Who am I without my memory?
It seems as though, generally speaking, we define ourselves in the context of our memories.
Memories are precious to us – we keep mementos of life events, pictures, trinkets, things we buy at gift shops while on vacation. Their value is in their ability to remind us of places, friends we’ve had, or significant events in our lives. I’m thinking of the ultrasound picture dad has of me from before I was born or the absurd number of pictures taken when a couple gets married.
I’ve kept my grandma’s old camera, even though it hasn’t worked for years because it reminds me of her. I have a stack of photographs from when I was little because they remind me of happier times. I have memento after memento – each valued not for their resale price, but because of what they remind me of. They’re valuable only to me because they’re specific to my experiences, they’re specific to periods of my life, specific to people in my life.
The idea, so pervasive in our culture, that we are nothing without our memories has fascinated me since I first started dealing with severe memory loss during my rounds of ECT. I’ve forgotten most of my childhood; I have a poor recollection of my adolescence. I remember few names and fewer faces of those I spent so much time with during those years. I don’t remember what my ex-fiancé looks like and have no memory of the specifics of why she left me, or the circumstances that brought us together in the first place.
My short term memory is very poor – if something isn’t on my calendar, if I don’t have my to-do list handy, I don’t do it. I have difficulty remembering basic things like if I’ve fed Kerrin (or myself, for that matter), or what I talked about when I met a friend for coffee.
It makes me wonder if we place too much value on our memories and, in a related fashion, on our sanity. I think people’s greatest fear, other than death, is losing their sanity and, after that, losing their memory. I imagine that’s why the mentally ill are still treated so poorly – we’re living proof it’s possible to lose your mind. People are much more comfortable with ignoring or mistreating reality than facing up to it.
If mental illness has taught me anything, it’s to face my problems head on. My mental illness requires me to be proactive – I have to be one step (preferably more) ahead of it if I’m going to be successful in dealing with it. A majority of beating schizoaffective disorder before it can grab me is to live in the now – to be a person who exists in-the-moment.
I’ve spent a fair amount of time wallowing in the unfairness of having lost my memories. It was a necessary waste of time – a journey I’ve had to undertake to accept that those memories are gone. I’ve had to find new ways of coping with the demands of every day life because I can no longer rely on my memory.
I don’t remember what I got for Christmas or my birthday, I don’t remember what I discussed with my psychiatrist or therapist last time I saw them. I typically forget most of what they say as soon as I’m out the door and headed back home. But their words aren’t completely gone. Because when I see them again and they ask me how certain things are going, I’ve unconsciously followed most of their advice, I have feedback on what we’d talked about in the previous session.
My memories still dwell inside me, buried and obscured – difficult to recall but still there – influencing my decisions and guiding me through life with their silent whispers. I’ve learned to cope by taking copious notes, by adding every appointment and task I must do into my calendar so my phone will vibrate, making its presence known to remind me to do it. And, above all, I remember to focus on the now, on the present moment. `Now’ doesn’t require the past and it doesn’t worry about the future. It exists in harmony with them and accepts that nothing can be done to modify the past and that the future is largely unknown – influenced more by being active in the present than by idle worrying.
I’m still myself despite my Swiss Cheese Brain. I’m still the same person I was meant to be – just as deserving of love and respect as anyone else. Memory isn’t the primary component of what makes us “us”. We’re more substantial than that. And, though our experiences certainly shape who we are, we’re much more than the sum total of our memory of those experiences.
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