A few years ago I worked in technical support for an international telecoms company, dealing with major issues on the network. One that came up quite often was memory fragmentation. I won’t write a detailed description of it because it’s quite dull and, in any case, I have forgotten most of it! It can be briefly summarised, though, as the memory of a router being used and released in progressively smaller pieces. So the router would appear to have ample memory but the pieces were too small to allocate to any task. In time, the router would not be able to update it’s…. uhm….. routes….. Which is not very useful for a router.
I can almost picture friends and colleagues burying the heads in their hands upon reading such a deep, technical description..
Anyway, that term has come back in to my mind recently. I am not suddenly missing the days of late night calls to resolve issues of this type but, rather, it is reminding me of what is going on with my mind and the impact on it from Multiple Sclerosis.
2019 has been a great year for my physical fitness (I’ll say it again: mountains!) but the cognitive issues associated with MS have become a little more prevalent. They have been there since before formal diagnosis but, this year, it is just more noticeable.
The nature of this is what took me back to the memory fragmentation issue that I use to encounter in the past and apply it to my mind. The brain is still there and it is active. My intelligence (no sarcastic remarks please) is intact. But perhaps the elements of mind and memory can also be seen as in pieces. Sometimes these pieces are too small to allocate to a task.
To give an, when I am walking in a confined space, it takes a lot of concentration not to walk in to something. A busy bar with lights and noise and lots of things in the way. An effort to get to a table and then sit down. The same in a full train. I hate rush-hour. Lots of input, sensory overdrive.
A joke I heard. ‘MS walks in to a bar……. and a table and a chair’. Good one that…..
It also highlights the issues at hand. My mind can cope with walking in to a place but, sometimes, the additional sensory load of people and noise can be overwhelming. In the past, my mind could allocate a large enough chunk to deal with them. But now, sometimes, it can’t and I walk in to the table.
Small examples but reflective of wider issues. Multi-tasking, for example, used to be second nature at work but is now a long lost dream and, to be dangerously honest, I scream silently when someone interrupts my chain of thought with a comment or question. I can feel the memory fragmentation, a winder being shattered with the brick of someone else’s words. Also when watching a film, I get thrown totally if someone says something. My mind can’t deal with it. FaceTime is hell – voices and things on the screen – totally wears me out.
Still, life goes on. And I want my part of it. That means dealing with these issues.
Over the last couple of years I have built up some sort of response. Not the most complicated actions or any form of spellbinding therapy, although there has been a lot of help from therapists at my clinic. They are very good at telling what seems obvious but is not when you are in the middle of it.
One thing at a time.
The basis of all is concentration. Whether I like it or not, this is more taxing than it used to be. So, I need to practice it a little more. The simple expedient of reading, for example. I try to read something short every day in the morning. This started with the poems of Wilfred Owen. Now ‘Delight’ by JB Priestley, which I have mentioned previously. This book is taking awhile because I also like to read a newspaper article or two from beginning to end in the morning. A Dutch paper so that will also improve my language skills.
This is simple and something I have done for years. It is now more of effort but leads to good practices and helps make sure my mind starts the day gently, steadying itself for the random input ahead.
Closing myself off. Only the words in front of me are relevant.
One thing at a time.
A good practice to start the day with but which can be extended to so many thing; entering a busy place, watching a concert or a film, riding a bike, walking down the street. Focus on one thing and do it well.
One thing at a time.
Fine words and thoughts. But this is real life and it is my choice to continue to be part of it. And in the real things can come all at once. Conversations will flow. I would love to say, sometimes, ‘don’t ask me questions, I’m thinking!’ That’s not really feasible, though. And quite antisocial.
What I try to do, though, is create breathing space. At work, don’t answer the phone immediately. Recompose and call back, quickly. Don’t answer the message flashing on the screen immediately. It’s better to pause and be ready than jump too fast and loose your footing. Both at work and in private life, ask for a moment before answering a question. Be observant, look for the quietest compartment on a train. If the bus is full there will be another one in a few minutes.
Not the perfect response but I am working on it. There will always be weaknesses. The bits of my mind that are allocated to listening to what you are saying and comprehending it can be knocked sideways by the bit of my mind that registers that there is a bird fluttering around outside and is focused on that.. It will take a couple of moments to quieten that piece down but it’s momentary dominance only increases my personal memory fragmentation.
The cold fact is that, over the last six years, things have slowly gotten worse. It is difficult to think clearly sometimes. Brain fog (not my term but it is a good one) makes fast decisions difficult. I get increasingly forgetful.
Against the negative there is the positive. Experience is building. I have my coping mechanisms. There is no point in claiming they are perfect and the risk I take in living life is that these issues are more exposed. I have long made the resolution to enjoy my physical fitness as much as possible and see and do as much as I can. That means dealing with the cognitive issues. I can take actions to reduce their impact but they will always be there and sometimes they can lead to a moment of embarrassment. Giving a presentation and forgetting what I am talking about, for example, or awkward clumsiness on a busy train leaving me feeling like a giant pinball bouncing from door to seat.
A small price to pay, I think. Memory fragmentation was something from the past that now seems, personally, very relevant and real. But do I want to close myself off from the world to mitigate the impact?
No. Not yet.