As the New Year is upon us, and we all do a cheshbon nefesh (self accounting of one’s deeds), I have to say that I have been doing a cheshbon nefesh almost non-stop for the past several years. The tragedy of Alzheimers that struck my mother a’h forced me to reevaluate my own life, and wonder with great perplexity about the meaning of life, and even question the purpose of a greatly diminished life.
I tried to take care of my mother (and mother-in-law); many people have said that they admire me for this. Every time I heard this, I shuddered inwardly! Truthfully, in most ways I failed her and myself and my family, and I am well aware of it. But beyond the day-to-day details, the utter terror of possibility that this could happen to me or to my husband as we age left me despondent. Every time my husband or I would have a “senior moment” it was hard to laugh it off, because the first thought was, “do I have the beginnings of Alzheimers?” and all the weighty consequences that went along with that possibility.
Many events small and large scared me. It wasn’t simply forgetting where I had placed my keys. Despite trying to find a landmark to aid my memory, I could not find my car in the parking lot after exiting a store. I could not remember events of the previous day. I could not finish a task I had started. I began to wonder if I was fit to take care of my grandchildren responsibly. If I started a creative project, the smallest interruption in my focus meant that my muse was forever gone. I felt constantly overwhelmed by just about anything.
But here is something truly remarkable: my memory was never impaired whenever I went away to the White Mountains in New Hampshire/Maine. I had no trouble finding my way and back again, even on the smallest of country dirt roads in the middle of nowhere. I was able to start tasks and see them to completion. Details were clear in my head. I felt more energetic and generally healthier.
When the human body is under stress, cortisol is produced in the brain. Too much cortisol leads to memory loss. That is why when someone has gone through a traumatic experience, be it combat or even childbirth, we tend to wipe out many of the bad memories, or have selective memory about the experience. Fortunately, most of us do not suffer distress for extensive, continuous periods of time, and memory loss is usually recoverable or reparable. Studies of military personnel found that if gross amounts of cortisol are produced under stressful conditions for lengthy periods of time, that memory loss may not always be recoverable, and may, in fact, be permanent!
What I am trying to say is, I need an extended break from my current environment – – a refuas hanefesh. I am very very blessed to have the ability to do so, due to an understanding and supportive spouse, who is fortunate to have a job that allows him to be mobile. I have consulted with a rav who has given me his blessing to embark on this change, in the environment I have chosen.
Consequently, I will be moving with my husband to the White Mountains for an extended period of time. We will return to our “home town” for Jewish holidays, but mostly we will be up North, and we will live up there through the winter. The utter quiet, tranquility, and peace amid nature have allowed both my husband and me to reenergize ourselves and our marriage, and become more productive creatively and professionally. Although we are indeed lacking in terms of proximity to a kehillah (Jewish community) my husband continues to “attend” his shiurim via telephone and the internet, and my feeling of a spiritual connection to HaShem has increased. We are living consciously and conscientiously with fewer material needs – or wants. We use and sense time differently.
So please indulge us as we attempt this grand experiment in self-sufficiency and our search in making what may be the twilight of our productive lives more meaningful. And please, try not to judge us harshly for what may appear to be impulsive and irresponsible behavior. Ironically, we are in our own way trying to take responsibility for this time in our lives and make something of it, before it is too late and we chas v’shalom must depend exclusively on others for even our most basic needs.
Midlife In Maine