I am a woman who tilts. I naturally lean forward when I walk, as though my frontal lobe is one of the heaviest parts of my body.
I’m not sure why I walk this way, but I suspect that it does, in fact, have to do with the weight of the decisions I make. Most of which are properly litigated in my prefrontal cortex, which happens to be located – like everyone else’s – in my frontal lobe, which is the part of my body that would, were I to actually run a marathon one day, cross the finish line first.
My own personal decision-making process has long perplexed friends, family members, and members of the psychiatric community alike. Not that I’m some great outlier in a world full of 7 billion brains making choices every second of every day. No. It’s just that, for me, that process is oftentimes indecipherable. And in a world dictated primarily by these decisions – my world – this lack of understanding is problematic, to say the least. It’s fine if others don’t get it. But if I don’t get it, then that’s no good.
Because what’s the point of deciding whether or not I should eat that Nilla wafer on the table there if I don’t understand why I’m craving it so bad in the first place? Shouldn’t I weigh the pros and cons – no matter how quickly – before I consume the cookie? Shouldn’t I make sure that the package of cookies belongs to me in the first place?
But, look. I’ve already got one shoved in my mouth.
I was about six weeks clean and sober when I told my clinician, Jim, that I was having trouble with words. Specifically, “word recall.”
“I’ll be in the middle of a sentence,” I said, “when all of a sudden I can’t keep going because the verb’s not there. Or the object. Whatever. And I’m not sure if it was ever ‘there’ in the first place. But something compelled me to start talking, right? Why would I start talking if I couldn’t remember the name of the thing I was talking about?”
Jim narrowed his eyes at me. “Did you ever do that when you were drunk or high?” he asked. “Just start talking for no apparent reason?”
All the time.
Jim smiled. “Then why did you just ask me that question?”
I huffed and folded my arms. Not the answer I was looking for.
Jim laughed. “Look,” he said, “what you’re going through is a common symptom of post-acute withdrawal syndrome.” He went on to explain that, as opposed to the sweats, the shakes, the lethargy, the nausea of acute withdrawal syndrome, my symptoms had now progressed. “As smaller, more subtle manifestations,” he said. “Forgotten words. Inappropriate emotions. Cravings-”
“Like sugar!” I shouted.
“Like sugar,” Jim said. “Don’t worry though. These symptoms go away with time.”
That was well over three years ago. And to this day, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about cookies and whether or not I should eat one right this minute. Go find one. Hunt one down. No matter the journey, no matter the cost. Cookie, cookie, cookie.
Or: no cookie.
I received a polite email from Zipcar the other day:
“Dear Abby,” it read. “We are contacting you to follow up on your Dec. 5 reservation. The vehicle’s keys were left in the ignition.”
I blinked. That was dumb of me, I thought.
But the message continued: “Also, the vehicle was left running which resulted in the battery dying and needing to be jumped.”
Now I was appalled. How could I have forgotten to turn the car off? How had I completely bypassed such a crucial decision that should have been an automatic one? Had I been distracted?
I emailed back: “I’m scheduling an MRI ASAP.”
Or, I wondered, should I schedule a CAT scan? It occurred to me that I had no idea which diagnostic imaging tool would be best for this kind of thing.
Wait, I thought. For what kind of thing? For a tumor? For brain damage? For hypochondria?
I burst out laughing.
Then I pressed “delete.”
In her essay “Wordkeepers” Aimee Bender described her own struggle with word recall. Once, when she was at the doctor’s office with flu symptoms, her physician asked her what hurt and she pointed to her neck. “This,” she said.
“Your throat,” he said.
“Of course,” she said.
So they went over her symptoms and, afterward, he gave her a subscription.
I could not have been happier the first time I read Aimee’s essay. Someone else has this problem too! I thought.
Actually, a lot of people do. It’s a proliferative issue among teenagers who – you guessed it – sit around on their cell phones a lot. Apparently, some study performed somewhere at some top-notch school, found that our newfangled devices are externalizing our thought processes so much that we we’re no longer finishing our own thoughts. Aimee compared it to having Google finish your sentences for you.
