We’re All Liars


In the wake of the Brian Williams scandal, where he was called out for repeatedly telling an anecdote that wasn’t at all true, there’s been a lot of talk about bald-faced media LIES (a post topic in and of itself), and the fallible mechanism called the human memory (this post’s topic).

In the weeks and years immediately following the incident in question, Williams’ retelling was fairly accurate, but over time, instead of being in a helicopter well behind the action, he was right in the thick of it.

I once caught a fish this big...
I once caught a fish this big…

The fact is, he’s a liar. But, so am I. And, while we’re at it, so are you. Sorry, but you lie to yourself and you lie to everyone you know all the time. We all do. There’s even a word for it in psychiatric circles:

Confabulation: To fabricate imaginary experiences as compensation for loss of memory.

Brian Williams may have lied to make himself seem cooler, or he really could have remembered being in a helicopter that was shot down, even though it never happened.

In his memory, this might have been making out with Cindy Crawford. (peoplepets.com)
In Brian Williams’ memory, this might be him making out with Cindy Crawford.

George W. Bush said that he remembers seeing the first plane crash into the World Trade Center as it happened, even though not one media outlet covered it until a few minutes later and he was in a classroom talking to kids at the time. There’s this famous derpy photo of him being informed of the situation that proves that statement is untrue:

"Mr. President, terrorists have taken a giant shit in your lap." (theguardian.com)
“Mr. President, the cafeteria is out of pudding.”

But let’s not use George W. as an example of anything but incompetence.

How about you?

Remember that time that you and your BFF were at that party that one time and that thing happened? Yeah, well, she wasn’t there. She was with you the night the other thing happened at that other party though, so your brain just mashed them together.

Remember how big your childhood house was, right? It wasn’t actually that big; you were smaller. When you picture your first bedroom, you can really picture it. Except it might be not like you remember.

As someone who has plenty of experience with brain FAIL, I can attest to how unreliable and completely changeable the human memory actually is.

We tend to think of our memories as written in stone, but our brains are tricksters. When we demand that they recall something and the memory in question is a little degraded, our brains quick-like-bunny dust it off and fill in the gaps with whatever. It will throw your best friend from college in a memory from college, because he was normally with you during that time period. Except he wasn’t there. And honestly, were you even there?

It’s a sobering thing coming to terms with the fact that the mechanism you rely on for quite literally everything is maybe not so good. Our brains keep us alive by regulating our heart rates, breathing and every other thing our bodies do. They’re responsible for our personalities and every interaction with the world we have ever had. They are at the heart of everything we see, taste, feel, think, read, say and do. They are also in charge of remembering it all, and detailed records don’t seem to be a priority. Good enough is often what we get.

I know first hand how pants-shittingly terrifying it can be to come to terms with just how crappy your brain is. A traumatic brain injury will do that to you. For a while, I couldn’t remember what happened two minutes ago. I had the memory of a goldfish (ahh, this blog’s title suddenly makes sense to you now!).

I had to drop out of school, quit my job and try to shove square pegs into square holes. I did Rorschach tests, word association tests, IQ tests, visual tests, cognitive tests, and tests that tested what kind of test I was testing and how I was testing on the test tests. In other words, I did a lot of tests.

I had to relearn practically everything and my memory went from the healthy memory of a 19-year old to the Swiss cheese memory of a geriatric Alzheimer’s patient. Fortunately for me, because I was so young, my brain was still pretty flexible and I was able to build new neural pathways. It took about a year for me to be functional again, but I will never get it all back. There are memories trapped in my head, mostly of my childhood, that I will never see again.

Also fortunate for me was the fact that I’ve always been a writer. Practically from the time I was old enough to write, I’ve kept a written record of my life, so even if I don’t remember something, I can usually look it up and get my account of what happened at the time. My early childhood is gone forever though.

So much teenage angst...
So much teenage angst…

I tell you all this to reassure you that, even with a massive head trauma like mine, you and your brain don’t have to be enemies. You don’t have to look at every memory that surfaces with suspicion. That said, you shouldn’t take everything at face value either. Your brain is mutable. Memory is not carved in stone, and even though you may see a memory vividly in your mind’s eye, it is not always to be trusted completely.

This post is in no way meant to imply that Brian Williams isn’t a big fat liar. I’m not defending him. All I’m saying is that it is possible–not likely, but just a smidgen possible–that his memory did play a trick on him and he did remember being in that shot-down helicopter when he wasn’t at all.

