Learning how to “better” manage brain fog

For me, there are many crummy things about chronic illness, but the second worst of them all — after fatigue — is brain fog, i.e. the much harder challenge of keeping a clear thought.

Time was before my illness that my brain would whir to life and I could quickly motor off anything I needed to.  Ask me the strategy to something, and I’d leap up on the whiteboard and starting jotting ideas down.  But now, keeping clear thoughts is difficult. Answering any question that requires me to go into the memory bank is a challenge, and anything with some uncertainty or complexity is a challenge unless I have time to process.  Spelling?  I used to be great, because I would literally picture the word in my head and recite what I saw, but now I don’t see the word and am kind of stabbing in the dark.

Needless to say, this has made my job as an analytical sales person in a cutthroat industry hell.  But I think I’ve developed a list over the past few years that has helped. I’m not 100%, or even 90%, but I’m getting better and I’v adapted.

Checklist in OneNote.  OneNote is good because it’s free and I can access it from my computer, iPad or iPhone.  What I do is make a checklist of each item at the office I have to get down, then I break it down to how much time to spend on it.  For example: Answer emails – respond during morning coffee.  Send out follow up reports from yesterday – 30 minutes.  Send out status check note to 500 customers – 20 customers a day…  I’ve noticed this is important – I’ll lose paper lists, or I start moving things around until it gets messy (I can cut and paste); also, I can keep a template that I copy and paste into a new Tab every day so every day I am starting with a fresh checklist.  Plus, my razor sharp memory no where I was on a task has evaporated, so now I can search in OneNote to find out what I’ve done on something.

Stick with the Checklist.  It is tempting that if I come to complexity in my checklist to pass it off until later.  For example, if “Respond to email” includes an email that involves research, my temptation is to push it aside until later the day.  But I’ve learned I need to take a short break, grab another cup of coffee, return and take the steps needed to complete that email.  If I push it off, I start to get overwhelmed and fight the urge to shut down.  So even it means taking a pause while I gather my energy, I do nothing else until complete that next task.

One Thing At A Time.  My days of answering email while on a conference call, or making a phone call while waiting for my computer to re-boot, are over.  So I have to focus on one thing at a time.

Take Breaks.  The days of crazy 12 hour days are over.  I have to take several breaks during the day to make sure I maintain the energy needed to keep brain fog at bay.

Accept the Inevitable.  I will never be as crisp, sharp and productive as I once was.  I can’t compare myself to the old me, which thankfully was 200% of most people (honestly).  Instead, I have to focus on doing the best I can with what I have now.  I this were a five-card poker me, the old me had six cards to choose from, the new me has 4 cards to work with (versus everyone else’s 5).  I can’t worry that I used to have 6 or that some have 5, I just have to do the best I can with 4 and realize that I won’t win as much as I used to. That takes some pressure off.

Lots and lots of coffee.  There is no way of getting around the fact that coffee is the new normal for me at the workplace.  If there are side effects so be it, but I have to have the energy needed to keep my job and pay my bills.  On the days where I need an extra burst of energy, I take a caffeine pill and pray for a “good” day.

My two cents.  Since life gave me lemons, I’m doing the best i can to make a decent lemonade.  (I’ve had to relearn how to do my to do list – I used to do it mostly by memory and prioritization, but that’s not possible anymore, and too long of a checklist is overwhelming 🙂 ).

 

 

Learning how to “better” manage brain fog

I have gone from being The Idea Guy to being timid and afraid to trying new things at the office

When I was teaching, I revamped the curriculum for several of my classes to great effect (significant increases in enrollment).  Then when I went into Corporate America, I couldn’t believe how uncreative and lethargic everyone was.  Basically, one company or SVP would roll something out, then everyone would copy that.  How boring that was, so I started proposing lots of new ideas.  I even went so far to proposing an idea a month to our SVP (of a Fortune 500 company), who called me The Idea Guy during a speech in front of 500+ people, basically encouraging others to do the same.  Sometimes my ideas were marketing ideas, and sometimes they were product ideas (my favorite was the watch that would detect a heart attack and the bra that would detect rape, both of which were sent to me years later by peers after other startups got funding for similar ideas).

