Monday, November 9, 2009

Up for Debate

If we met in the last seven years, you don’t know that I’m outspoken and confident. Based on what you’ve seen, you can’t guess that I thrive on rambunctious philosophical debate, because my participation in the debates dwindled as I lost my ability to track faced-paced conversations. Social cues that I had once picked up on from another room became mysterious to me, and I couldn’t find the words to explain concepts that made sense in my head. Jokes were elusive. It took me a while to realise that my thought process was slowing down.

I’m better now, but afraid to label myself one-hundred-per cent well, though all of my doctors have officially opened the gates to Healthy Town again. The deportation to Sickville was much more dramatic, which made my recovery feel a bit anti-climactic. I’ll vote for the next politician who runs on the platform that good health news should be delivered with a balloon bouquet and a singing bear quartet. Even smiley face stickers would be a start.

When I was sick, my life was divided into good and bad moments, and some of those moments would last for weeks. Bad days were marked by confusion and a complete loss of clarity. Some people describe it as being in a fog, but I’m not sure that analogy fully captures my experience. Being in a fog implies that the world is difficult to navigate. It was difficult for me to get around physically, mentally and emotionally, but that was more like a side effect. The main issue was connection. Some days, connecting five words together, and then connecting the words to each of their meanings and connotations was impossible, so I couldn’t participate in conversations, and gradually, I lost the tenuous connections that I had with people around me. The connection I used to have with words was how I defined myself, how I related to the world, how I understood life; and I shared that understanding with my friends by discussing and debating everything from gum to politics. So, the loss of connection was a loss of self. Another loss was my ability to write. Writing itself isn’t my sense of self, but it is part of how I make sense of the universe, and how I make sense of the universe is who I am. Make sense?

The tragedy of my bad days was the isolation. Word by word, my friends and family started speaking a new language, and I wasn’t smart enough to learn it. The foreign words became sentences and then paragraphs, and those paragraphs became days and weeks of loneliness. Instead of sharing my feelings, which was really hard without being able to find the words, I pushed people away. When I feel insecure, I need lots of space. I used to imagine twirling around in a grocery store like a mini twister with my arms stretched out on either side to protect my personal space. What was I afraid of? I was trying to hide the fact that I was suddenly struck stupid, because stupid people are treated differently. We’re dismissed.

Intelligence, in the real world, is measured by the ability to communicate, because even the smartest guy on the block is only smart in his head until he proves it. We judge others based on their grasp of language. Here’s an example: I was in the checkout line the other day with my baby girl and a lady behind us commented on how placid she seemed in her stroller. First of all, I’m still not used to the random and strange remarks that come from strangers now that I have a baby. Second of all, I thought she had said flaccid, which completely creeped me out. But once I asked her to repeat what she had sed, I wondered why she had used the word placid, instead of calm or peaceful. Did I judge her as better than me because she knew the proper use of a word that doesn’t come up often in small talk? Not really, but I bet you judged me for writing sed instead of said. You might have thought that I'm part of a younger generation, or you might have wondered if I’m qualified to write a blog. Don’t be ashamed, it’s all part of how we navigate the world. Even if you don’t consciously dismiss someone based on her grasp of language, connection comes from common ground; so if you know what SFW means, but she doesn’t, you can’t talk about SFW material.

It didn’t take too many bad days before I questioned my self-worth. Really, if you looked at a bottle of ketchup and called it mustard, or couldn’t call it anything, you would have doubts too. I’m trying to keep this light, so you don’t want to kill yourself right away, but I have to be honest, my illness was more than misnaming condiments. One of the most frightening experiences happened while I was driving. I had to pick up my sister and brother-in-law when their car broke down, and then drive them home. They had lived in their condo for about a year when this happened. I had been there several times, and I was very familiar with the area. But as I was driving that night, only blocks away from their driveway, I got lost. Suddenly the world looked different. I didn’t recognize the street for a split second. Luckily it all came back to me without any hoopla and everyone was fine. Well, they were fine, and we all got home safely, but I was scared. That never happened again, thankfully. I was sick for years before I was properly diagnosed, and during that time, I didn’t know if I would ever get better. I debated with myself about personality: is it who I am on the inside, or the me that I‘m able to share with the world? And then, after years of having a hard time understanding simple romantic comedy plots, I wondered if I could continue to define myself based on the past.

I battled with depression because in my lucid moments, I knew exactly what I had lost, and I thought that the person I used to be was gone forever. I knew that my good days would not last. It’s as heartbreaking as you imagine it to be – knowing you’re missing a fundamental piece of yourself, and being unable to get it back. I felt empathy for my grandfather, who, after three brain surgeries, was exhibiting signs of dementia. His surgeries and my sickness started around the same time. The dementia has now progressed, and he can no longer recognize me. In my eyes, he is a different man. He even has a different voice. But every once in a while, the grandpa I knew comes back. His voice, his facial expressions, and the twinkle of recognition are there suddenly, and then gone again in an instant. I know in those moments that he is aware of being lost, and I am thankful that those moments are short, because it’s painful.

The different challenges faced by my grandpa and I have sparked a curiosity about the way the brain works. After reading a bit about it, I learned that our brains are powered by chemical reactions. Brains have these things called neurons, which are close enough together to ‘talk’ to each other. The space between the neurons are called synapses, and they play an important role in getting the message across – the chemical is released from one neuron into that space, and then the other neuron reacts to the chemical and opens up to receive the message. I’m beginning to wonder if personality is more like the neurons or the space between them. I think it’s up for debate.


  1. I don't know what your complications have been labeled as but it brings back memories of my mother before she was treated for having many strokes. The funny thing is you never see the changes is a person untill they tell you or they have a major problem and you find out about it because of a hospital stop and its to lait. Then you take the time to look back and put two and two together of why that person changed for reasons at that time didn't make sense. So my Q to you is why do we as friends and family not pay attention to the changes in a person till its to lait, is it because we do see change and ignor it because we have busy lives or is it because our minds don't triger the change untill we have reason?

  2. I never really though about intelligence being ascertained by one's ability to communicate.

    But now that you say it, that really rings true. Hmm.