Septuagenarians tend to worry that they may be experiencing the first signs of dementia when they forget things, like names, or, what did I come downstairs for. And maybe not just those in their seventies; people in their sixties, and even fifties, begin to wonder at their apparent failing faculties. By the time you’re in your eighties you may even have forgotten to be worried.
If this blog is starting to sound a bit like George Carlin, you might be right.
Forgetfulness is a serious question, especially at younger ages, because it is suggestive of degenerative pathology. There is an argument about mental retrieval, assuming no physiological factors (stroke, sclerosis and Alzheimer’s), that our ability to recall information is no worse when we are in our 70s than in our 20s, it’s just that we have a lot more things to remember, or maybe put the other way, we have a lot more things to forget. But fear of forgetfulness occurs because, as the afflicted, we can’t tell the difference: is it dementia, or just forgetfulness, and then we stress about it and become more forgetful.
Normal forgetfulness is compounded when we are faced with a serious stress episode. It is well established that when dystressed, our neural function can be seriously compromised. And not just in our ability to recall facts. Intentionality, rationality, persistence may all be compromised. [Curiously, in eustress our recall ability seems to be enhanced.]
There are many events in the year following Marlene’s death I don’t remember, even significant events. I know the memories are there because when I am reminded, often after persistent prodding, it will come back to me. Sometimes I am amazed I could have forgotten such an important event. In the stress and mental/emotional episodes following the breakup with Emily, there are many things I wanted to forget, and couldn’t, even though I tried. I wonder if ptsd is like this. I can’t remember where I was for Thanksgiving last year, but I remember every word and every moment of the receiving that devastating text message from Emily.
In the months of my struggling to find a way out of the abyss I have almost no recollection of people and events, women I dated, promises I may have made, people I may have offended. Instead I relived and reworked the memories of Emily, the months of love and loss and might-have-beens. It was obsession of course, those persistent thoughts; I couldn’t just block her out of my mind. Probably I didn’t want to.
I was never any good at meditation. Emptying my mind seems to me, well, mindless. It is cognitively impossible to not think of something. Instead you have to distract the mind to something else. Hence the act of reciting a mantra in meditation; seasoned practitioners thus empty the mind of everything. But I never could see the point of that, and certainly I was never able to do it, not for all the Ummms in the world.
I do see the value of a quiet mind, and I definitely see the value of a focussed mind in the sense of ‘flow’. To me this is mindfulness. Mindfulness is not to empty your mind of thoughts but to concentrate the mind on productive activity.
My constant rumination over Emily was not productive but almost impossible to stop. What was needed was to try to replace it with something more productive. The way to rid yourself of that annoying song in your head (earworm) is to replace it with a new song that isn’t quite as annoying. The way to stop thinking about Emily was to find a new love interest who held my attention. Match.com didn’t do it. So I adopted another age old strategy instead: drink.
I wasn’t conscious of drinking to forget. I thought I was just filling my mind with social activity. I never drank alone at home. I hated being alone at home. Drinking alone seems to me the ultimate in anti-social behaviour and certain to produce no positive outcomes. So I visited the local pub, a lot. Lucky thing the pub was only two blocks from my new digs. The purpose of drinking, for me at least, was to facilitate certain social needs, assuage loneliness, and maybe the [remote] chance I might meet someone at the bar. So off to the pub I’d go.
Drinking is, or should be, a pleasurable activity. I drank, I told myself, for pleasure, not for intoxication. And in any event I never became intoxicated. Leaning a little maybe. The act of drinking is the satisfier, not the alcohol. I imagine it is much like that for a smoker: it’s not the nicotine but the whole process of smoking; it’s not the alcohol but the process of drinking: studying the bottle, pouring, holding the glass, admiring the colour of the contents, savouring the smell, the taste. Wiping dribble from your chin is less romantic but you get my drift.
It’s a cliché to say I was drinking to forget. If that were so I would have to drink to unconsciousness and eventually become an alcoholic. Drinking, I knew, was not the path I wanted to go down. You drink to forget, and then you forget to live.
By November of that time in the Abyss I sensed I was beginning to heal. It wasn’t a conscious knowing, or a deliberate sudden decision. It was more subtle and gradual than that. I felt I no longer wanted to be taking the psycho-pharmaceuticals; I knew alcohol and pharmaceuticals were not a good combination; I knew I wanted to drink for pleasure, not to mask pain; deliberately imbibing, not mechanically pouring another glass of unwanted merlot; I knew that I wanted to have a normal social life, not the lonely life of living at the bar.
I knew I would never forget Emily – I just wanted the hurting to end. But I no longer felt the pull of self-destructive oblivion. I wanted to leave the darkness and return to the sun.