Ford column: Forget it

Published 12:00 am Thursday, July 16, 2009

I forgot to teach an aerobics class last week. No medical emergency, no traffic jam, no oversleeping.
I just forgot.
Ester called from the YMCA 10 minutes after the class was supposed to start to see if I was dead or otherwise incapacitated.
“Weren’t you supposed to sub this morning?” she asked.
My cry of anguish brought Clara running into the kitchen. In 13 years of teaching, I’ve never, ever forgotten a class.
That I can remember.
And that seems to be a problem lately. Remembering, or even remembering to remember. For the past couple years, I’ve become less organized and more forgetful.
I wrote down that aerobics class, but I forgot to look at the note.
I forgot my husband’s recent business trip. I walked into our bedroom one morning and he was packing a suitcase. Honey, can’t we talk about this?
I forgot to pick up the kids from school. Twice.
Friends have the same complaint. Keeping track of activities, work, errands and schedules not just for ourselves but also for our kids and husbands has become more challenging.
So what’s going on here?
I called local counselor and family therapist Jay Boulter to find out.
No, I am not losing my mind, he said. I am, like so many others, preoccupied.
Like a computer running too many applications at once, our brain can get bogged down as the subconscious labors away in the background, Jay explained.
Even when we think we’ve got it all together, stress can quietly make us do things like forget where we put the keys, the wallet or the kid. Our subconscious grapples with issues that we haven’t acknowledged or had time to handle.
Jay suggested that things like an upcoming trip (yes), issues with a kid (did I mention I have a teenager?) and stress at work (oh, the newspaper industry is super low-stress right now) can cause the preoccupation that makes us forgetful.
Losing things must be the ultimate annoyance.
When we’re preoccupied, the part of our brain that should track where we put items down doesn’t work well because it’s busy running other applications like, “You haven’t started packing yet,” “Another committee? Are you insane?” and “Your child has spent approximately 14 hours today on Xbox Live ó do something about it.”
So, what’s the answer?
For one, identify the preoccupations, Jay said. We need to become aware of what’s keeping our subconscious so busy.
These aren’t necessarily monumental issues like job loss or major illness. An upcoming presentation, a task that we can’t complete, piles of clutter at home all can make us distracted and absentminded.
Once we identify and acknowledge what’s got us so preoccupied, we can figure out how to cope with or resolve the issues.
To help relieve stress, Jay suggested exercise. (Yep, every day.) Writing things down. (Religiously.) Yoga. (Love it.)
And then he said the magic words.
“The value of sleep is incredibly important.”
Ah, yes. For me, a good night’s sleep is the key to a well-functioning frontal lobe.
I knew this already, I just forgot.
Keeping things as organized as possible also helps with focus and memory. For that one or two days that I’m organized, at least.
Jen, who has four kids, one more than me, is probably the most organized person I know. She had matching homework tubs stocked with school supplies and monogrammed with popcorn letters while her fourth child was still in a bouncy seat.
She once told me that her second waking thought every morning is to mentally run through her day. (Her first waking thought is whether she can sleep for 10 more minutes.)
I rarely take a quiet moment alone to focus on the upcoming day ó appointments, schedule, logistics ó and I should.
The morning I forgot the aerobics class, I went for a hard, hot run as penance. It was even more difficult since I was wearing a hairshirt.
A fellow instructor commiserated with me and said she had taken her brush into the shower that day instead of a razor.
I’ll try to remember that story the next time I forget.
Emily Ford covers the N.C. Research Campus.