The benefits of a bad memory – Part II

Too late… I’m out of commission. The upper respiratory infection I’ve been fighting has fought back, and now it has turned into bronchitis. My doctor is keeping an eye on me, so it doesn’t turn into pneumonia, like it nearly did last year around this time. I need to be more careful, but in my mind and in my experience, my up-and-down health has been just one more thing to negotiate and endure. I need to work on paying closer attention to how I’m feeling, especially when I’m tired and stressed, which I’ve been for a number of weeks, now.

One more thing I have to work on. This really doesn’t end, does it?

OK… enough feeling sorry for myself. Back to the memory thing… Getting along with cognitive deficits has been a regular part of my life for as long as I can remember. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that they’ve been such a part of my life, that I never really realized that they WERE deficits, until someone tested me and pointed them out to me. I developed workarounds, ways of dealing, ways of coping, ways of compensating. To the point (as my neuropsych says) that it almost doesn’t matter that they’re there. I have found ways to live my life in spite of my limitations… in some ways, as though my limitations never even existed.

In a way, I think I’m lucky that I grew up without a clear sense of having been injured and “damaged”. I used to work with a person who was employed far below their capability, and when I did a little enquiring into their past, they told me that they’d had a bike accident when they were little and had a head injury that had impaired them. There I was, standing beside someone who may well have had the same degree of injury as I had when I was 8, but who had essentially given up (perhaps they’d been told they were supposed to give up?), and was working and operating at a much lower level than I was — primarily, it seems, because they decided that was all they were capable of doing. I came this close to telling them about my own experience, then I thought better of it and moved on to another job. It made no sense to me, to “blow my cover” and possibly make myself out to be less than how they perceived me — and that might very well have happened, had I dislosed.

I’m also extremely lucky that I didn’t get injured later in life. I think that growing up and getting used to things being set and usual in a particular way would be very difficult to have disrupted. I honestly can’t imagine having things be the way I expect them to be, my entire life. Some people seem to go through life with a firm certainty, a faith that is constantly reinforced and renewed, a set of expectations that are met over and over. I’m not one of those people. As long as I can remember, I’ve been surprised by things around me — and not always pleasantly. Between my tendency to confabulation (which is terribly embarrasing at times) and my memory issues, life has no lack of surprises for me. But surprises have happened so often and with such frequency, for so very long, that I’ve had to develop a flexibility that I rarely see others exercising. I have to stay on my toes, because I’m never sure if things will turn out the way I expect them to. I have to stay alert and engaged, because I need to be ready to shift and dance around in another direction, if the direction I’ve chosen turns out to be wrong. And that tends to happen. A lot. When I least expect it.

It happens a lot, when it comes to my memory. I’ll think I remember someone saying such-and-such to me, then I’ll start talking about it with them or someone else, and then I’ll realize I had it all wrong, and I’m mis-remembering again. So, I’ll need to adapt my response accordingly. I’ll think someone told me to turn left, when they really told me to turn right, and then when I come to the intersection, I’ll need to instantly turn on a dime, when I discover that I’m headed the wrong direction. I need to do this both quickly and smoothly. It’s no good bumbling about. I have to keep my composure and have it look like I KNOW that I was going in a direction other than what they said. And I have to make it look like I KNOW the right way to go.

To someone who hasn’t done this for most of their life, it probably seems like quite an undertaking. And I have to admit, it kind of is. But by now it’s second nature to me. I just manage to shift and change and adapt, from time to time as needed. I don’t get hung up on my adaptation, I don’t waste a lot of time brow-beating myself over my stupidity (in the moment, anyway). I just do what I have to, to get where I’m going, and it usually seems to work out.

Now, I’m not saying it always works out. Sometimes it doesn’t, and then it’s embarrasing. “What do you mean, you don’t remember?” is what my spouse says, as their brow knits and they turn away with a frightened shudder. I have to just shrug and say, “I just don’t.” It happens after long days when we’ve been out doing a lot, and I’m over-tired. It happens when we’re traveling in unfamiliar places and I’m over-taxed with trying to figure out the social landscape. It happens when I’m overwhelmed with too many details from life and work and everything, and I just can’t find the place in my head where I stored that piece of information.

At those times, it’s difficult. Perhaps moreso for my spouse than for me. At any rate, it’s not pleasant for either of us.

But those times don’t always happen. And bad memory isn’t always a bad thing.

How could a lousy memory possibly be good? Well, in the first place, if you believe (as I do and many sages over the years have reminded us) that all we have is NOW, then there’s not a whole lot of point in dwelling in the past. Lord almighty, if I dwelled in the past, I’d have no end of reasons to feel really BAD about myself and my life. It hasn’t been easy, I can tell you that. There’s been so much pain and disappointment and difficulty and struggle… good God, sometimes I wonder how I’ve made it through everything intact. But when I think about it, I realize that the thing that keeps me sane, the thing that keeps me HERE, is staying in the present, staying present to the immediate moment, and being mindfully involved in the life that unfolds before me, around me, all about me.

