From Respected Cardiologist to Parkinson's Patient

I have lost large chunks of knowledge that have dropped away like a glacier cleaving huge chunks of ice into the sea. It's still hard for me to admit to having dementia, because there are times, wonderful moments of lucid, clear thought, when I feel intellectually intact. I try desperately to hold on to those moments, or hours, but inevitably they pass. Am I an intellectually intact person with bouts of dementia? Or am I a demented person with moments of lucidity?

Predictably, this cognitive decline has led to a loss of intellectual and social confidence. Initially, my social confidence was completely destroyed by Parkinson's. Because stress and a high volume of sensory input exacerbate the slowness of mind that frustrates me so, I resisted social occasions for a long time. But Vicki has rescued me from life as a recluse. She has always had an active social life with a wide circle of friends, and there are countless charitable functions on her calendar. Though social events are challenging on many levels, they force me to engage with the world, as difficult as that engagement can sometimes be.

When a friend of Vicki's recently graduated, as an older student, from Wellesley College, we were invited to a buffet dinner on Wellesley's magnificent campus. It was so crowded that you could hardly move, so noisy you could barely hear. My anxiety always spikes at such times. Sensory overload makes it harder to mask the symptoms of Parkinson's. The pressure to "perform" feels onerous and quickly becomes counterproductive. I couldn't muster the motor coordination to move food from the buffet table to my plate; conversation, for several reasons, was impossible. The verbal sparring, the quick give-and-take that is so much a part of daily life, no longer takes place on a level playing field for me. For one thing, Parkinson's interferes with voice modulation, so I often speak, involuntarily, in a near whisper. The volume of my voice is one indicator of how I am feeling: On my good days, it can be close to normal; when I'm struggling, it can be inaudible. Competing with the background noise at a party when my voice is faint is arduous, and I am often forced to lean in and speak inches from people's ears. Gradually, I have grown more comfortable explaining to people, even those I don't know, why I may be hard to hear and telling them to feel free to tell me if they can't hear me. The playing field is also tilted because I am keenly aware that I am often well off the pace of the palaver. I often drop fancy words like "palaver" into my conversation to prove I still have "it," that I am not an intellectual shipwreck. Words I once thought pretentious I now use deliberately in conversation, to compensate for the loss of intellectual firepower.

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