The Widow’s Brain Is Missing!


Those of you of a certain age might remember ‘The President’s Brain Is Missing’, a series of Spitting Image sketches featuring US President Ronald Reagan’s brain, an organ that  lived in a jar, but which kept escaping to go on madcap adventures. If you’re too young to remember Spitting Image, what can I say other than I’m sorry for your loss, but there has to be some upside to being middle-aged and satirical latex puppets is one of them.

Back in the 1980s, I laughed at these viciously funny sketches unaware that decades later my brain would also go missing. I’m not entirely sure where I left it because my memory is so bad, but all the evidence points to my losing it at around 11am on Sunday 27th February 2011. It was all such a rush that day, my theory is that whilst my body was being bundled into the back of an ambulance and driven away at speed, my brain – relaxing in the Caribbean sunshine – failed to follow me, and without access to my Amex card and no Air Miles of its own to cash in, remained stranded in Barbados. It’s probably right this minute still sitting in a beach bar nursing a rum punch, regaling anyone who will listen about the good life it used to have.

As dear Sir David Attenborough keeps pointing out, nature is a wonderful thing, so just as an octopus can regenerate a new tentacle, I formed a new brain. The problem is, this new brain is pants compared to the one I used for forty-six years. OK, so the old one had its problems: depression, anxiety, agoraphobia, fear of being trapped in my own clothing and an unnaturally healthy attraction to Alastair Campbell, but I’d got it under control, beaten it into submission with a cocktail of education, experience and endless self-hypnosis tapes. This new brain is too hot to handle: a temperamental hormonal teenager prone to breaking down or blowing up without warning, firing off in all directions. It’s all style and no substance (or fur coat and no knickers as we Geordies say), unable to hold on to new information and missing great chunks of old data, particularly information about the first fews months after the 27th February, when presumably it was booting itself up, sorting out those neurological connections and restoring information I would rather have lost. If it wasn’t for the fact that I started blogging on the 14th June 2011, and so put everything down on paper as it happened, I doubt I would have remembered anything at all.

Let me give you an example of new brain’s failings:

Pre D-Day (Death Day, Drowning Day) I was a news junkie. Through total immersion in TV news, internet news and pouring over newspapers, I was confident that I could hold my own in any discussion about current affairs, anything from European politics to the latest YouTube sensation of a cat doing something cute with a pingpong ball. I’m not saying I could spout forth with any great authority on these subjects (well, perhaps the cat and the ball), but then as the last few weeks in politics have shown, even professional pundits (and highly paid pollsters) don’t know what they’re talking about either.

But that was then and this is now.

After the recent General Election, there was a great deal of discussion about ‘fairness’ and ‘proportional representation’. Don’t worry, this isn’t going to become a party political broadcast, I promise you. Anyway, I said to Gorgeous Grey-Haired Widower that I thought that there should be a referendum, that the people should decide on how the votes are counted. GGHW asked me how I had voted in the last referendum. “What last referendum?” I asked him. “The one to ask the voting public whether they wanted to scrap the current ‘first past the post’ system,” he replied. Dear Reader, I practically smirked with scorn that GGHW had got it wrong, that there hadn’t been a referendum and that the poor man had became confused between voting on X-Factor and voting on our Parliamentary process, possibly even thinking that Simon Cowell was an MP. Pah! GGHW might be able to do fiendishly hard Sudukos at speed, but clearly he was an amateur when it came to political knowledge; as a current affairs junkie I would have remembered if there had been a referendum on something so constitutionally important. I Googled it. GGHW was right. There had been a referendum, in May 2011, about two months after JS died. I had absolutely no recollection of it whatsoever, though as the turnout was only 42%, 58% of the population probably couldn’t remember either, and they didn’t have a recently dead husband as an excuse.

Time and time again this has happened. Something will crop up, I exhibit my ‘blank and confused’ face, someone will say, “You must remember! It was all over the news!” and I’ll look it up on Google and see that it was, but that it was within the first six months or so after JS drowned and so passed me by in a fug of grief, Merlot and Mr Kipling Almond Slices. I can remember things that in some warped way I connected to JS’s death: the Japanese tsunami because I was furious so many drowning victims were muscling in on his spot in the afterlife, or the Royal Wedding at the end of April 2011, because I got myself in such a state that I had to ring The Samaritans, but anything else? I’d like to say forget it, but I’ve already forgotten it.