I’m scared by this notion. I do not need my devices thinking thoughts for me that I’m already struggling to properly think myself.
I decided to test my own misunderstood thought process against that of Google’s.
I typed into the search bar: Why can’t I remember…
The first option it gave me was “words.”
Yes! That’s it!
It also gave me “Why can’t I remember: names
It occurred to me that “anything” would also be an accurate finish to my query. I couldn’t remember words, nor could I remember to turn off automobiles. Which begs the question: Why can’t I remember anything?
A common aphorism I hear in recovery is this: You have choices now. The opposite of this being, of course, that when I was using, I did not. And I get it. I have more choices now. But I had choices then. I just made the wrong ones. A lot.
This doesn’t mean I wasn’t aware on some level back then that there were rewards in not using. There were simply more immediate rewards in getting plastered right that minute. Beer. Cookie. You get the idea.
However, without going into the big dramatic pivot of it all, one day I chose to get clean and sober. I thought, I do not need my vices thinking thoughts for me that I’m already struggling to think on my own.
For me, one of the greatest rewards for getting clean and sober was the ability to drive again. Mind you, I already had a Zipcar account, but I was always way too fucked up to use it. A choice I made while in active addiction. And a smart one, at that.
One afternoon I was running late to return the Volkswagen Jetta I’d rented for a job interview. I was only a few months sober at the time. The traffic in downtown Baltimore was impenetrable thanks to a water main break that day. I called Zipcar to let them know I’d be late.
You can’t be. There was another renter scheduled to use the car right after me.
They’d left me no choice but to take drastic measures in my efforts to return the Volkswagen on time. When what I thought was a perfect opportunity for me to switch lanes in the clogged artery of downtown traffic presented itself, I took it. I whipped the Jetta into the right lane, but revved the accelerator a little too hard while doing so. I tapped the car ahead of me – a Dodge Neon.
My first thought was: Dodge Neon – who cares? But panic set in. Not only was I going to be late in returning the car, I was going to lose my Zipcar privileges, which would make looking for work even harder, which meant I wouldn’t be able to pay the bills again, which meant I’d have to start a GoFundMe page to feed my cats, which meant everyone would know how fucking broke I was, which meant pity and shame, which were the same looks I’d evoked from others when I was drinking and popping Adderall all the time. Had I gotten nowhere in my life?
This is called “catastrophizing.” It’s a part of the decision-making process especially prevalent in recovering addicts. But we all do it. Addicts in recovery are simply prone to making things more about themselves on a grander scale because their worlds, once unimaginably small, are bigger thanks to sobriety. And they’re trying to navigate it all with newfound, glaring clarity combined with a complete lack of experience and context. I often inserted myself into the concept of grand-scale problems. How could I fix gun violence? How could I vanquish ISIS? How could I single-handedly take down Donald Trump’s ridiculous GOP campaign?
Me, me, me.
As if I could even tie my own shoes without breaking into a sweat.
I got out of the Volkswagen and walked up to the Neon, shaking, crying, prepared to tell the driver that I was in early sobriety with two hungry cats at home and that I was really sorry but wondered if we could please settle this out of court. The driver took one look at me and said, “It’s fine, the car’s fine” before rolling up her window and dashing away.
So that was nice.
I did lose my Zipcar privileges though. I’d still returned the car too late and it took me a whole year to get these privileges back. Which made the Dec. 5 incident all the more worrisome. One more mistake like that and no more Volkswagen Jettas or Honda Fits for who knows how long!
Perhaps, then, there’s some merit in the concept of our devices finishing our thoughts. Had the Zipcar let me know it was still running the afternoon of Dec. 5, I might not have trudged off frontal-lobe first toward whatever activity I had planned next in my life. Because I can pretty much guarantee you what I was thinking while walking off none-the-wiser to the car’s ever-idling engine.
I was thinking: Cookie, cookie, cookie.
Or no cookie.
Abby Higgs is an editor here at Queen Mob's! Her work has been featured in The Guardian, The Rumpus, Freerange Nonfiction, The Barely South Review, and various other places. You can find her on Twitter @AbbyHiggs. And you can submit your work to her here: [email protected]!