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February 22, 2010 4:59 PM   Subscribe

When does "forgetfulness" transition from annoyance to full-fledged clinical illness?

I've been forgetful since I was a little kid, but it's really gotten out of hand since I entered my late twenties. I'm not sure if my forgetfulness has gotten any WORSE (my terrible memory has been an issue in every long-term relationship I've ever had), but it's becoming enough of a stumbling block to normal functioning that I'm I want to seek help.

For the most part, I've been able to adapt, but it's one of those "Mess up once, mess up big" problems: today I forgot to pick up my girlfriend, regardless of the fact that I wrote it on my "list for today" (forgot it was in my pocket, didn't check my pocket), and my Outlook calender that reminds me of things (forgot to enter it into the calendar). It's not just short-term stuff, either -- I was reminiscing with a friend about an acquaintance of ours who had died, and I'd forgotten they were roommates for years.

When I've googled this stuff, my issues seem to match the "You've just turned 50, don't worry about it!" articles. I haven't sought out help from a doctor because I'm an uninsured contract worker. Does anyone have any idea of the costs I should expect?

Also, I've checked out the similar AskMe threads, and they've been helpful, but I already eat right, exercise, and spend time learning new things (Brain Age didn't do anything for me as far as I could tell, other than make me slightly better at Brain Age).
posted by ®@ to Health & Fitness (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
On first glance, it seems like you have two places for important things, and thus neither one is important.

Memory is a skill. Figure out what "tricks" work for you, and use them. For me, it is the "when I leave the house, I will *always* have keys, phone, wallet and pen" rule. As well as "important appointments *always* go into the phone, immediately" rule. Follow those two rules, or your equivalent, and you'll never forget anything important.

Another good trick is giving yourself visual cues. If you have to do something at 5 oclock, visualize what your clock looks like at 5. Or where the sun will be at 5. Or when Jenkins from accounting walks by with his silly hat, you know it's 5. And make the connection- when I see this thing, it will remind me of that thing.

As far as if it is something medical, no clue there. Odds are that it isn't anything serious, but checking around with doctors and negotiating the cash rate for a quick exam can't hurt. Never feel bad about questioning the doctor about the costs of tests they are ordering. A good doctor will be able to explain the alternatives and costs.
posted by gjc at 5:10 PM on February 22, 2010

I do this too. Started when I was around 25. My hunch with regard to my own condition is that it is anxiety-related. When I "forget to calendar" or "forget to look at todo list," sometimes that is my brain saying, "AHHH I am stressed out about all the stuff that must be piling up."

Regardless, you might try direct-memory TODO lists. These help me a TON because there's no messing around with papers that get lost or calendars that don't get looked at.

What I do is the old Kevin Trudeau thing where you assign "pegs" to body positions. For example:

1. Meet Forrest at the Mall
2. Try "Joshua" as mainframe password
3. Pick up Danny at prison; wear Ted Nugent shirt

(I am looking at my body)
1. I look down at my feet. Tiny little trees (Forest) start to spring out of my feet. It is painful and smells like pine.
2. Next I notice that my shins are splitting open to reveal old wires and metal circuitry (mainframe). Inside the wires there are little joshua trees, all tangled up. It smells like burnt circuits.
3. Finally, my kneecaps are being shot full of arrows. The feathers are made of mullet hair (Ted Nugent). The arrow shafts are corroded metal (prison bars).

This usually takes me about 3-4 minutes for 3 items. But there are 3 important items I will not forget. In fact, when I try NOT to think of them, they just spring back into memory.

One important principle: Involve as many sensations (pain, smell, taste, whatever) as possible. The rest of the pegs I use are generally: thighs, navel, chest, neck, eyes, forehead. More than that and I need to move to somebody else's body. Maybe an alien or something.

There is a great book called "Super Memory, Super Student" (not just for students) that covers other methods.