Of course part of the issue is probably because after JS died I had no concentration for newspapers and couldn’t bear the news, preferring to have QVC burbling away in the background promising me soft sheets and gadgets that made vegetable spaghetti. Now, I watch the news and read newspapers, but my concentration has never gone back to pre-D Day levels. For instance, I love books. As I sit here tapping away, I am surrounded by them, but now I barely read fiction; I seem to have lost the ability to follow a plot, to hold fictional characters in my brain. I joined a local book group hoping that the discipline of having a book a month to read would re-train this new grasshopper-like brain of mine, but it didn’t work. However good the books were, my mind never became truly lost in the plot; it was always flitting about in the way my eyes used to continually scan the room for signs of JS when I was watching television.

At one stage, my memory loss was so bad I seriously feared that I might be getting some sort of early onset dementia, so I did a online test. Apparently, if you can answer the question, “Who is the current President of the United States?” with “Barack Obama,” rather than “Ronald Reagan,” you’re fine. So that’s OK then. 

It pains me because I always had a good memory, not just for events, but for dates and times. Even without a diary to prompt my grey-matter, I could remember where I was supposed to be and what I was supposed to be doing from the moment the appointment was written in ink, even if it was months ahead. JS and I would go through the diaries at the beginning of the week, and every day on the way to the office he’d ask me, “What I am up to today?” and I could flawlessly roll off his appointments. Last weekend, I forgot my wedding anniversary. It wasn’t so much that I forgot the anniversary as I forgot that Saturday was the 9th of May. I don’t know what date I thought Saturday was, but I suspect that if you had asked me, I would have had to flick my phone on to check. My old brain wouldn’t have let me down like that, but if it had, if there were dates and times and memories I had forgotten, I had two-decades worth of back-ups close by: JS.

Perhaps I don’t have a new brain, perhaps I still have the old one, but just as in the way putting a computer’s hard drive through a powerful magnet scrambles and destroys the stored information, so sudden shock and trauma disrupts our brains, messing with our heads so that we quite literally lose our minds. Perhaps intense grief is the equivalent of a giant magnet. The thing is, when a magnet disrupts a hard drive, you can’t go back and unscramble the data, restore the connections as if unravelling knots from a ball of string; the hard-drive is irrevocably damaged. The only thing you can do is wipe the disk and start downloading information all over again.

I miss my old brain.

 

image found on www.gizmag.com

13 Comments

Gill
Reply May 14, 2015

If you ever find a way of re-booting and restoring to last save point (possibly pre may 2004 for me!) then please do let me know .... Oh and ps ..... I had forgotten we'd had a referendum in 2011 too :( and I miss so many birthdays now it's untrue and even more infuriating .... Watching a film and only realising 15 minutes before the end you've watched it before ...... :(

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 14, 2015

    Gill: I've bought several magazines and got halfway through only to realise I had already bought that particular copy...

Al
Reply May 14, 2015

A referendum in May 2011?? Whoops! .... May 2011 I struggled with my own name, I blame D day in Jan 2011 though I suspect a lot was also due to the Wine lake accumulating in my brain! ;)

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 14, 2015

    Me too Al. I'm not a big drinker - more of a one-sherry screamer - but boy did I drink my way through those months. I didn't quite get to the point of gin on my cornflakes, but only because I rarely ate breakfast in those days. xx

Louise
Reply May 14, 2015

Yup. I remember Spitting Image well. I loved it. I think we are the same age. And my brain is sadly missing too, although I think it went when I had my first child and what I thought was going to be a normal delivery ended in an emergency c-section as baby was in an undiagnosed breach position. I could barely string a sentence together after the surgery, and eight years on, after having another baby and my husband die of cancer, I still can't. I get through using a lot of humour when I can't think of words and have frequent blank moments and forget what I was taking about. I work full time and have a fairly high level job so I feel I get through delivering presentations and suchlike by the skin of my teeth on a regular basis. Will it get any better? I asked my midwife this question eight years' ago and she said 'it might not.' Little did I know then that I'd be a widow in my 40s with two young children and a brain that is probably the size of a pickled walnut.