Sometimes this got me into trouble, and sometimes it had great effect (I made good extra money working on marketing on the side and a few of my ideas got me a few extra contracts).  But the past few years, with my illness combined with working for two awful companies in a row, I am afraid. I am afraid to propose something silly then have it cost me my job.  In short, my confidence is tattered.  I’ve got to get it back. One of the things that made me effective was no fear – if a wild idea got me in hot water, no big deal, off to the next one.  It hurt me a few times, but more often than not it gave me an edge.  

I have gone from being The Idea Guy to being timid and afraid to trying new things at the office

Is my head clearing?  I hope so…

For most of my life, I aced IQ tests, generally scoring in the top 1 or 2% (one of the things that I learned from working with highly gifted people though is that you can be in the top 1%, and still be waaaaayyyyyy behind someone with a Bill Gates like IQ – there is a huge difference between 1 in 100 and 1 in 1000; I was maybe the 1 or 2 in 100, but some guys I worked with were the 1 in a million and were truly humbling to be around 🙂 Plus I think I was high in some areas and really low in others, kind of a feast or famine type of thing).  In my youth, this was a bane since I was often put into various gifted programs, although I wasn’t a great student and didn’t want to be in those programs.  But since my diagnosis a couple of years ago, I actually can’t even complete IQ tests.  In fact, on a couple of at-home tests that some employers require as part of the application process (seriously??  for a sales job??), my wife had to complete them for me at the end, because I get so fatigued and struggled with some of the story problems (I used to love story problems!!!).  But the past month or two, I am seeing hope.  My head feels like it is clearing just a little bit.  Maybe my IQ, which had dropped I am sure significantly from brain fog and I think the effects of prednisone (50 MG several months, >20 mg for 5 months) and probable oxygen deprivation (I was walking around 3 years with lung disease without knowing it), is maybe beginning to climb a little again. I hope.  It is awful – truly awful — not having a clear head, not remembering what I read, and not being able to work through things with any complexity.  Heck, I would take an average IQ at this point 🙂

Is my head clearing?  I hope so…

It is a challenge to not remember what I read but on the plus side I am always getting to experience something anew :)

For most of my life, I was a *very* slow and highly-selective reader, but remembered everything I did read.  I not only remembered nearly everything I read, but often could recall the page and location on the page of where I read something, plus the date and where I was when I read it. But there were two keys:

  • I had to be interested in what I was reading.  Luckily I was interested in many things, such as history, science, literature and human interest stories.  But I wasn’t interested in anything technical or mechanical, biology, or my teachers’ odd obsession with Hinduism (it seemed like every year we studied Hinduism).  Ironically, because I was a slow reader, I often did not read what I was assigned in school, but rather flipped around to read what I was interested in.  For example, the class might be studying about President Taft but I would see a piece about Abraham Lincoln, so would read the Lincoln piece instead).  
  • It coudn’t be read to me.  For whatever reason, I have a hard time comprehending something that someone reads to me unless they are a professional or trained reader.  Story hour for me has always been hell. 🙂

I always loved reading comprehension tests – I was always the last person to finish but generally scored in the top percentile.  I didn’t really have to try — it just happened. But…

Since coming off prednisone I am struggling to remember what I read, most astoundingly numbers and years, which I was especially good at before.  I really have to work at it, and have to keep reminding myself of what I read.  Honestly, it makes it challenging, and dips into how much I can learn, since I am always having to review what I re-read.  Is this what it is like for the average student?  If so, no wonder so many kids hate school 🙂

But I refuse to give up – one thing for sure is if I stop reading, it won’t get better — plus in some ways it is nice to keep reading about a topic I am interested in and always learning something new when doing so 🙂 

It is a challenge to not remember what I read but on the plus side I am always getting to experience something anew :)

Battling Brain Fog means calling most people “Hey”

I used to be pretty good at memorizing people’s names, but since recovering from my illness a few years ago it is difficult for me to recall names quickly, even of people I know really well.  For example, I bumped into a dear family friend in the stairwell of the gym and called her by her daughter’s name then called her husband a completely different name.  The problem isn’t knowing who these people are, are recalling their names later – it is the bump-and-greet scenarios, and this includes work.  So I’ve taken to saying, “Hey there!” to people I bump into.  Of course, I get the comment “Hey is for horses” and some people I am sure are offended I don’t immediately call them by their first name, but what can I do?  I am battling a chronic illness that includes brain fog, and unfortuantely names are a casualty along the way.  If anyone has an issue with it, that’s okay – we’ll all survive, and I know — and true friends know – that I am doing the best I possibly can 🙂

Battling Brain Fog means calling most people “Hey”