A woman is thinking about one thing, but saying another.

How MS-Related Speech and Memory Problems Embarrassed Me in Public

Multiple sclerosis symptoms pose a constant challenge to my self-confidence, and that's a good thing. For example, after years of taking pratfalls, I’m proud to report that I now stumble with charm, wit, and poise. These breakthroughs are hard-won, as you know. Acting like a good-natured person doesn’t come easily for me, I take myself much too seriously. In fact, acting is precisely how it started! After the sting of embarrassment faded, I faked being jolly and self-deprecating. Then, through some kind of hocus-pocus, it became sincere. But stumbling is one thing. Flubbing words is quite another.

Tripping and falling over my words

Why do I find it more humiliating to trip and fall over my words? Physical stumbling robs me of my dignity and draws attention to problems that might have been invisible moments beforehand. I could say the same for verbal stumbling, too, but here’s the difference. Unlike walking, speech represents my intellect, mood, humor, opinions, and attitude. In short, my identity! Word choice not only reflects how I think, feel, and see the world and my place in it. Over time, the consistency of my speech patterns is the core of my credibility. If I use the wrong word, a red flag goes up. If I do it again, my credibility begins to crumble. Here’s how it starts.

My first flub

Me: I had a terrible night. My nostrils swelled up and I can’t fall asleep that way.

Other: Wow, that sucks.

Me: Yes, I have science problems.

Other: (wears puzzled expression)

Me: I mean SINUS problems!

My second flub

Me: I finished writing the first draft of my story.

Other: That’s great. What’s next?

Me: I’m just about ready to dive into the next virgin.

Other: (wears puzzled expression and raises one eyebrow)

Me: I mean the next VERSION! (blushes furiously)

Am I too hard on myself?

So you might be thinking these exchanges are not that serious and I’m a tad too sensitive, too hard on myself? And you might even think that I’m perhaps projecting judgment onto the Other that isn’t necessarily what they’re thinking at all? Please read on.

Third flub during a therapy session

During a short series of therapy sessions years ago, I made an elegant, articulate case for how intelligent I am and how I hate being talked down to. During what would be the very last appointment, he catches me overthinking a situation and reminds me that the simplest answer is usually the right one. I nod knowingly. “Occam’s Razor,” I announce, wearing my hubris on my sleeve. “Thank you for the reminder.” My therapist responds by saying that indeed I am the most intelligent client he has ever worked with. The subject of my psych evaluation comes up, the test we all have to go through to qualify for Social Security Disability, a test I’d taken years earlier. Then he throws me a curve. It was 2012 and Barack Obama was the president.

Having trouble switching gears during the conversation

Therapist: Who was the last president, Kim?

Me: Uh...(mind is completely blank)

Therapist: Oh, c’mon, it was just the last one! (in an irritated tone)

Me: I can’t...I’ve been so focused on what we were talking about...it’s hard for me to suddenly switch gears...

Therapist: Geez, the last president…Kim…(voice dripping with sarcasm)

Feeling humiliated

I was too caught up in trying to recall the president before Obama to be upset by his tone in those moments. Feeling completely humiliated but determined to save face, I finally blurted out George W. Bush! The accident shook me in two ways. Ach, see what I just did? I meant to type incident, but accident appeared instead. I kept it in to further illustrate my problems with language. Now back to the original point...if I can remember it...

Ah, yes...two ways it shook me...still rattled, I kept up my end of the ensuing conversation and then...

My fourth flub

I was still so shaken that I babbled on about something-then heard myself say teached instead of taught! I corrected myself, but the damage was done. His oblique gaze became a direct one, bemused and searching, as though my eyes would answer whatever question was in his mind. We both fell silent. Soon after, he said, “You’re complicated.” Shaken once again, I made a decision. I graciously thanked him for his help and said I’ll be good on my own now. I never went back.

Later on, I made another decision. If I ever try talk therapy again, I will seek someone who has experience with neurology patients. They would have to have some level of awareness for the ways MS can affect a person.

Talking with people who understand how MS impacts me

This happened eight years ago. I have not sought out a therapist since. Instead, I confide in my sister and brother-in-law. They are supportive and loving, and understand a bit about how MS can affect me. I still flub my words-but I speak more carefully in public now and only let my guard down with the safe people in my life.

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