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The Difference Between Brain Fog and Forgetfulness


Really? I’m dedicating an entire post to brain fog?

Yup. Because after I go through all the technical explanations about my¬†(insert whichever chronic illness I am trying to describe here), brain fog ‚ÄĒ¬†more than anything else ‚ÄĒ leaves people a bit perplexed.

While one can often scientifically (and laboriously) describe the effects¬†chronic illnesses have on the body, brain fog can come across as more of a¬†general, non-specific term. I mean, look at it. Brain fog. It’s like the name of a slapdash band from the 1980s or¬†something my nephew made up.

Regardless, even while the medical field doesn’t always¬†acknowledge it¬†(though recently I have had more doctors recognize it), and a slicker sounding¬†name might be better (i.e. Cerebrum stuffyconfusa‚Ķ?),¬†it doesn’t make it, or the massive frustration is brings, any less real.

I have always had a sharp memory. Freakish even. Tiny details of what a¬†stranger was wearing at my brother’s graduation party when I was 6, where a¬†specific bit of information is in a 500-page textbook, birthdays mentioned in¬†passing.

But things are different these days.

More often than I would like, I am in mid-sentence when I completely shut¬†off. Mouth agape, eyes rolling around in my head as I desperately try to think¬†of that rudimentary word. (It’s ‚Äúdoor,‚Ä̬†Sarah! Door!) Sure, lots of¬†people forget what they were going to say but with brain fog, I forget¬†everything I was saying. Often times, even after I’m reminded of what I was¬†talking about, it takes me a good minute or two to call it back to memory. Additionally,¬†how embarrassing is it when you have to sit there for 20¬†seconds to recall a¬†word like ‚Äúdoor?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúI walked through the‚Ķ‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúReverie? Time-space continuum?¬†Electromagneticastrosphere?‚ÄĚ ‚ÄúUm‚Ķ no. The thingy that does this: *hand¬†gestures*‚ÄĚ

Thankfully my family and friends are aware of this, but when it happens with strangers it can be mortifying.

Similarly, I often forget what day it is. Then I forget what day it is five¬†seconds after I ask what day it is. If someone requests for me to bring them¬†something, I’d say 10 percent of the time I actually remember to do so. I forget¬†doctor’s appointments, responding to email/phone calls from people checking in¬†to see how I am, changing the oil in my car.

(Personal lament:¬†I love words, so it’s¬†always extra fun when, after sending an email, I find I forgot how to spell something.¬†Or, if that isn’t enough, I’ve completely omitted words from a sentence and/or substituted¬†a completely unrelated word. ‚ÄúDear Boss, I have the book busy today.¬†Thanks!‚ÄĚ) Sigh.

Most of the time I’m able to get a kick out of these things, but brain fog¬†can also have more detrimental effects.

I have been taking my medication at the same times every day for years, but¬†there have been weeks where I just completely forgot them. And it isn’t like my¬†routine had changed at all. Work didn’t start at a different time or I was at¬†someone’s house in a different time zone. Things were exactly the same ‚ÄĒ¬†I. Just. Forgot. Then, of course, because I’m¬†missing meds, my symptoms get worse, which means I get more brain foggy, and more spectacular emails to my boss are sent.

How much water have I had today? It has to have been a couple liters, right? (Try barely a glass full.) Did I forget to send my nephew a card for his birthday? (Damn it.)
I even have to make a note to, ‚Äúmake a note of things to do today.‚ÄĚ And don’t¬†get me started on how demoralizing it is to try to sit down and write. I haven’t¬†been able to focus for months.

However, out of all this information, I think this may be the most important¬†to understand: Forgetfulness and brain fog bring about two different kinds of feelings because they are two different things. Sure, I’ve been preoccupied in my thoughts and then found myself¬†trying to remember what I was going to do next; being forgetful makes me feel¬†flighty. But having moments while driving where I honestly cannot¬†remember where I¬†am going, where I am, and how I got there? Brain fog makes me feel frustrated, panicky and confused.

And it’s hard. Transitioning from someone who could remember the weirdest¬†details to someone who now has to think for 30 seconds to remember her 10-year-old¬†dog’s name? When people chalk it up to forgetfulness, it makes it even harder. Forgetfulness comes across as something you can work on; brain fog, just like chronic pain,¬†dizziness, other symptoms, etc., is something you have to cope with and adapt¬†to.

So what can family and friends do?

Please, please be patient and understanding. Chances are we are¬†already ripping ourselves apart for forgetting to get a birthday present for¬†our niece, or not getting the tickets to the movie, or spacing on filling up¬†the cat’s empty water bowl. Also, when we blank out in the middle of the¬†sentence, stay with us and appear engaged. A look of understanding can go a long¬†way in that moment.

Find a gentle way to remind us. I admit, I’m a bit of a proud¬†person, so I can get a bit defensive when my someone asks how much water I’ve¬†had or if I’ve taken my meds (especially when I’m already frustrated at myself¬†for forgetting). But I need it some days. A designated note-spot by the fridge¬†or on the phone helps for other things. I have a calendar now and write¬†things down in like, eight different places.

Lastly, assure us it’s OK. Being exhausted and not being able to do¬†the physical things you want? It sucks. But, on top of that, forgetting¬†‚Äúsimple‚ÄĚ things, important things like calling your best friend, and just feeling all stuffed up in your mind? That¬†really sucks. So give us a big hug and/or tell us it’s OK¬†when we beat¬†ourselves up about it. We often need to be reminded that we’re not a big ol’¬†burden even though stuff falls out of our heads sometimes.

Follow this journey on S.E. Carson.

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