At a time in my life when I was literally at a loss for words—with speech difficulty and word confusion—two new words were added to my vocabulary: multiple sclerosis. The lesions in my brain, and later mild atrophy, confirmed this, as well as a decade-long history of other classic symptoms. Because I have relapsing remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS), some symptoms come and go, while others remain and even worsen over time.
One of the symptoms I struggle with is cognitive fatigue. Some people call it “MS brain,” and to me this means my brain skipped middle age and went straight to retirement. Foggy mind, forgetfulness, unfinished thoughts, repeating oneself, inability to multi-task, and general slowness, all fall under this category.
Some of the medications I tried for physical fatigue could also have helped my cognitive fatigue, including stimulants and off-label use of ADHD medications. Unfortunately, all my trials failed. It’s been more than a year of being a guinea pig, and at some point, I needed to try other ways to help myself.
Since multiple sclerosis is a neurological disease, I was encouraged to exercise my brain, in addition to changing my diet and increasing physical exercise. Since my ability to use words was challenged, I found it helpful to feed and challenge my mind with creative and non-verbal activities.
Crocheting exercises fine motor skills, relying on sight and touch to work with metal hooks and bundles of yarn. Painting and drawing use the same skills, while also serving as outlets to express myself. Putting together a multiple-piece puzzle presents a higher level of problem solving. Engaging in these activities also help me cope, and there is even a reward of a finished product at the end.
Learning something new can also be done without cracking open a book or writing papers. After my therapist told me about Healing Harps, I bought a used lap harp and learned to play simple melodies. The vibrations of the strings are thought to calm the nervous system. I’ve also taken up a beginner’s ballet class, where French words are called out, and I respond by moving my body. Whenever I make music or raise my arms for a classic ballet pose, I envision new branches growing out of a tree, with leaves flourishing. It is how I like to imagine my brain.
At my last visit, my doctor called me a glass half-full kind of person. It is one of the highest compliments I’ve received since starting on this medical journey. It was a recognition of other things that I exercise, that don’t require words.
Hope, faith, and a determination to always do the best I can. What kind of activities do you use to keep your brain sharp?
Kara was raised in New York, where she earned a BA from New York University and MSW from Columbia University. She uses her background in social work, of professionally helping others, to help herself through life with multiple sclerosis. She now lives in New Jersey with her family of four, keeps a food blog to stay creative, and manages an Etsy shop to keep productive.