George W. Bush is still a big fat liar though.

Traumatic Brain Injuries & Recovered Memories


I was conked on the head by a stage light and it damaged my memory. Since I was only twenty years old at the time, the bulk of my memories were of my childhood, which means I don’t really have one. Most of the time, I don’t miss it, but that could just be because I don’t know what I’m missing.

My particular brand of traumatic brain injury affected my declarative memory. It severed a lot of the neural pathways to my long-term memories, and for a while*, I couldn’t shift most of my new memories from my short-term to my long-term memory. Both my short-term and long-term memories were damaged, so even now, not all short-term memories make it over to long-term storage (although the percentage is much higher than right after the accident), and new memories don’t always have a time/date stamp. Unless there is a significance to the date, e.g. I remember where I was and what I was doing on the morning of September 11, 2001, I cannot sort memories chronologically.

Linear time doesn’t really work for me the way that it does for the rest of you. Right after the accident, I became temporally untethered; the passage of time had no meaning for me. To this day, when I wake up, I have to look at my phone to find out what time and day it is since my brain doesn’t process that information well. I am always glancing at the clock since the passage of time still doesn’t mean a whole lot to me.

Not having a proper memory is a strange thing. I only remember fragments. When people ask me questions about my life, a lot of the time, I have to draw on second-hand information. I know I grew up in Detroit. I know the names of the schools I went to and the approximate dates. I know the facts, but the details aren’t always there. I call my sister the keeper of my memories because she remembers more about it than I do.

She’ll say something like remember that time we went there and did that thing? No. It’s so weird that you don’t remember that! It was so very traumatic/awesome! Usually, I just respond with “goldfish,” the creature renown for having a crappy memory, hence my name on this blog.

It seems to me that people, whether subconsciously or consciously, think I’m lying when I say I can’t remember things. You couldn’t possibly not remember all of fourth grade. I think it’s because I appear to be very functional, but that’s because I’ve learned to adapt. Even my own family, who was there for my most goldfishy era, has a hard time believing that I don’t remember certain things. You must just not be trying to remember. Believe me, I have tried to remember, but it’s just not there.

Well, that’s not exactly true. It is still there; I just can’t access it. Most of those memories are still in there. They are still in my brain, but without a bridge to my consciousness.

If I say “fourth grade” to you, you can probably go into your memory like a Google search and come back with results. Your memories have keywords stored in a database. Over time, those keywords and search functions will degrade and you won’t get as many results, but the mechanism is still there.

I don’t have that mechanism anymore. When I search my memory for fourth grade, I get a flood of hazy school recollections that could have happened anywhere between kindergarten and sixth grade. I know which school I went to in fourth grade, but it was the same school that I went to from kindergarten through sixth grade, so I cannot refine the search any further. I cannot narrow down the results to just fourth.

In the same way that, in a standard five-day work week, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday kind of blend into each other, fourth grade to me is like the middle of the week and indiscernible from the other grades in the middle.

I have not had an especially happy life. It is rife with drama, tragedy, embarrassment and terror. One might think, well, hey, it’s a good thing you lost it then! The problem is, without the foundation, I had a really hard time figuring out how I was put together. Because I only had childhood fragments after I was hit on the head, I lost a lot of the why. My motivations became unidentifiable. I did things, some terrible things, without ever really knowing why I did them. I harmed myself and others. I lost myself and nearly ended my life without ever really knowing why. After the accident, I spent the vast majority of my life in that haze without knowing.

And then, I remembered. I remembered the horror and the tragedy and the sheer terror of child sexual abuse, and it all made sense. Every once in a while, a smell, a song or some other trigger will cause my brain to create a new pathway to those old memories.

When I reconnect to an old memory, it’s visceral. It’s as if I’m re-experiencing it. I can almost feel, smell and taste my surroundings, like watching a smell-o-vision movie in 3D, only you’re strapped into your seat and can’t escape the monster coming at you. Unless I’m recovering that awesome sundae I had at some kid’s birthday party, it’s incredibly traumatic and distracting.

About ten years ago**, I recovered a memory to this night, where I was sexually assaulted. I remembered everything as if it was happening right then. I cried for about twelve hours non-stop. I experienced everything about the assault a second time, so it was almost like it happened twice.

