Updated: Oct 24, 2021
I was playing mahjong with my dear friend and her daughters earlier this week when one of the girls made a simple mistake in the game and called it a “brain fart”. My immediate response was, “Thank goodness your brain does that, too!”
I say “girls” but really, these are grown-up young women in their mid twenties. If you’ve ever played mahjong you know it’s a complicated game with some many little quirky rules that everyone is constantly asking, “Am I doing it right?”
When I was younger I would often walk into a room and realize that I’d completely forgotten what I was going to look for. I never made it mean anything other than my brain being normal and perhaps a bit distracted between tasks and thoughts.
Then when I was in training, I noticed that there were certain things that I could remember easily, like a patient’s story about how they injured their back or an extraordinarily high lab value. Other things were harder to recall, like putting a name to a face. I was pretty good at recognizing faces, but usually I had to see the person at least 3-4 times before I’d be able to spontaneously remember their name.
When I got pregnant and had my babies things got worse. I rarely missed work or things on my schedule, but I’d definitely forget birthdays and endings to movies. We mothers routinely joke about “mommy brain”, attributing memory lapses to poor/interrupted sleep, short attention span, frequent interruptions, and general parenting busyness. In fact there are also major hormonal swings that happen during pregnancy and in the breastfeeding years that also contribute to suboptimal brain function.
In recent years, if I walked into a room and forgot why I went there, I would chastise myself for being so silly and forgetful. And in the back of my mind, there was always a nagging fear that maybe this is how dementia begins.
One of the most common questions we get as doctors is “Is my brain normal?” After all, some memory loss is to be expected as we get older, but there is such a range of variability in terms of what people tend to remember or forget, depending on what matters to them.
What we know from research is that the earliest stages of dementia typically show up as short-term memory loss, keeping track of a purse or wallet, leaving the stove on, or forgetting keys in the door. We may forget appointment times or names of things.
And of course these things can also happen to people normally as well. Which is at once reassuring but also confusing. How do we know if what we are experiencing is normal?
In her article about the Midlife Unraveling, Brene Brown says, “After two decades of research on shame, authenticity and belonging, I’m convinced that loving ourselves is the most difficult and courageous thing we’ll ever do.”
I have learned through coaching that loving ourselves unconditionally means loving and accepting ourselves as we truly are, warts and all. Because when we reject parts of ourselves as being unacceptable or unlovable, or when we insist on whipping those shameful parts “into shape,” we are creating more suffering for ourselves.
I have found that my drive to keep learning and evolving myself comes with ease and joy when I can love and embrace all my parts, rather than believing that I have to “school” certain parts. Loving and embracing begins with giving grace to myself when I make mistakes. Like tripping on a crack in the sidewalk or giving in to the urge to snack at night.
So nowadays when I forget something like leaving my phone at home and my primitive brain Millie is warning me that “Maybe this is how dementia begins,” I let her do her little alarm bell thing and thank her for trying to protect me.
Loving ourselves is the most difficult and courageous thing we’ll ever do.
I might laugh and call it a “brain fart” or I might jot down a new routine to help me remember my phone on the way out the door. I don’t call an all-out fire drill or freak out, and I don’t let it mean that I’m a bad person or that something is wrong with me. I might even be a little proud of the fact that I am not so very dependent on my phone every minute of the day.
I’m so grateful for all the ways that my brain serves me moment to moment. I am committed to doing all that I reasonably can to protect it and prevent injury. And by managing my thoughts through self coaching, I’m both exercising my brain to cope with stress and allowing myself to accept my imperfections.