Musing About Memory and the Unexpected Benefit of Forgetting

Perspective can help make lemonade out of lemons.

Posted Feb 25, 2019

When my Mom was alive her favorite go-to expression was "when life hands you lemons, make lemonade". She would use this with friends and family whenever something unexpected, unanticipated, and unwanted happened to occur.  I'd love to share with my Mom that I've been trying to make lemonade like crazy since my car crash in 2014 handed me the biggest, baddest basket of lemons I could have imagined ever receiving. Lemons that persist as chronic pain, tinnitus, constant headaches, anxiety, depression and the focus here, impaired memory. It's been a (pun intended) memorable struggle to say the least.

Before getting into that, though, a relevant reminiscence. Many years ago I used to try and make wine. Like from the fruit and crushing by hand. Occasionally it was great, often it was okay, sometimes it was truly horrific. As for the latter, I once tried to make plum wine from the Italian plums flourishing in the back yard. It didn't go well. It was far too sweet. On the usual scale of 00 to 7+, this wine was about a 10. So I sought to tap the expertise of my then Grandpa-in-law who, in addition to working as a longshoreman, applied his upbringing in northern Italy to making some of the best wine I'd ever had. While he was in the end stages of Alzheimer's-like dementia, Grandpa was still fantastic in the moment. 

Which made me think nothing of bringing a bottle of my plum syrup masquerading as wine to a family dinner gathering and seeking his opinion. Well, he was not impressed! "Oh buddy, buddy, buddy" he said in his Italian accent. "Who made this? It's too sweet!". I replied that I had made it, I recognized it was too sweet but I wanted his advice on how to blend it. What could I do to fix it? Basically it was beyond fixing, apparently.

And the story should have ended there.

Except it didn't because I didn't take the wine away and instead left it by Grandpa.

Who, after a few minutes, sampled the wine again and repeated his refrain again, almost word for word. To which I played my role again, never thinking to remove the stimulus. And the scene played out, over and over again until I finally realized I needed to take the wine away or else this could go on all night. Grandpa didn't realize any of this of course, and was provided with decent wine after suffering mine. But what struck me then and now was how consistent he was with what he said and did when given the same cue. Despite his memory deficits, he was incredibly reliable.

With my own "mild traumatic" post-concussion brain injury, the memory thing remains really challenging. I just can't remember things like I used to be able to do. I could probably stop buying books to read because I can't remember many of the details after finishing. Or I buy the same book a month after buying it originally and putting it on a shelf. Ironically even writing this post about memory was a challenge, simply because I kept thinking of things to write and then forgetting to do it!

One of the bizarre yet fascinating outcomes of a brain injury with memory deficits is that it offers an opportunity to confirm reliability. That is, to be able to know if, when given the same set of questions, constraints, or scenarios, would you produce the same response? The writing I now do is literally by hand in a journal for the first draft. This means that I wind up with passages for different projects that span many months. My process for the second draft is to dictate the journal entries using Google speech to text. Recently I did about a year's worth of writing like that. In so doing, I discovered that I had written several anecdotes with very similar phrasing multiple times across many months without realizing I had already done so. 

When I first noticed this it was, like buying multiple copies of the same book, quite disheartening. But here's where those lemons get turned into lemonade.  On one hand (the one holding the lemons) this is shocking and disheartening but on the other hand (the one getting ready to make lemonade) these are actually a nice confirmation that my thinking and judgment are very reliable. It's my own personal version of "groundhog day". Additionally, this allows me to be an effective critique of my own work. I can often read my own writing with fresh eyes and gain new insights as if it were that of someone else. Sometimes it's surprisingly good. And, sometimes it's not.

My late Mom suffered a stroke (ironically, yes, I'm both a neuroscientist with a brain injury and a stroke researcher who's mom had a stroke) and then worked diligently to re-establish her life. We later learned that she wrote in her journal that she had struggled for years fighting against the stroke. Like it was something separate and antagonistic to her. Eventually, she reached a place where she understood that the stroke was part of her. She was the stroke and the effects on her brain and she had to have peace with that to move forward. She had come to accept what had happened to her. I work towards that kind of acceptance within my own situation and hope to one day get to where she did.

I can't change what's happened to me but I can continue to work on how I respond. I can try to maximize my "behavioral plasticity" in my acceptance and adaptations. And just keep working day by day. To paraphrase and apply the words of Joseph Fink from "Alice Isn't Dead" (admittedly in a very different context) and realize that the only way out is through.

Even though lemonade might not be my favorite drink, I'm making a lot of it. I realized recently that I don't have to consume it all for or by myself. It can be shared widely in the hopes it might be helpful to others. You are drinking some with your eyes right now. Luckily this lemonade doesn't sting the same way the liquid version does.

Mom's lemonade life advice resonates for me in the words of T. S. Elliot back in 'Little Gidding', from 1943: "We shall not cease from exploration/ and the end of all our exploring/ will be to arrive where we started/ and know the place for the first time." My personal ceaseless exploration must be about learning my new capacities as I continue to understand and accept the injuries I sustained and know myself again for the first time, each and every day. 

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2019)