It was the summer of 1985, back when I was still adjusting to the life of a young married woman and still adapting to the community to which my husband had moved us. Most of my lazy summer weekends were spent hanging out at the marina or sunning at the lake during the day and attending follow-up parties in the park or at somebody’s house in the evening. I was still in that “trying to fit in” mode, still trying to find my place among the other women who were all just a little bit older and a whole lot wiser, a little bit more confident and a whole lot more worldly. Because of my introverted tendencies and my multitude of insecurities, I sometimes felt like a child-like outsider in their midst . . . but there was one thing I had in common with each and every one of them, one thing that made me a certified member of their group.
And that was my hatred of Wicked Wendy*.
Wicked Wendy was an “out of towner,” a weekend visitor who sashayed into our peaceful little lake community that summer and wreaked havoc with every wink of her wicked eye. She was single, beautiful and wild, a leggy brunette who was built like a brick “outhouse.” And she was on the prowl. It didn’t matter if the men were committed to their girlfriends or their wives; all men were targeted, and any man who didn’t immediately flee from Wicked Wendy’s shameless flirting would soon be subjected to her all-out, full-frontal attack (if you know what I mean), which would then be followed by a vicious, verbal rebuke from his committed other.
Most of the men were afraid of Wicked Wendy (or afraid of the trouble she would get them into), but we women just hated her–hated her with a passion that would normally be reserved for the killers of baby seals, the kickers of puppies and the takers of the last piece of Godiva chocolate.
Or at least, that’s what I’ve been told.
A few weeks ago, 27 years after the Summer of Wicked Wendy, my husband mentioned her in a conversation (I don’t remember why). When I asked him who Wicked Wendy was, he looked at me strangely and said, “You can’t be serious. You don’t remember Wicked Wendy?”
“I have no idea who or what you’re talking about,” I responded.
He looked at me strangely again. “No . . . seriously? How can you not remember Wicked Wendy? You HATED her! In fact, you forbid me to even talk to her, and if we were somewhere and she showed up, you insisted we leave. Do you really not remember that?”
“Again, I have no idea what you’re talking about!” And at that point I was pretty sure he was just making up the whole story to mess with my head, something that I thought he had been doing a lot recently–telling me about things I had done or said that I knew I hadn’t.
“I can’t believe you really can’t remember her. Ask Sue about her–she’ll remember. Or ask Linda. You all hated her.” By then I was more than a little miffed with my husband and more than a little tired of his antics, and I walked away from the conversation.
I didn’t think anymore about that conversation or the imaginary Wicked Wendy until a couple weeks later when I happened to be on a trip with the aforementioned Linda. I started telling her about the conversation I had had with my husband about this “bad woman” who had invaded our community one summer long ago, this woman whom I had supposedly hated and whom all the other women had hated, too. Before I got any further, Linda interrupted me: “Oh, you mean Wicked Wendy? Yeah, we all hated her and talked something terrible about her! She hit on every man around.”
When I told Linda I had no memory of Wicked Wendy, she was incredulous. “How could you not remember her?” she asked, and then she continued to rattle on with stories that she was sure would jog my memory . . . but no. I couldn’t remember. I tried to make a joke of it, even accusing Linda of being “in cahoots” with my husband, but my heart was pounding in my ears, and I was fighting back tears as reality came crashing down around me. How could I forget someone who had supposedly elicited such a strong emotional reaction from me?
And then I started thinking of all the other times recently when I had supposedly forgotten events and conversations from the past. Sometimes former students–and sometimes my own children–would regale me with stories from years ago. I often remembered a slightly different (and much more accurate) version of their stories, but just as often I didn’t remember their stories at all–although I would nod my head in agreement anyway and laugh in all the appropriate places. And sometimes I would engage in rather heated arguments with my husband over comments he said I had made or actions he said I had taken because I knew–I knew–that he was wrong.
But now I wasn’t so sure.
I was, however, scared. What other memories were lost that I just didn’t realize yet? What other important bits and pieces had disappeared into the black hole of forgottens? I know a certain degree of forgetfulness is common as we age–we all sometimes walk into a room and forget why, we all sometimes forget previously scheduled commitments, we all sometimes forget where we’ve placed our car keys or our cell phones or our glasses–but forgetting the existence of an entire person? That can’t be normal.
And so my husband began occasionally testing my memory with random stories from our shared history. Some stories I remembered with perfect clarity down to the minutest of details, but others . . . others were completely gone. I couldn’t remember deciding a couple years ago that we could afford his new car (a financing plan that I had supposedly come up with), I couldn’t remember long ago when our oldest son peeled the wallpaper off our bathroom wall right after I had finished hanging it (I was supposedly livid), and I couldn’t remember giving my husband a new leather motorcycle jacket for his birthday one year (supposedly the best gift I had ever given him).
