Potential Space

by Jane Reingold, MFT
Losing one's memories, one's sense of self--an identity grounded in the sum of one's experiences, in the ability to project forward a purposeful self--is a terrifying and perhaps harrowing state to imagine navigating in oneself or witnessing in a loved one. In the film Still Alice, a diagnosis of early onset Alzheimer's sets Alice, a vibrant 50-year-old linguistics professor, on this painful path of loss and transition.
Alice's decline is depicted in ever increasing memory lapses--a word, a recipe, a name. Then, during a run, her world suddenly becomes blurry and muted as she gasps for breath. Her dislocation and fear are viscerally palpable as the familiar becomes foreign. Alice suffers these bouts in silence until she is given a provisional diagnosis.
On a sleepless night she wakes her husband, John, to break her silence. He dismisses her concerns; she collapses into his arms in terror. The next morning she sheepishly apologizes, as though she had violated a marital agreement that vulnerability is handled privately. Career driven and family focused, Alice and John appear to live successful, parallel lives as the perfect business team, efficiently running their household and voraciously pursuing their careers.
During a reminiscing-filled trip to their beach house, John says, "You wanted it all." In this moment of mixed emotions--pride, admiration, sadness--he acknowledges both their shared history and a future unfolding differently than imagined. However, his capacity to accept just how different that future may be is limited. When Alice offers, "This might be our last summer together," John responds, "Don't say that." Her decline is a truth too hard for him to bear. The disease brutally challenges their visions of a shared life, and notions of who they are to one another.
Alice struggles to come to terms with a shattering loss of identity, of a self she defines by her "intellect... language...[and] articulation." As she moves toward acceptance, her desire to seize her remaining cognizant moments intensifies. When John tells her he can't take a year off work, she knowingly responds, "You don't want that, a year at home, watching this." As time passes we see John grasping for the Alice he knew and identified with, the Alice who is no longer there.
Unable to bear witness to her retreat into utter dependency, he takes a job at the Mayo clinic and moves away. In shame and grief, he attempts to run away from his loss, leaving her in the hands of her daughter and caretaker. John's inability to stay connected to Alice leaves him with nothing to sustain him through the loss. John has no container either in himself or in another to hold his fear and grief. Ultimately, his feelings of being abandoned by her cause him to abandon her. Nevertheless, Alice finds her peace in grieving her losses and surrendering to the unknown with grace and dignity.