Story Of A Man Who Had Memory Problems
Let’s hear the story in his own words.
There was no way around it. Something was happening to my mind. I felt vague and foggy. I couldn’t remember what I’d read for much longer than it took to get to the bottom of the page. Almost overnight, I found that I was missing critical information the names of people and places, the titles of books and movies. Words, my stockin-trade as a writer, had started to play hide-and-seek. Thoughts popped in and out of my mind, barely formed, so evanescent that even when I dashed for paper and pencil, I didn’t have time to record them. My mental calendar, once easily summoned, grew elusive and developed blank spots, as did my sense of direction. My life became billowy, amorphous, as if someone had removed the support poles from my tent. The change was so dramatic that sometimes I felt foreign to myself.
I’d barely crossed the threshold of middle age. It was a bad time, made worse because I was afraid to tell anyone what had befallen me. I didn’t have the words to describe it, or the heart to contend with the solicitous expressions I expected to encounter if I spoke up. Whatever this was, it was mine alone. As a journalist, I was invested in staying smart and quick, mistress of my good brain and my sardonic tongue.
Secretly, I assumed that I had lost my edge, a ruinous thing in my business. I had a lovely husband and two beautiful young sons. As rich as those blessings made me, my identity and my self-esteem depended on the quality of my thinking.
A chance conversation with a fifty-year-old friend, one of the sharpest women I know, made me realize that I was not alone. One morning, over coffee, she explained that she was quitting her job. She had suffered a string of frightening moments, when her mind emptied as quickly as the shoreline before a tsunami, leaving her feeling, as she put it, “like an old fool.” I’d seen my aunt hold up two index fingers, close her eyes, and ask me to wait while she worked her way through a “senior moment,” but as far as I was concerned, such lapses were the exclusive domain of people who were much older.
“My memory is shot,” my friend muttered. “It could be stress, or depression, or insomnia, or menopause, or that I hate my job, or that I was crazy to wait until I was forty-four to have a child. What I know is that I’m working with people who are twenty-five years younger than I am and they will not cut me any slack. I don’t know how bad it will get, or how it will end, but I’ll tell you one thing: I’d rather die than lose my mind.”
Within a few weeks, she stopped working and started taking Zoloft: Her psychiatrist was convinced that depression was to blame for her memory troubles. Although depression is often a catalyst for midlife memory impairment, it is not the only cause. Worth considering is the converse: The apparently sudden onset of cognitive troubles— with onerous implications in terms of aging and professional success—could be harrowing enough to bring it on. I could no longer visit her in the mid-afternoon because she required a long daily nap. I watched her previously robust self-confidence disappear as her world contracted.
Soon after, I went to the movies with my husband. On the short drive home, I realized that I couldn’t remember the title of the film, which I had liked very much, or the name of the actor who played the leading role. For some reason, this was the last straw. It shook me up. The bulldozer that had run over my friend was already rolling in my in my direction. I wasn’t going to lie down for it. If there was some way to fight these alterations in memory and attention, to snatch my brain out of harm’s way, I’d summon the gumption, and I’d fight.
I began with the self-help books, of which there were many, each of which promised that (with a little work) I could capture forever the names of people I met at cocktail parties. Presumably intended for an older audience with a good deal of armchair time at its disposal, the books bored and frustrated me. I found it difficult to remember their “tips and tricks,” and impossible to pay sufficient attention to the brainteasers to solve them. I struggled through the diagnostic quizzes that populated the pages of the self-help books, feeling that they weren’t intended for my demographic. I filled out multiple-choice tests that asked how often I hunted for missing items—never, once a week, every other day or once a day, or multiple times a day. Who were they kidding? People in their forties (and many in their fifties) were still in the stage of life where, in the course of an hour, they’d need to track down sneakers, missing homework assignments, a single green sock and a stuffed animal. Add those to the search for the missing car keys, the elusive digital file, the shopping list and the lunch meat, and life became a perpetual treasure hunt. No wonder people were obsessed with “getting organized.” The aisles of the Container Store, the newest behemoth in our local mall, were filled with middle aged people determined to get a grip on their lives.
