July 12, 2005

An Essay

Why Time Flies as You Age
And Other Insights from a Person with Multiple Sclerosis

I have some “brain damage” from multiple sclerosis. It resembles the same brain damage that occurs naturally in aging, but accelerated.

One gage that I use to measure the level of damage that is bothering me is how long it takes me to read a traditional clock that has hands. Only last week it was taking me about 10 seconds, which is a very long time if you think about it. In fact it was taking so long that if I was with other people I would just ask somebody to read it for me.

Two days ago I looked up at the clock and read it immediately—just like I used to be able to! In fact, I had also realized that day that I was feeling like my old self a lot. It surprised and intrigued me (and made me hope that it’s connected to some anti-oxidant supplements that I’m taking so that there is hope.)

It is typical in the progression of multiple sclerosis that a person suffers some special damage such as loss of eyesight in one or both eyes and then one day recovers it. Evidently, the brain either fixes the damage or learns how to work around it. The popular name for the process is “plasticity of the brain”.

Plasticity must work for everyone generally, but in overall aging and in multiple sclerosis, as measurable by brain atrophy, we tend to get to the point where some of disturbed processes are past repair or un-reroute-able.

For more than three years I have been having a feeling that I’m not sure if I’m remembering everything that I should remember. It’s some sort of impaired memory. Often I will walk into a room and wonder why I’m there. I have a chart on the refrigerator to mark that I’ve taken medicine since, sometimes, searching my memory brings up no information (which is scary).

Why do I suddenly feel like I know what I’m doing? Why is it so easy to read the clock? Why does it feel that there is so much more time available to me?

I realize that I have been very nervous in an unrelenting way for more than a couple of years. When you are always wondering what you are forgetting you feel constantly stressed in a certain way. One of the results of (necessary) wondering: time flies away from you. It may only be a perception without respite—that there is not enough time to know what it is to be known—but it makes every glance at the clock accompanied with something like the following thought, “Oh my! x hours have passed and in the bit I have left I don’t know if I’ll be able to reach an understanding/accomplishment of what I need to understand/accomplish. I better hurry it up.” Every anniversary and every cyclical event is greeted with, “Wait! But it was just yesterday last time—I don’t know if I’m prepared for this again.” There is a constant stress to it. I know because mine just disappeared! I guarantee, there is marvelous comfort and strength in feeling confident about what you think you know.

The stress hasn’t been enough to kill me with a heart attack although I imagine it could be very bad under certain circumstances. Notice: the more heartfelt responsibility one has, the more likely it is that (even expected) brain failure will lead to heartbreak. People with memory problems need to have much courage. It helps to be smart and lucky too.

Luckily, it is my privilege, with this intriguing reprieve of my cognitive problems, to gain insight on some natural effects of some rather typical memory loss—the type we all hope to live long enough to experience and the type that people with multiple sclerosis routinely need to deal with.

I see why time speeds up as you age and, why despite so much hurrying, impaired memory, of course, contributes to accomplishing less than when I didn’t hurry. I see that sense of time is somewhat perceptual. A general perception of being lost, without enough time to become un-lost, is reinforced by the fact that effectiveness, on the whole, is negatively impacted by funky memory abilities. I see that learning to live with nervousness can be necessary and is probably a human development which is common. I see we will have to wonder what we are forgetting and know that it causes stress. If there are tools available, such as, a chart on the refrigerator, we had better use them to mitigate stress. However, tools apply for only a few of the problems. You cannot have a chart for every hour and every weekday and every task. (Anyway, if you do, you won’t remember which the right chart is—or where you put it. But try not to worry too much.)

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