On the Battlefield of Alzheimer's

July 17, 2015

The early 1970s was a time of precipitous change: The Beatles were breaking up; Vietnam was exploding; four students were killed and nine wounded during a protest at Kent State; the Watergate scandal emerged; and the lead singer of the Doors, Jim Morrison, was found dead in a bathtub in Paris.

Bye-bye, Miss American Pie.

At Fairfield University in Connecticut, the Jesuit school where I studied for two years, I vigorously demonstrated against the war and a surfeit of inequalities that sadly linger. Right or wrong, we shut down the school, then spent months on the road in an unremitting door-to-door campaign to edify on our principles.

As baby boomers, we first played by the rules, then broke the rules, then made new rules. We took no prisoners. Battle fatigued, I was looking for a way out. I found it at Gates Pass. The view from this rocky, chiseled crest of the Tucson Mountains — about 3,000 miles and, culturally, a planetary system away from Cape Cod's Great Outer Beach where I roamed as a boy, a place, Henry David Thoreau said, one can stand and put all of America behind him — was, and still is, soothing to the soul.

I came to the University of Arizona in 1970 to study history, government, psychology and journalism, and to put all of America behind me.

The quiet innocence of the Tucson Basin, as sunset floods the valley, is piercing to the mind. Lined with a platoon of inspiring saguaro cactus that stand like soldiers on the watch, with the Santa Catalina Mountains to the northeast, the Rincon Mountains to the east and the Santa Rita Mountains to the south, it boasts idyllic thinking weather for a confused person trying to find himself amid the folly of the real world.

Today, 42 years later, I am still confused.

At age 59, I was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer's disease after a serious head injury that doctors say unmasked a disease in the making. Years ago, I had a front-row seat as Alzheimer's devoured my maternal grandfather and my mother. Now it's coming for me. And so I'm pushing back like a battering ram against the stereotype that Alzheimer's is merely the horrid, inevitable final stage. While the end stage is devastating, the beginning and middle stages are a lonely, painful journey, the long kiss goodbye that often begins 15 to 20 years before diagnosis, with vile symptoms akin to having a sliver of your brain shaved off every day.

Alzheimer's robs one of self; it infantilizes. This could be your story someday. Don't assume it won’t. The numbers don't lie. More than 5 million Americans have been diagnosed with Alzheimer's or a related dementia, and about 35 million people worldwide — numbers expected to triple in years to come.

And today, I'm getting even with Alzheimer's — not for me, but for my children, for you and your children, and for all those who will face this demon prowling like Abaddon.

Read Greg O'Brien's full story, "On the Battlefield of Alzheimer's," on the UA Alumni Association's site. O'Brien graduated from the UA in 1972. He was a journalist for more than three decades, and in 2014 he published "On Pluto: Inside the Mind of Alzheimer's," which offers a first-person account of an investigative reporter embedded in the mind of the disease, chronicling the progression of his condition.

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