At first, I thought I was imagining my lapses in memory. I was frustrated by what felt like air-headedness and an inability to retain information, but I concluded I was simply discovering that I wasn’t as smart as I always thought I was.
But the more frequent and specific my memory lapses became, the more I had to admit they were real and out of the ordinary. I called it my “fuzzy brain.” It wasn’t just that I would walk into a room and forget why I’d come in there. It was that I would forget the carpool schedule or go blank when trying to recall my kid’s birthday or forget that I’d already told a friend a story… twice. I would lose simple everyday words that should have been right there in my brain for instant recall. I forgot entire conversations, procedures, and events.
When working with a colleague, she would explain how a certain service worked and what we needed to do, and I would pay attention and then promptly forget all the relevant details. I have to go into previous messages and search keywords from our conversations so that I can remember what she told me. My job — like many jobs, I suppose — requires that I remember details. So I create intricate outlines so that I remember what the hell I’m doing. Sometimes it feels like I retain almost nothing on my own.
I’ve modified my behavior to make sure I don’t forget important things. Everything, every-single-thing that needs to be remembered must be written down. I have files and files of bulleted lists for everything from my kids’ science fair to steps I need to know to prepare invoices.
When I talked to my therapist about my fuzzy brain, she nodded knowingly. “Stress can definitely impact memory,” she said. “You have a lot of cortisol pumping through your system. It keeps you in back-brain.” The stress she referenced started just over a year ago when my ex-husband and I separated after I came out to him as gay. Our split was mostly amicable, but divorce is always stressful. It just is. We have two kids together and there were hundreds of details to work out to unravel our joined lives to create a different kind of family that would live under two roofs.
And I was coming out at the same time, so I was constantly worried about who would accept me and who wouldn’t. Would any of my family disown me? Would all my extended family on my ex’s side hate me? I tried not to care because I know I can’t control what others think of me, but trying not to care is a major energy expenditure in and of itself — it’s exhausting. The whole process of separating while coming out at the same time was, and sometimes still is, fucking draining. It’s aged me in a lot of ways, and, of course, there’s this memory thing.
When I first “joked” about having dementia, friends would snort. “Oh my god, Kristen, you do not have dementia,” they would say. It may sound like a bad joke, but it is something I truly worry about. Two out of four of my grandparents suffered from dementia, so when I say I’m worried about it, I really am not joking. I want my old brain back, the one that was sharp as a tack, good at remembering precise details, and always confident in a debate because I trusted my memory so thoroughly.
For a long time, it was assumed that acute memory problems don’t generally occur in people under 50. We know about “mommy brain,” but that’s a thing that happens during pregnancy and early motherhood. It’s supposed to go away once your kids start sleeping through the night. This other thing, this memory loss I’m experiencing, is something that doesn’t get talked about much and is only recently being studied in people under 50.
A study published last year in the journal Neurology linked higher cortisol levels (i.e. stress and/or anxiety) with “worse memory and visual perception, as well as lower total cerebral brain and occipital and frontal lobar gray matter volumes.” In other words, shitty memory, shitty vision, and brain shrinkage. Oh, and, super-fun fact, the brain shrinkage thing only applies to female brains. Sigh.
Of course, some stress is just part of being human. When a crisis arises, cortisol floods our system to activate our fight or flight response, shutting down certain bodily functions that are unnecessary to our immediate survival. Then, once the threat has passed, cortisol levels and other bodily functions return to normal. Our bodies have evolved to react this way.
But, in situations of prolonged, ongoing stress, as with divorce or some other extremely stressful ongoing life change, or as with generalized anxiety disorder, that panic button stays pressed. Cortisol courses through the body with unnatural regularity and begins to wreak havoc, leading to “anxiety, depression, heart disease, headaches, weight gain, trouble sleeping, and, of course, memory and concentration problems.”
CNN reported on the study and interviewed Keith Fargo, director of scientific programs and outreach for the Alzheimer’s Association. “The brain is a very hungry organ,” Fargo said. “It requires an outsized amount of nutrients and oxygen to keep it healthy and functioning properly. So, when the body needs those resources to deal with stress, there’s less to go around to the brain.” That lines up with what my therapist told me.
I guess it helps to know I’m not just imagining something is wrong with my memory. So now I’m working on fixing it. I’m not sure if I’ve suffered any actual brain “shrinkage,” as mentioned in the study, that might be irreversible, but there are some things I can control now that my divorce is nearly finalized — namely my stress levels. I recently started CBD supplements which I take when I feel my anxiety start to spike or when I think I might be triggered by a certain situation. I’m also making sure to get adequate sleep, eat as healthily as possible, and exercise. All of these factors combined have a huge positive impact on my day-to-day stress and anxiety. Here’s hoping they help bring my memory back, too.
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