I first received my MS diagnosis while I was in a graduate program for literature. One of the key components to graduation is the Comprehensive Exams. In these exams, it’s expected to memorize key dates, figures, concepts, and timelines to do essay identifications and write several seminar length papers with little to no help over 48-72 hours. Prior to the diagnosis, I knew I was struggling with memory issues, but I assumed it was from lack of sleep. After my diagnosis, I realized what I experienced was a form of MS mental fog.
Granted, post-diagnosis, my University was required to make accommodations for me, but my pride struggled to allow it. Acknowledging that I have memory issues is something I still struggle with today: as someone who needs their brain for their living, knowing that it isn’t working properly is a huge blow to the ego.
All of this is to say, that this post is one of my harder ones to write because of how sensitive I am about my memory.
What is MS Mental Fog?
In more technical medical terms, MS mental fog falls under the cognition category. Cognition includes information processing, memory, attention and concentration, executive functions, visuospatial functions, and verbal fluency. As listed on the NMSS website, more than half the patients with MS experience some form of cognitive dysfunction. You have cognitive dysfunction if you experience one or more of the following (but not limited to):
- Struggle with processing information appropriately with one of your senses, like something tastes off or does not feel like it should.
- Remembering new information, such as names or tasks.
- Decreased ability to concentrate.
- No longer able to multi-task or divide attention.
- Inability to plan or prioritize tasks (important to unimportant).
- Decreased ability to judge spatial distances or think abstractly.
- Struggle to find words in a conversation or writing.
I know I’ve struggled with all of these at one point or another, with some of them being an everyday occurrence like the fatigue.
Dealing with Memory Issues
I assumed my memory issues had everything to do with a lack of sleep from graduate school. Like many of the “problems” I was having, the solution would be to simply sleep when I got a chance.
I got the chance on several occasions and while it did help with my memory because anytime a person is “well-rested” they improve to a degree, the problem did not go away.
But once I got my diagnosis, it was like a flood-gate had opened. I had successfully repressed and blocked out any acknowledgement that there were deeper cognitive issues up to that point. Now that I knew what was going on, I had an “aha!” moment and felt like my cognitive issues got worse.
I don’t believe they got worse, but rather, I finally acknowledged that they existed.
Teaching was a passion and I realized how much harder it became. Remembering simple concepts, answering common questions all became more difficult. I found myself having to plan out my lessons to the very minute to ensure all the important things were covered. Half my time was spent planning my classes while the other half was spent grading.
It was little wonder I had no time to work on required work for graduation. I didn’t push myself too hard because I felt useless with my memory issues. I think I hoped it would somehow go away or I would find a key to fixing it so I could get back on track.
I eventually got so frustrated with my cognitive issues that I spent a whole day testing my acuity in a lab associated with my neurologist’s office. I wanted to get a baseline of my abilities, but I also wanted to figure out if I truly was getting worse like I suspected.
A mentally trying day, I was given a series of tests where they would ask me a series of questions to test my memory. I had to rank things in various orders, come up with synonmns for words, and other tests that really stretched my brain power, reaching far in my mental reserves.
It was one of my least favorite rounds of testing, but I made it through it.
They gave me the results: I did have some memory issues, but I wasn’t nearly as bad as I thought. They mentioned the only reason why I noticed it was because I was in graduate school and needed to use my memory more than other patients, but it was small comfort.
They provided me with some insight on how I could manage my cognitive issues, but I was doing everything I needed to do already.
Seeing Some Improvements
When I got pregnant, I put concerns about my cognitive issues on the backburner. It wasn’t until after I gave birth to Jai and getting more sleep that I noticed I had a better time remembering things. It wasn’t perfect, but my cognitive issues were better.
I don’t know why I improved my cognitive abilities. I assume that during the pregnancy, my body was able to heal in the same way it healed the lesions I previously had.
I still am not at one-hundred percent. I struggle with memory recall or committing things to memory. Word recall is a struggle on a daily basis, and I still feel this barrier in my brain that prevents me from feeling like I have full access to my mind.
The Emotional Toll
This particular symptom of my MS takes a larger emotional toll than fatigue or numbness. Fatigue is omnipresent and numbness is a sad reminder of my illness – but memory fog really hits me in my ego and feelings of self-worth. It’s so hard to say to a friend “I know you told me this already, but I can’t remember what you said…” because it feels like I didn’t listen to them in the first place.
I tell acquaintances that I don’t remember their name or their partner’s name. I generally play it off as a symptom of “getting old” if I don’t know them well, but with closer friends, I will fully blame the MS. Everyone understand because I know everyone has their own form of memory blanks.
I am just painfully aware of the blanks which is what frustrates me so much.
The biggest toll the memory fog plays is in my relationship with Ash. I swear up and down that I remember a conversation in a particular way, and he remembers it differently. I get extremely frustrated because it feels like he’s not listening to me or trying to mess with me, but deep down I suspect that he’s right and I just can’t remember anything because of the MS.
Having memory issues is one of my biggest personal fears. When I learned about Alzheimer’s, I freaked out over the idea of losing control over my mind. MS creates the same sort of fear: with each exacerbation I have, I increase my chances of cognition issues becoming permanent. What if my MS takes me down the road similar to Annette Funicello? Would I know who I am or would I be trapped in my immobile body?
As with many other symptoms, I’ve learned to place my fears aside and work through the steps of self-compassion to manage the MS. I am keeping myself mentally active through reading, writing, teaching, and playing puzzle games (all recommended by the people who tested me), and stretching myself mentally often.
I still have my moments where I am extremely frustrated by my lack of mental abilities, but they are becoming more infrequent. I think that’s all I wanted to say, but I can’t remember.
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Featured photo credit: Michelle Melton