Second that Emotion
There can be a level of autism in people with Huntington’s as the brain’s more complex functions begin to erode. I see it with Nick in conversation as he vaguely recognizes that some response is required and he tried to offer an appropriate comment.
For a long time when he was living up north and appeared fairly well in many respects (and to the point that I often forgot about the illness), he would infuriate me on the phone; we’d be talking as normal and I’d tell him something funny or sad but it was as if he couldn’t always tell which was which.
“HOW Funny” he’d reply, or “HOW interesting” – sometimes interchangeably, as if at random. I felt maddened by his pat response. We had been friends and confidantes for so long and this reaction seemed so insensitive, like he wasn’t really paying attention. Now I realize it was the encroaching effects of the disease, slowly stealing his emotional capabilities and empathy.
One time I had to tell him that someone we had both known since primary school had died suddenly, leaving two young children, and I was feeling very shocked and upset. I thought Nick would understand but he listened and then said,
“HOW funny. Guess where I went for lunch today?”
These days I don’t look to him for an empathetic response – if it suddenly comes along, that’s great, but I don’t expect it. His world is shrinking around him and the thing that seems to dominate emotionally is where and when he is going to get his next drink.
It’s not that he’s a lost cause; he can still be thoughtful and sensitive and make sweet gestures; he was determined to buy people Christmas presents, for instance (with a bit of help actually getting to the shops and paying for things) and he clearly loves us, his children and his cats.
But it’s hard to tell what he is actually feeling, and perhaps that is a mercy too – that as the illness gets worse and even eating, swallowing, sitting in a chair become Herculean tasks, the brain shuts down its emotional responses to concentrate on the important job of just surviving.