I had a very severe head injury when I was in my late teens or early twenties. I can’t remember exactly when it happened because I lost my timeline. I can’t sort things by when they happened unless there is a significance to the date. For example, I remember where I was living, working and what I was doing on September 11, 2001 when the World Trade Center in New York was attacked. I cannot remember what I did on September 12th.
The injury wiped parts of my memory. I lost my short-term memory for a while. I lost great big gobs of long-term memories, i.e. most of my childhood. Like most people, I had a few amazingly awesome childhood memories, like my first roller coaster ride, but I also have dark, twisted, horrible memories that I would have been better off not remembering at all.
A few years ago, I had some friends over for dinner. A friend and I were chatting about something horrible that happened in her childhood. I replied, “Oh, yeah. Me too,” without even consciously realizing what I had said. And then my brain caught up with the words and the experience hit me viscerally. I sat there numb and full of adrenalin and I started sobbing. I sobbed uncontrollably for what seemed like hours until the tears wouldn’t come anymore. None of it was under my control. I ruined dinner. It was terrible.
That memory came back to me as if it happened yesterday. The memories float around at the edges of my consciousness just waiting for a trigger, e.g. a smell, a song, a phrase. And when my brain grabs hold of it, it doesn’t let go. It makes me relive it and every sensation that goes along with it. Sometimes, the experience is nice, but most of the time, it’s very unpleasant. Based on the memories I have, I didn’t have a very nice childhood.
Nothing, nothing, nothing… BAM! That’s what my memory is like. Finding a memory in my brain is like fishing. I throw a line out hoping for a particular thing. Most of the time, the line comes back empty. Sometimes, it comes back with exactly what I was looking for, and other times, it comes back with a sea monster.
You people with regular memories don’t know how fortunate you are to only live your life once in sequential order. I have experienced parts of my life multiple times and other parts not at all. There are whole chunks of time trapped in my brain that I can’t access.
When we were kids and we had something bad happen to us, we could process it, learn from it and store it away as something processed and learned. You might remember it from time to time and cringe or smile at how foolish you were, but it’s yours. You own it. You can access it, or not, at will. I don’t have that ability. I can’t access a lot memories and I have no control over what I do access.
Trying to process where I am now without really knowing how I got here is difficult to say the least. It’s hard to move forward when you don’t know where you’ve been. When one of those long-lost memories comes to the forefront again, I don’t have a context for it. I can’t say, “oh yeah, that happened on my 12th birthday.” I have no idea what happened on my 12th birthday. I do remember some birthdays, but I have no idea which of the ones I remember is my 12th, if I even remember it at all.
It’s scary to think about what’s lurking there in the dark. How many more terrible memories are stored in there, just lying in wait for my brain to find them again? How many more times will I have to relive parts of my life? It’s terrifying not having any idea what lies in your past, knowing that it could suddenly spring on you at any moment. On the other hand, maybe some good memories will come back instead.