BY JEREMY FILKO May 24, 2020
My loss came in the blink of an eye and is at the very center of what makes me who I am. One day I was newly promoted at my firm, the next I was struggling to talk. I felt like a marionette, watching the world through eyes that were no longer my own. On June 26, 2016 while playing softball a line drive disintegrated my left eye socket.
Impact resistant sunglasses saved my eye and a surgeon rebuilt my eye socket and put my nose back where it belonged. He even made it a bit prettier, but to be fair, that’s not saying much. However, the most important part of me, my mind, was not so easily fixed.
A week after my injury a photo arrived of me and several of my colleagues at a 3-day leadership course, which ended on the same day I was injured. I saw myself standing with 30 strangers. I remembered some stories and conversations, but I couldn’t assign them to the people in the picture. That’s when I knew something was wrong, and it was just the beginning. Over the next few years I met people, some of whom I’ve known for years, but had become strangers to me.
For a while I pretended to remember people. It’s easier for them. At least until I can’t remember anything we did together. Worse, how can I start over with someone if we start again on a lie? Now I make a joke out of it, “Hey look, I got hurt. I’ve lost some people. How about we grab lunch and start over. I hope I was someone worth starting over with.” Some take me up on it, others do not. Perhaps it’s too awkward for them.
Fortunately, I remember my wife Amy, son John, and daughter Vivian. I try to say their names when I talk about them. I came so close to losing them; I never want to take for granted the sound of my voice saying their names and knowing who they are.
My memory loss isn’t like it’s portrayed in the movies. One aspect is as if someone spliced part of my life away. Another impacts my memories of people, in that it seems like they were erased out of my life. I can almost see memories of them twisting and fading away like tinsel thrown to the wind. Now my most noticeable losses occur when short term memories don’t convert to long term memories.
I am fortunate in that at times symptoms appear and I can tell the person I’m with, “I’m sorry, but I am not going to remember much of what happens (if anything) for a while.” I don’t know if I’m always aware of these times, after all, I simply may not remember them.
Returning to work with memory loss was daunting. As a consultant I make a living with my mind. I work closely with clients to develop business analytics, create new methodologies, and apply emerging technology. For the last 15 years I’ve worked for Booz Allen Hamilton, which is a very progressive consulting firm headquartered in Northern Virginia. Instead of focusing on what I lost, my staff, peers, and seniors, focus on making the most of what I can do, and what I can do better post injury. My writing ability, creative thought, and information processing speed have all significantly improved. Here are a few quotes from colleagues when I told them I was symptomatic, and I wasn’t sure if I would remember our discussions:
• “Get to the white board and start writing everything that comes to mind. Talk fast and I’ll write fast.”
• “I really need your thoughts on this. If you are able, let’s do an analysis in the moment, and it’s on me to remember what’s important.”
• Has anything improved since your injury? I’ve heard that can happen.” I told her and she said, “Great. We’re struggling with the ideation/creative phases of these upcoming efforts. That’s where I’ll pull you in.”
Words and actions like these make all the difference. They pull me back from the darkness and help me navigate the hard times. Times when I dwell on steps forever lost, or I wonder about broken memories left in a history that is no longer my own. Times when I hate myself for not having the courage to understand and remember.
When I engage with people impacted by my memory loss, I say I’m sorry a lot. I am sorry because you are a stranger to me. I am sorry because I don’t miss you. I am sorry because if I hadn’t bumped into you, it wouldn’t make any difference to me. Most of all, I am sorry because although I am the one who experienced the loss, you are the one who carries it.
Jeremy Filko founded a virtual reality (VR) arcade in State College before selling the business to become a Marine Corps officer in 1998, serving as a tank platoon commander. In 2004 he joined Booz Allen as a modeling and simulation analyst, and has subsequently led multiple data science teams in support of government clients. He is an advocate for persons with non-visible disabilities and speaks about their role(s) in the workforce. This column is coordinated by www.learningtolivewhatsyourstory.org, whose mission is to create educational and conversational opportunities for meaningful intergenerational exchanges on loss, grief, growth and transformation.
This article was published in the Centre Daily Times on May 24, 2020.