A couple of months after I received my diagnosis of Mild Cognitive Impairment I asked my psychiatrist, “Why can I still write?”
At that stage of my memory and cognitive experience, my focus was almost entirely on loss and decline. Every day I experienced another glitch or misfire in my thinking, behavior, or skill level that reminded me of my malfunctioning brain. I had given up trying to make most of my favorite recipes because so many of them weren’t turning out. I no longer invited people over for dinner, other than family and very close friends. Reading was still something I could do, but I had to be consistent about it; if I put a book down for more than a couple of days I would totally forget what it was about and would then have to start all over again. My short term memory affected my ability to relate recent conversations and my long term memory was spotty. Loss was a persistent interloper.
But I could still write! And my writing was good! My sentence structure remained logical, my grammar correct, my thought patterns still interesting and reflective. And I was still very capable of composing a compelling story.
I have been writing all my adult life. Writing is how I sort, how I unearth meaning in my life’s circumstances and challenges. Writing is my therapy. Writing is what gives me purpose. So there was a great deal of trepidation and fear that accompanied my question: “Why can I still write?”
My worst fear was my psychiatrist, who I had great confidence in and trusted completely, would answer with sincere but sorrowful compassion: That skill is likely to be lost soon as well.
Oh the joy when he replied easily, “You can still write because you’ve been doing so all your adult life…it’s what we call ‘hardened memory.’”
Hardened memory is not a term I can find on Google or any of the medical terminology sites. But it’s a concept I find not only useful but logical, and it was a reassuring answer to my question. Writing to me is as familiar as reading and speaking, walking and talking. I’ve been doing these things all my life, and I suspect I will likely be able to do them for a good long while longer. In contrast, there are ‘new’ skills I’ve acquired in my adulthood which I’m losing.
An example would be knitting. I only learned to knit maybe six or seven years ago, but can no longer knit with any proficiency. I can’t remember the stitches, I drop stitches and have no idea how to fix them even though I know I’ve been instructed many times, and I can’t comprehend patterns—even the most simple. It appears to me I haven’t developed ‘hardened memory’ for this skill because I haven’t practiced it long enough. In contrast, my ability to embroider remains intact. I learned to embroider as a child and have done it on and off my entire life, and I can still do it well. So for me, a logical replacement for knitting has been embroidery—thanks to my hardened memory.
The same is true for gardening. I’ve had a love of flowers and plants all my life. I can name all the flowers in my garden and many of the more exotic ones in the nursery. Almost every room in my house has at least one plant, many of which bloom all year long, despite the fact that we live in Minnesota, because I know how to care for them and what they need.
Now, I do understand if/when my condition progresses from MCI to full blown dementia and/or Alzheimer’s, I will likely lose my ability to do any or all of these activities. But for now, the understanding of my hardened memory gives me hope, confidence, and makes me feel capable—and also a sense of normalcy.