How’s your hippocampus?

I’m a putterer. I have been my whole life. I don’t multitask while doing it anymore; it’s more akin to parallel processing these days. On usual days, I bounce between the three or four things I want to get done. It’s an improvement over “back in the day,” when I managed two or three things concurrently while still trying to hit four units of accomplishment. The math of four times four is sixteen things a day. The sixteen compulsories would be in addition to the regular tasks I don’t count because they’re a requirement of life. The volume of work I took on is one of the things that contributed to my most recent flame-out: the brain can only handle so much before it gives up and leaves.

They tell me it’s a function of my neurodivergence, this inability to microfocus on one thing at a time.[i] That’s a nice way of saying, “it’s because of the crazy.” I don’t mind the flitting, generally speaking: I get things done, and I don’t get bored. I don’t do bored well: dangerous things happen when I’m bored.[ii] I do regret not developing the expertise that concentrated focus permits.

I miss the “generally speaking flitting.” Life and my general functioning are different these days: the body blows are overwhelming me. As a result, I’m a little bit hot all the time (though being lit is an improvement on being absent: my first nervous breakdown included a week-long non-verbal component. I have ostriching down). Instead of flitting between three or four things, I have as many projects going as there are rooms in the house: I jump between them as the spirit and random thoughts move me. We all respond to external stress and chaos differently.

(It’s tiring, and sometimes it feels like I’m going insane.)

For instance: I start tidying my bedroom closet. There are other, more important things I could get to, but my brain noticed we need to cull and organize, so here I am. Closet stuff is getting done, but now I need some hooks. I’m going to store my purses differently. I get the 3M hooks from the kitchen but notice the junk drawer is chaotic and disorganized. I pull it out, cursing myself because the rollers still aren’t fixed, and empty the contents onto the counter. I’ll need some more organizing baskets and drawer dividers: those are downstairs.[iii]

I head downstairs and root through the different bins in my supply. I can’t find the one I want, so I check the backup location: there’s a bin of boxes in my library. While in my library, I realize I’m ready to cull more of the books I no longer need. For a long time, these books were my security blanket. However, they’re also a weight, one I’m ready to start releasing. Evidence again that recovery and achieving mental stability is anything but linear.

I fill up an empty banker’s box and move it to the storeroom: I let things go in stages.[iv] I box the potential discards up and store them for a few months. If they get ignored until the next time I notice them, out they go. I did the same thing when I organized my kids’ toys. You don’t want to send those from the house too early. The recriminations are loud and tearful.

I stack the new box on top of some others, bad product rotation for sure, but while doing so, I realize the storeroom also needs work. I start sorting through the stuff that lives here, beginning a box for donations and a bag for the dump. I head to the kitchen for a drink after binning the so-far basement waste and remember my closet: I have stuff for the landfill in there too. I should also paint the hole in the hallway. I reconnect with my wardrobe but get sidetracked again when I move some backup supplies to the bathroom. The cupboards here need to be rearranged, ditto the too-full hall closet. I should probably clean the shelves and wipe down the insides first. How did I let things get in so disastrous? How did I get so much crap? It feels like it’s burying me alive.[v]

I’ve been fighting with my depression for some time now. It’s been stretching its legs, trying to make its presence felt. Maybe this frenzied lack of focus was a new wrinkle? Feeling somewhat productive after a long period of feeling apathetically sloth-like has been a nice albeit stress-inducing change, but the attention span of dirt is starting to wear. So much so, I mentioned it to my psychiatrist. I like to check with him when my brain tells me I have a problem. My brain tends to conjure worst-case scenarios about which he’s reassured me over the years.[vi] He’s confirmed that I’m not a narcissist, a sociopath, or suffering from conversion disorder – all thoughts I’ve obsessed over. I thought perhaps I’d developed another label-slash-diagnosis; he assured me otherwise (my psychiatrist is a gem in a field with few of them). It’s not newly-emerging ADHD; it’s my hippocampus.

My hippocampus feels the strain of the sustained run of negative news, ill health, and stress that’s existed for me since my breast cancer diagnosis in October of 2019. I’ve been overwhelmed by life before: I suppose that’s why the doc asked if I was suicidal. I’m not, which surprises me a little, considering. This time, I think the difference is that not all the blows are aimed at me. I’m battered this time, not broken.

