Helen Fowler: I didn’t know that MS could affect memory

Writer Helen Fowler
Writer Helen Fowler
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SUN is streaming through the boardroom windows. It’s the long-awaited meeting to pitch for new business from this bank. Light is bouncing off the glass and metal of the buildings spread out beneath us.

All should be well. Suit? Check. Hair? Check. Ideas? Check. I have tons of suggestions for how we could help this firm.

But the (potential) client looks unhappy, embarrassed even. He won’t quite meet my eyes. What can be wrong? I’ve done this kind of thing before – and successfully. I don’t understand.

My colleague and I shuffle off together at the end of the meeting. Something isn’t right, I can tell. He looks disappointed. No: more than that. Annoyed. As if I’ve let him down.

We stand outside the bank at the traffic lights, waiting for the green man.

“How did you think it went?” I ask.

My colleague looks into the distance, rolls his eyes and grimaces. He says nothing. We’ve waited a long time for this meeting. Called on contacts. Taken flights to be here.

Fear flutters inside my chest.

We return to the café where we were having coffee earlier, before the meeting.

“What would you like?” asks my colleague, looking pained.

“Café Latte, please.”

“Nothing stronger?”

I am confused. My colleague must know by now that I don’t drink. I can’t, not with the medication I’m on for my recently diagnosed Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I found out about having the illness just a few months earlier, after I started working for this firm.

I shake my head. I can feel blood rushing to my cheeks.

My colleague returns, bearing coffee. I’ve known him for a while. Whenever we see each other we ask after the other’s partner and children. I think of him as a good guy.

I try again to get his take on how the meeting went.

He looks as if he is wrestling with himself, before blurting out a question.

“Were you drinking?”

I am genuinely shocked. Not least because I spent the time prior to the meeting in this same café, with him. Drinking coffee.

I am in such an emotional state that tears come into my eyes. Hurt pride?


He is shaking his head. As if making sense of something that has just happened and that bothers him. He’s speaking as if talking to himself.

“No, you can’t have been. You were drinking coffee, with me.”

“What do you mean? Why do you think I might have been drinking?” I try to be calm and professional, but boundaries are slipping.

He stares at me as if I should know why he thinks that.

“You were repeating yourself.”

Repeating myself?

Is that why the (potential) client wouldn’t meet my eyes? Why he seemed so reluctant to enter into social niceties at the end of the meeting? He looked keen to get away, I remember noticing.

“Yes, you were saying the same thing.” He pauses. “Over and over again.”

I’d had no idea I was doing this.

I didn’t know that MS could affect memory in this way. To me it meant wheelchairs, physical disability, perhaps falling over. Not short-term memory loss.

This is the first time I’ve understood that the illness can wipe out memory. Can create what are called “cognitive” issues.

To my colleague and our potential client I come across as confused. And rambling, too.

That’s not how I am at the moment. I’m grateful that I’ve recovered from that attack.

My memory is back to normal. Normal enough that I don’t forget to take the disease-modifying drugs that mean I’m less likely to have another episode.

Normal enough that I can remember my PIN number, my burglar alarm code and my husband’s birthday. Without even pausing to think about them.

But one thing that I hope has changed for good is an altered sense of what is important to me. And the ability to remember what I’ve just said is no longer something I take for granted.

Helen Fowler is a journalist from Edinburgh and MS awareness campaigner.