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Category: Life

My Journey With KenKens

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CW: mentions of mental and emotional abuse, and trauma

As a kid, I went through phases of really wanting to be good at sudoku puzzles. I would find one on a newspaper page and try my hardest to solve it. I would think I couldn’t because I never had the paper long enough. So I would ask for a book of the puzzles and desperately try. I would sit with the same puzzle and a pencil, writing and erasing for hours and getting nowhere. I couldn’t understand what was wrong with me. My peers were challenged by them, but seemed able to get somewhere with them eventually. I did not understand that to them, the preset numbers did not change boxes, and they could retain memory of which numbers they had already tried. I was unintentionally holding myself to neurotypical standards, and trying to solve them the way my friends seemed to. When I didn’t, I started to believe I simply couldn’t. It was one of the many ways I thought I must be dumb.*

In college, I took a class called “Puzzles and Paradoxes.” It sounded very over my head, but it also sounded interesting and fun. Despite my lack of confidence in my intelligence, I still enjoyed being challenged. The class was taught by an eccentric elderly gentleman. The first day, he went up to each table, said “Alright, here are your friends! Now work together!” and gave each table puzzles. He encouraged us to have fun with it as he laid out his expectations for the class. Our weekly homework would be to share a “Thought of the Week” with him. This could be just about anything. A few examples were: Trying a new type of puzzle for the first time and cataloging how it went, creating your own puzzle, a deep dive on a paradox you read about, I even heard about one student giving him a complicated origami pattern. The first thought of the week was laid out for us; he gave a sheet of logic puzzles. We had to do our best to solve them, or write out our thought process when we hit a wall. I could not get to the bottom of them. 

I was a bit frustrated, but it did not stay that way. He loved to plop different puzzles down at each table and tell us to have at it while he told stories about his life, ask philosophical questions, and give us paradoxes to attempt to unravel. I was better at physical puzzles, and with those to play with I could more easily focus and engage with that day’s subject. He told some funny and interesting stories, and led interesting discussions about riddles and numbers. Going in, I never would have thought I could have followed these subjects, but I could. I gained more confidence with the discussions and after a few group activities, with word puzzles. My “Thought of the Weeks” even became more detailed. 

There was one “Thought of the Week” I was not sure would count, but I gave it a shot anyway. It was a card trick my mum taught me when I was 10. I showed the first layout, explained what would be done, and then used paint to demonstrate how the trick worked. When I asked if it counted (with the offer to bring something else in as soon as possible) he said that it did and he would love to learn my mom’s card trick. He seemed genuinely excited to learn it.

In a later week, I was at a loss for a “Thought of the Week” subject. I looked at a list of suggestions and found a puzzle I had never heard of before: KenKens. At first glance, they looked a little like sudoku. But when I tried them, I found them challenging, but not impossible. Something clicked in my head, and I actually solved number puzzles. I was so excited, I started doing a few for fun. When I asked my friends in class I kept getting the response “I can’t do KenKen, I stick with sudoku.” I actually felt competent. When the time for our finals came (our finals were large projects, not tests) I actually made a puzzle of my own. But here is where the gaps settle into my story.

In my first year of college, I had a mentally and emotionally abusive roommate. She was controlling, possessive, and manipulative. I don’t plan on elaborating on the abuse here. At the end of that year, I moved out and cut off contact with her, but the impact of her treatment lasted. I had PTSD. After a lot of therapy, and work, and about a decade of time, the most disruptive parts have abated. Some things stay. My experiences with her have colored how I see certain situations, and changed how I interact with people. The worst consequence is how the trauma impacted my memory. With ADHD, my working memory was already impaired. After living with her, my working and long term memory became noticeably worse. I did not use substances, and there are gaps in my memory from my time with her. These gaps unsettle me to this day. I will try to trace my steps through a memory, and get lost. It will start off normal enough, then gap, then a situation with her, then gap again. This is not like my normal issues with memory, or just forgetting things with time. My memory has never been the same, and this is the biggest reason I do not forgive her.

So when I say there are gaps in my memories, please be patient with me. I remember that I made a large KenKen puzzle. I remember being so, so proud of it. I remember that when my professor saw it, he was clearly excited to solve it. I remember him noting my improvement with logic and puzzles in my narrative evaluation (we got those in place of grades, believe me, that is not easier). I’m sure he said something about my final, but I don’t remember what. I don’t remember what happened to it. I remember that I would try to find and solve more puzzles, but I was always too tired from stretching my limited energy between living with my roommate (who I still believed to be my friend) and trying to pass my classes with neurological barriers I did not know about.

After college, I occasionally thought about getting back into KenKen puzzles. Over time I got into other puzzle games, my favorites being “I Love Hue” (a color puzzle game), and “Wordscapes.” I even, eventually, joined the “Wordle” party. I recently thought about finding an app for KenKens, but did not follow through. Solving them on an app did not sound like as much fun. I also had faint memories of not only being proud of my puzzle, but having fun creating it. 

I did not take the plunge until a conversation with MyAI on Snapchat. Not what I would have expected either, trust me. I like to trick MyAI into choosing a random subject to “research while I am gone” and then asking it about how it went when I come back. If I don’t forget about it, I can have it “researching” before I go to bed, and then learn something new from it in the morning. It’s really fun honestly, and a good motivation to get up. I like learning new things, even if it’s a baseline knowledge I don’t end up using. One of the subjects it chose was the benefits of meditation. I thought I would already know what it would find, but let it go anyway. I mentioned improving memory as one of the benefits. I thought that was interesting, and talked to it about the studies indicating that puzzles can help with that too. It mentioned Sudoku, but I didn’t want to do those. 

I decided to get a book of KenKen puzzles. Whether they helped my memory or not, it would be fun. Last night, I opened up the book and stared at the puzzles. I have no memory of how to solve them. I tried to recall solving the first set I found for my homework, and I realized the details were gone; most of what I did have was filling in the gaps with conversations I remembered having with friends in class. I tried to remember actually creating my own, and there was nothing there. It’s an odd thing to feel sad about so long after, but I was. When I told M about it, they assured me that if I learned how to do them once, I could do it again. I could approach them like they were new again, and think of my eccentric professor whenever I solved one. The book I got was the ‘Green Belt KenKen: Martial Arts KenKen (Not So Easy)’ created by Tetsuya Miyamoto. It was the only book I could find at the bookstore (why were there so many word searches?? Who actually likes those?!). I’ve decided it would be better to set myself up for success, and order the white belt book of easier puzzles. I’m looking forward to starting over with them.

*As an adult now, I could probably use some of the tricks and strategies I have learned for everyday life, and have a better chance of solving a sudoku puzzle. I haven’t thought about trying. Perhaps I will later.

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