May. 29, 2019

Brain Fog

I once gave Butch and the kids the Strengths Finder profile as a Christmas gift. It is a quick test to identify your five areas of inborn talent. Butch’s number one talent was Strategic. It is described in this way: “People exceptionally talented in the Strategic theme create alternative ways to proceed. Faced with any given scenario, they can quickly spot the relevant patterns and issues.” That was Butch in a nutshell. It was a very practical version, not controlling or airily philosophical. He was like a computer, analyzing data, all the time. He loved to read about history, which he then translated into understanding the patterns in the present. He quietly organized the shopping cart so that it went onto the belt and into the bags according to where it would go when we unloaded it at home. He drove like most people play chess, five moves ahead. He noticed the driving patterns of the cars around and ahead of us and shifted away from anyone who seemed especially erratic. He never said anything about it, you had to observe it to appreciate what he was doing. He never backtracked in the hardware store. He knew where things were and what he needed and worked from one end to the other methodically. Even the parking space he chose had to do with where we would be exiting at the end of the list rather than the closest entrance or the closest spot.

This was yet another example of how opposites attract. Strangely, Strategic is one of my five inborn talents. But it is not the practical version. It is exactly how I operate as a therapist. As someone talks, my brain is gathering the bits and pieces into a pattern that enables me to intuitively head in the right direction in facilitating their growth toward wellness. But in the rest of life, I meander. A trip to the hardware store consistently requires at least two complete circles from one end to the other. The groceries are random. Despite knowing where everything is in the store, it is not unusual for me to circle there as well. I am now listening to Butch’s Audible books that include presidential biographies and war history. Somehow, it feels like listening to the same books he listened to keeps him closer. It helps me know him in a new way. He would have heard the political strategies and military tactics. He would have thought about the bigger picture of the world and how and why it operates the way it does. I hear the relationships between the characters and wonder about their childhood trauma and its effect on their role as world leaders. I think about PTSD. My heart hears how hard it must have been for them to have undergone what they did. I certainly realize that nothing has changed much. From George Washington on, the haters and worshipers lined up in unyielding camps and seemed to have learned nothing from history.

This difference showed up most noticeably in our ways of running errands. He knew where he needed to go and why, before pulling out of the driveway. I am sure he factored in traffic patterns in his perfectly strategic dispatch of his list. He usually finished all the errands on his list. I, on the other hand had a list of things I need to accomplish but the order in which they were to be done was very fluid. The most critical item was first. If that was successful, then I could do item two and possibly three. If it was unsuccessful then two and three dropped off the list and we moved to four. If item one took too long, the list was reviewed for the next critical item with any optional items that were geographically aligned between item one and that new priority added if possible. In that way, items that seemed unimportant or had not been on the list in the first place, were suddenly added based on geography rather than more important items that were in another direction. All of that added up to having no apparent pattern, except what was intuitively developing in my head as were going. It was unusual for me to complete the list. For Butch, this was like fingernails on a chalkboard. It was especially irksome if he was driving.

We resolved the problem by simply discussing our philosophical differences and making some agreements. He no longer attempted to dispatch my list of errands based on his need to be strategic in helping me conquer the list. In fact, he stopped driving so he could avoid the urge to turn the car in the direction of what he thought should be the next logical stop. He simply road along. He re-framed it from “helping me run errands” to “hanging out with me while I ran errands”. That is not to say that he did not regularly wonder out loud why I didn’t do errand seven on the way to errand three when it was right on the way. He just realized that what was important to me on that list was all in my head and possibly my heart and could not be discerned by him.

This meandering way of moving through life is a common characteristic of those who have sustained a major loss. It is often described as “brain fog”. Right after the loss, it is all we can do to put one foot in front of the other. Even if we are beset with mania, frantically hurrying from one thing to another to stay ahead of the pain, it is more reflexive than thoughtful. In A Grief Observed, C.S. Lewis describes this as “being mildly drunk or concussed. There is a sort of invisible blanket between the world and me. I find it hard to take in what anyone says. It is so uninteresting.” Over time, this lessens, and we seem to land back on the planet and begin moving purposefully through our lives again. We develop strategies to manage the unmanageable and begin to gain traction in our journey forward.

While each year will get better in some ways, the journey of grief never ends. As the intensity of the pain lessens, we remember them more. The wall that blocks the pain actually blocks everything. With the wall down, there is more of a steady flow of awareness. This is both good and bad news. Sweet memories begin to drift into our consciousness. Initially, this is hard, because they are reminders of what we have lost and seem always to carry pain with them. We discover that there is no way to avoid their presence in us or in the world around us. Gradually, these memories feel more sweet than bitter and assure us that we will never lose our loved on because they are fully alive inside us all the time. Just no hugs. We also realize that, for the rest of our lives, there will be moments of stabbing pain that seem as intense as ever and come with no warning. We accept this as the new normal and give up on the fantasy that we will “get over it.” We learn, rather, to move through it, one day at a time.

What will catch us off guard is the way that his fogginess can settle back in unannounced. Anniversaries and birthdays might send us instantly to square one. Holidays open the door and invite us back into the haze. If we are not mindful of the potential to slip back into the fog, we are at risk. It begins so subtly that we may not notice it is happening until it is bad. Being “partially concussed” inevitably results in lost objects, often important ones, accidents, injuries, missed appointments, impatience with others who do not understand what we are experiencing, and an endless list of inexplicable moments that leave us wondering what just happened and why. Chores go undone. Goals become unimportant or unattainable. Life loses flavor. Left unchecked, we can arrive in a very bad place.

Becoming us without them will include much brain fog. It is best accomplished in the presence of loving others. They know us and will notice when we are adrift again. They will throw us a lifeline back to ourselves without losing themselves in process. Our grieving mentors will not chastise us for losing ground or tell us to “just get over it.” Being honest about the pain, we receive comfort and build confidence to move forward and upward. As we share our truth with those both ahead and behind us on the journey of grief, we grow ourselves and empower others to grow with us. The years the locusts have eaten are redeemed when our story becomes light and salt in the lives of others. We get better at negotiating the fog.