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my opinion, mental diseases are one of the scariest things imaginable. Our mind makes us who we are and through its deterioration or change by a disease, it inevitably transforms who we are. As such Alzheimer’s is something that I personally dearly fear. The slow descent into madness without the ability to combat it is a nightmare that I hope no one ever has to experience. Even scarier is the fact that the disease is poorly understood by the medical community with no treatment available at this time. Nonetheless many have tried researching the disease and finding a pattern in the hope of a cure, but with limited resources progress has been slow. One key resource that is still used today in teaching about Alzheimer’s is the case of painter William Utermohlen.

The Painter

William Utermohlen was U.K. based American artist who in 1995 at the age of 62 was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s Disease. For a person, my age 62 seems like a very old age but if put in the perspective of the average life expectancy being 62 suddenly doesn’t seem to be such an old age anymore. This is one of the saddest parts of this neurodegenerative disease. Its impact is often felt at an age where the person who is being impacted still has many more years to live. For Utermohlen this diagnosis would spell tragedy for both his home life and professional life.

Undeterred by his diagnosis Utermohlem would continue on his career in the arts, now with the determination to document his experience with the disease in a way never before done. Through self-portraits. This proved to be very effective in portraying the damage caused by the disease as Alzheimer’s doesn’t only result in memory loss but also damages the part of the brain which is crucial to a person’s visualising capabilities, something key for a painter.

William Utermohlen, Self-portrait, 1967. Source: Wikicommons
William Utermohlen, Self-portrait, 1996. Source: Wikicommons
Head I, Utermohlen’s last recognizable self-portrait, 2000. Source: Wikicommons

As a result throughout the years since Utermohlen was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s, we can see a distinct change in his self-portraits, with the art getting more and more distorted as the disease progressed. Noticeable changes in both the facial structure and overall style of the art are seen to develop towards a nonsensical mix of shapes and lines which resembles a piece of modern art much more than a realistic portrait of a person. The impact of the disease would get progressively greater which is clearly seen in the extent of the distortion of the pictures until his death in 2007.

Conclusion

Being diagnosed with a terminal disease is one of the worst fates that can be suffered. Knowing that any effort to change one’s fate is futile can bring a person to their knees both mentally and physically resulting in the likely development of other mental diseases such as depression. This is especially true with mental diseases as in many cases it becomes even more damaging to the family of the patient than in the case of physical disease. To see a family member wilt away mentally rather than physically leading to a father or a mother not even recognising their son or daughter in their last moment is impactful to both sides in this scenario. I see this as most haunting because with a mental disease you slowly become alone, and in the end, you will die alone, unable to recognise those dear to you.

To continue with your life as you have always done after being diagnosed with such a disease is what I see as the hallmark of a strong-willed person. Utermohlen continued with his passion rather than sitting back and letting his mind and body fade away, and with this titan effort made by him, many of us can now learn something about the disease that plagued his final days, and maybe by analyzing his work we could work something out that could help us finally find a cure. With the pace that technology is advancing, we can say with certainty that his work will not be wasted and the medical community will be able to take full advantage of this source.

Much can be learned about the strong will of Utermohlen, and I think many of us could apply his principles in our daily lives. By not letting obstacles in our lives knock us down forever we show fortitude and perseverance which are key characteristics for someone who wishes to become successful.

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