Memory issues

I will be 75 next March – I was born in England 3 March 1941. Eldest of 4 boys in a very dysfunctional and sad family environment. We lived in a very poor part of town (in Reading, Berkshire). I was told I was of above average intelligence but certainly not a candidate for Mensa. I won a scholarship to the local grammar school at the age of 11 – only the second boy in my district ever to do so. I excelled in languages – Latin, French and German – but was forced to leave school at the age of 16 due to family pressures.

When I was 19, I enlisted in the Army Intelligence Corps and became a translator. I was taught Chinese Mandarin and later Indonesian. I served in Hong Kong, Singapore and Borneo. I quit the Army in Singapore and went to live in Australia. There I joined what was then called the Defence Signals Division (DSD) – the equivalent to the National Security Agency (NSA) in the USA. It was at DSD that I was introduced to a different type of language – computer language – and was taught Fortran and Compass (Control Data Computers – no longer in existence).

So my second career in IT started there. I have had a successful IT career working for such companies as Prime Computers (Natick) and DEC – Digital Equipment Corporation (Boston) – both sadly gone. My last job was with IBM Global Services Australia as an IT Consultant until I took early retirement in 2000 to care full time for my terminally ill wife who was suffering from the revolting neurological illness – Multiple System Atrophy (MSA).

There are 3 things I would like to do before I reach my ‘use by date’. I would like to be able to learn a new discipline again, I would love to be able to remember things I did or said recently with better accuracy than I do now. And I would really like to awaken my memories as a young boy.

I’ll start with the last one first.

My memories of my early childhood are few and far between. Up to the age of about 4, I have only a handful of memories, all happy. Then something happened in the family and my life changed for ever. What few memories I have around the ages 5 to 7 are all very sad. Something terrible happened and over time I think I have worked it out but I can’t prove it. One very vivid memory is when I was about 4 or 5 and my parents were having an enormous fight in the kitchen. I was hiding in the corner hoping no-one saw me. Then my father turned round and pointed directly at me and said to my mother- if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t be in this mess. I got up and ran outside into the garden wondering what the hell I was supposed to have done. I remember that they were arguing, that my mother threw a saucepan of dirty water over my father, but for some reason I have no recollection of what they were saying.

I started primary school when I was 5 years old – I was at the local primary school for 2 years before moving across to a Catholic school when I was 7. I have no recollection of my first 2 years at the local school and didn’t even know that I went there until an old friend still living in the area found my school records in the local Shire Records Office. I do have memories of my time at the Catholic School but not very many.

(My second wife who is 79 remembers her first day at primary school vividly and has many happy memories of the school thereafter.  She has lunch every month with 5 other girsl who were at primary school with her.)

I have always thought that whatever it was that happened when I was about 5 years old made me block things out of my memory. I have tried very hard to focus on that time and I have over the years managed to drag a few memories out of the ‘dark’ but not very many.

I sometimes say to my friends that my brain is like my computer – when I turn it off, it empties the deleted items folder and the recycle bin. The trouble is that whichever functions in my brain decide what data to keep and what to toss out, seems to have crossed wires! I recently had the severe embarrassment of writing to one of my Y-DNA matches at the University of Arizona asking if he could provide me with information. He replied saying that I had asked the same questions a couple of years earlier and he had responded saying he had nothing to offer then and still doesn’t. I checked my email archive and he was correct – I had completely forgotten.

In 1958 when I was 17 my mother left my father and my father – Leonard – asked me bluntly whose side I was on. When I said I could never support him for the way he treated my mother, he gave me one hour to pack my things and told me never to come back. As I walked away, he called out that I wasn’t his son anyway. I took that as the bitter words of a man whose wife had finally plucked up the courage to leave him. Then in 1974 shortly before she died, my mother wrote to me and confessed that Leonard wasn’t my father. Wow! She said my father’s name was Paul Thomas and gave me some background on him. I didn’t immediately follow this up – I had a demanding job and a young family to worry about so that letter went into my desktop drawer where it stayed for many years.

Learning a new discipline and short term memory issues

When I decided to try and find this Paul Thomas, both my mother and Leonard were dead. So I decided to enter the world of genealogy and DNA testing as well as searching the Internet to find this Paul Thomas. I eventually discovered that my mother’s letter was a smokescreen – she wanted to tell me that Leonard wasn’t my father but was too ashamed to tell me the whole truth. DNA testing eventually confirmed that one of my uncles – Leonard had 4 brothers – is almost certainly my father.

And yet an expert genealogist in Utah who I hired to help me, who told me that DNA doesn’t lie, also believes that from the evidence I have given her, that Paul Thomas did exist but wasn’t my father.

So I have been studying an on-line course that helps people analyse their DNA results and how to find ancestors going back generations using their “Methodology”. I have attempted the course three times and have yet to complete it. I can read a chapter over and over again and check the definitions of certain words and write them down. But the next day it seems as though I never read that chapter. I joking say that I must be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s disease but if I am it is a VERY lengthy early stage – like many years! But I don’t think that is the case. But I find it very frustrating that I can’t handle this course when the other participants seem able to do so with ease.

When I was caring full time for my first wife (who had MSA), an old friend from England (Trish) came to stay with us in 2001 and to help me care for my wife. One day the 3 of us were sitting in the lounge room talking and Trish started reminiscing about a particular day when she and I and other members of her family went to a particular beach near Chichester in Sussex for the day. That was in 1961 – 40 years earlier. As she recounted the events of the day, with ease, I just sat there listening and after a while she said – “you don’t remember, do you?” And I said – no – I didn’t have ANY recollection of that day. She was stunned and couldn’t believe it and she kept on, recounting more and more about what had happened that day. Eventually I started to get a glimpse of memory and by the time she stopped, small fragments of memory had returned. But today I can’t remember one of them!

I recently read Norman Doidge’s book “The Brain that Changes Itself” and Oliver Sacks book “On The Move” and this has prompted me to add one further story. I used to be an avid walker and before I became a full time Caregiver, I would walk for an hour most days before going to work. I became a full time Caregiver in 2000 and round about 2001, I would occasionally suffer severe pains in my feet while out walking. I would have to stop walking till the pain subsided. Fortunately this didn’t happen every time I went for a walk. I sought medical advice and was told I had Metatarsalgia and would need orthotics.

After my wife passed away, I moved away from Melbourne in 2005 to a coastal town called Anglesea and remarried. The occurrences of my foot pain were still intermittent but becoming more frequent and were affecting both feet. This hadn’t affected my general mobility. I was walking for at least 30 minutes almost every day at a good pace and playing golf once a week. I actually lost 13 kilos in weight of the 20 kilos I gained as a Caregiver.

By January 2009 I was in trouble with my feet and legs and not able to walk for any length of time without severe foot pain. I was also getting leg cramps at night more often, sometimes very severe. I had several visits with a GP in January/February that year who told me I had arthritis not Metatarsalgia and that I should take paracetamol and walk through the pain. He also gave me several laser acupuncture treatments which did nothing for me. Since then I have seen just about every health specialist relevant to my condition and I have had spinal surgery – laminectomy and rhizolysis – followed by a nerve conduction test that ruled out peripheral neuropathy

Six and a half years later, I still cannot walk for more than about 30 minutes. In fact if I sit, or stand, or walk for more than about 20 minutes, my feet and legs ache severely. I no longer play golf.

This issue concerns me deeply, leaves me frequently feeling very depressed and I have come to the belief that it will never get better.  But something tells me that a good Neurologist might just be able to help me. Maybe one who believes in neuroplasticity.

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