The Memory of Heartache

Mental Health , ,

In the last two years, I’ve been part of five (or maybe depending on how you look at it four) more serious romantic relationships and a few not so serious relationships (or maybe let’s call them shorter term romantic relationships). I ended two of the more serious ones and all of the “less serious” ones in the last year. For a polyamorous recently divorced person, from what I’ve seen, that isn’t actually that many. But then you look at the emotional relationships I’ve been part of without sex or at least intercourse. There have been a lot more of those. And all but a few of the above relationships (emotional/romantic/something in between) are still in my life in some way even now.

So when I spoke of corpses of relationships in my recent article, I was actually talking mostly about the pain of “losing” people in general, not the number. I wasn’t very clear about that. In reality, I never really “lose” people anyway. And that’s actually part of the problem with the corpses: they live on in me permanently, take residence and regularly visit (generally when I least want them to).

Let me explain: I’ve gathered over time that I am not the typical person. Not saying this to brag one bit, as there are pros and cons to it (mostly cons). I have what someone I know calls “glue brain.” All the important or even mundane moments I’ve ever had with someone are almost permanently etched in my brain in an extensive catalog. I can at will (and often without my consent) conjure up a moment that happened many many years ago with someone very very distinctly with emotional intensity still intact. I don’t pretend to believe that these are 100% or even close to entirely accurate. But from my own eyes and my brain’s eye, it feels very close to what happened. And even physical sensations from that moment feel like they’re happening right now, not two or ten or fifteen years ago. The problem? I can’t forget. I can’t let go. I haven’t ever actually gone to a neurologist for this, but if I’m correct, it’s something called hyperthymesia or HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory), though a more mild version since I can’t remember dates things happened generally or specific details that just don’t matter to me.

In addition to remembering my own memories far longer than the average human, I also seem to have an immense ability to empathize with others’ experiences to the point where I feel like I have seen what they have seen through their eyes. Again, not saying I am accurate in these memories at all, but the feelings that come along with them are very real to me. Those memories layer on top of my own until all of my own fears and insecurities come from a combination of my real life experiences *and* others’ close to me.

This is why I stopped watching or reading the news in high school. To hear about horrendous experiences of others in the news was (what felt like) the near equivalent of having been there myself. And so the trauma of my life (however small, large, or mundane) has expanded beyond my own.

Going back to “losing” people – I mean by this that it is sometimes more painful and also confusing when someone stops wanting to be in my presence in my current life in the ways we were, but my brain still reminds me daily how we “used” to be with each other with all the feeling of it being like we still are (but we aren’t). I still am reminded of D daily by my brain, for instance, and how it used to be with him despite not having communicated with him in over a year. I see the memories differently now – they are tinged with lots of other additional emotions since they actually happened – but I often find myself with someone I love, reminded of a moment with D and go off into my own world, re-experiencing them without my consent, and connecting them to my present. It’s how my stories of my life have been pieced together in my brain into a cohesive narrative of why I am the way I am.

I can almost visually see the timeline of my life with peaks in the moments that were most emotionally intense/traumatic/whatever you want to call it. I only started realizing all of this was not really “normal” (if there is such a thing) when I was talking to a friend a little over a year ago in his kitchen. We were making mac and cheese, it was snowing outside, and we were walking around the kitchen obstacles and his dog wanting to be included in the mess. He said “I haven’t seen my son in about six months. I can’t even remember what he looks like.” I assumed he was joking. I mean, his son is in his 20’s. He’s had two decades to memorize his son’s changing face. He admitted quietly that it was true; he couldn’t conjure an image of him in his brain. This led to me asking a variety of questions – How do you recall things? Is it visual? Describe the process of acquiring new data and storing it. It was the first time I’d ever really asked. I kind of just assumed we all worked in the same ways in this regard (despite or maybe because of having a degree in neuroscience and making everything sound so consistent and black and white amongst us). I found that he envisions memories in a network of facts/sentences, not in images at all. Visual information is extremely difficult for him to recall. I said “Okay, but how about sex? Can’t you remember sexual memories visually?” His eyes got wide and he gulped. It seemed he couldn’t/didn’t. Sexual fantasies were still a series of actions/words in his brain.

