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When My Brain Injury Means I Forget Important Things

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Since the car accident and my brain injury, it is very difficult for me to remember things; it’s like my brain has a hole and things tend to fall out. Sometimes lots of things fall out, and sometimes not so much. A while ago I forgot about plans I had made with my boyfriend, and he muttered something along the lines of “Well, that’s convenient.”

I get it — my forgetting is annoying. He could not understand why I can remember some things, but forget we made plans six hours ago. It’s a fair question. I thought about it and here’s what I came up with:

We learn through repetition, right? In order for me to remember things, I have to go over them in my head a lot to make them “stick.” I have learned to repeat things in my head for that reason. So if I have to take my best friend to a meeting tomorrow, I go over it in my head: “OK, so tomorrow I will go to work, then I will leave at lunch and pick up Jess, then I will drop her off at her appointment and then go back to work.”

The things I remember are things I have gone over and over in my head. Sometimes I have a lot of time to go over stuff in my mind; sometimes, life goes smoothly. Those are the times when I’m able to remember that we made plans yesterday — because between then and now, I have been thinking about it. I have been going over it step by step in my mind. I have been priming myself to remember.

Unfortunately, most of the time that is not how life goes. Plans get changed and unexpected things happen. I have trouble getting to sleep, then accidentally turn off my alarm, show up late for work and get a call at 10:30 — oh my god. Jess’s appointment is at 11:00. We’ll never make it. I am such a jerk. Or maybe I get into an argument with my sister, or am short on money and worrying about bills, or finishing something for work, or have something else on my mind and am not able to prime myself. It isn’t that one thing is more important than the other — importance has nothing to do with it.

Sometimes things stick because they are salient, which also doesn’t have to do with importance. The fan in my bedroom has the brand name “Lasko” on it. I have trouble remembering my phone number — how in the world can I remember that random word? Klasky Csupo. Look familiar? The credits of “The Rugrats” are burned into my brain like the address of my childhood home. I saw those words so much when I was younger that the name immediately jumped out at me, and now I remember. That’s saliency.

Another factor is number of past repetitions and whether the details have changed. Too much old information makes it difficult to store new information. I have trouble remembering my phone number because I have had other phone numbers in the past. I don’t like wearing shoes unless I have to — I have left the house and forgotten to wear shoes. I have forgotten my sister already got out of the car and started talking to her from the front seat.

Those are amusing and embarrassing, but overall pretty harmless examples. The problem with memories being altered with repetition is that the people closest to me are targets because we share so many moments. I forget plans I make with people I see and talk to the most because my memories get muddled together. Sometimes I forget my Granny died a few years ago because I have so many memories of her alive. It is bizarre, but I have learned to accept it.  There are a million things that could affect how the brain retains information. It would take forever to go through everything, so why don’t we cut this short and you just believe me. Is it really that hard?

The example about Jess and her appointment is a real one that happened recently. I felt awful — I always do. It doesn’t help me remember. Most people are less than understanding when things like that happen. They can’t believe I really forgot or they are mad because they think they weren’t important enough to remember. Jess called a Lyft and wasn’t angry or irritated — at least, she didn’t show it if she was. We have been friends for over 20 years, both before and after my brain injury. She isn’t new to my memory problems, but more than that: she actually believes me. She trusts me when I say I forgot or lost track of time and accepts my apology when it inevitably happens. After explaining to my boyfriend (now fiancé), so does he.

I don’t think I can adequately express how it feels to be trusted when I say I don’t remember, and to be forgiven when I inevitability make mistakes. Life is hard enough. Forgetting is hard enough. Surround yourself with people who make it better. I am so grateful for mine.

Getty image by Wildpixel.

Originally published: August 5, 2019
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