The benefits of a bad memory – Part I

I’ve been thinking lately about memory — how little I actually remember from my past. When I was a kid, I was a voracious reader. I often had my head in a book. Who could blame me? Most of my interactions with the outside world were less than stellar, and between my misunderstanding of what was going on around me, and others’ misunderstanding of me, about the last thing I wanted was to interact with others.

It was just a pain in the ass.

But I always had my books. Now, decades later, when I think back, I can’t remember much of the plots of the books I read. I was big into Lord of the Rings and the Chronicles of Narnia, but now when I watch the movies, I have a hard time remembering if that’s what I’d read about. Movies do have a way of deviating from the original plot, but some of the gaps in my memory are pretty alarming. Some of the books I recall loving the most — The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, for example (there’s a new movie out about it) — are total blanks when I try to remember what they were about. When I saw a recent trailer ad for the Dawn Treader movie, I felt an intense thrill of joy that the movie was coming out – so intense, I nearly cried, actually. But when I tried to explain to my spouse what the story was about, I drew a complete blank. All I knew was I had loved the story and it gave me a real rush to think about it.

Rush yes, memory, no. And my spouse got a little upset about me having no clear recollection of the plot. As though my memory were the only important part of my experience.

I think a lot about this, these days, which is new for me. Typically in the past, I’ve not gotten mired in the whole memory thing. I guess I’ve just developed so many coping mechanisms, that my poor memory doesn’t slow me down. In fact, when I took my neuropsych eval, several years back, I was truly surprised to find how bad my short-term memory was. I got so many things turned around and upside-down, you’d think I hadn’t even listened to what was being said to me. Au contraire — I had listened intently and I was usually utterly convinced that I was 100% right about everything, even when my scores came in at around 60% of what I should have remembered.

In a way, it’s disconcerting. But then again, these memory deficits have been so much a part of my life for so long, that it almost doesn’t even matter. I recently read a story about a woman who was face blind, and who didnt realize it till she was in her late 30′s. How could she have gotten through life, not recognizing anyone’s face, even after she’d met them many times over? Well, apparently she used other things, like people’s gait, their speaking, and other interactive types of cues and clues. And she got by. She had a career. She had friendships and intimate relationships. She got by. She improvised.

I guess that’s what I’ve been doing, all along. Improvising. The more I think about it, the more I realize how much I rely on cues and clues from the outside world to point me in the right direction. I don’t always understand what people are saying to me right away, but if I ask questions or repeat back to them what they said, and if I follow the non-verbal clues they offer with their body language, I can get by. I can do better than get by. In fact, I’d hazard to say that my dependency on non-verbal clues actually helps me understand others better, than if I went with their words alone. Communication is never just about words. It’s about body language, tone of voice, etc.

And just as verbal misunderstandings don’t need to keep me from living my life, the same holds true for my memory issues. So I can’t remember what happened — exactly — 20 years ago. So what? So I can’t remember things that were said to me earlier that day. If I am living and working with people who can lend me clues about what was decided and said, I can make my way. And I can always write things down. I need to be careful I don’t write too many pointless things down, but I do have the note-taking option available to me.

There’s more to this that I want to explore, but I must get ready to go to the doctor. I’ve got a nasty cold that’s turning into an upper respiratory infection, and I can’t afford to be out of commission. More later…

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