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5 Ways I Made Medication-Induced Brain Fog Work for Me

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I resisted like a doggo being dragged into the veterinarian: all four paws dug into the ground and the face all scrunched up by the leash. I had previously taken a nerve medication in a futile attempt to treat pain, and fully conducted myself through college coursework and doctor appointments for a week or so that I do not in any way recall being present for. I was rattled when missing a dose led to brain zaps mid-finals.


When my pain specialist recommended I start another course of a slightly different nerve medication, I was six years away from my first negative experience with it and six years deeper into my chronic illness with little reprieve. I decided to take the plunge, perpetually grasping to gather up and possess more fragments of my life. This makes the first blessing in disguise somewhat ironic:

1. The color and outline of those life fragments were suddenly so dulled they just slipped past the edges of my vision with little recognition on my part. I felt relief from strong feelings – a terrifying thought if you are quite empathetic or naturally tend towards emotions of the positive kind. Initially, it was pure relief of the kind one feels when plans are cancelled and it is time to slip back into comfortable, illness-approved sweats and carry on doing nothing. A few weeks of being inured to anything rewarding or distressing, and I realized I couldn’t locate myself without extreme feelings; turns out reducing deep sadness comes at an unfair reciprocal reduction in great happiness. Still, a relief, a breath and a moment to reflect on why variation of highs and lows is to be treasured.

2. I simplified things. Like The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, my brain (politely) thanked what it did not need and let it go – unfortunately that was close to everything. A short review of things my medication-marinated brain sorted out and left for dead: motivation, libido, purpose, anything stated to me two seconds ago, spatial awareness, social engagement, entire encounters including significant life events… Despite these huge losses, I was free to engage with hobbies and curiosities. It forced me to drift in a suspended stupor where my only guidance was whatever pretty thing caught my eye at the moment. With my analytical, competent mind gone, I had to embrace the whirling urges of creativity. I couldn’t hold myself back. It felt like a wonderful pause in a maelstrom of stress and pressure to be productive. I took this back when I looked at my stack of reading material and endless to-do lists but couldn’t comprehend them. If all I did in a day was learn a few new recipes but the kitchen wasn’t sparkling clean, then it would have to be enough. My to-do lists were shorter – less fussy details and needless social signaling. I was enough because I had to be; it was all that was left.

3. I got better at engaging with my illness. Having spent a lot of time ignoring it or having beautiful three-month “well” streaks has slowly decreased my tolerance for this lifelong companion when it does appear. This time around, as it blotted out my sun in eclipse, I could no longer push it to the side. Before, sheer belligerence allowed me to grit through pain to still function. On the meds, every interaction I have with people is off. I’ll ask about an ex even though I sat with the person who was dumped for hours simply because I didn’t connect that event to the face in front of me. It became imperative I develop strategies to head off embarrassing situations such as: “Sorry, medication makes me slurry and forgetful. Please try not to take it personally if I make a mistake or become confused.” It’s a lot to ask when you’re forgetting highly notable moments of people’s lives, but I find it’s better to explain up front rather than murmured apologies and “My nerves are bad and the medication opposing that makes my brain bad.” It’s sincerely a matter of using your words.

4. Communicating with my partner about my status once it was clear I’d be a sedated turtle for a while made me get realistic about my daily boundaries. I had to reframe what my capabilities were and be much more purposeful about scheduling and commitments. I’ve always wanted to be the person who can stretch themselves thin for others, accommodate and take on any task. Since this medication pulled back hard on the reins of my ability to accomplish anything, I had to realistically appraise how much energy a task would take. I started slow, measuring how I felt after “easy” things like showering and taking medication. From there, I built up to measuring how much energy going out to a movie might take. Unfortunately, professional tasks or writing of any kind were completely beyond my cognitive grasp, regardless of energy level. Despite my sedated-turtle behavior, I learned to distinguish between yes and no and use them more judiciously. I hope to take the lessons learned here into my less-encumbered, non-nerve-medicated life phase.

5. I developed habits I would have scoffed at prior to wading through the fog. It seems wild to wield a highlighter and pen against a fantasy novel you’re reading for casual enjoyment, but I had to. My brain-stuff wouldn’t adhere to the book-stuff unless I latched onto major moments. If someone asked me to do something, I developed a reflex to immediately put a reminder in my phone. No matter how small, no matter how short-term. My partner reminds me to grab the whatever from the next room before dinner? In the phone, with an alert. Have a phone call? Take literal minutes of what was said because you won’t recall it in a few hours, or may even try to repeat it. As I gently taper off of it, I’m conscious of how much more I deliver on my promises now that I habitually make everything into a task with a reminder. Thanks, brain fog!

Unfortunately, I was not in the batch of interstitial cystitis patients who benefited from this medication. Somewhat true to my experiences with this illness, it was a horrible two-month ride and I cannot wait to return to the loading platform. I’m on the downward slope of medication and the upward slope of cognition, but the lessons I learned while swimming amidst the clouds in placid discomfort will be useful now that I’m back up to speed. Stay strong, my Foggy Nelsons.

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Thinkstock photo via Mercy_C_M_H.

Originally published: July 26, 2017
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