Saturday, 27 April 2013

Filling in the blanks


Two dear friends have both been victims of strokes recently.  Horrid reminders of one’s frailty, they seize their moments and have left a trail of concern in their wake.  One was a TIA, the other a more serious episode.  Both required hospitalisation.  It got me thinking about my own cognitive functioning, in a way I tend not to – we don’t realise how much we have, until we can no longer call upon it. 

The stroke ward looked much like any other hospital ward I have visited.  But there was a particular tone to the quietness that felt heavy, almost ominous.  The staff were pleasant, and attentive.  Watching and waiting for important indicators of progression or regression.  I flicked through the leaflets there for patients, and their visitors.  I was struck by one in particular advertising a service undertaken by professional actors who read to stroke patients, and help their recovery in this way.  I had not previously heard of the initiative, and marvelled at the concept. 


Thankfully the two people I have known to have experienced strokes recently are both making a good recovery.  They are now vulnerable to future episodes, but will be closely monitored, and managed with appropriate medication.  It is not possible for anyone to yet predict prognosis with any accuracy.  The brain remains mysterious, and silent.

I have no clue what happened to my own today.  Having been driving for almost an hour I thought I had left something important at home.  I turned around, irritated by my carelessness, and the impact it was going to have on my overall journey time.  What a waste of time, and petrol!  I drove for 20 minutes in the opposite direction, before recalling that I had in fact packed the item the previous day, in anticipation of my journey.  I turned back, and re-joined the motorway in the same place I had earlier, and navigated the variable speed limit, and negotiated the average speed check.  I took a deep breath, and forgave myself.  Things could be worse.

As they felt to get when, in the same afternoon, I called into an unknown branch of my bank, where my spirit of adventure got the better of me, and I decided to use the ‘Express Banking machine’.  No one else was using it.  As I approached it, with some degree of trepidation, my mind suddenly went blank.  I could not recall my PIN.  The code I use every day, usually several times a day.  It was not where it is usually to be found.  My fingertips deceived me, and I found myself hopelessly trying a number of combinations I knew to be wrong, but had to rule out through a process of elimination.  The bank’s fraudulent use policy kicked in, and allowed me no further attempts.

I was devastated.  I have a brilliant memory.  What had happened?  How could it let me down in this way?  I suddenly felt quite distressed.  It was uncomfortable.  I felt vulnerable.  And alone.  No one else, for obvious reasons, knows my PIN (I do, on occasion, in certain contexts, follow advice).  It didn’t matter how many times I tried to visualise the sequence, using the key pad on my phone.  Gone.  It wasn’t there.  My memory was on strike. 

And then, almost as quickly as it’d vanished, it came back to me.  I could remember the number.  I’m not sure which I felt first; silly, or relieved.  Looking back, I feel grateful.  I had panicked and that had, I now see, made it worse.  My mind has been very busy of late.  I wonder whether the mind, a little like the physical body that so often struggles when it’s invited to rest, has a built-in circuit that shorts occasionally, prompting us to acknowledge and respect its capacity.  


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