Mechanics, Stoicism, and Cognitive Decline
As things with my health have been progressing, or degrading, or degenerating (choose whatever word you prefer) - which has been happening slowly for years, it's nothing new - every now and again fun new symptoms crop up. Sometimes it's something entirely new, which is unfortunate, but also a fun medical challenge for someone who is certainly not an accomplished diagnostician, and sometimes it's just an exacerbation or new sub-variety of something I've already got. It is what it is, and all my and my doctors best efforts can't stop it, only slow it down a smidge and help manage things. It's okay.
“Make the best use of what is in your power, and take the rest as it happens. Some things are up to us and some things are not up to us.” – Epictetus
So I know I have mentioned my brain fog (fibro fog, depression fog, etc) in past posts. But what that means, simply, is my cognitive function is reduced. Usually temporarily, ranging from part of a day to a week or so. Thinking is harder & exhausting, I get super forgetful/absent-minded, I tend to substitute the wrong word when talking or struggle to find a word at all, and so on. It's not great, especially for a busy gal who's got her hands in 1,000 things & is trying to finish a med degree. But recently the brain fog has been getting worse. Flare-ups have been lasting longer, expressions of cognitive difficulty have been getting more dramatic, and it seems to be becoming more frequent. But most disconcerting is that I'm beginning to get super forgetful. Not just "haha, oh shoot, where on earth did I put my keys?" but like losing chunks of time, having conversations I don't remember, and things along those lines. I've begun to wonder if I'm going to be able to finish my doctorate, or practice if and when I do... if I'll get to write those books I've been brainstorming, or start those new programs, or keep running my businesses. It's a really big concern.
But there's an ego side of this as well (isn't there always?). When all else has failed, and even when it hasn't, I've always valued and relied on my smarts to get me by. They're not perfect, I really struggle thanks to several learning disabilities, but I've always had a voracious appetite for knowledge, and retained information pretty well. I have adequate reasoning skills and can figure my way through most things. My intellect is my most prized possession, perhaps to a fault. But as hard as life has been at times, I've always had that. People suck? Read a book. Economy crashes? Look through a microscope. Relationships end? Get another degree. Pain is everywhere all the goddamn time? Present a new lecture series. Depression got you battling dark ideations? Go to a physic talk or check out a new museum! It's fantastic.
But as things progress, my mind is beginning to betray me. And it's fucking terrifying. Not only do I have to write down where I parked my car whenever I go anywhere, or notes about any important conversations I have, professional or otherwise, but half my identity is vaporizing before my very eyes. I had been looking at a PhD in neuroscience after completing my med degree, but that seems like a distant dream now. In fact, learning anything new of any real complexity seems borderline unrealistic. That is the most depressing sentence I think I have ever written (save the entire last entry I wrote). Putting together new programs is an exhausting concept. Where I used to sit down and throw together baller business plans like it was nothing, now I struggle to outline new curriculum or assemble a marketing strategy.
I'm currently re-taking some lower-level bio and organic chem courses because I've gotten to the point that I've forgotten a lot of what I knew. I know part of that is a natural part of advancing your knowledge, pursuing higher and higher eductaiton, but not to this degree.
Yesterday I was chatting with a dear friend about math (of all god-forsaken things). And I realized that, despite their opinions on the matter, the odds of me ever fully grasping any moderate to higher-level concepts at this point is... unlikely. And it breaks my heart. I was listening to this same friend explain their field of study (physics, of course) to me the other day, and it was so poetic and passionate and beautiful that I cried (yes yes, I'm an emotional, nerdy mess. Move on). I just wanted to dive in and immerse myself in their experience, see more of the world from their vantage point! But by the end of the conversation (thankfully by message over the internet), I couldn't remember the beginning. So I had to go back and re-read. And re-read. And re-read again. And it's now seared into my soul in the most beautiful way imaginable, but it also hurts to know that I will never feel that about something new to that extent. I'm struggling to retain the information I have already obtained about my field (which I do have those beautiful and passionate feels about). I get the pleasure of constantly discovering new things, which is its own type of thrilling. But it's not the same as becoming deeply intimate with a subject. Like a lover whose lines and curves you know by heart. Who you've spent years with, discovering all their most beautiful and tragic secrets, only to discover they can still surprise you. Whose thoughts you know as well as you know your own. That's a beauty that few people get to feel about a subject. And I want more of that. And I likely will not have it.
But after I stopped feeling sorry for myself, which definitely took a hot second, I had a realization. I may not always have exceptional cognitive function. Honestly, I'm not brilliant now, not compared to many people, but I may lose what I do have. And that is sad, and scary. But you know what doesn't require full mental clarity and an IQ well over 140? Kindness. Regardless of how things go, how many higher degrees I get or how much of my mind I lose, I can still be kind. I can exude love like there's no tomorrow. As they say, "sprinkle that shit on everything!"
Kindness is its own type of intelligence.
I can love and support people. I can take no shit, but do no harm. I can encourage my brilliant friends who are out there changing the world. I can be a listening ear for my loved ones and clients alike. I can cook fucking delicious food, which is my favourite way to show affection. Regardless of what happens, I can love people with every ounce of my being, support them, cheer them on, hold them when they cry. Whether I ever learn to do fancy math or become Farrah Kaeser, CMH, RMT, CNHC, ND, PhD or not, I can always be Farrah, nerdy girl who will always be there for you and love you regardless of what kind of day you're having. Who will check in on you when your Instagram feed seems sad. Who will be honest with you no matter how hard it is. Who will help you study for your finals. Who will bring you soup when you're sick.
I can also continue to advocate, yell about issues that matter to me. Even if I can no longer organize events and marches and programs, I can be there. I can support those that can. And, as someone who has been the one organizing everything for years, trust me... those people who show up, who help out, who are encouraging... they're the real heroes!
Going through the process of figuring out who I am outside of my gray matter is a weird challenge. But it's one I think I'm up for, even though it hurts a whole lot. And regardless of anything, I plan on continuing to try and learn things, read things, study things until the day I die. Doesn't matter if I have to read it 100 times, or forget it the next day. That's just something about me that will never ever change. It may get increasingly frustrating, but I've always been up for a good challenge! But I also choose, regardless of anything, to begin deepening my relationship with emotional intelligence, of valuing kindness and gentleness as much as intellect.
And who knows, maybe these symptoms will subside and I will end up with a list of fancy degrees as long as my arm! But even so, kindness. Maybe I will end up organizing some of the most respected programs in the country. Even so, kindness. Maybe I'll develop a treatment for my conditions! Even so, kindness. Maybe I will retain most of my brain function but spend the remainder of my days working from a wheelchair. Even so, kindness. Maybe I will lose all my mental clarity and live life in a fog of thought fragments and half-memories. Even so, kindness. No matter how fancy and accomplished and awarded and renowned I get, or how alone and Alzheimers-esque and lost I become, kindness. Always kindness. Before, during, and after all things. Kindness.
(this is also an exceptional spot to point out my evergreen anthem of "LIVE LIFE FULLY WHILE YOU CAN!" Be bold and brave. Do all the things. Carpe diem, quam minimum credula postero, as it were.
It's also a moment to acknowledge that I've been doing a lot of reading on stoicism over the past 6-12 months, and while life is still hard, it's made it a whole lot better for me. I highly recommend researching the topic.)