Christmas tree branches featuring a cracked ornament bulb

The Holidays – An Annual Reminder of Memory Loss

"Do you remember a few years ago when we went skiing for the holidays? It was so much fun!!" My stomach sinks whenever a seemingly innocent question regarding past holidays arises. "Skiing? We did? Where?"

I quickly rack my brain for memories, trying to visualize a ski hill with fresh snow and a beautiful view. But it’s a blank slate. Then I start thinking of other holiday activities with my family. A knot forms in my throat.

Let’s see. Four years of college... What did we do for Christmas and New Years? Did we travel somewhere? Uh, not sure. Ok, what about my job? Let’s see, I was reporting in Nebraska in 2009. Did I come home? Uh, not sure. Michigan in 2013? Nothing rings a bell. Minnesota in 2014? Nope.

Memory loss because of epilepsy

The only holiday memories I have from the last 30 years exist in snapshots in my brain. There are the sparkling gold lights hugging the large Christmas tree in our living room; the sleigh rides through the snowy forest with my siblings and cousins behind my grandpa’s beloved Belgian horses in the Upper Peninsula; the beautiful poinsettias filling my hometown church; ice skating with friends; the Holidazzle festival in Minneapolis; and making caramels and Christmas candy to ship to friends.

The stories behind the photos – the laughter, conversations, activities, food, and opening presents – are lost on me. This is because temporal lobe seizures have erased most of my episodic memory. These are the actual experiences, and I don’t usually notice until people bring up a story. Each time, I look away in disbelief. The photo albums from childhood and social media show a wide smile, proof I was having fun, but they usually don’t strike a cord either.

Seizures have stolen my memories

But seizures didn't just steal holidays. They took funny conversations with my best friend and sister, and episodic memories of every single tennis match, basketball game, track meet, and piano recital in high school. Seizures took almost every single moment from college – from the classroom to the track – and every city I traveled to for competition.

Forgetting isn’t just hard on me, it has taken its toll on family and friends. The embarrassed, confused look in my eyes when they try to reminisce only reminds them that wonderful moments between us now exist only in their minds. I hate watching their faces when I utter the same words once again.

"What did we do? I’m sorry, I don’t remember. It looks like we had fun though."

Memory problems impacted my job

Then there’s the job aspect. As a news reporter, I was interviewing new people every day. Follow-ups to past stories eventually became very challenging because I would forget events from just a week prior.

How could I be forgetting something so quickly?

Right temporal lobe seizures and memory

Doctors often look to the hippocampus for clues, because it processes our memories. Research shows hippocampal sclerosis – scarring deep in the temporal lobe – is a common cause of memory loss.  Surgeons removed part of my right temporal lobe in 2015 during an anterior temporal lobectomy with an amygdalohippocampectomy.

They resected the right hippocampus and amygdala, but pathology showed no damage to the hippocampus. My doctor explained to me that my memory was poor because my entire right temporal lobe was dysfunctioning due to the repeated seizures.

Savoring my holiday memories today

My memory is far better today. I noticed the difference about a year after surgery when I could actually recall my visitors in the hospital and remember Christmas with my family. This time it was skiing at Maplelag Resort, a quaint little resort in Minnesota. There are still things I forget, but I try to laugh them off and remind myself to be grateful that I no longer have to rely on friends, family, and photo books to reconstruct my life.

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