The strange case of my elderly mom’s loss and return of her memory… By Nancy Rempel
On the side of a filing cabinet in my psychologist’s office is a sign that simply reads: “Please don’t feed the thoughts.”
It took me a while to really understand the message it is conveying. I got the humour part and that it is based on similar signs in national parks that read, “Please do not feed the wildlife etc…especially bears,” but, it has taken me a while to really get it.
On days when I am struggling, or ruminating about negative things
like the end of my favourite season – the summertime – and the possibility of becoming severely depressed all fall and winter (because up till last year this happened for four years in a row), I try to remind myself of the sign’s mantra. That thoughts are just thoughts. We don’t need to always engage with or believe them, and they don’t need to become like bears or boogie men in our minds.
This is really hard because we are raised to trust and value above all, our minds, and their myriad of capabilities.
I think that’s one of the hardest things to accept when you have been diagnosed with mental illness – the idea that your mind is misfiring at times, and once you understand this, you don’t need to pay attention to or even begin to believe outlandish or repetitive thoughts that feel like they can take over our lives.
The power of our minds and what they are capable of, and their resilience really rang true for me this past summer when my 80-year-old mother experienced a series of brain seizures and a small “brain bleed.”
My brother Dave, who lives with her, says she came out of her bedroom one morning complaining she felt cold – while wearing a very strange combination of almost no clothing. She had topped the look off with her grey, puffy, down winter vest, which with her bare legs, made her look like a football player with chicken legs! She had suddenly become very confused and teary-eyed. She did not know what day it was.
After a 10-hour wait in emergency, she was admitted to hospital and was soon on the neurology ward. Much to our dismay, as each day passed her memory was disappearing at an alarming rate. She couldn’t remember going through a recent surgical procedure. She didn’t remember that she owned an Ipad. Soon, she couldn’t remember which relatives had passed away. Each day became like ground-hog day.
On daily walks through the hospital with my brother Don, she would pass displays about early nursing and medical procedures in that hospital. They would go through the same routine each day. My mom, who is a former nurse, expressing shock and surprise by the displays, and enjoying the same specific features and pictures, and telling the same stories from her career…like it was all fresh and new!
Within a week, my mom had forgotten a great deal, and wasn’t able to remember the faces of relatives or friends who had sent her cards or flowers. All food tasted funny or salty, and she was losing weight because she was so hard to please menu-wise.
Needless to say, we were all very concerned and worried about having to find her a home – something we’ve all dreaded.
She caught wind of us talking about this possibility, so was busy keeping endless lists and reminders to convince everyone that she could manage and remember things. She kept talking about how wonderful her life and living situation was and how she just wanted it back.
In a strange twist, about two weeks after she first appeared cold and confused in her own apartment, she slowly started recovering from what the doctors labelled “Global Transient Amnesia.”
My mom had to re-learn how to cook basic things like porridge, how to work a laundry machine, and how to walk unaccompanied to her favourite hangout – a local seniors’ centre.
Two months have passed and she functioning at a very high level – not quite like before, but enough that she can be alone safely.
She still has a hard time remembering familiar faces – but her memory is slowly coming back with each day.
One other remarkable bonus is her new exuberance for life. It’s hard to tell if this is because she has escaped the grim reaper or if her mind has actually physically changed, but she is now always upbeat and grateful for her life. Before, she tended towards the glass being half full.
As her children, it has been an incredible transformation to observe and be a part of. She has returned to life with a more positive outlook, and refreshed energy for the world and all of its mystery.
I’ve asked a psychiatrist friend, and apparently, this isn’t uncommon.
Our minds can change and adjust rapidly, and even miraculously return to a high level of functioning.
This event is another reason to “not feed the thoughts.” Instead, trying to passively observe thoughts – like a scientist – and remembering, we don’t have to buy in to what our mind is churning out is also a possibility. Thoughts can really just be thoughts, and like clouds in the sky, you can opt to just watch them pass.
My mother’s experience is also a reminder about accepting how little power we have over our minds and how rapidly things can change. Acceptance, rather than struggling for control over thoughts and wasting the precious energy we have to put on an act of wellness, has become a large part of my mantra for living with mental illness.