All my life I considered myself an introvert, a private person, ungifted in the art of validating people.

In my early forties (a couple minutes ago), I bought a small restaurant, and all this changed. I grew by leaps and bounds in my fascination with people of all stripes and in my ability to dig beneath the surface and find the gold within. I grew in my ability to remember names, know faces, discover connections, and find new ways to validate people. I got high on it—on my ability to validate. It validated me in return.

Then one day this abruptly ended. I crashed. I had been working seven-day weeks for two and a half years, and my body and mind couldn’t take it anymore. The first scary sign of stress was when some of the music I played every day at the cafe lost its familiarity. I was evidently unable to learn new music. Then it was faces. New ones wouldn’t stick, and old but infrequent ones were a struggle to recall. I was filled with doubt when in conversation: what had we talked about the previous time? Did they just come from Europe, or were they going to Europe? I couldn’t remember.

Stress fried my brain, and my validation skills went with it. Nothing, but nothing hurt as much as having a newly-made friend appear and me not know who they were for ten or twenty seconds. The eager look on their face faded instantly, and nothing could bring it back. No amount of remembering in a few seconds would make up for my initial inability to validate them. I died a little bit every time it happened.

I wanted to resign from life. Retreat. Embrace my pre-cafe, introverted self. I wanted to be given a chance to explain (there is no such thing). I cried, prayed angrily, tried to bargain with God.

How do you love people when the principal organ of love—the brain—is shot?

I realized eventually that I was mourning my ego, not my lost ability to validate people—because I hadn’t lost the ability. I’d only lost the ability to do so in a way that would make me look good. There were and are plenty of opportunities to extend kindness and touch people’s souls even if we can’t immediately recall a face. It just takes an awful lot of something to give up the craving for reciprocity.

Jan Petersen early onset Alzheimer's

Jan Petersen

This also showed me that validating was not my natural gift. To meet someone for whom it is, you must meet Jan Petersen. This afternoon I watched the video Jan’s Story: Love and Early-Onset Alzheimer’s again and re-discovered a true hero. Even with severe dementia, Jan knows how to seize each day and touch each person she meets. Jan’s is both a heart-wrenching and heart-warming story. Many people go through life mentally intact yet unable to see the goodness that surrounds them. Then you meet someone like Jan whose indomitable spirit sheds significance on everything and everyone she sees—regardless of her inability to name things.

The validation breakdown begins with us who think Jan’s story is nothing but a tragedy. But I tell you, if I could pick one trait to take with me on the dark road into oblivion, I’d pick Jan’s ability to validate without requirement; to love without strings attached; to milk each moment and each encounter.

That is the validation breakthrough!

Here are four more of my current heros—people with early onset Alzheimer’s who put themselves in the crosshairs of the stigma-tazers so they can help the rest of us see a little bit of the road ahead:

Kris Bakowski
Chuck Donofrio
Richard Taylor
Bill Craig