A journey I never wanted to take

I am going to write of a journey I never wanted to take, a journey with only one end. Maybe, maybe…it will help others who find themselves on this path

By Rich Heiland, Columnist, The Times

THIS IS THE beginning of a tale about an ending.

I have no idea how long it will go on, or where it will take me. I know the ending but am not able to accept it yet so it is a tale that will write itself as the days, weeks, months and maybe years go by.

During my newspaper career, and later in other writings, I often have shared very personal experiences and moments, sometimes to the chagrin of my wife and children.

I have written about my depression, losses, vasectomies, illnesses, surgeries, weak moments. More than a few readers have asked “How on earth could you write about that?” Or, “how could you make that public?”

No doubt some of it has been uncomfortable to some readers over the years. Truth be told, some of it has been uncomfortable for me.

It has taken me some time to understand why I’ve had this impulse, and why I am about to embark on writing about, and sharing, experiences from the most intense ordeal I – and our family – have experienced.

I write about personal and often painful things, I think, for two reasons.

One is, when I sort through all my own imperfections and try to find my own saving graces, I think, or like to think, I am a help to people. There are many ways to help, but in my case, I have been fortunate enough to have been born with the ability to write with some clarity so writing about what I have experienced is my attempt to help.

And that leads to the second reason. I assume that if I am experiencing something, so are others. Maybe what I have felt and learned will help. Maybe this goes back to my early days, before the internet, which means today instant explanations and “knowledge” can be found in seconds. For better or worse, it was not always so.

I grew up in a time when medicine was not as advanced as it is today and cures we take for granted were unknown. But, as a child in the 50s, teen-ager going into the 60s, I also lived in a time when a lot of things were not talked about and there was much that could confuse a small boy.

I remember one night in particular. I had severe asthma and allergies as a child and a severe attack was terrifying. In our house my bedroom had no carpeting. My mother washed sheets and bedspreads more often than normal. I had a window-unit air conditioner to filter air.

On this night I had a severe attack. I couldn’t breathe. Every breath was a battle. My parents called the doctor. It was a time when a doctor would come to your house at 2 a.m. The doctor came and gave me a shot of adrenalin. While he waited for it to take effect, in my pristine dust-free room, he and my father both lit up cigarettes. What we did not know!

Things were different then. It was a time when my father, who had spent too many years in Europe during World War II, came back home and never talked about it, never shared his demons. Later, I started to realize I had my own demons. Depression, anxiety, loneliness. I wondered what was wrong with me.

Out at the dead end of a closed-down highway that used to lead out of our town stood the “county home.” It was, I know now, a warehouse for mentally challenged and violently demented. A friend’s aunt and uncle ran it and he lived with them. I used to bale hay out there in summers and we would ride our horses through its fields. I would see all these people and wonder if this was where I was headed.

Over the years, there was much I wondered about and little I talked to anyone about because….well, you just did not talk about those things. You were left feeling like whatever was going on with you was unique to you and that there was something wrong with you.

By the time I was in a position to write a newspaper column I was starting, I think, to push back against that sense of aloneness. I came to realize that if I was experiencing something, maybe others were, too, and if I wrote about myself, maybe they would feel less alone.

So, I started writing about those things and I started getting the questions about “why?” I answered as best I could and kept writing, figuring those who were turned off would quit reading and those who found a bit of themselves in it would take some kind of comfort.

Now, I am into a journey I never thought I would take. My family is on the journey with me and we all are struggling to find our way along a path without markers, into a wilderness without much of comfort along the way toward a place we do not want to reach. We are trying to find our way along this path, searching for ways to walk it that will allow us to retain our sense of being wrapped in a feeling of love. Not hope (more on that later) but love.

I know that we are not alone on this journey. Many of you are on it or will be. It didn’t start where we are now so I will go back to the beginning. But today, here is where we are, and this is why I am writing.

Last month, on Jan. 22, 2024, my wife of 55-plus years, was admitted to a memory care unit with dementia.

NOTE: This is the beginning of an ongoing series of thoughts and reflections about dementia and its impact on our family. It will post in the “health” category on this blog and anyone who wishes to share has our permission.

Rich Heiland, has been a reporter, editor, publisher/general manager at daily papers in Texas, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and New Hampshire. He was part of a Pulitzer Prize-winning team at the Xenia Daily (OH) Daily Gazette, a National Newspaper Association Columnist of the Year, and a recipient of the Molly Ivins First Amendment Award from the Walker County (TX) Democrat Club. He taught journalism at Western Illinois University and leadership and community development at Woodbury College in Vermont.  Since 1995 he has operated an international consulting, public speaking and training business specializing in customer service, general management, leadership and staff development with major corporations, organizations, and government. Semi-retired, he and his wife live in West Chester, PA. He can be reached at heilandrich1@gmail.com.


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