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Pandemic Stress Leads to Forgetting and Remembering

A frightening episode of Transient Global Amnesia (TGA) results in reflection


Part of the The Coronavirus Outbreak: What You Need to Know Special Report

I know I’m not alone in experiencing stress levels that sometimes feel hard to bear these days. Strange dreams, anxiety attacks, insomnia. We each have ways of coping with COVID-19’s psychological impact, but earlier this summer my brain found an unusual retreat from the mayhem.

On July 2, I lost eight hours from my mental hard drive. I had what’s called Transient Global Amnesia (TGA), which, I’ve discovered, is not as uncommon as you’d think. According to the Mayo Clinic, TGA is “a sudden, temporary episode of memory loss that can’t be attributed to a more common neurological condition, such as epilepsy or stroke.”

During those eight hours, I forgot that Trump was president, that there was a global pandemic and that my parents had died (my father in June 2016 and my mother in August 2019).

The hard part was remembering.

During a TGA, the brain can’t make new memories. I would ask “Are my parents alive?” Or “Is it safe outside?” My friends and adult children would answer, but I’d repeat the question minutes later, each time with a fresh and painful, emotional response.

‘Feeling Like I Was in A Sci-Fi Movie’

I don’t recall the onset of my TGA episode. I’d done a yoga breathing class at 9 a.m. that day and talked to my son at 10.

But around noon, I called my therapist Mary and said, “They told me to call you. Something has happened, and I don’t know what.”

She believes “they” were angels. And considering things might have been much worse if I hadn’t called her (we did not have a scheduled appointment), it is certainly possible invisible grace was involved.

Staying on the phone with me, Mary told me to walk next door to the cottage where my friend Tom lives.

I don’t recall that phone call to Mary or Tom driving me to the E.R. or the MRI and CT scan in the hospital which showed no abnormalities. I don’t recall sending frantic texts to my kids telling them to stay indoors, that the virus had ratcheted up and it was very dangerous outside.

I’ve realized my brain hurt from trying to hold all the headlines and balance all the different points of view without having a clue how to really heal this troubled world.

I do remember feeling like I was in a terrifying sci-fi movie, and I remember sending myself an email with the subject line How I Got in Hospital.

Now, several weeks later, I feel as normal as one can feel in these challenging times. I’ve been told it is highly unlikely the TGA will recur.

Stress is one cause of a TGA. In early June, I’d faced a relationship issue that troubled me. I’d been checking news on Twitter multiple times a day. I’d felt very porous, and as an empath (someone keenly aware of the emotions of others), I may have been picking up the high levels of anxiety in the collective consciousness.

A Reboot of My System

Since returning home, I’ve stopped obsessively checking the news and have returned to my regular meditation and yoga practices and swimming. I’ve realized my brain hurt from trying to hold all the headlines and balance all the different points of view without having a clue how to really heal this troubled world. Or rather, to come to terms with the fact that beyond voting and trying to be kind and conscious, I can’t heal it all.

Brother Toby of the Starcross Community, a monastic spiritual sanctuary, wrote recently that we need both strong, young, yang-oriented activists on the front lines of vital battles being fought now… and quieter, yin-oriented seniors to hold what Swedish economist Dag Hammarskjöld called “sanctuaries of peace.”

I will be 70 next January. I published my first book of fiction at age 61 and three more in the next seven years. My mother read The New York Times daily until two weeks before her death at age 96 last summer. My father was computer savvy and intellectually alert well into his 90s. If I am lucky, if invisible grace intervenes, I have years ahead of me.

I’m not ready to give up. As an elder, part of my task will be the internal work of cultivating peace. I will continue to publish Tiferet, an interfaith journal I launched in 2004. I will continue teaching the online writing classes I created as soon as the pandemic hit. And I will continue to write.

On July 2, 2020, I got a reboot of my system. Our country is rebooting, too. We are all being required to learn new ways of being in the world.

My personal intention is to try to be more conscious and more discerning of where my energy and attention go. And I’m asking for help from friends, both those embodied and those unseen.

By Donna Baier Stein
Donna Baier Stein is the author of The Silver Baron's Wife (PEN/New England Discovery Award, Will Rogers Medallion Award and more), Sympathetic People, Sometimes You Sense the Difference and Letting Rain Have Its Say. She was a founding editor of Bellevue Literary Review and founded and publishes Tiferet Journal.  Donna's writing has appeared in Virginia Quarterly Review, Saturday Evening Post, Writer's Digest, Washingtonian and many other journals.      

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