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 14, 2015

    OMG, Louise, I don't want to send you further spiralling into the depths of neural despair, but if we are the same age, dare I add meno-brain to your list of reasons for grey-matter malfunction?

    I've just had a gulp of sherry on your behalf. x

    Suzanne Wilkinson
    Reply May 14, 2015

    I had "baby-brain" too but my boys were 10 and 14 when their Dad died so I had some semblance of a functioning mind at that point. Widow's brain is still with me now - see my comment below. I also forget what I'm saying mid-sentence and am always saying "that thing, you know, the oojamaflip, the wotsit...." And leaving people looking at me gone out....Yep, I think grief causes a certain kind of madness. X

      Planet Grief
      Reply May 14, 2015

      My mind just goes completely and utterly blank. If I get interviewed for the book I can see the following scenario:
      Interviewer: So tell me about your husband.
      Me: Who?
      Interviewer: What was he called?
      Me: Er.
      Interviewer trying to be helpful. Where did the accident take place?
      Me: Blackpool! No! Bermuda! No, somewhere else beginning with B. Does Bolton have a beach? Bolton rings a bell...

Suzanne Wilkinson
Reply May 14, 2015

Dear PG,
Spot on as usual. Even my son remembered there was a referendum on the voting system in 2011 and I think I even voted - once I was reminded that it had happened. I didn't remember it at all. Now I avoid the news at all costs and only barely registered who was PM last Friday. Most news I get through FaceBook. I also can't read - I've read a few books but can go months without reading so much as an article in a magazine.
Widow's brain is real. I actually managed not just to double-book myself a few weeks ago but triple-book - meeting at the school, dentist and car to the garage. That caused a few raised eyebrows when I had to call dentist and garage to reschedule....I used to have a brain too - now it mainly functions on auto-pilot.
Thank you, as always x

    Planet Grief
    Reply May 14, 2015

    Suzanne - I think the ultimate test for us is if we are unable to answer the question, "What is the name of the man who designed the shoes with red soles?" Quite frankly if I start thinking Benjamin Franklin is the current US Prez, it wouldn't be as bad as wondering if red-soled shoes come from Lidl. xx

      Suzanne Wilkinson
      Reply May 14, 2015

      I remember that - I'm often to be found perusing Net-a-Porter for any new Louboutins!
      By the way, who is the president of the USA? Is it still Obama?!

Amanda Bond
Reply May 14, 2015

Dear PG, Widow's brain, I know it well. In the aftermath of my husband's sudden death (aneuysm 8.8.11) I could not even get the whole way through making a cup of tea...months later I would need to relearn how to remember to also drink it, that's if I could come across where I had put it. I made arrangements which I had no recollection of and had coversation that I can not recall. I liken it to a viscious blow to the head, like a rugby player in a heavy tackle might receive. With the wonder of modern sporting rules such players are substituted, taken off for medical treament, often against their wishes. I wish that I could have pressed pause on my life but maybe I might never have had the strength to press play again if that were so. A friend sent me an article from a pharmacy journal, describing PTSD - post traumatic stress disorder, and I could relate to many of the descriptions. The flashbacks to me trying to resuscitate my husband and the horrors that came with it will stay imprinted, using a large lump of RAM or GB of memory in my brain. Grief seems rather like concussion... On the book front, I am desperate to read again and had a breakthrough day in the Easter holidays, reading Nora Webster by Colm Toibin, stayed up too late because I wanted to keep reading!! Such joy to have that feeling again. Can't praise the book highly enough, the main character is a widow!

Richard
Reply June 17, 2015

2011 - that was a year and a half wasn't it? A referendum, nope, missed that one. A couple of events you mentioned I didn't miss though; the Royal Wedding and the Japanese Tsunami. Sadly, I lost my wife on the morning of the Royal Wedding after a 2 month out of the blue battle with cancer. Through a bit of miscommunication I was sat with her later that morning (she passed at 4.30am) listening to the wedding on the ward TV's whilst waiting for the mortuary porters to collect her. As they arrived the trumpet fanfare started (presumably somebody important had turned up), so I always remember she left me in great style. In the weeks after, when I'd find myself on the floor in a bit of a state, I always remembered the Tsunami and how I wasn't the only one to be suffering. Apart from two redundancies and falling off a wall to end up in the same brain scanner that Andrea was in, I can't really remember much else about world events in 2011.