Life with MS and Cognitive Issues: You Never Know What to Expect

By Jeri Burtchell

Ever since telling my family and friends I’d be writing a blog post for MSAA on the topic of cognition, they have been ribbing me. The irony of the most absentminded person they know writing about memory loss is too amusing to ignore.

All kidding aside, cognitive issues can be a serious and bewildering symptom of MS. One that can creep up stealthily and impact every area of your life–and it’s more common than you might think.

My reputation for forgetfulness goes back a long way, predating my diagnosis of Relapsing-remitting MS in 1999. I’ve had memory problems for as far back as I can recall.  However, how far back I can recall is debatable.

I start each day with my cognitive cup full. In the stillness of a quiet house at 5 a.m., I approach life hopeful for a day filled with accomplishments. Morning is when I do my best thinking. But I know what’s coming and I prepare in advance.

As surely as the sun crosses the sky, I’ll begin my descent into a foggy, cognitive swamp by midafternoon.  Having a plan that helps me get through the day without being overcome by frustration is kind of like having a little set of crutches for my brain.

A huge dry erase board serves as my calendar. Using multicolored Post-it Notes, I translate my life’s chores, celebrations and obligations into a color-coded explosion of reminders. When a fleeting thought of something important lands briefly on my conscious mind, I grab it and quickly trap it in a sticky note. The important thought is added to my calendar, displayed like a butterfly on a pin board.

Green Post-it Notes are work-related and sprinkled all over the board. Yellow is for appointments and domestic duties; pink reminds me to pay the bills. Orange is for anything related to the kids, who have so many extracurricular activities that even a fully functioning brain would have trouble keeping up.

Although it all sounds good on paper, in reality, I’m grasping at straws. I frequently find myself herding well-intentioned sticky reminders from left to right in a multicolored cattle drive across the calendar as accomplishments go unfinished.

So why does this happen when I’m determined to plan out my day? Well, because of websites like Facebook and Pinterest. Or it could be as simple as someone asking me a question that leads my brain astray.

“Jeri, do you know where the phone book is?” my mother asks.

“No, Mom, let me look around.” I reply.

Fifteen minutes later, the Great Phone Book Hunt has yielded nothing, I end up Googling the number for her instead, and whatever task I was working on has slipped to the bottom of the cognitive swamp, totally forgotten.

Thankfully, even though my family members tease me, they are my safety net as well. Intuitively, everyone seems to have found their own way to help me stay on track.

My mother, who will be ninety next month, is an expert in the art of the gentle reminder. She keeps her own lists of what I should be doing and gives me a subtle nudge if she sees my memory falter. She does it with such finesse that a politician would be impressed.

The kids and grandkids know that telling me something important once is not enough. I need daily phone calls, texts, or emails to refresh my memory about picking them up at school or taking them to practice.

Although nobody gets angry when I come home from the grocery store without the bread or milk, there might be some exasperated eye-rolling when I explain that I forgot to even look at the list.

I once had to mail a package with only fifteen minutes to spare. I jumped in the car and raced straight there only to get out of the car and look around puzzled. I wasn’t at the post office. I was at the grocery store on the other side of town. Daydreaming about what to fix for dinner had apparently determined my route. Rather than obsess about how I could possibly have done that, I decided to make the best of things. I went grocery shopping.

Living with cognitive symptoms of MS can be challenging. It takes planning and teamwork to pull off a day that, for anyone else, would seem routine and uneventful. Failing at that now and then can be frustrating, but I try to keep things in perspective. As long as I haven’t forgotten to feed my family or pick someone up who was waiting for a ride, then I can forgive myself the other slips.

Living with cognitive problems isn’t all bad – in fact, there is an upside. I can read a good book several times and the ending still surprises me. I forget arguments as soon as they are over, so forgiving takes no effort. I could probably plan my own surprise party!

And even though my family might rib me about my memory from time to time, the simple act of everyone doing their part to help out seems to have brought us all closer together. I’ll have to jot a reminder to thank them for that – if I can remember where I put my Post-it Notes.

*Jeri Burtchell was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 1999. She has spoken from a patient perspective at conferences around the country, addressing social media and the role it plays in designing clinical trials. Jeri is a MS blogger, patient activist, and freelance writer for the MS News Beat of Healthline.com. She lives in northeast Florida with her youngest son and elderly mother. When not writing or speaking, she enjoys crafting and photography.

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