Sunday, October 26, 2014

Helping With Honey

"Diane. Come here a minute."

Hmm. Red alert.

Though my mom has beckoned me thousands of times in my life, I've come to recognize the new and special meaning behind this exact phrasing.

Mom is in dementia mode.

"Coming," I called as I ran down the stairs and into her bedroom. She was just stepping out of her closet, and I noticed immediately the quirky smile on her face and the disconnected look in her eyes.

Uh oh. Definitely dementia mode.

I took a deep breath, buckled my mental seat belt, and tossed off my usual, "What's up?" as casually as possible.

"Do you know who I am?" she asked, clearly testing me.

"Sure, I do. But you tell me. Who are you?"

Conspiratorially, she leaned close and whispered, "I'm Clara Minnie Marie Belz Lewis."

Oops. That's my grandmother's name.

"Yes, she's your mother." I affirmed, carefully sliding the conversation back toward reality.

"Oh that's right, that's right! I'm the mother. I'm the grandmother." She was thinking deeply now, gently touching her chest as she reminded herself of each identity.

"So what's your name? Tell me," I asked.

Leaning even closer, she agreeably whispered to me her full name.

"Yes, that's right. That's who you are," I concurred. "But why are we whispering?"

"So Honey can't hear us."

"Who's Honey?"

* * * * *

For the next hour, my mom lay on her couch and calmly explained to me exactly what has been going on inside her mind. This is what she said.
For the last few years, someone else has been living inside me. Inside my body. Inside these clothes. 
Her name is Honey and she's a stupid fool. When Honey was growing up, her mother washed clothes in the river to make ends meet. But Honey has two sisters and five brothers so the family was always very poor.  She has no education, she's never held a good job. That's why she has no money. 
So when Honey heard there were a lot of older people in this town who had money, she came here to take advantage of someone. She moved in with me a long time ago, and even she's always promising me that she's going to skedaddle, she never goes.   
Honey is an asshole. She plays tricks on me, like hiding my shoes or my glasses, and then she laughs at me. She whines and complains about everything - my food, my clothes, my books - and I tell her to leave if she doesn't like it. But she just won't go!
And sometimes, Honey pretends to be me. But she is a fake. She doesn't know my kids' names. She doesn't know my grandchildren's names. But I do. The real me knows everyone's names. So that's why I have to whisper them. I don't want Honey to hear, because then she will know their names and can pretend to be the real me. 
As I listened to these revelations, my mind was exploding with new thoughts and ideas.

On the one hand, this explanation was super helpful. My intuitions had told me that my mom was experiencing her demented thoughts as a different person, and I often find my mom engaged in a dialogue that sounds like she was talking to another person that only she could see. This story definitely confirmed that my mom was using the identity of Honey to express - and to contain - her dementia.

At the same time, I was heartbroken. I can't imagine how confusing and scary it must be to feel that someone else is living inside your skin, and my mom's emotional pain and frustration were palpable. If I let myself, I could weep for a hundred years just to think of it.

However, pragmatist that I am, I knew that I could not let my own emotions surface in the moment. I needed to figure out how to respond to all this.

My first instinct was to protest. There's no one in this house, Mom, except you and me. You are safe here. I won't let anyone come in and bother you.

But then I realized that statement simply wasn't true. Though Honey is not a physical presence, the truth is that Mom's mental security has indeed been breached. In a nonliteral but very real way, an intruder named Alzheimer's is harassing her and refusing to go. And I can do nothing to stop it.

So in a flash, I completely reversed direction.
I think it's very nice of you to let Honey live here. She doesn't have anyone else to take care of her, and you are generous to let her stay. But this is your house, and you are the boss. I think Honey needs to follow your rules.
Mom agreed.

 * * * * *

So for the rest of my visit, when I would encounter my mom having a spirited session of self-talk, I'd ask, "What's going on? Is Honey giving you problems?"

And every time, Mom would say, "Yes!" and go on to explain exactly what Honey was doing wrong.

I would listen, and then suggest a phrase or two that might make Honey straighten up.

To watch my mom repeat those words back to her invisible Honey, as she looked right at the place where Honey was apparently standing, sent chills down my spine.

But the process seems to work. And now that I'm back home, we often talk on the phone about Honey. When I ask, Mom tells me about Honey's bad behavior, and then I suggest what she might say to get Honey back in line.

This, I realize, is a tiny finger in the dike that my mom has built to hold back the mighty seas of dementia. But for now, this is all either one of us can think to do with this monstrous problem.

For now, helping with Honey will have to be enough.

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