Sunday, November 25, 2012

Just A Memory

I briefly refer to a key event in the Homeland season 1 finale. If this is a show you haven't seen and want to get into you might want to skip this one. 

Over the years I’ve become familiar with what I call the ‘eye pop’. It’s an expression that will pass my companion’s face at some point in a conversation after I have surprised them by remembering something, anything. It’s a mixture of incredulity, shock, embarrassment and fear. It’s the look that says ‘How can you possibly remember that?/What else do you remember?/I need to stop telling this crazy girl stuff’. It’s the look that reminds me that I need to practice what Emma calls ‘faux- forgetfulness’*.

I’ve often wondered why people are so shocked and unnerved that I remember stuff about them, sometimes the important chronological details, sometimes the usual trivia shared in long term friendships, sometimes even the details shared in a chance meeting or at a work function. I find it sad that people are so surprised by what I remember about them and others. I don’t know whether it’s because it’s so uncommon for people to remember things, or whether because they think they are not worth remembering. Either is quite depressing and I just want to hug everyone in turn and say ‘Yes! You are worth taking up space in my overcrowded database of a mind!’ Mind you, I tend to hug people I care about anyway (if they let me). And this action usually solicits more ‘eye popping’ and more wondering as to who the hell let this crazy woman loose on the streets.

As a way of explaining the sort of details I mean I include a list (from memory) of random examples of this that have taken place in the last six weeks:

*Lyn was talking about food on twitter and I remembered that her favourite sandwich used to be prosciutto, fresh mozzarella, and basil with honey mustard and possibly other things I don’t know about. I know this because she ate it the day of her wedding and tried not to get the mustard on her dress.

*My old choir conductor from school had tea with me and I remembered that she takes it with 2 sugars and more milk than the usual person. I have not seen this woman in 11 years and I made her tea once.

*I had a meeting with the head of department and we talked about his old place of work when he was a student, his wife’s preference for a certain type of coffee and how his mentor taught him the perfect way to cook broad beans.  I can count the conversations we've had on one hand.

*Any number of instances involving my supervisor. At some point the poor guy really will stop telling me stuff and so I’m hoping I do this to someone else in front of him to show it’s not just specific to him. He gives great ‘eye pop’, though, it’s kind of funny.

You’d think that with a memory like this I could remember routes and directions but no way in hell! Getting around and having a sense of direction just isn’t in my skill set, it’s like there’s a big hole in my brain where that should be. You can also tell from the above list that it’s the personal details I tend to hang onto. I do not tell these to show off but rather to illustrate how useless a lot of this information is. Mostly my memory pisses me off, it’s just a box full of unrelated pictures and songs and stories, mine and others’, with a rotting animal underneath. The trauma of my past has finally seeped through everything else and tortures me at random and inconvenient moments. Some of those moments I can anticipate, but mostly they catch me unawares and every time, every damn time, the memories and flashbacks take my breath away. When you’ve had some seriously bad shit happen to you, a good memory for detail can be torture.

This post is turning dark, but bear with me. The reason I raise this subject is because I was watching Homeland and, as those of you who have seen it know, the main character has Bipolar and subjects herself to Electro Convulsive Therapy at the end of the first season after her life comes apart at the seams. For a long time this is something I have thought about, I have entertained the possibility. I don’t know how common this practice is in the States, but I do know that here it is not an option floated very often. I met one guy in hospital some years ago who had the treatment regularly, but to the best of my knowledge it is not something the average patient is offered, let alone chooses. But part of me wondered about it, whether it was something I might have done. One of the big casualties of this treatment is the patient’s memory, at least in the short term, and there are usually long term effects too. Although it looks much more humane than it was 50 years ago, this is still a very serious thing to do.

I have a love/hate relationship with my memory. In many ways it simplifies my life, as I can marshall details to my front of my mind quite easily. It often allows me to be a better student, a better employee and, despite the instances of freaking people out, a better friend. I can almost always remember a dozen things I need at the shops without a list. I can memorise facts and figures and equations with comparative ease. However it also complicates my life enormously, especially when I am suffering from manic or depressive episodes (which is, you know, most of the time). To try and illustrate, a more innocuous example is when a quote from a film or movie or poem or song jumps to the front of my mind and I can’t remember exactly where it comes from and it bothers me quietly and slowly, like when you have something stuck between your teeth that the floss can’t get rid of.** Thanks to the internet I can usually track it down, not just the origin but also the context. But there are times when this fails and I spend hours of sleeping time trying to track down where the damn thing comes from. Last week I spent a sleepless night trying to track down a John Berryman line. This is one of the silly examples, but there are other more serious things that can be dangerous. Practices as a pedestrian or commuter, for instance. And as I explained before, my memory likes to torture me with the really bad shit too, and often at the worst possible times.

This is one of those times when I know I sound like an over privileged white girl, and I apologise for that. I don’t think for a second that I have it worse than everyone else, I really don’t. The reason I’m talking about this is that I wanted to talk about how the thing that allows you to thrive is also sometimes one of the biggest impediments to your health and happiness.

Do I hate my memory? Yes indeed. Would I ever have ECT and potentially jeopardise its power? Not in a million years. Because it makes me who I am and how I relate to people. I usually hate who I am and how I relate to people, but I guess I’m more afraid of how I could function without it. It’s not that I take pleasure in freaking people out, it’s that my memory guides how I treat people, it allows me to know them and read their behaviour better, to give them what they need. I hope that it makes me a better person.

Still - fucking memory. 

*Emma knows this because she too has an excellent memory.
** I always think of this line from The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay:  ‘He searched his name for “Siegfried Saks”, shuffling through the cards, trying to pop the ace that he knew was in there somewhere.’ Perfect, right?


  1. The thing with memory is being able to find the right trigger at the right time. Also being able to recognize a trigger before it occurs so you can avoid triggering a memory is a handy trick.

  2. I have a friend who has the same kind of memory do you. I'm forever 'eye popping' at her! She has come in handy though when piecing my mental (ill)health history together! It's weird because I guess I expect to be able to remember a shared experience in equal measure. She's kinda freaky... in a good way :)

    I know someone who has ECT in Melb. (not well, she's a friend of a friend). She has major depression and has been hospitalised for it numerous times. ECT was a last resort. As far as I know she's doing better. I understand that Carrie Fischer has "maintenance" ECT to help keep her on an even keel. Scarey to think what it might do to memory. Although I sometimes wonder if my temporal lope seizures effected my memory, given that my friend remembers so much that I don't.

    This makes me think of that Doctor Who episode where a girl purchases some "forget" from a vendor.


Comments are like crack, please enable me.