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What Life Is Like When Your Brain Can't Retain More Than 3 Sentences at a Time

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I am that boorish person who thinks of a reply while you’re still talking. I’m the one who adds something not quite sensical to a conversation. I’m the quiet one in your moms group.

No, it’s not out of rudeness or self-involvement. I have a working memory problem: my brain can’t process what you’re saying fast enough. It can’t get the words from my brain to my mouth quickly, either.

Do you know someone like me?

My inner computer works just fine; it’s just slower than most. It’s a manifestation of a learning disability related to executive functioning. What’s formed in the brain may not result in the right actions at the right time. People with working memory issues often have problems with reading, or, in my case, with math. Some also have ADHD, autism, dyslexia or dyspraxia. I have great difficulty with the kind of short-term memory that allows recall of recent events, remembering what I want to say or anything more than the gist of a conversation.

Ordinary small talk with people I don’t know is as panic-inducing as giving a speech to 10,000 people. As a child, I was painfully shy. As a student, I took copious notes because I didn’t trust my memory. I have always written out word-for-word what to say in phone conversations, down to my name and number.

In short, I like to say I exist on paper. I have been a writer since I was able to pick up a pen. Maybe my difficulty expressing myself out loud led me to write in the first place, or maybe I’m just wired for it. Verbal communication is another story. Tell me an amazing story and my default answer might be an insipid “Wow!” or “Really?” and that’s it. In my perfect world, I would magically stop time, get a transcript of what you said, highlight it and then respond.

Not knowing I had a disability, I chose the most unlikely career possible: TV news reporter. On one level, it made sense. I wasn’t really the one talking; I was gathering and spouting facts in a pre-ordered way. I was talking to a lens, not a crowd.

Live shots, on the other hand, made me begin to see my disability for what it was. At my first on-air job at a small station, I wrote a word-for-word script for my live reports and tried to memorize it. My brain could only retain two, maybe three sentences at a time. I’d glance down at my notes frequently while on camera because I forgot what to say next.

I got hired by a big market station on the merits of my packaged stories. My new boss took me to dinner a few weeks in and firmly said I had duped them; I was terrible live. I was given a week to stop reading my notes into the camera or I’d be fired.

Still not having a diagnosis or understanding why I was the way I was, I tried hypnosis. I prayed, begging for the words to flow smoothly from my brain to my mouth that day. I practiced speaking in front of mirrors. I wrote out live scripts over and over to burn the words into my brain before I went on-air.

Somehow I connected the synapses enough to get better and keep my job for years. I still use these coping skills, as there is no cure for working memory problems. And I find that if I use my finger (discreetly) to air-write the words as I speak, I am much more fluid. I have come to accept who I am while remaining open to therapeutic options. Because learning disabilities don’t look the same in everyone, it may be tough to know whether someone in your life is affected.

  • If it’s clear someone needs time to gather their thoughts, be patient.
  • Don’t be afraid to help them search for a word. Do it gently, not patronizingly.
  • If someone seems unusually quiet, don’t put them on the spot.
  • If you think your point is getting lost, summarize the most important details.
  • At work, the parent teacher association or any group setting, give all members the option of presenting feedback later.

Put the situation in parallel. You don’t expect a person in a wheelchair to keep up with a runner, although both can get from point A to point B. You don’t equate the grammatical errors of a non-native English speaker to a lack of intelligence. Use the same consideration with someone whose mind may work at its own pace. Understand that they may process and express information differently, and leave it at that.

Originally published: September 2, 2015
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