Anyway, I think this is one way you won't forget. You are actively using your memory, rather than treating it as a fallback-crutch that will probably fail you when you can't find your TODO list.
posted by circular at 5:14 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

I think I would go see a doctor when the traditional compensation mechanisms (writing things down, circular's trick above, etc) don't work anymore. How much it would cost... no idea.
posted by chairface at 5:30 PM on February 22, 2010

The guideline I hear repeated for seeking help on memory issues is this: When you forget where you put your car keys, that's normal. If you forget what your car keys are for, that's a medical issue.
posted by seanmpuckett at 6:12 PM on February 22, 2010 [6 favorites]

I've been cursed with lifelong poor memory and hat-drop distractability. I do have a moderately functional life now, keeping track of many tracks, and only dropping the occasional ball (I don't know why I'm writing like that). All I can tell you that might be helpful is to make a concerted effort to habitualize as much as you can, especially if the main thing you habitualize is keeping track of whatever ONE THING you end up using to keep track of your life. Electronic, paper, whatever— just make it one thing, and work really hard at making that thing an indispensable part of you, like a wallet or phone.
I'm saying this as someone who still sucks at this, but I've gotten much better.
posted by Red Loop at 6:21 PM on February 22, 2010

Dittoing Red Loop. I'm a decade ahead of you and got a PDA when missed appointments were causing problems. Now it's essential and it's made me better at tracking stuff in all ways, using my head, using lists and using the PDA. (Memo to self: get a more modern device, maybe a Nexus.)
posted by anadem at 9:47 PM on February 22, 2010

If it's affecting your relationships you need help.

You can't go through your life hurting your loved ones inadvertently.

If you see a psychiatrist, you might be able to get a sliding scale. Many stimulant meds (for ADHD, which I bet is what they'll diagnose and prescribe, although I am not a doctor) are generic and cheap. The issue is getting them on an ongoing basis because they are a controlled substance; your doc might be willing to give you a few prescriptions at a time and post-date them so you don't have to go every month.

So a psychiatrist--depends heavily on your location, ask first--and meds which vary by the kind of med and how much you are prescribed.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:33 PM on February 22, 2010

The guideline I hear repeated for seeking help on memory issues is this: When you forget where you put your car keys, that's normal.

An ongoing and harmful memory issue since childhood should be checked out, even if it hasn't reached the level of dysfunction of, say, a stroke or Alzheimer's. The OP is not just getting forgetful in his old age. He's in his 20s. It's not normal.
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 10:39 PM on February 22, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Question: How much sleep are you getting per night? I noticed when I was younger I'd get 3 or 4 hours of sleep a night some nights and then the next day I'd be a little tired but nothing big. These days (late 30s) if I don't get at least 6.5 hours of uninterrupted sleep, I am just mentally wrecked the next day, sometimes to the point of forgetting common terms:

Me: I need to go grab a.. a.. a..
Coworker: Patch cable?
Me: YEAH! A patch cable!

Thankfully I still know what I wanted the cable for, and what I am going to do with it, but it just pisses me off to no end when I'm tired like that and my train of thought slams to a halt when talking to someone because I can't recall the word I want to use. Then I resolve to go home and go to sleep early that night. Which I sometimes forget to do since there's so much other stuff to do, and the cycle repeats.

So yeah, I would say if you're having trouble getting a good night's sleep, try fixing that first and see if your memory issues abate.
posted by barc0001 at 11:55 PM on February 22, 2010

Best answer: I am as forgetful as you, and I have mostly learned to manage it.

I have an online calendar for appointments, and I use Remember The Milk for things-to-do. EVERYTHING goes in one of those places immediately. I can access them both on my phone (which is an Android phone) so I have no excuse for not putting something on the calendar right away. It took me a while to get into this habit. Nagging from other people helps.

Then, both my phone and my Vista sidebar are set up to have today's appointments and to-dos listed. So everywhere I look is a reminder of what I need to do today. (I work in front of a computer so this makes sense for me).
posted by emilyw at 12:48 AM on February 23, 2010

ADD drugs have helped me a lot with this.

Rituals have also helped. There are therapists out there who bill themselves as ADD coaches who specialize in helping people who have trouble with organization and memory develop systems to stay on top of life. If you can outsource your memory to a device, calendar, or system, and then REMEMBER to use this system, it can make a big different.

My systems might not work with you -- this is all individualized -- but here's some of what I do:

I now never go through a door without stopping, and asking myself, "Does this door lock?" If the answer is yes, I then make sure I have my keys IN MY HANDS before I go through the other side. Just seeing the keys isn't enough. It took locking myself out of my car and my house more times than I care to count, plus months of trying to remember and not always succeeding, before I internalized this habit.

