Postcards at Sea #5: Words Like Fishes

November 9, 2016

Out here, floating in the ocean, words are hard to find. They are like fishes, all around me in the water but they dart away whenever I need them. This difficulty finding words is one of the more curious symptoms of chronic fatigue syndrome and has a hazy physiological explanation where the fatigued brain doesn’t have enough processing power to find particular words or remember day to day details. The tireder or more distressed I am, the harder it is to find the words.


Alphonse de Neuville, Inhabitants of the Sea, Book Illustration c. 1871 

The lived experience is both frustrating and amusing. We have started keeping a list of the way I say things if I can’t find the right word.

  • The wiping thing for a napkin
  • The computer that finds things for the Satellite Navigation System (sat nav) in the car
  • Liquid sugar for maple syrup
  • When you are sick and go backwards for relapse
  • The clothes outside for the laundry
  • Meat covered in breadcrumbs for a schnitzel

My lovely man will often start listing words for me when he sees me struggling, then I can just pick the right one instead of finding it. But sometimes, it is like crazy charades with hand gestures.

Of the interesting things about this bizarre phenomenon is that it is only nouns that I loose, but not the same ones all the time. It seems to be just a lucky-dip in my brain at the moment.

Losing words is also much more likely to happen when I am talking rather than writing. But when I am writing especially on the computer I forget what I am trying to say half way through the sentence or I can’t seem to hold the meaning in a paragraph. That is because my short term memory is affected by the CFS (but not long term memory, so I can do OK on a trivia quiz!). Even simple posts need draft after draft after draft to catch the words and the meaning in my net.

Just as we have started to value the local as globalism has become omnipresent (see…I can find that word but not napkin!), words have become very precious to me since they became scarcer. I borrow books on words and read about writing which is funny because I forget what I read as soon as I put the book down! I did save a few lovely words to share with you though, from a book by Tiffany Watt Smith, called The Book of Human Emotions: An Encyclopedia of Feeling from Anger to Wanderlust (2015).

  • Fago, an Ifaluk word for the love and compassion we feel towards someone coupled with a sense of sadness at their mortality.
  • Kaukokaipuu, a Finnish word for the yearning for a distant land
  • Ijirashii, a Japanese word for the sensation of being moved by seeing the underdog overcome the odds

My hope is that if I keep showing up for the words, keep looking for them and making space for them that they will eventually return to me. Till then, I can watch them swim around me and occasionally amuse my family.

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  1. “Ijirashi” – that’s a great word for you to focus on when you find yourself frustrated and struggling. Give yourself permission to recuperate. You’ve been through a lot, and accomplished a lot. Remember that.

  2. The words will return. Right now they are aberrant, scaled and shimmering as they flicker away from you… but I have seen people through this journey and out the other side, and this will happen for you too, dear woman. Blessings to you and the lovely man and your sweet small ones.

  3. Dear fiber comrade, I have followed your blog for a long time, just reading not reacting. Today I reach out to you, because what you write speaks so loudly to me! I know exactly what you talk about, because I have the same. Not the same illness, in my case it is neuro sarcoidosis, but the exact strange feeling of floating in a sea of familiar things that you cannot grasp anymore in the same way as before. The words, the energy, the fog. I wish you well!

    1. Thank you so much for reaching out to me and sharing your own struggle. I am humbled that your first comment on the blog has been prompted by such kindness and concern. May the fog lift and the words return to all of us who are needful. Best wishes to you.

  4. WOW. Your description of the “fog” you are experiencing is incredible. Even though you are having so much difficulty, you still express yourself so well!!! I think you could write a book on the subject and share your experiences on a larger platform, so that others could understand CFS and others could identify and relate to having similar symptoms and difficulties. It is also amazing that you are valiantly fighting to get out of the “fog” (as some would not) and doing a fine job of it. I hope that sharing your difficulties also brings you a step or two closer to being well. Thanks so much for sharing.

