Brain fog, the vernacular for the dense cloud that muddies our thinking. It seems to go along with chronic illness like summer follows spring. I notice it settling in as I grow more tired or as my pain ramps up. But I can also just wake up and find it there, lingering like a cloud does at the top of a mountain; hovering and muddling my attempts at recall, quick thinking, memory, language, attention, anything that requires focus. It seems like so many of my receptors and neurons (I just had to ask my wife what those are called) aren’t firing, or, perhaps, are devoting themselves to negotiating signals about disease, discomfort, and pain, so that they don’t have anything left for cognition. If I were to draw a graph about this there would be a sharp drop off in my ability to think, process, be witty, creative, tolerate much conversation, noise, interaction, etc., since becoming ill. While perhaps this all is not attributable to the phenomena we call brain fog, it is certainly impacted by it and there is significant overlap. Here are some of the ways I have learned to compensate for the limited brain function brought on by brain fog.
Simple, organized, lists are part of what makes my life possible. One way I do this is by having Amazon Alexa devices around the home. Regardless of how I’m feeling on a given day, I’m able to use these devices with my voice to add things to shopping lists, to do lists, calendars, set timers, and set future audible reminders. Being able to say something and have it recorded as I think of it is so helpful. Prior to this I would think of something and by the time I’d get a pen (my phone, tablet, paper, etc.) I’d have forgotten what it was I was wanting to remember. Being able to give instruction to a voice-controlled smart speaker has made a real difference for me.
Another tool I use is paper and pen. However, rather than having lots of scraps of paper here and there around the house and having to look for things when I need to find them, I keep one slim, lightweight journal with me around the house and when I go out. This is a place that I record everything from my daily migraine pain, to books and movies people recommend, to notes I take when I have a question about moving money into an IRA at my credit union. The key turning this into an even more useful tool than simply a place where I record all the catch-all things that aren’t stored digitally is that I set aside a dozen or so pages at the start of the journal for an index. Then, every couple of weeks I look through what I’ve done since the last indexing and go to the front of the book and record what is on each page or section (i.e.: “p. 33 conversation with Dr. House re: recent meds change” “p. 36, ideas for upcoming video topics”) that way I can find the information again by looking in the index. I’ve gone a step further and started putting some tabs in my journal so I can navigate it more easily.
Using the voice recording tool on my phone is a great way to capture important conversations. One of my YouTube viewers recently suggested using this function in doctors’ appointments. It is imperative that you first ask permission to do so, but what a great suggestion! This allows for full participation in a way that simply isn’t possible if I’m trying to take notes and capture what we’re discussing in real time. Other times that I use my voice recorder: when I’m away from home and don’t have Alexa there to capture things for lists, calendar appointments, etc. (although if I have Wi-Fi, I can do all of this from the Alexa app), I use it to capture ideas that I’m afraid will be gone by the time I try to write or type them, like when I’m first waking and have a thought or idea I want to remember for later.
Another brain fog combating technique I have is to tie together things in groups or pairs, so I have habits that work together with less things to remember. I have pills that must be taken four times a day. Therefore, I connect other tasks to that habit. In the morning I connect it with checking my phone for any to dos or tasks that I may have set for myself, things I’m hoping to get accomplished. If I’m not feeling well enough to address them, I move them (electronically) to the next day so that they don’t just fall into the void of me forgetting completely. At the evening pills I get out my journal and record my migraine pain level. At my bedtime pills I check my calendar for the following day to see if I have any appointments, if I have rides to those appointments, etc.
I schedule everything I can to be delivered to us on a subscription basis. This is fairly self-explanatory but does take some time to perfect. Over a period of months, I have learned what dry, paper, office, and household goods can be set up for delivery and how often we go through them. This has helped save time, energy, and money. We now have everything from chapstick, dish soap, sunscreen, tissues, vitamins, oatmeal, and dog food delivered on a schedule varying from 1-6 months. When I think of something that needs to be added to the subscription, I tell it to Alexa so that next time I’m online I can see if it’s something I can add to my subscription. Then it’s a matter of determining how often we need the item delivered. I err on the side of less often and then increase frequency as needed.
There’s no such thing as a perfect system and I surely don’t have all the kinks worked out. There are many days a month when I feel like brain fog, and other symptoms that coincide with chronic illness are besting me. But habits and tools like the ones detailed here can make the difference some days between feeling like I’m getting to carve out a few more minutes of quality time for myself and my loved ones and feeling like I’m socked in by the eclipsing fog. What are the things that are making a difference for you?