MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Greg O'Brien was diagnosed with early onset Alzheimer's eight years ago. For the last three, he and NPR's Rebecca Hersher have been recording conversations about his disease. He's only 67 years old, but his memory is failing. Increasingly, though, his other symptoms are the ones disrupting his life. His hands and feet are numb. He's losing his ability to control when he needs a bathroom. And sometimes, he's paranoid. That's why one of the conversations he and Rebecca recorded recently stood out.
GREG O'BRIEN: Rebecca.
REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: Hi.
O'BRIEN: So how you been, man?
HERSHER: Good. How have you been?
O'BRIEN: OK, you know? Well, the usual stuff I talk to you about. I don't want to complain but a lot of explosions.
HERSHER: Greg generally prefers to talk in the middle of the day after the mental fogginess of the morning is gone but before the evening rage and confusion set in.
O'BRIEN: Had a big blowup with my daughter who - she was so upset. And I'm just - I'm going to drop another F-bomb - [expletive] tired of where I have to be on my game all the time.
HERSHER: You can't really tell but on this afternoon, things were actually pretty good. He was sitting outside a cafe alone and launched into this super detailed story about a trip to the post office that morning that just cracked him up.
O'BRIEN: And, oh, yeah, so then I get all my mail. All these people...
HERSHER: He's laughing about how the guy at the post office seemed even more confused than he was. And then, while we're talking, this man comes up and says hi to Greg.
O'BRIEN: Hey. How you doing? I'm on the phone though but - that's OK. No. No. You can sit. All right. OK. All right. OK. So someone has come up, gave me a big hug, put his arm around me. Obviously, I've known him for 20 years. I got to go back and talk to him. And I have no freaking clue who he is - total blank. Total blank.
HERSHER: This is life with memory loss. In the middle of remembering one thing, Greg can't remember another. But the forgetfulness is just the beginning. Greg can't stop thinking about that guy.
O'BRIEN: He's sitting there on the steps now waiting for me. I feel like - he's waiting for me. No, he's waiting there. Rebecca, he's stalking me. He's sitting there. I just gave him - well, he goes, no, I got plenty of time.
HERSHER: Greg is increasingly paranoid these days. Imagine if strangers came along and treated you like friends. The world would become an unpredictable, scary place real fast.
O'BRIEN: Oh, he's waiting there.
HERSHER: I mean, you want to hang up and go talk to him and then call me back?
O'BRIEN: I'd like to do that. What - all right. OK.
HERSHER: Yeah. Do that.
O'BRIEN: All right. OK. OK. OK. Take care.
HERSHER: This is the Alzheimer's paradox, especially in relatively young people with the disease. You can be scared and curious, anxious and social. So even in the midst of the paranoia, he's wondering, who is this mystery dude? It's like 20 minutes before he calls me back. And, you know, I'm not paranoid, but I was wondering what was up.
Hello? Here, hold on. Hold on. All right. Can you hear me?
O'BRIEN: So he shot me in the face. And then did you ever watch "Men In Black"? I grew a new head. But that's not why I'm calling. As it turned out, he's a guy I've known for 25 or 30 years. I taught him how to write - Bill Donaldson.
HERSHER: They worked together at a newspaper. More recently, Bill reminds him they've been emailing about Bill's mom who had Alzheimer's. Once he introduced himself, they had a great conversation. Greg says the paranoia, like wondering if an old friend is a stalker, is a side effect of the memory loss, of not being able to trust what your own mind tells you.
O'BRIEN: Fear can paralyze. And when you're absolutely sure that everything is OK, then you can fight fear. But when you're not sure, I think fear paralyzes.
HERSHER: Rebecca Hersher, NPR News.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.