Soon after this conversation, totally unprompted, a few friends (separately) sent me this podcast at NPR because it reminded them of me. They said it was because my memory for names and faces was incredible, but even more that I remembered conversations with them in such detail that they thought maybe I had HSAM like these people described. I listened to it multiple times and each time, I heard so much of me, it was hard to ignore. Me being the science nerd I am, I started researching more and found this article. The part about associating HSAM with obsessive compulsive disorder also felt relevant, considering I went to a therapist in undergrad and I insisted to her that I thought I had OCD because I could not get (unwanted) sexual images and fantasies of a teacher out of my head for the life of me and it was impacting my schoolwork and relationship with D. I recognized my innate capacity (not desire) for rehearsing things in my head so much that it felt some things would never come out. I still remember the sexual images of my teacher I had imagined (12 years later). I still remember a specific image from my biology textbook in freshman year of high school (16 years later) diagramming a nephron in very vivid detail. Why? Because I had the flu when I was about to take a test on this material and while I was feverish, I had been studying these pages. I fell asleep on the book and had a dream that consisted of this specific image going in and out of my vision while feeling like I was going to vomit. That was it. Why do I remember this? You tell me. But it surely sounds obsessive.

D thought I had some sort of photographic memory, as when he tested me on my extensive study guides I typed up for school, my memory for things in order on the page was much much greater than my memory for them out of order. In fact, to remember them, I would actively imagine *where* the answer was on the page to help my recall.

For emotional events, my recall has been even greater. D would get really upset when I would bring up the anger I had about my family and how they treated me with depression in high school. He felt my continued visceral anger that would come up about it sometimes was indicative that I had no capacity to forgive or let go and that some day, he would make a mistake and would never be forgiven for it. He was wrong about whether I can forgive, but correct about the letting go part.

Even just yesterday, A and I were at the climbing gym and Jet “Are You Going to Be My Girl?” came on. I was reminded of this song’s history in my life, attached to my first semi-boyfriend and him cheating on me. The story doesn’t matter, though – it’s the fact that A noticed my change in emotions and asked what was wrong. I relayed the story to him and his response was “I think it’s time to move past that, love.” The semi-boyfriend isn’t part of my life at all. I occasionally see him post on Facebook and we haven’t talked since probably 1999. I don’t even feel anger at *him* anymore. It really didn’t matter and doesn’t matter. I know that logically, but my brain still cares and notices that it is one of so many injustices.

This is where human bias becomes a huge problem. We all have the desire to avoid being hurt, but most of us can let the hurt fade over time and eventually, we may even forget what that hurt looked like, what caused it, what it felt like in the moment. Now, sure, subconsciously, maybe it still effects us, but because we have no extensive story arc or emotions tied to it anymore, it’s harder to convince ourselves acting in X way will cause Y outcome (since we may not actively remember X or even Y).

But if you can list off in your head all the times X caused Y in extraordinary detail while remembering exactly how much Y fucking sucked, it’s hard to convince yourself to even bother trying X again…right? It becomes a very active choice with a high probability of Y happening again.

So let’s take the variables out. X and Y are stuffy and formal and mathematical. Let’s use an example of relationships where X is you giving trust and vulnerability to someone and Y is being deceived by either someone else’s dishonesty with you or dishonesty with themselves (indirectly still being dishonest with you). Most of us can remember an event where this happened to us – even as small as telling a childhood friend a secret and them blabbing it to someone else. But do you remember how that felt like it happened today or yesterday? Likely no, I would assume. And since then, you’ve acquired more knowledge and more experiences and maybe your most recent experience with X was leading to a positive Y and before that were fifty other experiences ranging between positive, neutral, and negative. Each had different amounts of emotional impact on you. But as you’ve aged, those feelings have faded and you’ve either decided to stop trusting anyone (not worth risking X for the likelihood of Y; you’ve been scarred) or continued trusting with acknowledgment of the past only occasionally getting in the way of your behavior in X.

