This post describes, in part, the effects of a degenerative neurological condition called Huntington’s Disease. Any negative behavior on the part of my wife should be attributed to that condition. Any negative behavior on the part of myself should be attributed to my need for God’s ongoing grace.
This week has been hard. The new medication is helping a bit with Janet’s chorea and she is sleeping like a baby every night. However, other issues are continuing to worsen. The anger has been much more pronounced and she is very demanding in terms of what to do and the order in which to do it. Our daughter Frannie, understands that when Mom changes her mind and gets angry, that it is the HD. But on some level, she doesn’t care anymore. She just wants Mom to hear her and believe what she says. For myself, everything that I hear about on the news seems in a lot of ways be our home dynamic playing out on the world stage.
It occurred to me that maybe all the news readers have HD, or Alzheimer’s or something and that is why they can never get the stories right. But no, that’s crazy, right?
A long time ago (or at least what feels like a long time ago) my second post to this blog was titled, “Which Way is Up?”. That post was supposed to be about some of the disorienting changes that took place in our lives after Janet got her diagnosis. Although it started off that way, the post quickly developed a mind of its own and wandered off in another direction – which wasn’t necessarily a bad thing. It did, however, leave this topic unresolved and recently I have seen a lot of newbies on the support forums who are struggling with this transition. Consequently, I’m circling back to give a little more of a voice to this early time in our HD journey.
After Janet got her diagnosis, we moved back to Ohio pretty quickly so her first real HD appointment was going to the Center of Excellence at the University of Ohio Medical Center. During that first appointment we understandably had hundreds of questions about the disease and the sort of care that would be needed. So someone advised that a great way to get our questions answered would be to attend a local support group meeting, and we arranged to go to the next one. Unfortunately, no one spoke to us to prepare us for the meeting, or help us to set our expectations.
Their group at that time had a couple late-stage patients attending. Needless to say, we were totally unprepared for what we saw, and we went home terrified – each for our own reasons. At that time Janet’s major physical symptom was that her feet were twitching at night. She couldn’t imagine needing to be strapped into a wheelchair so her convulsions wouldn’t throw her out if it. For myself, I had no idea how to care for someone with that level of need.
When, a few years later, we had gathered enough courage to attend another meeting – this time in Texas – we were better prepared and understood things much better. First, we understood that everyone with HD is on their own journey. Some have extreme chorea, some have hardly any. Some slowly forget everything about their previous life and drift off into a kind of non-being, some become so emotionally disturbed that they must be committed to an asylum. Still many things are common for most, like anger or perseveration.
Which, by the way, brings up another good point. If you are a caregiver for someone with HD you will be learning a new language. I know your neurologist appears to speak the same language you do, but in fact they are speaking a specialized dialect called “doctor”. So you will be learning a lot of new words – like perseveration. Over the coming years, you will also be earning a minimal degree in nursing as you learn to deal with your loved one’s daily medical and personal care needs. And that’s to say nothing of all of what you will learn about how the medical systems in your country work, which it should be no surprise, is very different from the way the politicians tell us they work.
My advice? Get a notebook and keep notes of everything you hear and learn. There will be a test on it later.
During this time, I also learned the real meaning of the term “degenerative”. It means that often today, no matter how bad it may be, today may be the best day that Janet will have for the rest of her life. I also learned that “degenerative” can be a kind of perverse blessing in that as Janet slowly grew worse and worse, I had the time to grow up and grow into my new role. If you are the caregiver, there will be days when you want to give up and surrender or simply give in to the anger, depression and anxiety. While I could tell you to not give in because it doesn’t work, I won’t bother because everyone does from time to time – or they do until they learn for themselves that it doesn’t work.
So does anything help? Yes. Prayer (constant and unending), counselling (to help you learn), fellowship (to gain perspective) and medications (to get you through the rough patches) – these can all help.
The thing that has been the hardest for me to remember is that who Janet and I were 12 years ago, is gone. But as bad as it has been for me to watch what Janet has gone through, I can’t begin to imagine the horror of being her, and everyday feeling some piece of who you are, slip away through your fingers.
When Janet and I first got married, there were many things that I didn’t understand about Janet’s personality. However, Janet came from an abusive home environment so I thought that eventually Janet would come to learn that in this relationship, at least, she was valued and treasured. But that never happened. I learned instead about Huntington’s Disease, and I learned that her father wasn’t just abusive, he was sick. Finally, I learned that Janet had the same illness, and many of the same symptoms.
So, I guess, I have made peace with the way things are. Or at least I have made peace to the degree that peace is possible. How does one ever make peace with seeing the one you love disappearing before your very eyes, yet while their body continues to exist. I have heard that this process is called “Ambiguous Loss” because your loved one is gone, but then again, they aren’t. One of the things that I have consistently tried to express throughout this blog, is that there is no going back. Who you were and who they were, no longer exists.
Given all this doom and gloom, there are those around me who, like Job’s “friends”, seem to suggest that I should just curse God and die. In addition, there are those that claim that HD is unequivocal proof that God does not exist, or if He does exist he is in reality a demon. But I reject both arguments. I reject them because, as I’ve explained before in the blog, they start from faulty assumptions about the world. But just as important, while there are many dark places where I am traveling right now, there are also many bright spots. While some of those bright spots are the many wonderful programs and facilities that are available to support you and your loved one, for me though the brightest spots are always the people. On the support forums, God has gathered together many, many really good people. For example, there are people from the USA, the UK, Australia and Italy that I have never met face to face, but who, if it came right down to it, I would nevertheless trust with my life. In addition, the internet is global in scope so if you have a problem, someone is always awake, no matter what the local time is for you.
So there is my message for the newcomers: have faith, learn as much as you can, don’t stress over letting go of things that you can’t hang onto and, to quote the line from the play, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, “Fasten your seat belts. You’re in for a bumpy ride.”
In Christ, Amen ☩
A prayer for when you are new, confused and afraid…
“Blessed are You, Lord God, King of the Universe. It is right that I should at all times and in all circumstances bless You for Your love and presence. But today I want to bless you especially for not abandoning the world that you created perfect, but which, today, has so many problems. Thank you for living among us as “Emmanuel”. Thank you for using me to help heal the brokenness in this world. Show me the way forward. Amen”