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Can you dance the cog fog away?

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Woman sitting behind wheels of a car

Many people with MS experience 'cog fog', which is when you sometimes struggle with things like memory, attention span and concentration. In this blog, Helena, who was diagnosed with MS 11 years ago, talks about her own experience of the dreaded cog fog, and why she's determined those 'fuzzy brain days' won't stop her doing the things she loves. 

I’m nearly 41 and I’m learning how to drive. Why did I leave it this late? Well I lived in London for many years and there was no way I was going to drive there. Now with two children and living in Hertfordshire, I find myself relying on public transport, my husband or friends to get around. So a few years ago I took the bull by the horn, but yes hang on there...a few years ago you say? But you say you are still learning... that means you still don't have a license?

Well yes, MS aside I am a bit of a nervous driver. Or walker for that matter, if I walk down the street and a person bumps into me (their fault, not mine) I will say “oh sorry”. Sadly I am a bit like that on the roads too, I worry too much about other drivers.

Then comes the cog fog; “I want you to take the second road to the left”... ok, I can do this, second road to the left, to the left... “Sorry did you say the second road? And to the left?” Oh crap I’m meant to switch down gears at a junction aren't I? “Sorry I am having a fuzzy day…”

This is why it’s taking time, I do two steps forward, then five steps back. My MS nurse assures me that it isn't just MS, a lot of people learning late in life have the same issues. Yet, I do wonder, I've been at it for three years and I’m still nowhere close to taking the test yet.

I recently switched to learning in an automatic after chatting to people in an MS Facebook group, where they recommended doing it this way. Is it easier? Yes much easier, not having to do the gears is like dropping the arm movements when you do Zumba and just concentrating on your feet. One thing at the time. So I soldier on. My instructor does think I will be ready one day, and that I am making progress.

Let's rewind a little to Zumba and let me talk a bit about that too. I have always had a rather bad sense of coordination. I dreaded when we had to do ballroom dancing at P.E in school, first of all having to move to the rhythm, then having to do stuff with my feet, and thirdly and most annoyingly, having to let someone else lead! Man, I sucked so bad, sorry for sounding like a teenager but I can't put it any other way. Yet I have always loved to dance, and find it very hard to stand still when a good song plays. So when a few years ago I was cheering on fellow MSer Trishna who was appearing on Strictly Come Dancing People's Choice, I thought I could never do this, but I did like the idea of Zumba which I know Trishna was a big fan off.

I started going to Zumba last year, and let me tell you, it really pushes my poor foggy brain to the maximum. I most likely look a bit of a Wally out there too, but it's a friendly group and our instructor is just lovely. I sometimes stumble over my feet, and completely lose track of what the heck I am doing, but I am having fun and getting exercise so it's all good I think. At those moments when I stumble I look up at Annie our instructor and I see her with a big smile on her face and it is really hard not to just smile too, she is just one of those people that just makes you feel like "yes I can do this thing!"

I honestly don't know if it improves my cognitive impairments but it certainly pushes me out of my comfort zone. Just like the driving. But unlike the driving, in Zumba it's all about “fun and the spontaneous dance solos” as my friend Stina once told me. When I get confused and frustrated, I just jump around a bit, shake and shimmy and hope no-one noticed. Can't really do that when you drive, sadly!

In all seriousness however, pushing yourself out of the cognition comfort zone can be good and bad. I have had days after a driving lesson when I just want to cry as I feel so stupid, like my brain cells are all one by one just turning off. But also those fist-pumping moments when I managed to parallel park without having a hissy-fit, or like last week when I with a huge amount of butterflies in my stomach managed to whizz around on a dual carrigeway in 70 miles per hour and overtake big trucks without killing myself or my lovely instructor! 

Having cog fog days are awful, having to pause everything and ask yourself what the heck was I doing, where was I going, why did I go upstairs in the first place?

On a good day you can just laugh it off, on a bad day it can bring me to a total breakdown. But I tell myself that it must be good for me to challenge the stupid brain and make myself do confusing things with my feet and arms in time with music, and to get out and drive around and be independent. I just have to learn to accept that on some days, it is probably better to remain off roads and dance floors altogether. But on the good days, you should just boogie to the beat!

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