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Overload

MS normally affects the motor skills; arms, legs, eyes, speech and spark plugs. Rarely does it decrease a person's mental capabilities. Even though I have not started to become retarded, there are two 'capabilities' that I have noticed on the decline. One is short term memory and the second is processing speed.

I combat short term memory loss by writing things down and making list, after list, after revised list. I found that the act of pushing pencil and seeing the 'todo' on paper re-enforces my memory. Once I have written something down I will not normally lose it and I do not have to refer to the written reminder. Anyway, it works for me. So I always have pen and paper on my body.

Processing speed capability loss is something I continue to find a struggle. During my professional career 'thinking fast on your feet' was a requirement and I was one of the best. That is one reason decreased processing speed is so noticeable to me. It is like sending a message through a busy node on the Internet. The message gets through but it requires more time. The node is overloaded with other message requests. Therefore I refer to the loss of mental processing speed as 'cognitive overload'.

Most of the time I have no problem with cognitive overload. However two situations cause grief. The first is when I am in a large group of people and the second is when I get involved in an emotional discussion, especially with the person I love the most, my wife.

Big crowds, like Macy's the day after Thanksgiving, bothers most people, myself included. For all of my life I have avoided large gatherings preferring smaller groups and at times solitude. Even with this behavior pattern I discovered an increasing reluctance to participate over the past 3 to 5 years. I avoid parties. PTA meetings became work. A group sports event cost me a whole day. Even large family get-togethers require extra effort. This lead the observer to perceive me as more anti-social and/or depressed.

With closer examination during my counseling I began to understand what was happening. The stimuli from many sources were each requiring attention. The head became overloaded, unable to process as fast as input was coming. The result was confusion and fatigue. My natural defense mechanisms told me to avoid the situation and that is what I did.

Emotional discussions pose a bigger problem, because you can not avoid them, like when you are married. I would be given opportunities to examine multiple points of view and after a short time I would start to loose control or shut down completely. I would raise my voice to make a point. I would throw up my hands trying to get the other person to stop talking. I would not answer a question or I would respond to a prior point. Physically I would become heavier in my chair and my head would become fuzzy. I would begin to stutter and my sentences became choppy. I would become lethargic and withdrawn.

A lot of people have these reactions during an argument but it is not part of my nature. It was causing some serious communication issues. My wife thought that I did not value her point of view or when I did not respond, that I just didn't care. When I would raise my voice she would think I strongly disagreed which would escalate the argument. My incoherent responses left her feeling that I did not understand.

After a lot of work and talking with people, I contribute my decreased coping capability to cognitive overload. An emotional discussion, argument, never follows one topic. Issues dart around, defenses jump up while you are trying to comprehend and be reasonable to the other person. For me the end result is too many inputs and thus system shut down.

I also need to mention an unusual MS symptom I experience. Any strong emotion affects me the way heat affects most MSer's. When my psychiatrist and I looked through my history we found a direct relationship between emotional events and my 'bad' days and a few exacerbations. Even when I just think about and concentrate on a deep hurt, I will become physically tired and begin to shut down. I can only assume that the chemicals pumped out by the body experiencing a strong emotion must adversely affect something that MS has done to me.

It is a delight to my enemies but a wide gap to bridge for my marriage. Cognitive overload plus the stress of feelings make an emotional discussion very difficult for me. Funny, but I have not noticed other forms of stress affecting me the same way.

There may not be a solution to the problems of cognitive overload other than to develop different coping strategies. One that has worked for us is the standard couple's tool, 'I heard you saying .......... Was that what you meant to say?' A second is to not interrupt even when I can not digest any more and then ask the person 'to write it for me because it is important and I want to think about it more.' These two tools are not enough and I continue to explore for others.

Even without solutions it is important to recognize cognitive overload. It can cause mis-interpretation of your true feelings and serious communication problems. Once you understand 'kind of' what is going on then share that with your significant other and your close friends. The mutual understanding will make your life and their lives better.

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I write this essay so that other MSer's will think about cognitive overload as a
real symptom. With that realization I hope the MSer will understand that they
are not turning into a bad person. Also, I hope non-MSer's who read this will
better understand that our withdrawal 'may not' be caused by depression,
our choice or out of rejection toward you.

Bottom line: TALK to each other.



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