When The Mind Breaks

Rock-a-by baby On the tree top,
When the wind blows The cradle will rock.
When the bough breaks, The cradle will fall,
And down will fall baby Cradle and all.
                                                    – Mother Goose, c.1765

A nursery rhyme that has always struck me as (just a little) scary. Who puts a baby in a cradle, and then in a tree? What do you expect? The baby IS going to fall.

Right now (and actually for a long while previously), my life is dominated by minds that have perhaps been put in a metaphorical tree, the bough has broken and so has the mind.

Firstly, the onset and continuing existence of mental illness in my own life. Mental illness has been very obvious for around twenty years now, although thankfully (for now) it’s not quite the crisis that it has been previously. There’s always the possibility, though that the branch may break again. With the diagnoses and history I carry, I would be a fool to deny that possibility.

But now, I’m living the day-to-day reality of caring for my mother who has Alzheimer’s Disease. It is different from my own broken mind experience yet there are some very real similarities. Sadly, at this stage of medical knowledge, there is no light at the end of the tunnel with Alzheimer’s. Rather it is getting steadily worse and will continue to do so. People don’t survive Alzheimer’s. Not yet, anyway.

That breaking of minds is something I could write about endlessly. Both my own mind, and more recently my Mother’s. But it’s not where my thinking is today. Rather, I’m thinking about what is left when the mind has broken. That thinking comes from the image below, one I came across yesterday on a great Facebook page, Alzheimer’s Sucks – Memories for Joe Hennington. As an aside, I can tell you that Alzheimer’s does indeed suck, so that immediately tells me this page is a good one. It is worth a visit.

Image credit: Permission to reproduce obtained from FB: Alzheimer’s Sucks – Memories for Joe Hennington

Let me say from the outset, that it is not my intention to conclude whether or not the message contained in this image is correct. I don’t know the answer to that, and I wonder whether anyone really knows. I share it because it made me think, and so I want to discuss it. To hopefully at least start to sort out my own thinking, and maybe find a little of what others think.

This image stopped me in my tracks. “The heart holds what the mind can not“.

I had seen a similar statement before but perhaps because of where I am at with my mother’s Alzheimer’s journey, it really made me ask yesterday:

“When the mind breaks, does the heart step in and protect what really matters (what the mind held)?

Is what was loved, sustained?”

Yes, that is what I want to know. I know the easy way to look at this. I can tell myself, “yes, my mother still loves me now and will continue to do so when she no longer knows me“. That is, of course, what we all want to believe.

And what about with severe mental illness? When my mind was so terribly broken (in an admittedly different way) and I didn’t want to know my family, I suspect they might have wondered “did she still love us?” Clearly, there were times when my actions and words indicated otherwise.

I can remember my then-husband wondering “do you still love me?” Such a question came at a time when he was having to watch me continuously, primarily because the mental health services were simply not available and someone had to make sure that I stayed alive and ate something. I hated it (and I’m sure he did too). I reacted in such a way that he must really have wondered. It probably appeared that I hated him. Perhaps I did.

I don’t think I had the capability to love him (or anyone) at that time. My mind was very much broken and was fighting for survival in such a way that I wonder if love was even possible. If you could magically take away the mental illness then, of course, I would say then that I loved him. But magic isn’t real life, is it?

My mother’s Alzheimer’s Disease is different. She’s not having to fight me for her survival, in the way that I had fought my husband. There is also not some hope that we will get her back, as she was. The mother I knew, has largely faded. I don’t buy the train of thought that the person with dementia has already died and that we are simply left with her body. But that’s a whole other post so I won’t go there right now.

A few days ago Mum and I were in her room looking at something that she has always loved. I said something about it, and I saw her looking at it as if she had never seen it before. Then she looked to me and clearly wanted some explanation. It was an object rather than a person but I found it startling because it was an object she had loved. Only in the last few weeks, she had referred to it with affection, but now she had no connection to it.

And so I wonder, what about when it is a person. When it is me? When the time comes that she doesn’t recognise me, will her heart still hold what the mind has lost? Will she still love me?

I want to believe that she will, even though she won’t even be able to communicate it. Who wouldn’t want to believe this? But I suspect that it’s not quite that easy. Maybe that’s the glass half-full person I am. I don’t know.

Perhaps too, it comes from my own broken mind. I have struggled to believe my mother loved me for most of my life. We haven’t had an easy relationship. It’s difficult for me to believe that her love will be sustained when I’ve spent nearly fifty years doubting the existence of that love.

What matters is that I will keep being there for my mother, even if that love has gone. More so, perhaps I need to turn all of this around. What I need to know is that she will still know that I love her.

