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Do you think it is possible that someone can withdraw from life to the extent that their brain starts disengaging and shutting down?

Life is hard for many people, and getting more so for some as they get older. Yesterday I spent a bit of time in the clinic of the Hangberg community, we had a Memory Cafe in Hout Bay, and I did a talk at Nerina Gardens in Fish Hoek. (I also witnessed a terrible incident of bullying…) The more I hear people’s stories, the more I hear of sorrow, sadness, heartache, anxiety, and loss. Not everyone is equipped emotionally to stand up to the world. For some the constant bashing just gets too much.

Some people go for therapy, meditation, drugs, alcohol, religion etc. Others start to disconnect – slowly but surely just shutting down in order to not feel the constant pain. Depression over a long period of time will eventually present with the same “symptoms” of dementia (this will deserve another post, as I do not really believe that we can talk about “symptoms” in this context). But they start to lose interest, they start to forget, they start to be less emotional, and eventually, they will just stop responding.

Our lives (and brains) are like an electrical distribution board – full of trip switches that allow the current to ow. In order to function optimally, all the switches must be on. Yes of course we can sometimes switch off the geyser to save power, or take a holiday and switch off a few more trip switches of non-essential power circuits. However, in real life, we need all of them on. When a circuit malfunctions, we can however make a conscious decision to switch that circuit off. If we choose to no longer feel the pain of a miscarriage, a failed marriage, or the death of a loved one, we can switch those circuits off. Yet the more circuits we switch off, the less present we will become.

Many older baby boomers lived through very tough times. They were not brought up in an era of psychotherapy – it was all about the “stiff upper lip” and “getting on with it”. Backstreet abortions, painful miscarriages, abusive relationships and childhood sexual abuse were not ever spoken about.

As we grow older, our brains produce new neurological pathways that we have never had before. These pathways present us with an amazing ability to stop chasing the future. We grow quieter, we start to reflect, we contemplate our life history and we start to become wiser. We look back on our lives more than what we dream about the future. It is in this looking back that our old pain and unresolved hurt often knock at the door again. Past issues that we thought we had long forgotten will creep into our minds in the middle of the night when we cannot sleep. Often these thoughts are now worse than what they were many years ago, and we have no way of dealing with them. Except to consciously shut them out. We start to close certain of the filing cabinets, locking rooms that are too painful to go into.

When I was young there was often talk of a certain person in our village who was left at the altar by a promising prospective husband. The talk in the village was that “it drove her crazy”. Nowadays we have pathologised and psychiatrists hurt and loss and pain. It is now classified as a disease, instead of acknowledging that someone just simply could not deal with their reality. That they started switching off certain circuit breakers, and they simply did not want to engage with reality any longer.

Over the years I have seen many, many older people who have been “diagnosed with dementia”. And when I looked into their eyes, I knew that they were not demented, but that their cross became too heavy to bear. They switched off the circuit breakers that they could no longer deal with. It was the only way that they could survive their being here until the time came when the main switch would be switched off. In a world where they have locked out certain unbearable feelings, they have become locked in. It is not our job to entice them out into our world. The best we can do is to BE with them. Con rm them, validate them. And leave them be in loving kindness. Not wanting to remember does not mean that they do not think and feel and know. They simply do not want to be here anymore.

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