Tag Archives: Memory

Back to the Beginning

I left Singapore's Changi Airport this morning after 32.5 hours of travel. Half an hour later, I arrived at the hotel where I'll be staying for a couple days and took a shower in the pool locker room because my room wasn't ready. My primary objective for the afternoon was to stay outside as much as possible in order to keep myself awake and to let natural melatonin do its thing.

Immediately upon leaving the airport, I realized a year away means a lot in terms of memory. For example, I'd forgotten that they drive on the left side of the road here, a legacy of British colonialism. I forgot that no one knows how to walk in a straight line, that people actually wait for the crosswalk light to change before crossing the street, and that escalators are for standing (strictly on the left, of course). Additionally, I forgot that you tap your subway card on the way in and on the way out to calculate the fare and I forgot the subway map altogether.

So many people smoke cigarettes, which I'd also forgotten, and it's gross. And yet, I knew exactly where to find the closest money changer and where to get a new SIM card. I remembered the location of certain stores in a mall I used to frequent and was able to recognize new ones.

It's weird that I was gone for a year . . . and it's weird that I was gone for only a year.

I felt somewhat similarly in Rochester this summer. There were certain things about driving around town that I'd just forgotten. I'd forgotten how certain neighborhoods blend into each other and the names of different streets that I used to know. It's unsettling that after spending so much of my life in that one place, a lot of it was gone, replaced by new pertinent information like all the local and express stops on the 4, 5, 6 trains in New York.

I expect that it's going to be the same in Singapore for a little while. There's definitely some adjusting to do, but it feels good to back.

The Day After the Worst Day

Recently, a friend mentioned seeing a segment from reality TV show in which participants discussed the worst day of their lives. I immediately cast my brain around to unpleasant areas and two days came to mind, though not in the way I expected.

I thought first of the night when my dad looked at my sister, brother, and me sitting around the kitchen table and said, “Mummy and Daddy won’t be living together any longer.” And then he started to cry. So did we.

I thought next of the morning when my now ex-boyfriend and I ended a relationship that had lasted eight and a half years. Calmly, in a fog, I looked at him and said, “Okay.” I did a lot of writing that day.

There’s a lot that I remember and still viscerally feel about those moments. I remember tone of voice and facial expression and it still makes me ache. As I write this, my breathing has constricted and my stomach has clenched. My hands are shaking over the keyboard and my chest hurts. I remember the feeling that came later: anguish, despair, and the sense of falling into thick, dark, unforgiving blackness.

But what I can’t remember at all is the day after each of those events. I can’t remember the day I got out of bed after what must have been a sleepless night and had to cope with a reality that, mere hours earlier, had been unimaginable. The day I had to begin relearning how to live because the way I’d been living no longer existed. The day the nightmare inside my head grew louder as time passed instead of fading.

I can’t remember the day after. I can only guess as to what happened.

This is probably a neural defense mechanism. My brain has probably suppressed the memories of the day that followed my parents’ separation and my breakup because they’re painful, harmful, and detrimental to my daily functioning.

The brain’s purpose is to keep you alive and the way that happens is fascinating. During a traumatic episode, the flight-or-fight response activates, leaving a sketch of what happened but relatively few details. The brain and body need to focus exclusively on getting you out of a dangerous situation. Both adrenaline and noradrenaline are released to allow you to respond quickly and to fight or flee as needed. Adrenaline blocks out non-essential information to focus on the essential (the quick response) and noradrenaline destroy’s the brain’s ability to store memories. Basically, the brain focuses on getting you physically out of a dangerous situation or mentally through a traumatic one and it streamlines its neural processes in order to do that. (Useful reading: Why Can’t Accident Victims Remember What Happened to Them?)

I’m willing to guess that this is what happened in the aftermath of my worst days. I have flashbulb memories of the specific events themselves (truly, neither of them fall in to the trauma category, which I’m inclined to reserve for real disasters, death, violence, sexual assault, etc.) but it seems that my brain’s neural processes interfered with my ability to remember the day after in order to keep me putting one foot in front of the other.

Since my hypothesis is based on one anecdotal example, I’m wondering about others’ experiences. Can you remember the day after a traumatic event? If so, is there something specific about that day that you remember? By contrast, is there a gap in time that you don’t remember? Have something else to say or a different idea entirely? Post a comment or send a message through the contact page. Thanks in advance!