Mind slip: Coping with absentmindedness and forgetfulness


My mind sometimes slips into a fog. It’s true. There may be countless times in a day when I stand up, walk with purpose into the kitchen at home or open a drawer in my desk at work and then simply stop dead in my tracks. I stare blankly into the desk drawer or the open refrigerator for several moments. Squinting my eyes and biting my lower lip, I then chant quickly under my breath, “Why I am here? Why am I here? Why am I here?” until I can at last remember what I originally set out to do. Sometimes I correctly figure out my original mission. Other times, I end up completing something else only to realise moments later in another part of the house or deep into another task that I didn’t achieve my original task.

This may seem like a completely normal, human thing to do. To comfort myself, I try to chalk up my scatterbrained moments to what I call a “brain overload” and that I once again awkwardly have put myself in a situation in which I am processing too many ideas and tasks simultaneously. Just a couple of weeks ago, a work friend tried to carry on a casual, easy-going conversation with me while I tried scanning a book on the copy machine at the same time. I simply couldn’t manage this ostensibly simple task of a pleasant conversation and pressing a button on a machine at the same time. My friend finally sympathetically turned to me and said, “I think I’ll leave you be. You’re not a multitasker, are you?”

Sometimes when I make a “brain overload” goof or an absentminded blunder, I joke that I just had a “blonde moment”, unfairly playing up the stereotype about dumb blondes. I realize that it’s a cheap shot and this overused and untrue generalization needs to be retired. I don’t really believe that my blonde hair causes my forgetfulness and absentmindedness, so obviously it can’t be true. Some people also refer to such absentminded instances as “senior moments”. When I catch myself in such a moment for others to witness, I may get a remark like, “Oh Stephanie, you’re far too young to be having such a moment.” To which I think, “Right?”

I can’t help but feel so isolated, ashamed and indeed alone in such moments of my mind slipping. In recent years, it has caused me embarrassment and also has caused those close to me frustration. When I have actually been called out on such moments, I get over-defensive and want to scream out, “I’m not dumb! Really!” I remember a few years ago going through days of anguish and consternation when a work supervisor had been tasked to delicately mention to me that I had behaved inappropriately at a recent meeting for asking questions that had been covered a few minutes before. Other times, I have been softly rebuked by friends and loved ones for retelling stories I have shared two or three times previously or for repeating a conversation for the umpteenth time. Although I’m sure the messages are well meaning, the effect can sometimes make me want to seclude myself and hide away for a while.

My absentmindedness and forgetfulness sometimes causes me to feel like I'm facing an isolated and upward struggle.

My absentmindedness and forgetfulness sometimes causes me to feel like I’m facing an isolated and upward struggle.

Sometimes I wonder whether my absentminded and forgetful moments are simply that or whether they are teasers of the early stages of Alzheimer’s. Dementia and Alzheimer’s are sadly very much realities in my family and I have in recent years witnessed them take their toll on brilliant, vivacious, energetic minds of family members very dear to me. I guess secretly I have feared and am increasingly coming to terms with the reality that I may too someday walk down that path. Recent articles I have read about young people being diagnosed with Alzheimers as early as their late 40s have helped stoke that fear in me. As far as I know, there are no cures for memory loss and these cruel inflictions of the mind. The mind loss an individual may experience is equally cruel to the pain that their loved ones must endure as they witness a once full of life, exceptional person who is close to them transform and slowly wilt away before their eyes. Yes, losing my full memory capacity and my mind and then subjecting the pain to my loved ones is probably one of my greatest fears.

Why am I contemplating such a heavy topic? Inching my way up to 40 in a couple of months, I am actually coming to the point in my life where I will be middle-aged. My own mortality isn’t staring me in the face but I can’t help but reflect on the cycle of life and the different stages as I approach the middle chapter of my life. My last grandparent’s passing last year and my parents entering their 70s this year has me more contemplative about life stages and perhaps my own last chapters.  Meanwhile, I hope that by confessing my fear of mind deterioration, I will send the message to others of all ages experiencing similar slips and fears that they are not alone. Indeed, I recently heard even the grandmaster of horror, American writer Stephen King confess in an interview that not the mysterious bogeyman but memory loss and ultimately losing his mind were very much his greatest fears. Hearing such confessions from him or witnessing mind slips and absentminded moments from others are constant reminders that they are in essence human and that I don’t have to feel alone and ashamed in my struggle.

A few months ago while teaching, I finished giving directions to my students about an assignment. I was very careful and methodical in my oral instructions and also passed out written instructions to my students. No sooner did I finish explaining my instructions when I asked the obligatory, “Any questions?” A student in the front row then raised his hand and proceeded to query about something I had just gone to great pains to finish explaining. One of his classmates belted out a laugh and quickly covered her mouth to try to cover up her astonishment and rudeness. Can I confess that I took such great comfort in the first student’s mess up? While initially I wanted to sigh and give him a look that said, “Really? Seriously?” I stopped myself and thought, “Careful, Stephanie…He may be one of your kind.”

Such moments have helped me cope with my own mind slips, absentmindedness and forgetfulness. They teach me to be compassionate and sensitive to others, and how people process and develop their thoughts and ideas. Whatever the cause of my own absentmindedness and forgetfulness, I try to compensate for them with my sharper long-term memory and by making sense of my knowledge of random, so called trivial facts and information (For example, when I was in college and in the days before widespread internet and quick Google searches, I would occasionally get phone calls from my sister in the middle of the night desperate to find out the name of that actor who played Gopher in Love Boat or some other random information). By repeating, reviewing and reciting (re being the key prefix here) ideas, stories, thoughts and ideas that have just been shared with me, I know they will become more ingrained, even if not necessarily at the same pace as others. Self-deprecating humor also helps me cope. Another tactic I may employ before launching into a story or relaying events, is simply citing a, “Perhaps I have mentioned this before…” or a “Let me know if I have told you this before”, thus avoiding embarrassment on both my part and my listeners’ parts. And if my mind does indeed someday go the dreaded route of Alzheimer’s, then I shall embrace and celebrate whatever whit and memory I have for as long as they both may last.

We absentminded and forgetful people indeed are not alone. We are from different backgrounds and walks of life. I like to think that many of us are actually great thinkers and achievers as well. As friends, family members, work colleagues, classmates and teachers, let’s not silence or shame those close to us if they may need something repeated or reiterated. Take pleasure when your grandmother or close friend tells you that funny story from her childhood for the umpteenth time, especially if it transforms them to another place and even allows you to relive the events vicariously.

Dedicated to the memory of my brilliant aunt, Dr. Barbara Merkens.


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