When I was in fifth grade, I competed in my city’s spelling bee. Two memories stand out from that day. First, my throat culture came back positive for strep just hours before the event. There was a conference among the adults to decide whether to send me home or let me participate. There I stood, an eager, probably too earnest, eleven-year old girl upset that getting sick could disrupt my plans. I’ve always suspected that my principal had a soft spot for me because the discussion was suddenly over and he told me to do my best, avoid other kids and then go home. I pushed through the fever and sore throat doing well enough to represent students in the 5th-8th grades to go on to the county spelling bee.
The second memory is looking over my scored written tests after the finals and seeing that I’d been docked a point for spelling a word that I thought was correct. I was so sure of being right that when I got home I ran to the dictionary. It’s practically too perfect to think about this now but the word was judgment. I spelled it with an “e” in the middle. While not common, judgement is an acceptable spelling. No matter that this mistake was meaningless to the outcome of the spelling bee – the judge’s mistake stung.
Now decades later, the grown woman is more like the little girl than I ever realized. I’ve tried to convince myself that if I think I’m stronger, I will be. That if I push myself, I should be able to think clearly without getting a headache. Yet I keep knocking up against invisible boundaries of my mind and body that weren’t there before. Mind over matter is powerful but not powerful enough medicine for me now.
And the other similarity to my childhood self? I’m still deeply sensitive to fairness. And this is what makes living with a brain injury so tricky at times.
A few weeks ago, my memory failed me in a potentially costly way. I’d been talking with a close friend when he said something about a dinner we had. I didn’t remember it. As painful as it is to admit, I told myself that he made the dinner up. No matter that I’ve got slivers of memories to go on but I was absolutely convinced that it didn’t happen. I dug my heels in and asserted that there had been many meals but no dinner with my mom. Displaying remarkable maturity and patience after my accusation, he didn’t debate me, just kept the conversation going. Minutes later, it came to me. We did have that dinner. I asked questions to confirm that the flash of memory was true. Yep, I was wrong and so I owned up to it and apologized.
Then it happened again. This time it was in a doctor’s office. I’m paying for treatments not covered by insurance so I’m pretty sensitive to the cost. I’d taken notes during our initial phone consultation. After my first appointment, a medical assistant gave me a price list. Then my second appointment comes and I’m asked for payment. But it’s different from what I remember – I recall that patients paying out-of-pocket were given a discount. That same bloody certainty that I’m right kicks in. I softly but firmly say, “I’m sure I was told there was a 10% discount for out-of-pocket patients.” Back and forth until I ask to talk to the assistant who’d originally seen me with the doctor. She confirms the pricing. Still unable to believe that I’m wrong, I close with, “I’ll pay now but I’m going to check my paperwork when I get home.” I get home and discover that my notes and the price sheet match exactly what they asked me to pay. Oops.
Here’s where it gets tricky. What’s the playbook when my certainty isn’t to be trusted, when memory sometimes fails?
I explain my truthiness dilemma to the same man. I’ve been turning this one over in my head for days, turning it into a deeply existential issue of the integrity and trustworthiness of my self when he boils it down to two words. “F*** ‘em.”
I’m taken aback because I don’t make it a habit of dismissing the feelings of others. But, I respect him and know he’s got an idea here that’s probably worth listening to. I grab my “gratitude/remember this” journal (my first line of defense now) and write his words down,
“If you think something is true, go for it. Friends and family will forgive you if you’re wrong. F*** everyone else. Your only other option is to walk around believing that you are always wrong. Just trust your instincts.”
He’s spot on. How can I hold onto me if I’m second guessing myself all the time? My friends and family will forgive me if my memory goes cattywampus once in a while. And for everyone else, I’ll still push for what I believe is right in that moment (just as I always have) and if I’m wrong, I’ll apologize like I’ve always done. I think this is the best, most gracious thing that any of us can do.