Epilepsy and Bears…

I hate that I can’t remember the period immediately preceding and immediately after an episode. I hate that my memory has gradually become worse. I hate that often people don’t believe me when I say my memory is terrible. I love that I can remember my moments. Although I guess I don’t really know what I’ve forgotten!

The first time I got really upset about my memory was after the second time I had a fit in my current workplace. I forgot the birthday of my oldest and one of my dearest friends. It was the first time I truly linked my memory loss to having epilepsy. I was devastated that I forgot her birthday. She was completely un-phased by it. It caused me to go through a period of trying to think about what I might have forgotten about, without knowing what it was that I thought I might have not remembered. I was driving myself towards madness.

On the whole, people are kind. My inner-circle don’t chide my lack of remembrance of that which is important to them. Some of my friends may mutter that I’m just looking for an excuse, but I don’t think they believe it to be deliberate, they’re just feeling slighted and I can understand that. There are those who truly can not comprehend that I can’t remember a conversation that took place a few days ago, but that I can remember moments that I had decades ago.

A doctor tried to explain my memory-loss in simple terms. He said there is only so much space in the brain. He said that when the brain is becoming over-loaded, it tries to make more room. One of the first thing the brain shuts off is memory and more specifically the short-term memory. He said, sometimes it gets shoved into a holding area and it will, eventually, come back into play and that sometimes it doesn’t. It used to be, for me, that my memory would come back. Then it become that chunks came back, then fragments and now, it seems to me, that very little comes back. Maybe it’s because I’m turning too much of my brain over to worry. The older I’m getting, instead of gaining more acceptance of that which I can not change, I’m harbouring more worry and resentment. And that, takes up brain-space.

So, in order to try to combat this loss of memory, I try to write everything down. Well as much as possible anyway. Birthdays, for example, are logged in a calendar, even those of the people nearest and dearest to me. But, best will in the world, I can’t write everything down. Apart from anything else, I don’t know what conversation or snippet of detail I’m going to be asked to recall in a few weeks/months time. So short of recording everything I do and say, it’s inevitable that I’ll forget things. Do I forget everything that’s happened in the short term? No, absolutely not. But it is harder for me for a few weeks or months following a seizure. That’s when my brain is at capacity, apparently, and memory is shelved. It would seem though, that some of those memories are on the high shelves and are destined to remain there.

When someone starts a conversation with “do you remember that time…”, or words to that effect, I go into panic mode. If I have some memory of the event being recalled, then I panic that I’m not remembering it correctly and if I don’t remember it, then I panic that I’ll hurt the feelings of the person I’m talking with. Either way, I panic. It’s as if I’m damned if I do remember and I’m damned if I don’t! If I say no, I don’t remember, I feel horrendous inside. I feel like I’ve belittled the memories of the other person. Like, it was important to them but not important to me. Just a terrible feeling of guilt, anger, worry that my memory is getting worse and anguish at the pain I may or may not have caused.

Yet, for my moments or episodes from my childhood or my fears, I remember them in glorious technicolour. I can replicate the feelings, the sounds, the smells, the people associated with them. I can invoke those memories to the point of believing its a current affair.

A few years ago, I was camping in the forests of Northern California with friends. We had taken the ski-boat, the tents, the BigAss grill, the wakeboards and the dogs to Bullards Bar and were spending the week camping, boarding, drinking, laughing, eating and generally enjoying being with each other and having fun in the sun and in the water. It was something we did every summer for a good few years, before life got in the way. Those were the days before bear-lockers were introduced at the campsite and being in the forests, there were plenty of bears and other assorted wildlife to keep the campers company. Every year I’d camped there, bears would come through the site we were at, often we didn’t see them, but heard them.

Anyway, so, we were following our usual ritual of getting out on the water early and coming back to the camp early afternoon. This one day, it was hot and sultry and very quiet. The other camp areas were deserted as their occupants were still hiking or frolicking on the water. The air was heavy and the scent of foliage hung all around. The two guys in our group took the boat to get more fuel. My friend took the dogs into one of the tents for a nap and I sat at a picnic table playing solitaire. Everything was still. A couple of birds attempted to sing, but the atmosphere made them sleepy and the sounds trailed off. Something pricked at my consciousness. I turned my head slowly to the left and then did the classic double take. A bear had emerged from the trees with two cubs and was approximately 6 feet from my seated position. The two cubs shot up two trees and the momma stood her ground. I felt remarkably calm, and something, instinct, told me that I had to look at her, but not stare, so she knew that I knew she was there. I knew that bears roamed and foraged in this area, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to do. I called for my friend. I called for her to stay in the tent, but there was a bear and her two cubs eyeing me up and what should I do? She told me to back away slowly, I tried but couldn’t get my legs out from under the picnic table. I could hear my blood in my ears. I could feel the adrenalin coursing through my body and I knew that remaining calm was the only way I was going to get out of this. My friend is still in the tent, and I eventually extracted myself from the bench and started to back up. Straight into a tree. My friend softly called me to start making a noise. So, I started a conversation with the bear about the weather. How hot it was and how we both knew the other was there and that wouldn’t it be great if there was a bit more of a breeze to cool the air….yep, I was chatting to a bear that, on all fours, was about the height of my chest. I’m surprised I didn’t offer her a cup of tea! Well, she obviously decided that I was a complete lunatic, but not a threat, she called her cubs and she ambled away down a previously unseen trail.

My friend came out of the tent with the dogs leashed. And in an incredulous tone that I could never replicate said “did you really just chat to a bear about the weather??” At that point the men-folk reappeared with the truck and the boat. One of my friends is a park-ranger, he was amazed the bear didn’t charge me. He said the danger of a bear charging is increased enormously when cubs are present because of the mother’s desire to protect them. I was very very lucky. More friends joined us at the campsite that evening. The event was retold and I earned my Californian nickname – the bear-whisperer.

I had more than my fair share of jack and coke that night.

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