Over the course of a few years, as many of my friends and relatives moved into their forties and fifties, I began to realize that actually, I was part of a large group of middle-aged people who were struggling to keep up. When Sol Wisenberg, then the government counsel, asked former president Bill Clinton to repeat the details of an exchange he’d had eight months earlier with Vernon Jordan, regarding Monica Lewinsky, the fifty-two-year-old Clinton said that he couldn’t remember. To many, it sounded like a convenient excuse, but not to me. I believed him. Why should he be different from anybody else? In The Starr Report, published in 1998, he was uncharacteristically forthcoming: “If I could say one thing about my memory,” he told Wisenberg, “. . . I have been shocked and so have members of my family and friends of mine at how many things I have forgotten in the last six years—I think because of the pressure and pace and volume of events in a president’s life . . . I’m amazed there are a lot of times that I literally cannot remember what happened last week.”
Everywhere I went, I noticed that people’s conversations had begun to resemble the game of charades, where all they could produce were fractional notions of what they wanted to sa —“sounds like . . . starts with . . . three syllables.” A handsome fiftyish waiter at one of the finer restaurants in the Napa Valley, a pro who took his job seriously, forgot one of our appetizers, and then one of our desserts, at which point he became so apologetic that I thought he was about to cry. When Pixar brought out the animated film, Finding Nemo, a movie that involved, among other characters, a very forgetful middle-aged fish named Dory, a handy new code word was born. “Dory,” one woman would say sharply to another, warning her that she had commenced to tell, yet again, a story she had told days—or even hours—before. It seemed that I had plenty of company, both male and female.
“It’s like this,” one woman said, describing the extended wait she experienced when she tried to bring information to mind. “I used to have the Jeopardy answers long before the buzzer. I still know them, but I just can’t find them as fast. I’m no longer an AK 47. I’m more like a musket; you’ve got to load it, tamp it, pack it down and then fire.”
I was determined to get a plausible explanation of what was happening to my brain, and by extension, to middle-aged minds in general. My forgetfulness was running my life. Was this normal aging? Was it something else? I could either give up, resigning myself to existence in a mental fog, or I could subject my brain to the best scientific analysis and medical treatment.
I saw my opening and I took it. I’d become a guinea pig, a self appointed representative of middle-aged people whose brains were behaving unnervingly. I’d seek interventions of all kinds, from established to fringe, because who knew where the answer might be found? This sort of interior exploration carried risks, both pharmacological and intellectual, but the way I saw it, I had little choice. I’d consult with a range of experts in many disciplines, from bench scientists who worked primarily with animals and microscopes to the first generation of clinicians who had ready access to the human brain in vivo, thanks to the availability of MRI and PET brain-scanning technology. Before I was through, I’d meet with cognitive psychologists, psychiatrists, neuropsychologists, neurologists, neuroscientists, sleep-medicine specialists, pharmacologists, gerontologists, geneticists, trauma experts, toxicologists, endocrinologists and nutritionists. For good measure, I’d throw in a guru or two. There were obvious flaws in my methodology: No self-respecting scientist would design an investigation that allowed multiple research protocols to occur simultaneously. But I wasn’t a scientist. I was a journalist who knew a good story when I saw one. Forgetfulness was on all of our minds. It was driving us nuts. And I was going to get us some answers.
At the very beginning of my research, I wrote to Gary Small, an esteemed psychiatrist who directs both the UCLA Center on Aging and the UCLA Memory Clinic. In four pages, I outlined my memory difficulties, explaining that I had been commissioned to write an article on the subject of midlife forgetfulness for the New York Times Magazine, and that eventually, that article would grow into a book. To be honest, I expected to get a form letter back, telling me that he didn’t see patients. Instead, he phoned and offered me the moon—a full evaluation, including a trip through the PET scanner and the MRI machine. In terms of memory evaluation, this was the gold standard. I was on my way.
That was basically it. In the end, this guy became an expert himself and ended up writing a book.