Six years ago, my mother suffered a massive stroke that left her severely disabled, both physically and mentally.  The damage was primarily in Wernicke’s Area, perhaps one of the worst places of the brain in which to have a stroke because it is the center for using language to create and control thoughts. Someone with Wernicke’s Aphasia is usually unable to execute any voluntary activity because they cannot effectively organize words to create the thoughts necessary to engage the body in action. In fact, they can’t even organize words in order to think and understand what is going on around them. It is a living Hell, where nothing makes sense and one is reduced to an instinctive, animal level. She suffered a great deal and was dead within a year.

I did learn a very important lesson about myself and people in general, in the months that I spent with her during this time. For some years before her stroke, her behavior had become a little more idiosyncratic and erratic. She was still herself, just more so. In retrospect of course, she was likely having some micro-strokes, which were causing these changes in behavior. But one doesn’t want to think that; it’s tough to acknowledge that someone who has always been a tower of strength and vigor is in serious decline. Especially when it’s a parent, it forces us to contemplate both their and our own mortality…..NEXT….it’s your turn now.

It is in fact, much easier to ascribe intent to their behavior, as in, “Why is she being so cruel?”, “What have I done to deserve this?”, “Oh, she’s just being nasty”, etc. But a miraculous transformation happens when that same individual suffers a mentally debilitating event and you have the official diagnosis in hand: Suddenly, there is no assumption of intent – it’s the disease talking – one becomes very compassionate and tolerant.

I started thinking about this after I wrote my recent post on impaired driving, and how if you take that concept to heart, you begin to understand just why there are so many whacked out people driving on the road at any given moment. There are so many things to be impaired by!

I’ve always been quick to anger when someone cuts me off or performs some dangerous stunt that endangers others. In my younger days I’ve been known to chase them down and hurl some obscenity their way. And even more recently, it is not uncommon for me to pass them and give them a dirty look. Most often they appear oblivious, continuing to chat on their cellphone while driving slowly in the passing lane, switching lanes without signaling, or slowing down when merging on the highway. I realize now that I get angry at them because I ascribe intent to their actions; they are being selfish, inconsiderate, narcissistic, etc.

But what would happen if we took the intent out of it? What if we looked at impairment in the same way as we would if the person had a medical disability? What if their behavior isn’t personal, i.e., it’s not about them doing something to us; we just happen to be in the sphere of their disability. For example, when I worked in various clinical settings early in my career, I never got angry at the various behaviors of the psychiatric patients. They would hurl obscenities my way, cut in front of the line in the cafeteria, or urinate in the hallways. Didn’t bother me, after all, they’re not well.

For the last week, I’ve treated driving as if I were in the halls of a mental hospital. When I see bizarre behavior, I just take a moment to remember the experience with my mother, and to apply some compassion to the others with whom I share the road.

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