Brain fog isn’t a medical term, but it’s something many people with chronic illness know well. “Chemo brain” and “fibro fog” are just two of the many terms used to talk about brain fog. In more technical terms, brain fog can mean a lack of mental clarity, poor concentration, and more.
Trust me, living with brain fog is no easy feat. It affects everything you do throughout the day — not to mention each interaction you have. If you deal with brain fog, these are 13 things only you can understand.
1. Having to explain it — in the middle of it — is a challenge
It’s difficult to explain what brain fog is, especially in the middle of an episode. Even when the people around us know about our cognitive difficulties, there isn’t always an easy way to let them know that’s what’s happening. Having a code word is out of the question when you can’t remember simple things!
When I’m dealing with the fog, my explanations range from “I’m having a brain fog day” to “Brain not working.” How I explain it has to do with where I am, who I’m with, and how bad the fog is hitting me.
2. There are levels — and they are very different
The severity of the fog can change rapidly from one minute to the next. Some days, I’m incredibly eloquent. Other days, I can barely form full sentences. Not all brain fog moments are created equal.
3. Sometimes, you’re reduced to watching
It can feel like you’re trapped in quicksand, slowly turning to stone, or wading through Jello. The world moves around you at a pace that you just can’t keep up with. It’s hard to grasp and understand concepts, too.
4. Forget about it
Brain fog is all about forgetfulness — forgetting words, appointments, things on your to-do list, or why you walked into the kitchen.
Fighting this takes a lot of effort and a lot of redundant systems. For example, I have several calendars around the house in addition to a planner and my phone’s calendar. If I don’t check them all, though, I may miss something.
5. Why do I remember that?
I’m glad I remember the time I found the remote control after having a dream I lost it in eighth grade. Could I please remember to pick up my prescription refills before they’re put back?
6. You’re always second-guessing
If you don’t live with brain fog, imagine that point where you’re almost asleep but wondering if you turned off the oven or locked the front door. Now, imagine that’s your all-day-everyday state of mind.
It’s not awesome.
Common questions like “Did I take my medications this morning?” haunt us. Often, this means we’ve set up routines such as taking our medications during our first visit to the bathroom. Still, that doesn’t completely stop the question from popping up.
7. What’s that word again?
Forgetting words or choosing the wrong words is one of the main symptoms of brain fog.
8. Are you drunk?
Since people don’t understand brain fog very well, they try to figure out what’s wrong with you. Intoxication or being under the influence of drugs is a popular go-to.
9. And, yes, it is embarrassing
It’s embarrassing to know that you’re capable of accomplishing so much, only to have fog take it away. This is especially true if your job relies on using that capability or interacting with the public in any way. It adds to the self-criticisms we often display when we’re frustrated with ourselves.
10. It’s a vicious cycle of frustration
Dealing with fog is incredibly frustrating. Getting flustered just seems to exacerbate the symptoms, though. It becomes even more difficult to express yourself.
11. Interruptions derail our thoughts
People may mean well when they interrupt a story to help fill in a gap or ask a question. However, this often means we lose our place. Our train of thought has derailed and there were no survivors.
12. Everyone wants to offer you their advice
People tend to want to fix things. Instead of listening and empathizing with the struggle or offering support, they give advice. It’s sweet to want to help, but brain fog is something still being researched and figured out. Herbs and yoga won’t fix it.
Regardless, unsolicited medical advice can be condescending and hurtful.
13. Self-care is a must
Brain fog is incredibly trying. One of the most important things to do — when you remember! — is to take care of yourself. It might just help with the brain fog or, at the very least, with how you cope.
Living with brain fog is a unique challenge. It comes hand-in-hand with many chronic illnesses but isn’t always so apparent to those around you. That, in itself, can make it harder to live with and explain. But often, brain fog is simply misunderstood. With communication and empathy, you can help debunk the myths surrounding brain fog and help shine a light on its everyday implications.
Kirsten Schultz is a writer from Wisconsin who challenges sexual and gender norms. Through her work as a chronic illness and disability activist, she has a reputation for tearing down barriers while mindfully causing constructive trouble. Kirsten recently founded Chronic Sex, which openly discusses how illness and disability affect our relationships with ourselves and others, including — you guessed it — sex! You can learn more about Kirsten and Chronic Sex at chronicsex.org and follow her @ChronicSex.