In a recent phone conversation with my dad, I was bluntly informed that he had gotten married the previous weekend. He told me his new wife’s name was Sue, and my uncle had performed the ceremony. This was my dad’s third marriage–and Sue’s second–so it was very low-key with few guests (his justification, I suppose, for why I wasn’t invited or previously informed). After the ceremony they loaded up in his golf cart and puttered down to the nearby creek where they spent the afternoon fishing for blue gill and crappie.
I guess I could have been hurt that I wasn’t invited to the ceremony, but my sister and brother weren’t invited, either. Even more offensive could have been the fact that none of us had ever even met Sue and knew absolutely nothing about her. My ability to take all this information in stride did not speak to my forgiving nature–rather, I remained calm and congratulatory throughout our phone conversation because I knew something that even my dad didn’t (and still doesn’t) know …
Sue doesn’t exist.
You see, my dad suffers from Wernicke-Korsakoff Syndrome–or, more simply put, dementia caused by years and years of alcohol abuse. According to WebMD, “Dementia is the loss of mental functions — such as thinking, memory, and reasoning — that is severe enough to interfere with a person’s daily functioning.” Dementia by itself can be debilitating enough, as millions of adult children of dementia victims can surely attest. My dad’s alcohol dementia (or WKS) is even worse. According to the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, symptoms of WKS include (but are not limited to) “amnesia, confabulation, attention deficit, disorientation, and … impairments in acquiring new information or establishing new memories, and in retrieving previous memories.”
Yep, that’s my dad. People with alcohol dementia often create very detailed, entirely believable stories (like honeymoon fishing trips with a new wife) to fill the gaps in their memory. They’re not lying; they actually believe that what they’re telling is true, and sometimes it’s very difficult for listeners to realize that the stories aren’t true. These people also exhibit changes in personality and behavior and ability; they experience frustration, anger, unstable moods, insensitivity, loss of inhibitions, communication problems, and neglect of self or property.
Most of us, if we live long enough, will eventually develop some degree of dementia, but those persons with alcohol dementia develop the symptoms an average of ten years younger than the rest of the population. In my dad’s case, he was in his early 60’s when we first started realizing that something was very wrong. My siblings and I knew my dad had been an alcoholic for years, but at the time he was married to his second wife (a real person, not a figment of his imagination–unfortunately), and we assumed that she was taking care of him. We were foolish to make such an assumption. For some reason, my sister became suspicious and made an unannounced visit to their home–where she found my dad living in squalor, surrounded by empty liquor bottles. His condition was so bad that she had him hospitalized, and a doctor told her that she had probably saved his life–that in a few more weeks his alcoholism and the malnutrition caused by it would have killed him. Second Wife quickly exited the picture.
To make a long story a little bit shorter, my sister moved our dad into her home after his hospitalization and then soon moved him into a trailer next to her home. We hoped this would be the beginning of his road to recovery; instead, this was the beginning of a two-year nightmare for my sister.
I don’t know everything that she went through, only the highlights (lowlights?). None of it was good. First and most importantly, my dad’s car had to be taken away; he was in no condition to drive, and despite all the other pieces of information he couldn’t remember, he could still magically find his way to the local liquor store. She soon discovered that all other sets of keys (her family’s car keys, the keys to the lawnmower and golf cart) also had to be hidden. Then his phone had to be taken away because he was calling former friends to bring liquor to him–he couldn’t remember what day it was, but he could remember phone numbers from twenty years ago.
My once proud, rigid dad was now living like an animal, leaving unwrapped food and milk sitting on the counter to spoil, forgetting to bathe, wearing the same clothes for days, letting toilets and sinks overflow, setting trash cans on fire with his cigarettes, and throwing away his false teeth, the remote controls and his money. He also kept turning off the air conditioner in his trailer, and when my sister would come home from work, she would find him lying naked on his couch in 110 degree temperatures.
My sister, who had a full-time job and her own family to care for, was overwhelmed. She tried to take care of him, she tried to clean up after him, and she even tried providing in-home help for him. That didn’t work, either; eventually the helpers had to go home to their families, and every minute my dad was left alone led to destruction and mayhem. When she started getting reports from the neighbors that our dad was running around outside naked, she finally accepted what the rest of us already knew needed to be done.
We put our dad in an assisted living facility just a few miles from my sister’s home. That was three years ago, and it was definitely the right decision to make. The facility is clean and secure, and most importantly there are personnel there who are trained to take care of people like my dad. They make sure he eats, they make sure he takes his medicines, and they make sure he keeps his clothes on. There are still bad days–sometimes he fakes heart attacks and intense stomach pains, and his caregivers have no choice but to transport him by ambulance to the hospital for expensive tests that eventually prove he’s faking (but by then he doesn’t remember why he’s even in the hospital). Most of the time when I talk to him or visit, I think he knows who I am, but I’m not always sure. And a few times I’ve seen him lose his temper and become belligerent, especially toward my sister–the one person who has done everything within her power to take care of him, the one person who still loves him unconditionally.
My relationship with my dad is much more complicated than my sister’s. I was the oldest of three children, and for some reason I seemed to be the one who suffered the brunt of our dad’s frustrations with the world (my mom suffered more). I don’t remember my dad ever raising a hand toward me, my siblings, or my mom–and sometimes, especially when we were younger, he could be a really nice guy and a great father–but he was also a master of verbal and emotional abuse, and he said things to me that no dad should ever say to his daughter. I still love him, but I don’t always like him, and sometimes I wonder if his current condition isn’t some kind of “cosmic justice.” I know it’s not, though, because he isn’t suffering or sad–in fact, he has created his own reality in which he is usually quite happy, and we are willing to let him live in this fantasy world because it makes life easier for everyone.
My dad will turn 72 this week, still young by many standards, but he has been an old man for a long, long time. I wonder how much different all our lives could have been if his alcoholism hadn’t started destroying his brain, but that’s a question I will never be able to answer and therefore won’t waste much energy worrying about–it is what it is. Instead, my siblings and I live in dread of the day when his behavior becomes too aggressive for assisted living (statistics say this day will come), and we have to put him in a nursing home where he will be sedated into submission–and all semblance of the man we used to lovingly call “daddy” will be forever lost.
I hope that day is still a long time coming, and I hope that when it does arrive, he will be visited every day by his third wife Sue who will take him down to the creek to go fishing.