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Why none of us can really trust their memories, and that's fine

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Are you lost, and you don’t know which way to go? That’s OK: if you keep on walking for long enough, you will find your destination.

‘Hi. Great to see you, how are you?’ The friendly looking guy with glasses looks at me enthusiastically. ‘Er. Hi,’ I say. I have no idea who he is, but I don’t have to guts to tell him. It’s best to start a conversation and hope he give me some clues that might help.

After ten minutes, I give up.  ‘I’m really sorry, I don’t know who you are.’ He looks at me, less friendly now. ‘Seriously?’ He doesn’t believe me. ‘We dated for a while.’ ‘Mmm, okay, long ago?’ I try.  ‘It depends on what you call long ago. It was five years ago. Nice to know I made a lasting impression.’ I want to apologize, explain, make things less painful, but he has disappeared.

Your own story

I know I’m not the only one who doesn’t remember every person they ever met, but my memory is getting worse and worse. Just recently, I watched a series on Netflix and it wasn’t up until the last episode that I remembered I had seen it before. No more than three months ago.

Our memories can’t be trusted. We remember our own versions of situations or people. We see the world through the window of our thoughts and feelings. The story has to make sense. If you have to absorb all information again and again, it’s too tiring.

Bingo 

Nowadays, my memory is like a lottery. ‘Bingo!’ if I know what I was going to do in the kitchen. Jackpot at a high school reunion where I remember almost everyone. Friends reassure me: ‘It happens to me all the time. The older you get, the worse it is. Don’t worry.’

But worrying I did. Every time I want to take the train to the city, I check the connection for 14 times. I often take the wrong turn. Two appointments in one day feels like a marathon. Will I get to the finish line? Or will I start asking questions about things we’ve talked about earlier? The disturbed and annoyed looks in peoples eyes become far too familiar.

My epilepsy is in the part of the brain where attention, concentration and memory are seated. In my EEG brain recordings, doctors have seen a clear malfunction. ‘Did you really need research for that?’ my family says jokingly.

Lost

Follow-up research confirms what I already feared: my brain doesn’t work the way it should. It’s quite a shame, and it doesn’t come in handy for a woman with two academic titles and without many practical abilities. If you see me or talk to me, you won’t notice much. I can articulate and have a conversation just fine, and act like nothing is wrong. Getting lost is something I prefer to do on my own.

I ask my therapist which way to go anyway. ‘It depends on where you want to go,’ he quotes the Cheshire Cat from Alice in Wonderland. I have no idea. ‘Then it doesn’t matter where you’re going,’ he smiles. ‘As long as you keep walking, you’ll find your destination.’ If your memory doesn’t work, there’s not a lot to hold on to, but then again: getting lost allows me to experience everything as if it’s the first time, full of wonder.

Text: Dominique Haijtema