After the initial 3D-ness of a recovered memory, it takes its place again in my brain and the memory becomes just like any other, faded and murky without a visceral response. It becomes part of my hazy database.

My memory is a minefield. One false step will produce a memory I don’t want. It’s terrifying not knowing what other demons lurk in my brain just waiting for a trigger. What other horrible experiences are there that are just waiting to be re-experienced? Seriously, how many more can there be?

It’s always a trade-off recovering a memory. On one hand, it’s overpowering to re-experience things. On the other, I’d rather know the why. Without the why, I cannot ever fully understand myself and I cannot heal.

*I use a lot of indistinct terms like “for a while” since I don’t know how long a while really was.
**Everything that has ever happened was either “about ten years ago” or “when I was a kid.”

The Mutable Nature Of Human Mechanisms


That title is really just a fancy way of saying our memories are not to be trusted. Your perfectly normal memory is not to be trusted, but mine, with all of its blows and bruises, is definitely less trustworthy than yours. I’ve gotten used to my fail brain, but its peccadilloes do make it difficult to function at times.

You think you know yourself pretty well, better than anyone else anyway, but when you’ve had a traumatic brain injury and so much of your life is just gone, it makes you wonder if you really know yourself at all. I can’t trust my own brain.

About ten years ago, my brain randomly decided to build a new neural pathway to an old memory that had been lost. It was a traumatic memory involving attempted sexual assault with a gun. I wrote about it here. I didn’t remember that at all. It happened when I was about eighteen years old, before I was hit on the head with a stage light and lost a lot of long-term memories. When the stage light hit, the connection to that incident was lost.

One night, I was talking to a friend and something sparked the memory. It hit me like a freight train. The memory was so vivid that I could even remember the temperature and what the air smelled like. I remembered every tiny detail as if it was happening at that moment. I basically relived it. I started crying, unconsciously and uncontrollably, and didn’t stop for about twelve hours. It was just as real all those years later as it was when it happened.

A lot of my memories of child sexual abuse are buried. I only have flashes of memory. I can’t remember the whole thing. I remember smells and what my room looked like at night. I remember scratches at the window screen and absolute terror. I remember the terror best of all, but I don’t really recall details other than unimportant ones. I can’t see the whole; I see minutia. I’m not sure if I remembered the details before I was hit on the head or if I had just suppressed the whole thing even before the traumatic brain injury.

I am pretty sure that I chose to bury at least part of the childhood sexual abuse before the traumatic brain injury since I spent the bulk of my life in denial. I went through drug addiction, prostitution, cutting, promiscuity, passive suicide, depression, anorexia and sexual assault as an adult without knowing why. I either chose not to make the connection or my brain wouldn’t let me in a misguided effort to try to protect me from the childhood trauma.

I’m not even sure that I believe in the concept of repressed memory anyway. I recover memories all the time, but it’s because of a traumatic brain injury, not because my brain consciously repressed them.

It’s interesting to me that in the sexual assault I experienced as an adult, I was so numb about it. From the post I linked above: “She saw the gun, she heard the threat, she felt his hand on her arm. When he dragged her to the alley between the buildings and began pawing at her clothes, she felt nothing except annoyance and disgust.”

I totally disconnected myself from the situation when it was happening. I only panicked after the fact. I panicked years later when I finally recovered the memory. I felt all the fear I should have felt then. At the time though, I felt nothing. I cried for twelve hours years later. I held those tears in for all that time. Even now, I guess I’m still disconnected since I could only write about it in the third person.

Had I not been talking to that friend on that particular night and experienced that particular trigger, that memory wouldn’t have come back. It would still be buried in my brain and I wouldn’t remember that it happened at all. It makes me wonder what else is buried in there.

What other traumas are just lurking in my brain waiting for a trigger? The scariest thing about traumatic brain injury to your long-term memory is that your brain is sometimes capable of creating new pathways to old memories. It happens instantaneously and you can’t control it. Most of the time, the memories are benign, but sometimes, especially when you’ve lived a life as hellish as mine, they are anything but innocent. They send me into grief and panic. They stop me in my tracks and make me confront them. I never know when it will happen. I never know what will surface. It’s a pretty awful thing to live with.

But, each memory I recover is one more small victory, even if it means half a day crying because of it. They are my memories. They are trapped in my brain. I would rather know and be able to process it. If you don’t know the cause, you can’t treat the problem. I would rather know, still I’m scared of what other horrors lurk in my past.