And even worse than knowing I had forgotten so many events from my past was the realization–the fear–that I didn’t know why.
When my dad passed away last year, he had been suffering from dementia for several years. His doctors had assured us (and we had believed) that his dementia was the result of years of alcoholism, but what if they had been wrong? What if the alcoholism had only enhanced the dementia–what if his dementia was actually a result of a genetic mutation, and what if I had inherited that mutated gene? Could I possibly be experiencing the early signs of dementia? Surely I’m too young for such mental decline. But . . .
My mom was born with a cerebral arteriovenous malformation (an AVM), a mass of jumbled arteries and veins in her brain that over time allowed blood to pool and resulted in headaches, seizures, and eventually memory loss and strokes. And it was one of those strokes that took her life at the young age of 63. Most AVMs are not hereditary, but a few are. Could I have a similar jumbled mass in my brain, and could I just now be exhibiting signs of its existence?
When I’m being logical, I know the chances that I have inherited one of these genetic anomalies from my parents are incredibly minuscule. But I’m not always logical. I am a world class worrier and a preposterous ponderer of what ifs, and sometimes I let my fears control me. This is one of those times.
Last week I happened across a post on a friend’s Facebook page about seven ingredients to avoid in our food in order to achieve better health. One of those ingredients was aspartame, an ingredient frequently found in diet sodas and artificial sweeteners. This wasn’t news to me; in fact, I had recently given up my diet sodas on the advice of a reader, believing there was a possible link between them and my daily headaches, my nightly insomnia and my frequent joint aches and muscle cramps. And I had known for a long time that many doctors and nutritionists advise against using aspartame–but even though I had known this, I had still guzzled my diet sodas and laced my iced tea with little pink packets, reasoning that I could have much worse vices and that any small problems caused by the ingestion of aspartame were outweighed by the promise of zero calories. What was news to me in my friend’s post, though, was that aspartame had been linked to memory loss. Alarm bells started ringing in my head. Could aspartame have done this to me? (In other words, could I have done this to myself?)
I started researching the possibility, and even though I could find no conclusive evidence, what I did find was still disturbing. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved the use of aspartame in dry goods in 1981 and in carbonated beverages in 1983, and despite numerous studies and countless claims to the contrary, the FDA has always maintained that aspartame is a safe food additive. On the other hand, aspartame is composed of aspartic acid, phenylalanine, and methanol, and all three of these chemicals have been individually linked to neurological problems. Is it that much of a stretch, then, to believe that all three of these chemicals in combination could create a Molotov cocktail for brain malfunction, an incendiary recipe for mental disaster? For over two decades I have been voluntarily pouring these chemicals into my body–have I been killing off brain cells with every 12-ounce can of diet delight, digging “memory holes” with every tiny swallow of artificial sweetness? And if so, is it too late to reverse the damage I’ve done–or at the very least, can I prevent future damage by steering clear of all those nasty chemicals?
I hope I am being needlessly worrisome and unnecessarily pessimistic. I hope that my fears are unfounded–that I am just experiencing some temporary “brain fog” that will soon lift and turn my dreary skies a sunshiny blue again. In the meantime, I am trying to be pro-active. I have eliminated aspartame from my diet just to be safe, and I have an appointment today with a doctor of naturopathy** who will assess my diet and lifestyle and help me find natural, healthy ways to improve my physical and mental well being. Together maybe we can also decide if further testing is needed to determine if a problem other than diet might be the cause of my forgetfulness.
One thing I know for sure right now is that, silly or not, I am scared. Buddha said, “The mind is everything. What you think you become.” I have never been particularly fond of my reflection in the mirror, but I have always been rather proud of my little brain and all the real and imaginary places it has taken me, all the joy and humor and insight it has given me. And I have always believed that even when my appearance faded and my physical health deteriorated, I would still have my mind to comfort me. But what happens to ME, the person I am, the person I want to be, if I can no longer use my mind for all those glorious endeavors and all those luxurious lapses into wonder and enlightenment? If the mind is everything and mine stops functioning properly, will I become nothing, just a mere shell with emptiness inside?
And the only other thing I know for sure right now is that if Wicked Wendy were to suddenly appear in the corridors of my brain, sashaying her voluptuous hips and winking her evil eye, I would run to her with arms thrown wide and tell her how very much I’ve missed her.
*”Wicked Wendy” was a real person (or so I’ve been told); the name I have chosen to use for her is not.
**According to the American Association of Naturopathic Physicians, naturopathic medicine is a distinct primary health care profession, emphasizing prevention, treatment and optimal health through the use of therapeutic methods and substances which encourage the person’s inherent self-healing process.
A photo I took recently of storm clouds rolling in over the Sandia Mountains outside of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Note the sunset trying to break through the thick cloud bank–a possible metaphor for my brain on aspartame?