At a recent MS clinic appointment, I listed my cognitive lapses over the past year. I have mild cognitive impairment; I was tested after twenty-five years with MS and a few suspicions that I wasn’t quite up to my old speed of thought. Normal enough to others, but not me. Dividing my attention, shifting focus, and finding words have steadily grown difficult. But these three events were different: sudden, strange, like the seizure I had nearly twenty years ago: misfires, blips, spikes on some tiny chart kept by little scientists in my brain wearing white lab coats and horn-rimmed glasses. The charts ribbon out of their little machines, and when a blip occurs, the scientists rip them from the machines and conceal them in their lab coat pockets.
So I asked the Physician’s Assistant the question we all ask at some point: “Is this normal?”
My husband was somewhere behind me, off getting milk while I ducked the supermarket scooter into a quiet aisle. He approached and said, “Chobani’s on offer.”
“Chobani?” I said.
“You know, Chobani.”
“What . . . is . . . chobani?” I asked slowly. His face went from quizzical to startled. I play little practical jokes sometimes, and he thought this was one of them. The startled expression came when he realized I was far from joking. I was confused.
“You really don’t remember what Chobani is?” he said.
“No.” I panicked. “Is it bread?” I thought of another word that begins with a ch- sound, but couldn’t place it. Ciabatta.
Two years before, I had come home from a trip to a Maryland writer’s retreat telling him all about the Chobani Greek yogurt I had for breakfast while I was there. So you can imagine his surprise that I did not recognize the name. I wanted to shrink into myself. How strange it felt, as though a shell of silence had formed around me and nobody could come in or let me out.
Oh . . . Blip
I forgot. Please hold. I need to find my list in my purse to jog my memory. Listen to some muzak while you wait, or talk amongst yourselves. La la la . . .
Found it: my list says, “time concept.”
I was scheduled for a hair cut and color at 1:00 pm. It takes me half an hour to forty-five minutes to drive to the salon. I was aware of these things. At 11:45 I was answering email and remembered feeling as though I had plenty of time. I’ll just finish this up, I thought. I took a shower. Then it was 12:20. I grabbed a book, dressed, did my makeup. I took my time. Then I glanced at the clock. How did it become 1:09?
There was no way I could make it. I was beyond late. Perplexed. At 12:15 I should have been thinking of leaving. At 11:45 I should have realized I was running late, but somehow didn’t.
I couldn’t tie it together. Imagine two strands of yarn. One is the hours ticking by, time itself, and at 1:00 I had my appointment. Let’s put an imaginary pin down and call it 1:00. The other strand of yarn represents the amount of time needed to prepare and drive to 1:00. The problem is, in my head the two strands of yarn were very far apart, and parallel. I could not connect them. They were loose and felt tiny in my mind, like when my hand is weak or shaky and I can’t grasp a small object.
At the vet’s office there’s a steep little hill you need to accelerate to climb, so I drove up as usual. At the top I eased the brake. The car sped up. Why aren’t we stopping, I thought. Something’s wrong with the car. I pressed harder. We headed faster toward the building. Just as I reached for the emergency brake I saw my foot firmly pressing the gas pedal, not the brake. I lifted my foot and slammed on the brake just in time.
It took me two days to tell anyone. No structural harm, but I was shaken, ashamed, confused.
When I asked the MS clinic PA if having cognitive blips is “normal,” she paused a moment.
“It’s—common,” she said, her voice measured and lifting.
And I was grateful: more common than normal, strange but shared.
Laurie Clements Lambeth’s MS diagnosis at the age of seventeen brought her to poetry. Her first book Veil and Burn (University of Illinois Press, 2008) was selected for the 2006 National Poetry Series. Currently at work on her second poetry collection and a book of creative nonfiction about MS, she also teaches in the Medicine and Society program at the University of Houston, where she earned MFA and PhD degrees in Creative Writing. To learn more about her work, please visit www.laurieclementslambeth.com.