Monday, May 12, 2008

The Woman Who Can't Forget...

He says, son, can you play me a memory?
I'm not really sure how it goes
But it's sad and it's sweet and I knew it complete
When I wore a younger man's clothes
~~"Piano Man", Billy Joel

I was out one night to dinner with my brother a few months back. We went to a restaurant in the neighbourhood I last lived in, when I was still a Jehovah's Witness. As we walked into the restaurant, I immediately had this flash of one of the many times I and a bunch of my jw friends went there after one of our religious meetings. I could see us sitting at the tables. I could see the faces of each of my friends. I could see their hand gestures as they talked and hear their laughter.

I remembered the little girl who sat on my knee as we had dinner, a girl who was one of my Bible students at the time, not yet a jw. And I remembered the glances of my friend J who would later become the man I left the cult with. I looked around at all of these people and how happy we were to have each other in a religion that often left us alienated from the outside and even on the inside. I remembered and smiled.

All this flooded back in an instant. I shared what I was recalling with my brother, along with the subsequent grief I felt in knowing that these people are no longer part of my life, because of the shunning constraints of their belief system.

I said, "It's like this for me all the time. Every where I go, there are these flashes of memory. And I feel them as if I'm there living it right now."

"Sounds awful," my brother replied. I laughed, wiping the tears that were now falling.

"Sometimes it is. But it's also beautiful," I said.

As I get older I am seeing this as a gift rather than a curse. Perhaps it is because I am having more and more memories added to my collection that are completely sublime, rather than the often traumatic ones I experienced for the greater part of my past.

Most serendipitously, a new book has been released entitled, "The Woman Who Can't Forget." It is by Jill Price, a woman who has flawless recall of every event that has happened to her since she was 14. As well, she can tell you what was happening in the world on any given day if she had heard about it at the time. She is the first known case of a condition that has been termed "hyperthymestic syndrome."

I am fascinated by this woman, for obvious reasons. While my recall isn't anywhere near hers in strength or in depth, I can relate to her struggle in living with a mind that can call up a memory out of nowhere along with all the related sensory and emotional information.

She says:

"The emotional intensity of my memories, combined with the random nature in which they're always flashing through my mind, has, on and off through the course of my life, nearly driven me mad. As I grew older and more and more memories accumulated in my mind, my memory became not only a horrible distraction in trying to live my life today, but also the cause of my terrible struggle to come to terms with my feelings about the past."

There have been no words to describe what life is like for me each day; the challenges of having these flashes, sometimes without any obvious trigger, intrude on my daily existence. When they are pleasant memories, it is great. When they are not so pleasant, it can be hell. I had one flash a few weeks back that had me crying in the bathroom for thirty minutes. I ended up leaving work that day because I just couldn't get the train back on the tracks.

Now, though, I don't blame myself or beat myself up for this thing my brain does. It is what it is. For better or for worse, it's the way I'm wired. And it allows me a marvelous sense of empathy and a heightened experience of life. So, I'm grateful.

If you're curious to test out your own emotional recall, Price suggests this exercise. Quickly describe twenty highly emotional memories. According to memory researchers, most people have a hard time coming up with a few. Price was able to list hundreds without stopping to think. I was able to come up with the twenty very quickly and could easily have kept going. One memory lead to another and on and on it went. Complete with sensations of how I felt that day, what I was thinking, even sometimes what I was wearing or the song that was playing in the background.

Once more, the three pound universe continues to astonish and amaze me. Now, if only I could remember where I put my keys.

tall penguin


heart2heart said...

"Never regret...
if it's good, it's a memory,
if it's bad, it's an experience."

I wish I could remember as much as you my friend!

tall penguin said...

That's a great quote Jess! Thank you.