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Why My Brain Forgets Differently Than Yours

Memory loss after brain injury means getting creative

By Catherine KenwellPublished 2 years ago 3 min read
Why My Brain Forgets Differently Than Yours
Photo by Glen Carrie on Unsplash

I love words. I studied Latin in school, and I never really lost my interest in languages and word origins. I keep returning to school because I’m at home in academia and I’m fond of cracking the spine of a new and potentially mind-expanding textbook. For a period after my injury, my scrambled brain couldn’t recall or identify words that I’d used or spoken thousands of times. This was doubly heart-wrenching for me, because not only are we often judged by the way we speak (and radio silence in the middle of an executive meeting is not judged highly!), but I have a genuine affection for all things literary. It hurt that I’d lost something I loved.

Years later, I still do a lot of arm flailing when I’m attempting to name something. It’s like a regularly scheduled game of charades; I’ll act out or point or even describe its use before someone gives me the clue I’m looking for.

Here’s an example:

(In the kitchen)

“Can you hand me those things?”

“What things?”

“You know, the things that pick up. They go like this.” (I make a claw-like grabbing motion with my hand while I stand over a pan of bacon frying)

“The oven mitts?”

“NO, YOU KNOW, they go like THIS!” (and I use the claw motion again)

(Partner assesses the situation and takes another guess)

“The tongs?”

“YES, the TONGS!”

I swear I can feel the gears in my brain chugging through mud and mire to propel me to my final destination.

And the word search gets incrementally worse with the amount of stress I’m experiencing. If I’m tired, or emotionally drained, or I’ve simply used up my brain power for the day, I’ll forget a lot of words. Generally, I’ll just stop talking. Thankfully, it doesn’t happen with the regularity and the severity that it did for the two or three years following my accident.

Each year I visit the Toronto Memory Program and I'm given the well-regarded Montreal Cognitive Assessment (MCA). The MCA is a snapshot that is used to identify cognitive function—memory, attention, and language—but it does not identify underlying mental health issues. While memory loss and depression are often comorbid, the MCA only explores memory concerns. I have to do simple things like math in my head (something I couldn’t do for the first two years post-injury) and name words that started with ‘s’. I usually pass the language part with flying colors, apparently; I gave them quite a laugh when I used words like “succinctly” and “segregation” which I suppose aren’t on many people’s list of Top 10 ‘S’ Words.

But here’s the deal: I wasn’t trying to name something or describe something. It was a vocabulary free-for-all, which I likely could have done in several languages. I’m good at vocabulary. I know words.

That knowledge doesn’t help when I’m frantically searching for the word “tongs” or misusing the word “accelerate” when I really mean “obliterate”.

I want to scream when my friends try to comfort me by saying something like, “oh yes, I get that all the time; it’s called aging,” or “you and me both—welcome to menopause!”

It’s. Not. The. Same. It’s not an age-related thing, or menopause (although yes, those are contributors). Do you know how I know? When it comes to words and numbers, my abilities are much better than they were. OK, reality is, I lost my affinity for words and numbers after my accident. I’ve gained them back (my husband says I’m at about 85 per cent) but I experience the same feeling as I did back then when I can’t think of a word. There’s a process going on, and from what I understand about brain elasticity, I’m bouncing words around the parts of my brain that aren’t usually considered language-related.

My brain works harder. And more, ahem, succinctly. See how I did that? The MCA doesn't measure humor, either.

TIP: Don’t compare yourself to others…and don’t let others compare themselves to you. When friends say they know how you feel, that your experiences are ‘exactly the same’ as theirs, they don’t, and they aren’t. But that’s OK. Your brain works harder. Not harder than theirs, necessarily, but harder than it did. So congratulations.

TIP: Don’t minimize your injured friend’s experiences by comparing them to yours. It’s frustrating as hell to hear “Oh, that’s not your injury, that’s age, I’m just the same!” No, you’re not. You might think your words are comforting, but you’re really pissing us off. We love you, though. Just shut up. Thank you.


About the Creator

Catherine Kenwell

I live with a broken brain and PTSD--but that doesn't stop me! I'm an author, artist, and qualified mediator who loves life's detours.

I co-authored NOT CANCELLED: Canadian Kindness in the Face of COVID-19. I also publish horror stories.

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