  5. I feel this!! I don’t have chronic fatigue, but I know this noun-hunting! It’s the “fridge that makes things hot” for the microwave, the glances and head points actually informing my kids where they will find the food I mean.

    I always thought it strange that it was the nouns that would swim away. How can the verbs remain while the work-a-day nouns vanish?

    My mother, sisters, and I all do it. But not the brothers and father. Odd. When particularly stressed, simple kitchen instructions starts to feel like a game of Taboo: we can talk all around the word, but not speak the one we are reaching for. An interesting side effect of all this is that my children’s vocabulary is wide and their use of words is creative and flexible.

    Thanks for writing! Today it gives me joy to know it isn’t just my crazy family hunting nouns!

    1. Dear Sandy, How funny that nouns turn out to be so tricky! I am glad you have the company of the women in your family as you search for words and you reassure me that your kids have thrived! Thanks for sharing your experience.

  6. Dear Rebecca
    Thank you for the lovely postcard and description of the words like fish that dart away! I too suffer from this curious difficulty with nouns. Often the same ones over and over. Just as Sandy says in the comment above, my children have a large vocabulary and they are wonderful at finding the words I lose.
    I hope your words all come back to you soon, but in the meantime I am glad you can find some amusement in it!
    Thank you too for those new words and for drawing this book to my/our attention.

  7. My friend Marilyn F said it all! And she wrote this to me: I assume you have seen this. She is a brilliant writer!! Your fame spreads and she is right re a ‘book’ to help others. cheers.

  8. it must be so frustrating, especially for someone like yourself who is so articulate and thoughtful.

    I’m glad there are supportive people surrounding you, during this phase. I don’t know a huge amount about CFS timelines, but I’m hoping with all my hope that this passes for you soon and those pesky nouns are absent no more

  9. I so admire how you are sharing parts of your CFS with us and how you are making sense of it and finding your way through it. I also can’t find very common nouns often to do with mealtimes, my kids are used to it! Do you know The Meaning of Liff, a very funny book also about ‘things that there aren’t any words for yet’ by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd?

  10. I suffer from the same thing – the word hunting. For me it’s menopause brain. I can understand your frustration and the amusement of family. Recently the doctor put me on prednisone with my antibiotic for a chest infection. Wow…there literally were no words, or complete thoughts for the six days I took it. That was fun.

    Hang in there!

    1. Oh great! so just after I get my words back, I can expect to loose them again in menopause! What a rockly road these words do have! Yes, I too have had the wierdness of prednisone with my pneumonia. Was wired and silent for 3 days! My friend cleaned all her windows under its influence despite being extremely unwell. It is a very strange drug. Wonderful words to you Wendy.

  11. I find this post, how you write about your process, so poignant. As others have said, you write with incredible subtlety about losing words, using words beautifully as you do it! Indeed I imagine there could be a wide wide audience for such clear delineation of internal states. And I love those extraordinary foreign words. May your writing gradually bring you to more comfortable shores with many accessible fish!

  12. I know this comment is so late but thank you for making me feel like I’m not the only one. I have CFS and POTS as well as a genetic disorder. I keep forgetting words, simple words that I should know, and I do the same things to explain what I mean.. things like:
    -grass vacuum (lawn mower)
    -bath soup (water, I wanted a glass of water and had just been in the bath)
    -floor sucker (vacuum cleaner. I seem to have a problem with cleaning!)
    Or just the general charades and mixing words up (calling bread wool, sandwich a sausage, etc etc)

    I was meant to start my PhD two years ago in English lit. Now I struggle with simple words. CFS sucks. I too have found so much comfort in spinning, knitting and crochet. I love your blog (just found it from instagram) especially since you’re another Aussie and I can get the things you talk about easily to try myself! We actually went to stay at Tarndie on our honeymoon 😉
    I hope you’re feeling way better now than you did in 2016!

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