Indeed, some days I have so many issues with my balance (just try to get through the day in a happy frame of mind, when all you can think about is staying upright and not falling over and/or throwing up), that it’s all I can do to stay centered (literally). But somehow I do. I manage to keep upright. I manage to keep vertical. I manage. And I manage it by staying fully focused on the present, fully involved in what’s in front of me, and not getting distracted by the things going on around me.

True, it does lead (at times) to an edgy nastiness that is born of fatigue and frustration, but at the times when I’m relatively rested and keeping focused on the positive, I manage to stay present and stay centered.

Having a crappy memory is a little like that. Looking around me, I may or may not remember what’s happened in the past hours or days or weeks, and with this person or with that person or whomever. I may or may not recall the details of particular conversations, and I may or may not remember what I’m supposed to do as a result. But if I can stay centered in the present and follow the immediate clues about What Should Happen Next, then things have a way of coming together. Most of the time, anyway.

Sometimes, if I’m over-tired and not attentive, or if there’s missing information that I really need but can’t recall, the pooch can get screwed. Big-time. But overall, staying present helps.

And it helps not just with navigating the day-to-day but also with life in general. Working with my neuropsych, they’ve been telling me about how mindfulness helps you heal from TBI, develop new ways of living, and make even more of your life than you ever thought you could (TBI or no). And slowly but surely, it’s been dawning on me that what they’re talking about is something that I’ve been practicing for most of my life – not because I learned about it from someone else, but because that’s the only thing that’s ever saved me or helped me in the course of my daily life.

Mindfulness and presence and engaging with the world around me in the present moment is not something I would like to do. It’s something I HAVE to do. Because if I don’t, if I try to rely on my recollections, if I try to fall back on my memory, then I’m in for a world of hurt. I never know if what I’m remembering is correct or not. Literally. I could be spot-on, or I could be out in left field — SO far out in left field, that I’m actually in Wrigley Field when I think I’m in Yankee Stadium. But I never know till I get there, just how right or how wrong I am. So, it’s best to not rely on things like my memory or my recollections, for standard everyday living.

It’s best to remain present in the moment and deal with the moment as it comes.

If I don’t, I’m screwed.

The other benefit of a bad memory is nothing less than humility. How many times I’ve proclaimed proudly that I remember such-and-such, only to be informed that I’m completely wrong… I can’t even begin to say. It can be terribly disconcerting, not to mention embarrassing, and it’s taught me that it’s best to hold my tongue and follow others’ leads at those times when I’m absolutely “certain” about something. The times when I am most certain are often the times that I’m farthest off base, and the number of times I’ve been called on my flawed recollections… I can’t even begin to count. It’s awful and it sucks and it’s humiliating at times (especially in work settings), but oh, well… There’s only so much I can do about it.

The main thing is that I stay mindful of the difficulties I have and actively monitor them, so they don’t take over my life and make it a living hell for myself and everyone around me. It’s no good, to keep running around like a chicken with my head cut off, telling myself all sorts of silly things about how I “know” this and that and the other thing, when my ability to retain things — and recall them in highly charged circumstances — leaves a lot to be desired.

In a way, I think that even with my “unusual” memory issues, I’m not entirely unlike others. I believe that a LOT of people spend a LOT of time telling themselves that they “get” things that they really don’t. If anything, it seems like most people don’t fully grasp the things they profess to understand, inside and out. There’s a peculiar bravado in the Western tradition that impells us to pretend at expertise, as though that were the measure of our worthiness. As though the whole point of living were not to truly understand or truly appreciate or truly experience, but to give others the impression that we’re doing all that. As though the whole point of going about our lives were not so much to truly DO and BE, as to do a damned good impression of doing and being.

I see that everywhere I look. A close acquaintance of mine, love them as I do, is particularly adept at putting on a good face and creating the impression of doing and being things that others value and appreciate… and all the while, their true expression is far from that image they project. They project a pretty impressive image, too. In the eyes of others, they’re inclusive and open-minded and magnanimous and concerned about recycling and living lightly on the earth. And yet, behind closed doors, they’re alarmingly prejudiced, they’re prone to use racial epithets, they’re miserly and grasping, and they have to be reminded to put plastic bottles in available recycling bins.

Hypocrite? Perhaps. Human? Definitely. It’s hard not to judge, but I care deeply about this person and I know their heart is in the right place. When they’re centered and rested and are self-confident, they’re all they seem to be — and more. It’s when they get tired and defensive and afraid that things turn sour.

And that holds true for just about all of us. Saints, precious few of us are.

That’s what keeps thing exciting, I guess.

Well, I seem to have wandered from the topic a bit. But the long and the short of it is, there is more to me than my memory, and there is more to my daily life than what I remember doing a few hours or days or weeks or years ago.

In the intermittent absence of all that, there is always the present. Ever-present. So long as I’m here, I’ll always have that.

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