In both of these situations, there is acknowledgement of the past, but there is also a numbness or healing over that has happened. In neither case are the people involved still raw and unhinged from the past – especially from things happening decades ago. But let’s change that fact. Let’s imagine being as raw and unhinged as you were the day your significant other broke up with you or maybe a week later….and have that feeling perpetually continue even decades later. There are no scars, just wounds that continue being opened regularly by memories of the past haunting you.

Could you really choose X still feeling like Y just happened? In other words, would you go out and risk trusting and being vulnerable with someone the day after your boyfriend of five years breaks up with you in the worst of ways? You may go have sex with someone, you may drink your sorrows away, you may choose to be entirely alone, but would you really be seeking love or intimacy? I doubt it. I doubt it because I’ve been around people in this state and what they are can only be described as: sad, hurt, and most of all guarded.

This word: Guarded. A friend described me as this just the other day. It was painful to hear that because there was a time I remember (again, vividly) when I so actively chose to be open with the world and *chose* to trust people. I wanted to. I wanted to believe that my experience with D was just evidence that *D* was the problem. I wanted to put it in a shoebox, put the shoebox in the garage, eventually even bury the shoebox in all its entirety of eleven years. I wanted to start a new day, a new year, a new life – only allowing the contents of the shoebox to prevent me from ever making the same mistake again.

As I lived with my heart on my sleeve, still recalling moment to moment all the wounds of D, I thought I was going to be able to bury the shoebox, burn it…something. Eventually, I thought, I’d have enough positive Y’s from my hopeful X’s to finally let go of someone once and for all (the someone being D…but also being the old me). As you’ve read, though, the wounds remained….and new wounds were created. And so I realized that there was no shoebox at all. And definitely no burying of it.

Admittedly, the shoebox principle above is not my own metaphor. It’s from a new person in my life who at one point wanted to believe that polyamory could be like this idea: every person in your life in their own shoe box, not affecting the other shoe boxes. Yesterday, he wrote me and said the shoebox broke: In large part – because of me.

I seem to have a way of doing this: catalyze breaking other people’s shoeboxes or showing them there aren’t even such things as shoeboxes at all. At one point, I loved it – when breaking the shoebox created positive change in others. Later, I hated it – when breaking the shoebox created negative change. Now, I just accept it as something I do, someone I am to others. I do it just by being myself and therefore I don’t have much choice in the matter.

This time, though, I realize this is a two-way catalyzing event. Writing him and doing as we call “emotional gym work” has shown me that not only are there no shoeboxes, there are no demarcations at all. All the people and all the hurt and all my shit from the past and present are all just parts of a soup (to use a new analogy; yes, you can laugh – especially since this analogy is also taken from a former high school teacher) inside of me. The soup is very regularly processed in a food processor and so you can’t even really distinguish the potatoes from the carrots or the broccoli besides the specks of different colors occasionally seen mixed in. And for me, what is also included in the soup is all everyone else’s shit around me too. Their trauma and my trauma and all the X’s and all the Y’s are all just in it together. When you taste the soup, you feel all the emotions and the overarching one is fear. Because you remember all the X’s and all the Y’s and all the shit in great fucking detail. And it can be paralyzing.

I realize all of this is about perspective, a choice. Despite knowing that, it’s hard to actually choose that when I see and feel all the fucking of people’s hearts going on around me.

And so I lie to myself. And I write things that feel true in the moment and later turn out to be about someone else’s shit or mine that I haven’t let go of because I don’ Years of going in and out of therapy and once in a mental hospital and going to Buddhist teachers and retreats and meditating and no one can teach me how to do it, how to let go and also be able to be here in the present 100%. The only way that works and detaches me from fear of outcome is detaching entirely, putting enough walls up that no one can hurt me – but no one can feel me either, or by grieving what I have entirely even when it isn’t gone. Every moment in someone’s presence whom I love, there is a simultaneous feeling of appreciating them being in front of me, wanting to hold onto them here in the moment, and grieving the eventual loss of them (the loss that feels inevitable).

I am volunteering for hospice in part because of all of this. I am not dying and yet I live like any moment, I could or might choose to die. At times, it is freeing. At times, it is paralyzing. But if I was actually dying, would letting go be easier? As much as I want to be a companion to the dying for them, I also sort of hope they might teach me how to live.

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