Dakim Blog

June 3, 2011

When Denial and Stoicism Got Married in the Midst of Memory Loss

Written by: Tina Harris Bergman

When my husband Mike’s memory issues began affecting our relationship, we chose our separate paths for dealing with it. His was denial; mine was stoicism.

By nature, I am a pretty emotive person, so hiding my feelings didn’t come easily for me. Usually, stoicism would not be my first choice of coping strategies but, at the time, it was very expeditious. We were planning our wedding and had a lot on our plates. Staying focused on the positive seemed to be in everyone’s best interest. I had no doubts we’d be just fine: After all, we really loved each other… right?

Our marriage is a gift from God. My husband and I truly love each other. Perhaps because we met so late in life, it seems like we’re still on our honeymoon, even as our third anniversary nears. My honeymoon with stoicism, however, did not last. I embraced it for awhile, but was not altogether thrilled with the results. Eventually, I turned to my dictionary and looked the word up, just to be certain I was practicing stoicism correctly. What I found was not encouraging, because it seemed awfully extreme.


Zeno of Citium, 3rd c. B.C.

Zeno of Citium, 3rd c. B.C.

Around 300 B.C., the Greek philosopher Zeno founded Stoicism as a school of thought. He believed a wise man should be free from passion, unmoved by joy or grief. Further, Zeno advocated uncomplaining patience and impassive endurance in the face of adversity.

Let me give you my first thoughts: ‘What? Huh? You can’t be serious! Zeno, were you out of your mind?’

Obviously, Zeno’s partner (if he even managed to get one with this philosophy) never went to the grocery store for milk and came back with everything but. I wager this couple never held the same conversation six times in the space of an hour, day in, day out, again and again and again. And as for facing down a partner who won’t admit there is a problem? Well, as they say, denial isn’t a river in Egypt. It can be frustratingly divisive when one person refuses to acknowledge a problem and the other, overburdened with responsibilities, feels emotions they dare not express.

How surprised do you think I was to find that not one complete tablet or scroll of Zeno’s work remains? Ha! His partner probably broke them over … well, let’s just say they were turned into pot shards. Just what are you supposed to do with your feelings when your partner’s are too painful for him to acknowledge or embrace?

Marble bust of Marcus Aurelius, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, NY

Marcus Aurelius, 121-180 A.D.

I discovered that the modern meaning of the word “stoic” is a far cry from the philosophy Zeno espoused. “How ridiculous and how strange to be surprised at anything which happens in life,” Marcus Aurelius wrote. He was a Stoic and, admittedly, he had a point – one it seems that, through a sheer lack of acceptance, I was failing to embrace.

My internal dialogue was fairly screaming, “This isn’t fair! This shouldn’t be! Why is this happening to Mike? Why is this happening to me?” It seems I have some work to do on my self-centeredness. I had to ask myself, “Why shouldn’t my husband be in denial?” “Look how I’m behaving and this memory loss isn’t even happening to me!”

When I ran across Epictetus, I knew I’d found a golden nugget and a philosophy I could embrace.
“Man is disturbed not by things, but by the views he takes of them,” he wrote.

Epictetus, 55-135 A.D.

Epictetus, 55-135 A.D.

So how am I choosing to cope, one day at a time, with how Mike’s memory loss impacts our relationship? Well, developing a sense of humor definitely helps. Sometimes our conversations really do remind me of an old George Burns and Gracie Allen routine. Coincidentally, when I am less fear-driven, Mike seems better able to step out of his denial and face his memory issues more squarely. He still has some work to do, but he seems much less defensive about it … and this is a very good thing.

When I can’t find the humor in our situation, I am stoically working on taking a different point of view. If I choose to see our path not as a burden, but as a challenging adventure, my attitude brightens. This change in mind-set empowers me to join forces with my husband and use our combined talents and skills to embrace the obstacles we face and try to overcome them.

In the face of frustration, I sometimes have to ask myself, “Just how important is this?” This new perspective has certainly helped, but some days are still tougher than others. On occasion, turning out the lights at the end of the day knowing we can try again tomorrow has to be enough.

With impaired short term memory, my husband pretty much lives in the present moment. And, for the most part, he seems to enjoy each day fully. I am the one who has some work to do and distance to travel before I can join him there, so this probably isn’t the last time you’ll hear from me on this topic!

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