And in terms of my own broken mind journey, perhaps what really matters is whether I could still somehow comprehend love from my husband and my family. Actually, I’m pretty sure that I couldn’t and perhaps that was part of the problem. I’m really not convinced that my heart could hold what the mind had lost.

I suspect these are questions for which there will perhaps never be adequate answers (for me anyway). Something I perhaps have to accept as it is, without understanding.

What do you think? When the mind breaks, what happens to what the heart held? But please don’t tell me that of course, my mother loves me. If you do, I will know that you have missed my point.

“You’re so beautiful,” said Alice. “I’m afraid of looking at you and not knowing who you are.”
“I think that even if you don’t know who I am someday, you’ll still know that I love you.”
“What if I see you, and I don’t know that you’re my daughter, and I don’t know that you love me?”
“Then, I’ll tell you that I do, and you’ll believe me.”

— Lisa Genova (Still Alice)

Thanks for reading




8 thoughts on “When The Mind Breaks

  1. Dear Cate, this post makes me want to cry. I went through this with my mum a while back and I know how heart wrenching it is. We got to a place where she was happy to see me but didn’t know who I was and I tried to make my presence a casual thing that she didn’t have to respond to if she didn’t want to. I also didn’t want to ask her anything too personal because while I knew her, she didn’t know me and I didn’t want to put her in a position where she was uncomfortable. Our relationship changed and I felt like I had to treat her like an elderly neighbour rather than my mother. I learnt about having minimal expectations of her. I felt like we lost any closeness we had had, and I had to withdraw from her emotionally. I held onto my love for her in my heart but had no expectations of her love for me.
    I like to think she loved me in her memories of family but I don’t think she loved me as a person because she didn’t know me. Maybe I think she loved me to the best of her ability at the time (perhaps not at all) and what was important was that she was loved and cared for, and that I retained my love for her because she was no longer capable. It’s so much easier to evaluate my feelings with the benefit of himdsight

  2. She passed away several years ago so I’m less emotional about it – and the distance between then and now has been so helpful.
    I’m sorry I haven’t answered your question but for me it was more about resetting my expectations of our relationship.
    Big hugs my friend. Xxx

    1. Thank you so much for sharing this with me. My bet is that your mother was a very special lady. I’ve learnt that this journey that you have been on and I am now on is one in which we learn as we go. And yes, too often it is in hindsight. Don’t worry about not answering any questions I raised. Mostly I just wanted to ‘put my thoughts down on paper’ and see if I could generate a discussion. It’s a hard topic, often one which has in the past been kept to whispers. My grandmother also had Alzheimer’s. That was back in the late 1970’s/80’s and my experience was it was a very much hushed up issue. I’m glad it’s not quite like that now and that it is easier to reach out to others on that same journey. Lots of love to you.xx

  3. I think we need to get back to the Bible and the fact we mistranslate Jesus as using one word – Love. He actually used three : Philia, Agape, Eros…. three kinds of love and actually the Greeks had four types.

    We use one word in English and that sets up the whole problem. Your mother loved a thing.. now she forgets. Will she no longer LOVE you when she forgets you? Sadly… the conscious her probably will. If she forgets you – she loses all the links between memory and emotions. But I truly do not think the soul forgets and soul-love is a very different thing. Agape lasts through lifetimes and beyond. Dunno if that’s useful, it still doesn’t help when your everyday reality gets flipped on it’s butt. The pain of loss, of separation, of things broken… I know them and I have no advice for them beyond the fact they aren’t the greater reality.

    So maybe… maybe the best you can do now is accept that eventually you will be a brand new person your mother doesn’t know. And maybe she won’t remember to love you, but she also won’t remember past pain, regrets, disagreements. You will have a clean slate and maybe… maybe you’ll have a rare chance, a tiny moment of simply being a woman who is friends with another woman – no mother-daughter baggage. (there’s ALWAYS baggage, even in the best relationships)

  4. A very powerful post for so many different personal reasons. I also have a difficult relationship with my mother, almost non-existent now. It might sound odd, but for me, the thought of no longer having those memories might disperse some of the resentments and make way for new experiences. That probably doesn’t sound right, but just wanted to put my 2c in and say a big Hi!

    1. Hi Cat. Actually your two cents worth makes total sense to me. I just hadn’t been able to find the words for it. Somehow the resentment and even hatred of the past has passed. Sometimes I can’t quite believe it, but I’m going with it anyway.

  5. Pingback: For Her Sake Or For Mine? – Infinite Sadness… or hope?

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