Oct 20, 2011 - Psychology    7 Comments

Overdrawn at the Memory Bank

Last week we got a letter from Connor’s teacher informing us that he would be receiving an award at the first student assembly of the year, on the 18th, at 1.40 pm.  Since Cam and I are blessed with flexible work schedules, we resolved to be there to witness his always-entertaining surprise and cheer him on.

So, on Monday, Cam picked me up from work at about 12.30; we snarfed down a burrito together by way of a lunch date, then headed over to the school. We breezed in at 1.40 on the nose. I saw one of Connor’s classmates in the hallway, where she hailed me with a big smile: “Hi, Connor’s mom!” (I love it when they call me that.)

“Hi, Lila!” I replied with a big smile of my own. “Why aren’t you in the assembly?” She kept smiling, but she gave me that look — you know the one. The one that says, “And the person I know is actually an alien.” At that moment, the principal came around the corner, saw us, and grinned.

“You’re a day early,” she said.

Honestly, what could we do but laugh? “Better a day early than a day late,” I said, trying desperately not to look as stupid as I felt.

Here’s the thing: I’m smart. I’m not bragging, or saying anyone else isn’t. But I’m pretty clever. I’ll also say that I test well, and I’ve studied a lot of things for a lot of years. However, this has absolutely nothing to do with my capacity to get by in everyday life.

This isn’t a “common sense” issue. As a child, grownups frequently said that I had loads of “book smarts,” but not a lick of “common sense,” whatever that meant. They also said I was “intellectually advanced, but socially backward.” To me, these things now mean that somebody should’ve been screening me for Asperger’s Syndrome as a child. I’m not 100% sure that’s my deal, but those platitudes were used to spackle over a lot of struggles I faced as I tried to interact with a world that didn’t follow the rules I’d been taught or the examples I’d observed.

In the Middle Ages, scholars used a mnemonic device called a “memory palace” to expand their capacity to remember texts in an age before easily duplicable books. I’m in awe of this technique and its users, because I know it’s beyond me. If my memory is a structure, it’s the haunted Victorian house on the hill outside town, its windows broken, shutters hanging by one hinge, siding peeling and falling away where frost and wind have pried stealthily over the seasons. Once, it housed a hoarder of the most random, eccentric sort: she frequented libraries, church rummage sales, abandoned schools, failed campaigns, futile protests, forgotten ancestors, buried archives, ancient cemeteries. There are gestures at organization — rusty file cabinets, ingenious labeling systems, half-implemented folder schemes — but if anything, they may only complicate the process, like removing something from its usual place “for safekeeping,” only to lose it because it’s not where you normally keep it.

The practical results are twofold. The first is the bifurcation of my available memory. I’ve got the usual short-term surface area that everyone’s got, which is pretty much like a very large refrigerator door/corkboard/Post-It wall. Then there’s what I call The Processor. It’s basically deep storage, and if I want something out of it, it works like the old European libraries used to. You have to write down what you want on a little slip of paper, give it to the scowling old lady behind the desk (who’s not at all convinced you deserve to be there at all), and wait patiently for the workers to bring it back from the shelves in their own time, so sit down with your silly pencil and white cotton gloves and shut up, you ungrateful American.

The Processor occasionally results in odd and embarrassing outbursts, as it turns up answers when you least expect them. My poor parents have been experiencing this longest. It usually happens for me with trivial knowledge, though not always, and it’s always something that I immediately know that I know, and feels like it’s on “the tip of my brain” but just can’t come up with. This feeling persists quite strongly for hours, even days, until with what feels like an audible pop, out comes the answer, so forcefully that I have the almost uncontrollable urge to shout it, no matter what’s going on around me.

The second effect of my messy memory palace is this: I’m pretty sure that my brain is at capacity. It can hold no more. If something new wants in, something old has to come out. You can feel it eject, even hear it: poit.

Unfortunately, though, what comes out isn’t always old or useless — it’s frequently the thing that just landed, and as such, might really be important. So, the new pediatrician’s phone number? Oops, there go the 5 things I need from the grocery store. Have to change my email password to meet some new security standard for work? You better hope your birthday isn’t anytime soon, because it just got kicked right out of my mental calendar. No, it’d be nice if I could shed all the words to “I Touch Myself” by the Divinyls — I mean, seriously, who’s got the balls to sing THAT at karaoke? Or my high school long-distance boyfriends’ addresses. Or all the lines for the first half of the movie Heathers (but only until after the 1st Heather’s funeral). Nobody needs that stuff.

But that’s not what gets evicted from that creaky, collapsing house on the hill. It hardly matters that fibromyalgia sends banks of fog rolling through like weather systems. And I wish sometimes that one of my sensory things didn’t mean having perfect, focused, vividly visual memories of such a large percentage of my life. If that house has ghosts, those reels play out in the rooms and down the halls at random intervals. Still, like every messy room, every disastrous desk, every once in a while, it yields the most surprising treasures, the most unexpected gems.

Mostly, though, my memory just leaves me kicked out of the room for ruining trivia games, and a day early for school assemblies.


  • Having FM/CFS, I have suffered the strangest cognitive memory problems over the years. While they’re better than when I was so incredible sick in the first few years, I still have trouble with names and sometimes short term memory. But at its height, I would do things like, go to the bank ATM, pull out money, be halfway back to my car and have NO RECOLLECTION of getting any money. And there it would be in my hand. Same with getting in my car; it became routine for me to slap my hand in the passenger seat to make sure my purse was there, because I wouldn’t remember the last time I had it. Keys would be found in the freezer, and my work as an engineer? I learned to write everything I did in a journal, every day, so I could keep track. The worst of it was, once, out driving, I suddenly had no idea where I was, where I had come from – and where I was going. I knew who I was, it wasn’t amnesia like that, but I literally drew a blank in regards to my current situation. Fortunately it passed, but not without some tears.

    • The faulty memory issues early on actually forced a secondary crisis for me. See, I’m also a List Person. Often, I couldn’t even go to sleep at night without writing down the plan for the next day in a nicely bulleted list on an index card. When I got sick, these lists felt like a lifeline for me, a way to hold onto all the things I knew would just slip away if I didn’t lock them down. The problem was, though, that I was still making lists for the person I was before I got sick, and when I could only get through a fraction of what I’d planned, I’d be so overwhelmed and depressed at the end of the day, as I would shift the remainder onto the next day’s list, and add to it. It probably took me 2-3 years just to learn how to write lists for who I was post-diagnosis. I’ve never really taken up listmaking in the same way that I used to, and there’s certainly no pleasure of anticipation in it anymore.

  • This is SO me. I cannot relate any more than I do. Brilliantly written description of my every day life. I totally sympathize.

    Let’s hope we both stumble upon a discovery that will “cure” us.
    Until then at least it’s a happy chaos. 🙂

    • You know, it really IS a happy chaos, for the most part, when it’s not actively messing up important things. It’s weird and wonderful what pops out of my brain at random moments. For no apparent reason, as I was walking across the warehouse yesterday, it occurred to me that I remembered my grandparents’ phone number: 414.483.2006. They sold that house in 1997. Why do I still know that? Part of it’s number chunking, which I’m very good at. And part of it is my weird memory palace. So what the heck. You never know what’s going to pop out. And I really do like that my family and friends use me as a more personable version of Google sometimes. 🙂

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