Alzheimer, Trauma, Repression
Saturday July 18, 2009
Dear Alice Miller,
On July 15 a reader in your mailbox asked: “Do you think this disease [i.e. Alzheimer] is a deep manifestation of repressed feelings? My instincts tell me it is…”
When I was caring for my father who suffered from Alzheimer’s disease in the last few years of his life, I had the same impression as your reader. My father had a severely traumatic childhood, however he never discussed it in depth with anyone, and when he did mention it, it was only humourously; his real emotions remained deeply repressed. When he retired from his work, he was stripped off his defences that enabled him to ward off his feelings of futility and emptiness generated by this massive repression; his childhood situation came back to haunt him. Gradually losing his memory and regressing to an infantile state of mind, he allowed himself, probably for the first time in his life, to behave like a child: to be unsatisfied, irresponsible, dependent, helpless, and to express his endless need for attention. My mother who could not tolerate his helplessness (as she could not tolerate her childrens’ helplessness before) became the substitute of his mother – a woman devoid of feelings altogether – but this time, he could loudly protest. In his “senility”, he allowed himself to say things that sounded delirious, but that were in fact very true; for example, he said that he doesn’t recognize me; true: my father had never bothered to find out who I really was.
To care for a person with Alzheimer’s disease is a huge emotional burden; the affected person shows you just how helpless he had been as a child, but you can do nothing to save him from his predicament. The “senility” makes it totally impossible to discuss the person’s childhood with him. The feelings of helplessness and hopelessness are therefore transferred from the demented person who cannot deal with them, to the caregivers. Personally, this brought me close to psychological collapse. I therefore urge anyone who takes care of a demented person to take good care of THEMSELVES. Remember: you are not responsible for this person’s miserable childhood. And the helplessness this person makes you feel is difficult to bear: it reminds you of your own helplessness in the first years of your life… It can also reactivate the frustration of a child who desperately tries to save his parents from their pain: the drama of the gifted child. Mission impossible – once again.
The correlation between psychological trauma and dementia has recently been demonstrated in a research presented in the 2009 International Conference on Alzheimer’s Disease. This new research demonstrates that people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are twice as likely to suffer from dementia in later life than people without PTSD. This research gives further support to your readers intuitions.
Please feel free to publish this letter.
AM: Thank you for sharing with us your interesting observations. The behavior of your father showed one of the ways how repressed memories can bother a person who has lost his defences against emotions that he has had to his diposal his whole life. He may loose his control and cry for attention, something he never dared to do in his childhood. Another person may become totally erased. Aging trigggers the traumatic memories because we become again dependent from others when our forces decrease. This dependency demands again facing our old history. Alzheimer desease is then the alternative to continuing therapy. Either remember the old pain again or deny whatever comes up – as has been done the whole lfe (PTSD)