The following is an excerpt from my book, “Been Dead, Never Been To Europe“. The chapter this excerpt is from is “Explaining Memory Loss To Others“, a problem I believe every TBI Survivor (or those with neurodegenerative issues, possibly?) deals with regularly.
In the chapter, I point out I’ve struggled to understand why my memory is a mess; why some things are intact but others fractured. I’ve also struggled with how to explain it to other people because they are surprised sometimes when I don’t remember who they are.
My book begins by relating a memory I have of playing high school football with a friend whom I didn’t meet until my second year of college.
How does memory become so fractured?
I didn’t understand it myself. Reading books on brains did not help.
A fitting metaphor came to me while working at a customer site in their warehouse. I was talking with the warehouse manager about their inventory, some of which included industrial parts that were decades old. We were preparing to move everything to a new building, and we knew we had to take stock of what they had so whatever was junk could be scrapped and they wouldn’t have to pay to move it. The current building was to be torn down after the move.
I made a joke about making a gigantic pile on the floor in the middle of the warehouse and setting everything on fire. “We’re leaving, we’re going to a better place. What do we care what happens to the all this stuff? Why not just set it on fire?”, I said.
Then it hit me it was my life I was talking about.
I had my story, my explanation for memory loss that I could share with others so they would understand.
Imagine your brain is a warehouse.
There are racks of boxes, and each of those boxes contain your memories on millions upon millions of sheets of paper.
When you die, as in my case, the heart sends a message to the brain to let it know that you’re done in your current location and will be moving somewhere else. The implication is that you’re going somewhere better, or at the least, more peaceful.
The brain’s warehouse manager gets on the PA system (every warehouse has one) and announces to the thousands of workers that everyone is moving. The existing inventory is no longer needed. He relays the message, the implication from the heart that everyone is moving to a better place.
The warehouse workers respond joyously by pulling boxes of your memories down from the racks and throwing them into the air. The warehouse floor becomes littered with your life. Some they pile into the middle of the floor. They are elated, ecstatic that their time in this aging, dusty, broken-down warehouse is done.
Everyone knows a “pyro” guy. He’s the guy in your life who’s always playing in the bonfire in your backyard. Left to his own devices, he’d always be carrying gasoline, kerosene, or lighter fluid – some type of accelerant. He’d pour it on the fire and scream with delight as the flames exploded. He’s the guy who’s now starting your memories on fire in the middle of the warehouse while other workers gather around the glow. Many join him, delightfully adding pieces of paper, your memories, to fuel the fire. “Here goes 1985!”, one worker screams with delight as he throws a stack of papers from your life in 1985 onto the fire.
“Remember that date you went on with Cheryl? Not anymore!” Workers around him cheer with exuberance as they turn to the racks for more to burn.
Everyone knows “water” guy too. He’s the guy that throws water on everything. He’s the guy who always suggests a squirt gun fight if he’s at a backyard birthday party. He prefers swimming in a lake or a pool to being on land. He’s there with the rest of the warehouse workers, pouring water on your memories, turning pages of your memories into goo.
Suddenly the heart is restarted, brought back to life. It sends a message to the brain retracting its earlier statement and pointing out that we might not be moving. The brain’s warehouse manager is alarmed and gets on the PA system once again to announce, “We’re staying! Put everything back!”
The warehouse workers stop what they’re doing and look at the mess they’ve made. They have to get back to the business of making your brain work, so they know they can’t take much time bothering with putting your memories back in order. “He’ll make new ones”, a worker says loudly. Many of the workers agree and this comment puts them at ease. They take fire extinguishers and put out the blaze that is your memories. They grab burned pages and start stuffing them back into boxes with no purpose as to whether they’re being placed into the right day, month, or year. Water logged pages are thrown back into boxes with others that are untouched, causing corruption as the ink is blurred.
My niece Theresa and I were very close when we were young. She has taken the time to listen to me about my struggles with memory. I told her how I was in an Apple store picking up my repaired laptop when I spotted a man I was sure I knew. He was with his wife. I knew her too. I have no idea why. I searched my memories, but there was nothing there. I know I was around him and his wife for a few years, but still, nothing. I searched my Boy Scout memories, soccer memories, college memories… “Didn’t they have exceptional kids?”, I asked myself.
I turned my back and hid my face in my winter coat as they got closer. I became more nervous the closer they got; if they recognized me and start a conversation, I’d have to pretend I knew them. I’d gotten better at pretending, allowing the other person to lead the conversation until I could (hopefully) discover who they are and where they were in my life. The problem is I don’t always get away with it, it consumes an enormous amount of energy and I look like an ass. It’s easier to avoid the interaction, so I do. I don’t want to deal with the look on their faces, which is inevitable. The look is always the same. “How could you forget us? Weren’t we important to you?”, as if I had control over what memories got burned, waterlogged, or folded, spindled, and mutilated while I was dead.
A few minutes later, the Apple technician returned my laptop. I kept my face covered and slipped out of the store. I left the mall, and just as I was getting to my car, it finally came to me that the man I avoided was a fellow Boy Scout leader and friend. I always got along well with him. His wife is a wonderful person. His kids are well-mannered achievers mature for their age. I kicked myself for not saying hello.
This scenario has played itself out repeatedly. The people, the places change, but the struggle with memory remains. I’ve done my best to fake it. There are times at which I’ve walked away from someone who obviously knew me well, leaving them bewildered and with a disappointed look on their face as I turned my back on them. It’s embarrassing and I know it only makes things worse as I’ll have to explain even more should I run into them again.
I had to come up with an explanation. I could tell people when I saw that “you forgot me” look on their face. I came up with the warehouse metaphor and when I tell it to people it helps them understand what happened to me. It comforts me because I no longer try to hide from people who obviously know me. I feel like less of a jerk.
It’s just one more way of reclaiming my life, by bringing people who were gone back to me again.