My son hands me a form and tells me he needs $10 for a field trip. A client requests a change to their website. The tulips are coming up and the flowerbeds need to be raked. One of my volunteer causes has been patiently waiting — for weeks — for a new logo. We’re out of toilet paper. And milk. And, oh yeah, food.
Ten years ago, my 40-year-old brain would have remembered it all, categorized the demands in a mental list and multi-tasked the crap out of them. But over the course of the past decade, I’ve found myself relying less on memory and more on strategy. You know, the little sticky notes, the smart phone apps, the piles of paper strategically placed near the front door. Like most other people my age, I simply can’t remember things the way I used to.
Thing is, I’m happy about it. I’m clearing the clutter from my overloaded mind, and it’s such a relief.
The decluttering began when I hit menopause at age 47 — and I hit it hard. I was cruising along with my every-28-day schedule when suddenly everything down there ground to a screeching halt.
The stop was so sudden that it flung me headfirst into hourly hot flashes accompanied by staggering jolts of panic-inducing adrenaline. I didn’t get a solid hour of sleep for the first full year, let alone a restful night’s worth. Over and over I’d awaken — consumed by gnawing dread and a feeling of deep and unwarranted anxiety — and then 30 seconds later I’d be hit by a HUGE rush of heat that left me damp and exhausted. It didn’t take long for me to realize that the panic was a precursor to the hot flashes, and I quickly learned to calm the hell down when I felt it overtake me. But even my best efforts at mind-over-matter couldn’t stop the constant wake/sleep cycle that became my life.
Up until this point, I’d always been killer at Trivial Pursuit, song lyrics and standardized tests. You know, the three sure pathways to unqualified success and unparalleled riches. Ok, yes, they were almost completely useless skills. But I was proud of my memory.I started to panic when I failed to recall the name of the neighbor two houses down. Or how to re-set the clock on the microwave after a power failure. Or to change the Brita filter.
And now that memory began to wane. The lack of sleep, coupled with the countless mini-stresses of the night and my waning supply of estrogen all contrived to rob me of one of my few redeeming qualities. I suddenly began to forget.
I started to panic when I failed to recall the name of the neighbor two houses down. Or how to re-set the clock on the microwave after a power failure. Or to change the Brita filter — which can get really disgusting after six months.
ALZHEIMER’S, I’d shriek inside my head. Senile dementia for sure. Maybe a small stroke.
But after some time, I realized that it was more than simply forgetting. It was a feeling of being surrounded by disjointed and chaotic thoughts. I couldn’t get a handle on things. I felt overwhelmed and a little dazed.
Before long, it occurred to me that I felt very much like my pre-adolescent self.
In truth, I can barely remember the years between age nine and 14. They were a blur of body shame, algebra, mean girls and yelling over the dinner table.
“Never again,” I like to swear. “You couldn’t pay me enough to convince me to revisit puberty.”
Oh, the irony. It’s all back, with the added insult of batwings and marionette lines. The mean girls (and boys) are all politicians now, and algebra becomes even harder when your son, who used to believe you knew everything, is asking about quadratic equations.
But the hardest part of those early years was what I now know was a pretty solid case of attention deficit disorder, marked by bewilderment, numbness and the inability to focus on anything or anyone, including my teachers, my parents and even the emotions and needs of my friends. I was a roiling mess of hormones, tics and obsessive thoughts and could barely pay attention to what was taking place around me.
Miraculously, the chaos faded and by the end of my teen years I felt that I was finally waking up to the world. I’ve been cruising along pretty well since then, but now…
As I settled in to this new adolescence and the specter of memory loss began to rear its head, it occurred to me that I was not simply forgetting the neighbor’s name — I had simply never paid attention to it the first time he told me…or the second or even the third. I’m not forgetting how to reset the clock on the microwave — each time I need to do it, I fly through the instructions and never consign them to memory because all I’m really thinking about is my upcoming phone meeting and what I’m going to make for dinner that night.
And the Brita filter, well, that I’m just forgetting. And probably poisoning my family with black mold at the same time.
I need to work on that.
But the rest of it isn’t as much an issue of memory as I initially feared. My long-term memory feels as strong as it ever was. Perhaps it’s all just a problem with attention.
And if that’s the case, I’m ok with it. I’ve spent the last 35 years cramming facts, numbers, words and images into this brain, and this hard drive is just about full. The neighbor down the street is a renter and won’t be around this time next year. I’ve been meaning to replace that freaking microwave for months now. So why consign their details to memory? Better to save the space I have left for something valuable. Another language perhaps or the lyrics to the next Sia song.
When we’re born, our brains are a chaos of input that is gradually decluttered until we can make sense of the world. It’s called “synaptic pruning,” and it happens during babyhood and then again as we hit puberty. Many scientists believe that without proper pruning we’re susceptible to conditions such as autism, Asperger’s and schizophrenia.
We learn by forgetting.
As I move into this third phase of life, I’m prepared to let that process continue. I will declutter my brain. I will forget what no longer matters. And I will learn what happens next.