Monday, April 16, 2012

Electra & AML: My Phantom

(See all posts related to Electra's ongoing treatment)

There is a fairly well-known phenomenon in people who have suffered the loss of a limb, be it through accident or amputation: phantom limb syndrome. In essence, this is the sensation that a missing limb (or sometimes even an organ) is still present. The person suffering such a condition feels as if their arm (or whatever) is still present and moving around, long after this is provably untrue. I don't know a ton about this, but my general understanding is that it is a form of muscle memory and a result of the complexity of muscle movement. When we move our arms around, we are involving dozens of muscles and not just in the arm-the shoulder, back, chest and flank muscles all play a role. When the arm is no longer there, these muscles "remember" the movements they've been conditioned to make and the impulse to do so remains.

I am starting to feel that I am experiencing "Phantom Electra Syndrome". In a very real way, I lost a key part of myself a month ago (the one-month anniversary is the 16th, which it will be by the time I hit "publish" on this entry). Losing a loved one involves a quick and obvious loss, as in the loss of the limb itself to an amputee. But the lingering effects go beyond this most acute removal. Because Electra was intricately involved in innumerable aspects of my life, not just the times and places where I interacted with her directly. And the muscle memory, the default reactions I got used to over three and a half years, remain.

Let me give one example: this past week, I returned to work on Thursday and Friday. On Friday, I needed to mail a letter, which precipitates a walk across the bridge to the post office near my office. In the past year, while Electra was ill, I would take this time to call her. I wasn't actively working and chatting didn't slow me down, so I could ring her up for a few minutes–often the longest conversation she could muster–without feeling like I was neglecting my work to do so. So, on Friday, when I strolled over the bridge over the A3, I instinctively reached for my phone as if to call her up and ask her how her day was going. Similarly, the night before, I almost tried to call her from the pub quiz, while it was being marked, to discuss the questions that had been asked that night. That was our routine-when the quiz finished and was being checked over, I'd fill her in on as many questions as I could remember, especially those that stumped us. That was our routine, since she wasn't in London but loved a good pub quiz.

Complaining about my morning commute. Sending her funny pictures I find on the internet. Telling her about a cool-looking film coming out soon. Discussing travel plans and meal ideas. All of these things became so habitual and frequent for Electra and I that they are all but hard-wired into my brain. Habit formation is a fascinating topic, but one of the key takeaways is this: the more we perform the same action, the less our brains actively work to perform that task: it just becomes rote repetition, and straying outside that is difficult. We form new pathways-of-least-resistance in our brains that ensure that performing these tasks is effectively automatic.

A friend of mine told me that returning to a routine would be the hardest part of all this, for exactly this reason. I don't think she's right in that it's the hardest I've experienced, but it's not easy. Right now, my daily routine involves lots and lots of small but frequent Electra pathways. My unthinking habitual response in many situations involves her in some way, and even though I know she is gone, I continue to reach for my phone, or think about forwarding a funny link to her, or even just reflect on how much she would like or hate a particular thing. She is my phantom limb.

1 comment:

julieanne said...

Stumbled upon your blog--an older entry--when googling something about Brit's and their use of spray-on deodorants (which is such a weird thing for me, an American). Anyway, I got to reading some of your more recent posts. It's impossible to say anything that won't sound trite. I have definitely felt this phantom limb syndrome before from losing someone myself. It's difficult and sometimes I think that it may never fully go away. Hope you're doing as well as you can be!