When I was a young girl, I dreamed of growing up to be a surgeon- a brain surgeon. I had observed people enough to know that the way individuals perceive events, interpret social interactions, and reason solutions to problems varies widely, and some even seem to be functioning in a different world from the one I inhabit. I studied the perceptible results of dementia and mental illness and low-functioning brains and I concluded that if just the right particles of matter could be snipped away or rearranged inside a person’s malfunctioning brain, all could be made right again. I wanted to do that job.
As I grew and read more, I realized that researchers were a long way from understanding which pieces of matter were not performing to capacity, and then I realized that surgery was not likely to be the next frontier for the healing of impaired brains. I abandoned the desire to be a surgeon. But my curiosity about brains and their contents continued.
I have become curious about addiction. Research has shown that there are indeed predisposing genetic factors for all sorts of addiction, and it involves the response of pleasure receptors in the brain. I suspect there might also be a genetic predisposition toward anti-addiction, and, if so, I think it runs in my family. We have no smokers, no alcoholics, and no one addicted to drugs, legal or otherwise. I am in no danger of drinking too much or of taking up smoking, and the chocolate cravings are very occasional. I have a low threshold for feeling entertained or enthralled, and joy flows inside me like a river when I see an unusual arrangement of clouds, or when I think a thought that is new to me. This doesn’t feel like any virtue on my part; it is just a fact, like my eye color. Surely it is inherited.
Since I have no personal experience with addiction, to satisfy my curiosity, I have to rely on the kindness of those outside my family in revealing their hidden feelings to me. I have asked a smoker who has quit smoking what the desire to smoke felt like. He did his best to describe the sensation of not being able to stop thinking about a cigarette until he had a lighted one in his hand. The closest I can come to sensing that urgency is the occasion when I cannot get the thought of a chocolate bar out of my head until I actually eat one or until the craving dies a natural death. My friend assured me that the craving for a smoke was much stronger.
I had to resort to asking another who had been alcohol-addicted in a previous life and who had been sober for several years, what it feels like to be addicted to alcohol. He described the event in which he had his first drink as a youngster and how he immediately knew that there was trouble ahead. How prescient for one so young! He described the unrelenting craving for alcohol that ruled his life before he was able to beat back the beast.
I am curious about profound developmental disorders, bipolar disorder, schizophrenia, and Down’s Syndrome, as well as genius-level functioning of various kinds, but recently my interest in dementia has intensified. As far back as my memory goes, we have always had one member or another in my family living with dementia caused by stroke, and I wouldn’t be surprised if this will be the my downfall, too.
I am starting to think about toys to entertain and stimulate those with dementia. Items such as “My First Memory-Loss Cards” or “My First Little Dementia Picture Dictionary” with entries like ‘incontinence’, ‘grandchildren’, and ‘ New York Times’. These things might become the props for my own end-of-life drama, played out in the quiet backwaters of a dementia unit somewhere. I hope someone thinks to bring me my Mozart piano sonatas and Beethoven symphonies for the entr’actes.
12 1/4″ x 12 1/4″. Copyright 2009 by Lynn Bridge
Here is a mosaic tile portrait of your brain on music. Not being a literal portrait, it captures the sparkling, alert quality of musical sensibilities.