The Ultimate Brain FAIL

No, this isn't creepy at all and isn't technically necrophilia.
(Disney Pictures)

Yesterday, I wrote a post about age and how short our lives are. I said, “I don’t want to be 116 years old, but I wouldn’t mind living to 60, or maybe even 70 or 80, if I can manage to keep my brain intact that long. I’m not counting on it. With as much damage as my brain has received from meningitis, traumatic brain injuries, and drug and alcohol abuse, I’ll be lucky if I can hold it together until 60.”

That’s not really exaggerating. I had meningitis as an infant, so I practically started life with a damaged brain. I was a substance abusing teenager who never really stopped until a few years ago. I was clocked on the noggin when I was twenty or so and lost most of my memories and the ability to function for a while.

After my traumatic brain injury, I was informed that one of the potential side effects of severe brain boo-boos–aside from, you know, death–was early onset dementia. At the age of twenty, I had the brain function of an eighty year old with Alzheimer’s disease. Fortunately for me, my brain was still growing when it was smashed, so I was able to gain some of my mad brain skills back, but no matter how hard I work, I’ll most likely end up there again.

It would be similar to Sleeping Beauty awakened by Prince Charming (or whatever Beaut’s beau was called–they’re all Prince Charming tropes anyway), while knowing that, eventually, she’ll end up in her sleepy coma again. She’s happy to not to be a coma patient for a while, but that reminder of her fate is a little sad.

No, this isn't creepy at all and isn't technically necrophilia. (Disney Pictures)
No, this isn’t creepy at all. It’s not technically necrophilia.
(Disney Pictures)

I have a Sleeping Beauty coma hanging over my head and no Prince Charming to break the spell. If I do fall into a brain coma, don’t put a dumb rose in my hand and take that stupid crown off. Also, that is not appropriate sleepwear.

Unlike Beauty, I didn’t just wake up and everything was better. I woke up and everything was twisted, jumbled or just gone. I knew who I was, but I didn’t know where I was. I knew what happened the previous week, but I had no idea what happened during my entire childhood or five minutes before.

I have very little memory of that period because I had very little memory at all. My short-term memory barely worked. It had a difficult time converting things that happened into long-term memory. I had the memory of goldfish (real goldfish can remember for at least 6 months–still the 30 second memory myth persists).

I spent years in brain rehab. I put square blocks into square holes. I gave my opinion on ink blotches. I did test after test with specialist after specialist, day in, day out, and a little functionality came back.

My short-term memory is still not what it should be, but I’ve managed to find workarounds. If I want to remember something, I have to write it down. Over the years, my brain has made new neural pathways to reconnect to some old memories, but there’s no pattern to it. I clearly remember a field trip in kindergarten, but don’t remember what happened in third grade at all. I only have scattered fragments of my past and I cannot sort them in chronological order. My brain is a huge unfinished jigsaw puzzle of my life and I don’t even have all the pieces.

I’m essentially living on borrowed time. If I’m lucky, I have a few short decades before it all disappears again. Every time I have a bad brain day, I panic a bit, thinking this is the beginning of the end. A bad brain day is what I call those days where I just cannot get it together. I had one last weekend. Instead of concealer, I very nearly put lip gloss under my eyes. I put lotion on my hands to wash them instead of soap. I cleaned the hair out of my brush and put the hair back in the drawer and almost threw the brush away. That kind of confusion and inability to get through daily life is what is waiting for me, only it won’t be a bad brain day, but a bad brain life.

My fate terrifies me. It terrifies me all the more because I’ve already been through it. They say the unknown is scariest, but sometimes, the known can be even worse. I don’t want to live a life of panicking. I don’t want to wake up in the morning and not know where I am or what happened in the last twenty years or so. When it gets to that point, when I am well and truly gone, I would like to think that some kind creature would put me out of my misery. I don’t want to live the life of a goldfish again.

That’s what I have waiting for me again when I get old. My thinking will get slower and confused. I won’t be able to concentrate. I won’t be able to remember. I won’t have the memories I worked so hard to get back and I might even lose important functionality. I might not remember how to tie my shoes or even how to breathe. Next time, no amount of rehab will help. It will be gone forever. I will be gone forever, even though my body still breathes. All of us are destined to extremely short lives on a universal scale, but if I had one wish, it would be to live the rest of my puny life with my brain intact, or as intact as it is now.