

    1. It must have been so hard on her and her family, but also on you as a friend to watch her decline. I can’t even imagine. This book really terrified me, although I know my lapses are exactly what you said: lack of sleep and/or stress. My husband just finished working tax season and we were up many late nights and under a lot of stress with his work and my work and our kids. Thanks for the reality check that this is really just normal! 🙂

  7. I’ve got this one on my list already. And I’d like to see the film too. There’s another great story about Alzheimer’s that I read by Alice Munro called A Bear Came Over The Mountain and it’s accompanying movie Away From Her, which deals a bit more with the husband’s feelings as his wife changes. He has to learn to let her go and do what’s best for her even if it hurts him. Anyway, interesting topic. I’m definitely interested in how disease affects relationships and how differently people deal with it.

    1. I’ve read a lot of Munro’s work (and I love it) but I can’t remember if I’ve read this one. I’ll have to read it now that I’ve read this one. I’m intrigued by this sort of narrative now.

    2. This is indeed a very well written story and a good movie adaptation of it (with one of my favorite actors, Gordon Pinsent!).

  8. Ahhhh… Memory lapses… I’ve had interesting experiences with those in the past year and a half, mostly due to lack of sleep (combination of sleep apnea and insomnia). It has gotten better as I got used to my CPAP machine and managed to sleep more, but I occasionally totally blank out or can’t remember a word. But then I am approaching the half-century mark (how the hell did THAT happen?).

  9. Emily, yet again your posts are worth a read on so many levels.
    I’m also gratefully impressed with the quality of the comments you received. In my experience of my own life and journey with mild depression and anxiety, and also meeting many other people, I see so many connections. Sleep deprivation, busy lives and cluttered minds, ageing and the fact of actually having more to remember that accompanies it, all take their toll. Others above have already pointed to those things. There could be a poem or two in all that!
    As for your review of ‘Still Alice’. Thank you so much. I was already interested in the film. Now I’m interested in reading the book and seeing the film.

    1. Thank you, Simon, for your generous comments. I feel like I just described the book’s plot and got a little lazy with this post (and many others), but it was certainly a good read. I’m glad I read the book before I see the movie. I look forward to reading your poem! 🙂

      1. Back again, Emily, after all these months. Last night I finally finished reading ‘Still Alice’. The 2009 Simon & Schuster edition that I read included a study guide and an interview with the author. My impressions were very similar to yours. I now also want to see the movie and maybe explore some of Lisa Genova’s other novels. The poignancy of this whole scenario is even greater when I consider how I acquired a copy of the book. An older lady loaned it to me. In recent months her husband has been placed in an aged-care residence as he has dementia. Evidently, Genova’s book has spoken to this lady. As for a poem (or poems) that has not surfaced as yet! Once again, thank you for your reviews.

        1. Oh, that story breaks my heart. I’m glad you read this book, and I hope the lady who loaned it to you is getting some needed support from family and friends. I look forward to the poem from you!

          1. Yes. The lady in question is getting support (including from a book club she is part of) and that is one of the blessings of being in a small town. We are very mindful of this family.

  10. It sounds to me that you are experiencing more overload and inattention than memory problems. Forgetting the location of your keys is about attention and is a normal phenomenon. Forgetting what a key is for or how it is used is a problem that could be dementia.

  11. Thanks for sharing your fears and for sharing the story of Alice. You are probably juggling way too many balls, and it’s normal to drop one or two. If that continues, yes, it’s smart to rule out other scary causes, but I think that your husband would have a good view of what’s normal and what’s alarming. Trust his feedback!

    1. You’re right. Thank you for the sound advice and the words of logic and wisdom! I am juggling a lot of balls, but a few of those just ended so hopefully things will get easier to remember.

  12. Emily, I love your reviews, and I so appreciate your sharing of you in the way you talk about books. Alzheimer’s runs in my wife’s family and I just can’t bear to read this book out of anxiety for my future. I don’t know if my wife has the gene, but her mother has become increasingly forgetful in the last five years or so. :/

    1. I’m sorry to hear that Audra. That sounds like a hard situation. I don’t blame you for not wanting to read this book. I can’t help but think that it might be a helpful read for both you and your wife, but I really don’t know.

  13. Hello there. I’ve watched the movie, even if I haven’t read the book, didn’t know there was a book actually. I loved the movie, so inspiring, so touching. You’ll definitely love it.
    How’s the book?

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