“So love, what did you do today?” Mary casually asks me as she puts down her work bag.
I hesitate. I know it’s a simple question, but since my mTBI it has been anything but simple to answer. I take a breath, squinting my eyes as I wrack my brain for an answer. Nothing comes to me. Dammit. I take a moment to look around in the hopes that something sparks a memory in me. Blankness. Complete blankness.
Welcome to evening conversation with an mTBI.
I don’t acknowledge defeat immediately. I want to tell Mary something. But what? What the heck have I been doing all day? I know she worries when I don’t have anything to say, it highlights to her how far I still have to go. And to be honest, it highlights that for me, too. As my sole social interaction of the day, it’s nice to share, to have a conversation and connect with someone else with words. Yet it is such a challenge for me now.
But wait – after so many years recovering from an mTBI, I’ve learned a few tricks to help me pass and regrasp my daily experiences. One of the interesting things I’ve learned is that memories nestle against each other like peas in a pod. So, if I can grab one genuine memory, often it will lead me right on to another, and another.
So. I start with what I know I do every day, rain or shine, in sickness or in health. “I walked, stretched outside with Stella, had breakfast…” I pause, picturing the activities in my mind. Giving my mind an opportunity to fill in the blanks… Nothing.
Ah hah, but I have a cheat sheet!
I walk quickly over to my week’s calendar, where I write the tasks or appointments I have assigned myself today. Hmmm… Wednesday. No appointments. No regular activities that day. My usual walk, HBOT at the bottom of the day, both crossed out. I cross out items as I complete them, so obviously I did both of those. “I HBOTed…” I mention to Mary as she changes from her work clothes into soft pants and a tshirt.
“What else did you do?” she asks.
She’s right, I must have done more things in the 10 hours since she left the house. But what? The calendar is minimally filled out for Wednesday, and the empty lines staring back at me don’t offer any answers.
I look at the day before. Oh right! I ran around yesterday – acupuncture, library, the grocery. And I was tired. So this must be a rest day.
“Mostly, it was a rest day. I tried not to do much of anything… I laid on the couch several times. Petted a cat”. I tell Mary as it comes to me. Or more, I’m guessing at what I did. It makes sense… and seems vaguely familiar.
Picturing myself laying on the couch and look at the American Linden tree outside of our window sparks another memory. “Stella and I hung outside for a while and watched the bees in the borage.” And that leads to another memory. “Right, I also harvested stuff from the garden.” And that leads to another. “I blanched some of the chard and kale and put it in the freezer”.
I’m tired of thinking about it, stretching, trying to fill in the blanks. “I’m sure I did other things, I just don’t remember them right now. Stuff. I did stuff.” I shrug and shake my head. Not the most enthralling tale of the day, true. But it’s the best I can do on this Wednesday night at 7 pm. I want to stop before I get really frustrated. Frustration can easily lead to crankiness and then morose feelings about my limitations… so these days I stop while I’m ahead.
Mary and I sit on the couch and snuggle as she tells me about her day. She doesn’t talk about the details, but usually has a few stories to share of frustration or triumph. She then moves on to chatting about this thing or that thing. Ideas or past events or plans for the future. Often she shares the most recent, terribly offensive and deeply threatening action the current US administration has taken, or has threatened to take, or tweeted about. The more she chats, the happier I know she is about her life and our relationship. A non-chatty Mary is an unhappy Mary.
But I digress. My point here being that Mary tells me stories about her days. She doesn’t list task after task after task. She highlights. She shares what’s worth talking about. She communicates information in a cohesive unit with a purpose, with a beginning and an end, often with feelings attached. It’s really quite pleasant and entertaining.
When my friend Drew visited a few weeks ago, he did that too. He talked about his life in stories. With cohesion. Not focusing on the details.
I think that’s because the details of daily living are boring. Just, boring. And repetitive. And not worth sharing. Unless that’s all you have to share – like me.
Also, both Mary and Drew have unlimited access to the details of their day. They know what they’ve done, how they’ve felt, and what they’ve seen. They just keep that information in their head and carry it around with them. Without special planning. Without struggle. It’s just effortlessly available to them to pull into bundles to then share with other people.
And, until it wasn’t available, I didn’t really understand how much executive functioning and memory skills are involved in making sense of any particular day of my life.
At least I am aware of the deficiency now. Becoming aware that something is off is usually the first sign that I am slowly regaining an ability. Most of the past 3 1/2 years, I haven’t been aware that anything was particularly lacking in my daily recetations of activities. Honestly, it’s such an effort to remember any detail of my day, I share it. It’s such a struggle to pick up a few crumbs of memory that I don’t have any energy or cognitive ability left over to analyze or understand the pieces.
To create a story, you’ve got to remember all the things. And how they relate. And how that made you feel. And generate some thought about that. That’s a lot of steps. And the foundation of that function is memory, remembering. If that’s not steady, nothing can be built from it.
I’d like to tell stories, too, someday. I’d like to tell casual stories about my day. Stories that make sense, that give some meaning and cohesion to the little details of my life. I expect both Mary and I look forward to that day, when I can speak and share stories about my life again.
I know I’m healing. Slowly, but definitely healing. In fact, a few weeks ago, I had one evening were I told a few stories about my day instead of listing actions. It seemed so natural, I didn’t even realize I was doing it. I wasn’t struggling, I wasn’t pushing – it just happened. It wasn’t until afterwards, looking back, that I felt a glow of success. Since then? Nope. But that it has happened once means it can happen again, and will happen again. When all the stars align just right. When something interesting happens and my energy is high and my brain is clear and I’m feeling good. It will just sneak up on me. Normalcy. Functioning. Success.