The hippocampus lives in the brain, deep in your temporal lobe. One of the articles I reviewed described it as a “complex brain structure” on its own. A brain within the brain, and how strange is that? These complicated bits of tissue (there are two hippocampi, one on each side of the head, about ear level, but internal) act as the brain’s hard drive. Different subregions of the hippocampi help with memory, both short and long-term, learning, and emotion. The hippocampus is a component of our limbic system, an integral part of our daily lives. As with all things human, good food, sleep, exercise, and fresh air serve our hippocampi well.[vii] Prolonged stress does not.

Certain things happen when the hippocampus is exposed to sustained stress. The kind of stress one gets when one’s life is just a “series of unfortunate events,” perhaps? The type of stress that leads to sustained insomnia? As it turns out, this is precisely the kind of stress the hippocampus hates and responds poorly to. An attention span of a methed-out squirrel is just one of the consequences.

Problems with memory acquisition also happen when your hippocampi are stressed. This tracks: I remember almost nothing these days: it quite frustrates my son. I write it down, or it doesn’t exist for me. This change is quite a blow to someone who remembered everything and took pride in her mastery of minutiae.

My inability to function and the chaos inside and out were starting to concern me. Having a trusted someone me this is an expected response to the uncontrollable negative happenings is a relief. And our hippocampi love a bit of relief.[viii]

What Is the Hippocampus? Kendra Cherry, July 22, 2020

[i] Except when I read. When I read, everything else stops. It’s very peaceful. I haven’t been able to read for weeks now. I probably should mention that to my counsellor.

[ii] Bored plus anxiety plus body dysmorphic disorder usually equals obsessing over my face, which then leads to bad things like picking and cutting and minor surgery and nerve removal and paralysis and serious scarring. Grammarly would hate that incredible run-on, but she doesn’t check endnotes.

[iii] Yes, I have a supply of baskets and other organizing needs. What’s your point?

[iv] I have spare banker’s boxes too.

[v] This is perceptual, based on my current negative headspace: I don’t have much stuff. I do have a basement other people use. I have too much of other people’s stuff. Freaking boundaries.

[vi] This is one of the reasons I waited to get medical help when I saw the signs of a kidney infection. I worry so much about being perceived as a hypochondriac, that I avoid seeking help when I need it.

[vii] “Hippocampi” reminds me of calamari and now I’m hungry. The great thing about the “food, sleep, exercise, and fresh air” list is it was in regular rotation in my parent’s nagging list. Just one more thing I should have paid attention to.

[viii] My anterior cingulate cortex might also be taking a hit. The great thing about the internet is you can throw out words and people believe you have more than a vague memory and understanding of the structure and its importance.

15 thoughts on “How’s your hippocampus?

  1. I definitely understand the start organizing A, then realize you should do B, and then maybe C… Maybe just close your eyes as you wander around your house? (Keep your arms extended to make sure you don’t bump into things.

    I’ve recently come up with quite a few things that I want to accomplish and it has me super excited. But, I know how this will go. I will start bouncing around, something will distract me, I will burn out, etc… I have to learn to live with narrowing down my goals.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It’s frustrating that our brains are limited by our bodies and the way we move in the world. I once thought a life coach would help: I pictured them sort of following me around, drill sergeanting orders at me, and keeping me on task. Apparently, that’s not how they work, which I think sucks 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I’m not a fan of all the coaches that pop up for seemingly every facet of our lives. They remind me of self-help books – a mixture of ideals (but not reality) and things that are not applicable to me. I thought I’d make a good coach to those that would need one. Funnily enough, I envisioned myself be like you describe. Apparently, no one wants that. Or so I thought. I’m going through the motions of how to put together some of the things I enjoy doing (like coaching) into a single goal.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. I must admit while perusing through this it seemed a little like my brain… I often flit from one thing to another, and then whilst in the middle of one task, decide to start another one, and you can spend hours and hours going from room to room, task to task trying to do all these jobs/tasks. It is a great distraction from being in the here and now, the present. And I find myself going off into my own little world, ultra focused, and despite my husband telling me to take breaks, it’s like I can’t…and I just keep going… until I’m exhausted!!

    Liked by 1 person

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