In a bright treatment room my student was in a Warrior II yoga pose and heard me say “Turn your palm up and lift your…” followed by silence.
My voice faltered as I felt the hot sting of not remembering my next word. I took a breath and stared at the appendage that extended from my shoulder to my wrist. A mental fog had rolled in and settled between me and the piece of my body that owned an elbow. I tried to resist straining into the obscuring mental gauze, scared it might envelope me completely and I wouldn’t be able to find my way out.
I steadied myself as I tried to recount what I did know. I looked at my skin intently as if the clue to the name could be found in my freckles. The blurring became less opaque and I could see the evasive word had three letters then just as quickly everything dimmed as the vagueness rolled back and I couldn’t be sure.
“Go around” my inner voice yelled. It was doing it’s best to be a light house intermittently sending guidance out through the mist. I started naming all the words I could remember of things in front of me and suddenly I saw an alternate route to avoid the craggy vocabulary cliffs.
I kept my voice steady as if I had meant to take my time with the next direction. I slowly said “hand” before continuing on “up towards the ceiling to reverse your warrior”.
It wasn’t perfect, I had just said palm and hand wasn’t the word I wanted. I did know it was infinitely better than looking vacant with my mouth opening and closing.
Having been a performer, hosting shows in front of live audiences and improv-ing I’d encountered the loss of a word before. In those days it was actually thrilling to not know what would happen next. It meant I was in the moment and where I verbally landed was a fun surprise. I knew if I just opened my mouth and began talking something always came out, usually better than what I mentally planned.
I used to be a queen of half introductions. The terror of forgetting a name meant I would only go through the fear for one party, even if I’d known them both for years. I would just hope they were outgoing enough to take it from there. That way I halved my odds of getting it wrong. At that point in my life I lived in LA where things were less formal and I don’t think anyone really noticed.
I used to forget and loose things all the time right up until I was 29. The first time my credit card expired as opposed to being lost I celebrated, feeling like I was actually getting this adulthood thing.
I’ve never been able to remember anyone’s birthdays I met after the age of 10. This includes my boyfriends and girlfriends.
Although not perfect for details my memory held more stories, random facts and words than I even knew I knew. It was something I actually liked about myself. I loved being able to talk to people in most kinds of situations, I was good at small talk, had a couple of ice-breaking embarrassing stories (but only 2 jokes and one can only be told at Christmas time) and relied on that ability for my work.
During chemotherapy is when that changed.
I was not able to remember simple words like tomato, water, bun or shop. My oncologist told me it was something to do with the menopause because the ability to find naming words can be affected by hormones. I was also experiencing the fogginess that is otherwise known as chemo brain. What I didn’t expect is that three years since the end of active treatment it hasn’t gone away nor did I know how deeply it would affect me.
“Come on spit it out” said a slightly frustrated neighbour as I stammered because I couldn’t remember the word ‘car’. Playful and goofy laughter from friends asking ‘do you mean couch?’ This was in response to my ‘going around’ and saying “you know the thing we sit on in living room”. A raised eyebrow of superiority from my girlfriend when in the middle of an argument I falter in my response because I can’t say ‘towel’ and nothing else will come out. The panic of looking like an airhead in front of my bosses as I trip over the word ‘head’ when I’ve passed exams in anatomy.
I’ve tried to explain but get shut down with the well meaning phrase “yeah but I forget stuff too”. I remember what it felt like to forget things in my previous life but this feels different. I still have the normal sensation of something being on the tip of my tongue or knowing I should remember what I ate at a restaurant the last time I went there. The barrier of confusion with the chemo/menopause-induced memory loss is something else.
When the fog comes and for a while afterwards I’m unsure and it’s meant a massive drop in my confidence both in my personal and my professional life. I’d defined myself by my ability to connect with people by talking and I thought my brain reflected my intellect. I’ve lost more to cancer than just a few words, I’ve lost my mum, my friends, my ovaries and my sense of safety and it feels like I should take this on the chin, get over it, forgetting isn’t the end of the world, I am still alive.
Yet these moments of fog (that I have decided to rename MoFo) chip away who I am, who I thought I was. They change my sense of ability and worth, they leave me feeling small.
I’m over covering up and shrinking away from challenges due to my momentary lapses of mental acuity. I’m over withering up my personality. If I have to be out at sea with fog, sailing around rocks which threaten to sink my boat and drown my confidence, then I’m going to need a bigger boat.
I’ve decided that instead of letting potential humiliation rule me I’m going to speak more. I started a podcast, I’ll keep meeting new people and talking to neighbors and most importantly hold my head up high when I forget a word for the rectangular thing in the entrance with the push sign. In an argument over towels I will devise a time out sign for MoFo (moment of fog). I will try not let my self worth be defined by lost words especially those under five letters.
Later in my yoga therapy session I told my student to lift her arm.