Whenever I schedule an event, I set up my work calendar AND my google calendar to send me reminders. Work calendar tells me 15 minutes in advance of the event. Google calendar e-mails me 12 hours and 30 minutes before the event. I ALSO write all this down in my hand-held paper calendar (because an expensive scheduling device and data plan are not in my budget).

At work, I've got a "Stuff to work on log" that I created based on the tasks that I need to do on the job. It's a single two-column sheet. Details are specific to my job, of course, but here's what's in the left column -- "Interviews/events/appointments"; "Due today"; "Web obligations today"; "Due soon" (i.e., within a week); "Long term" (i.e., due in more than a week, less than a month); "Projects" (i.e., no specific due date or very long term); "Other." Right column has a list of every day tasks with check boxes: stay on top of e-mail; stay on top of RSS; stay on top of voice mail; sort/fie paperwork. The rest of the right column is just a lot of open space for notes and planning.

First thing in the morning when I get to work, I look at my calendar and copy today's time-specific events to the "interviews/events/appointments" section of my planning log, update the rest of it using yesterday's log to guide me, and check items off as I go.

It sounds like a lot of work, but it takes less than 5 minutes each day to stay on top of this log, and then all I have to remember to do is look at the single sheet of paper each day, and I don't have to worry about storing everything in my brain. (And the log NEVER leaves my desk, because there's no way I'd remember where I put it). Of course, the two sets of calendar reminders also keep me on track when I'm in the zone and forget about a particular appointment.
posted by croutonsupafreak at 8:43 AM on February 23, 2010 [2 favorites]

My dad, a neurologist, is often approached my people who thing they have Alzheimers. Convo usually goes like this:
"Doc, I think I'm senile and I'm only 30! I always lose my keys, even when I make a mental note about where I put them."
Dad: "Alzheimers isn't when you forget where your keys are. Its when you forget what your keys are for."

That anecdote is meant to comfort. Lots of people think they're alarmingly forgetful. You may have a real problem, and if it persists and interferes continually with your daily life you should see a real doctor. But it also could be many other things like sleep deprivation, ADD, or not having found the right organizational system yet.
posted by BusyBusyBusy at 9:25 AM on February 23, 2010

I have a horrible memory too, due to having wicked ADD. I manage to lead a mostly-functional life, with only minimal traumas and offenses generated towards my husband and co-workers, but it's because I have developed completely rigid and unbending methods about not forgetting to do stuff.

1) Calendar at home has personal stuff (birthdays, parties, events we want to go to, doctor/vet appointments) written on it.
2) Calendar at work has work stuff (seminars, meetings, due dates) written on it.
3) I have a very pretty blank book. It has to be a pretty blank book, or I won't want to write in it. It is, therefore, the prettiest and most-alluring book I can find. Attached to it is my favorite kind of pen to write with. Therefore, I have multiple incentives to want to write in the pretty book with the really nice pen.
4) Every day, before I leave the house, I see if there's anything on the house calendar. If so, I write it in my book. Every day, as soon as I get to work, I check the calendar and write whatever's on it in the book. I also check for the next month to make sure nothing's coming up that I need to be working on -- if I need to be working on something, I write it in the book. Then I have a to-do list for what I need to do every day. It includes everything from working on my thesis to going to a seminar to giving the dog his glucosamine pill and setting out meat to thaw for dinner. I don't use a planner with the dates already printed because some days I have too many things to fit, and other days I don't have anything at all (if I leave a day blank, I am likely to leave every following day blank on a planner.)

Electronic methods are a lot more convenient and useful for a lot of people, but personally, I need to actually write it and cross it off in order for the list to have any effect on my behavior. If this is the case for you too (which it might be, since you ignore your phone and your Outlook just like I would), actually writing everything on paper might work.
posted by kataclysm at 9:59 AM on February 23, 2010

Response by poster: Didn't mention in the post, yes, I'm ADHD (diagnosed when I was 7, on and off drugs since then). Right now I'm uninsured so drugs are tough, but I've found a psych willing to work on my budget, so hopefully I'll have meds again soon.

I'll look into Remember the Milk, I've had middling success with those in the past -- currently my keys and glasses are about the only thing I can consistently remember, because if they're not physically on my body, they're on my desk because I'm asleep. My girlfriend has suggested getting an iPhone so I can use online calender apps at work (no Wifi).

Thanks for all the advice!
posted by ®@ at 5:35 PM on February 23, 2010

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