“But it is growing damp and I must go in. Memory's fog is rising.” – Emily Dickinson
My eye sight is so bad that those cheap glasses websites charge me an extra forty bucks a pop. Without correction, I couldn’t tell my wife from a headless manikin, even just a foot or two from my face. This realization somehow leapt me to contemplating the haze that’s been occurring in regards to my memory, for my whole life I now realize, a disconnect in that constant simultaneity between the self in action & the self in recollection. I have an active waking imagination, an active subconscious imagination (my alters, well, they’re certainly interesting), & an active sleeping imagination—sleep-walking, sleep-talking, night terrors, vivid dreams. This has always been a part of my life, so it’s no wonder that despite being described as “energetic” I often feel exhausted, tend to crash, memories stuck in the folder a blur, a redacted letter, a loved one through the fog.
I Can’t Remember
Much of my poetic work these past couple years has been driven by questions of memory—how one handles it; how it morphs, sizzles, disappears; how it can’t be trusted, but at the same time, must be trusted. With my own memory, I feel a combo of Dickinson’s statement above—“memory’s fog is rising”—memory as a haze thrown over reality & the presentation, & Donna, one of Dr. Steinberg’s patients, who said (of dissociation), “It’s like watching a movie in my head…& you forget who you are, where you are, what time it is, what’s going on in your life.” How easily a movie can be boiled down to synopsis!
If my life is being lived this way, as a movie being filmed by both myself & my alters, it makes sense then that my memory is stored similarly. I’ve always inherently had a major distrust of my memory; moments, whether it’s an argument with a friend, seeing David Blaine live, or eating a peach turnover, feel so dense, overwhelming, & layered that to trust my hick brain seems disingenuous. This is not to say I think people can’t or shouldn’t recall with confidence; actually I’m quite impressed when they do.
Besides the hurt & embarrassment I felt when I first read my ex’s essay, I also felt admiration for her recall & confidence in such recollection. Often, I can only remember random objects, the wrong people, or strange spatial components, while also having difficulty recalling accurate emotion, connections, & cause/effects, the more nuanced elements. I think it’s why I’m so drawn to written language; I can remember through reassessing, replaying, & rebuilding the components & the journey.
My grandpa lived with my parents briefly last year; anytime I’d visit, we’d bond by doing his current most frequent activity—watching game shows. Mostly it was a string of Family Feud, but sometimes my favorite would come on: Chain Reaction. Basically teams take turns figuring out words, one letter at a time, in a puzzle that connects a first word to a last word. I’m not explaining this well. Here, watch this.
The enjoyment of this show is probably because its associative, connective functioning is the safe, clear version of how our minds often work; it is even more so for me. In terms of memory, this has become problematic as of late, as my alters seem to store, hold onto, & react to memories I thought long gone, long forgotten, or ones that never even truly happened perhaps. Instead, our memories, feelings, & opinions, real or imagined, spiral out like a mixed-bag wallet photo album a grandma might carry (maybe my grandma, I can’t remember).
That admiration I mentioned up there comes back when chatting with my grandpa, his own memories brought flooding in, even at 87 years old—some historical point about the corn field out the window, a name of a contestant syncing with a memory of his childhood friend with the same name, a childhood memory of my own & our differing perspectives / recollections, etc. It’s like the in-real-life Midwestern farmer’s version of I Remember by Joe Brainard, a project I have been fascinated with for years. In my long poem that first found me babbling through these sorts of thoughts, “What Is Happening / What Just Happened,” I said this:
My third & fourth grade students
Write poems that do not even realize
They are being written
So enthused with the act
A human being scribbling
To worry what makes it a poem. We live
Sixty-one years & we collect
These experiences translated into memory.
Then what? Joe Brainard
Unable to slather enough out through painting discovered
The easiest outlet for maximum
Memory the “I Remember”
That form every person wants to
Can & should write in.
When they sat down to this task, the wide-openness often befuddled them, so I’d encourage them to pick a topic, maybe a sport or a place or a particular person, & write within that framework. During a recent bout of exhaustion following a breakdown, I realized that this is what makes every relationship feel so electrified & important for me, as well as the devastating impact of losses & the effects of confrontations / episodes; a person (most often, but also sometimes activities or places) feed me (and the alters) a chain reaction of anecdotes, grievances, triumphs, bonds, etc., often half-formed, hazy, and/or uncertain. For example, when I play disc golf with my friend Geoff tonight, nearly like a slideshow, I know I’ll be bombarded with memories, recalled or retold, good & bad, big & small, with Geoff—our dancing together at Curtis & Maddie’s wedding the first time we met, the strange first feeling I had about him (which later revealed itself to be major projection), all the times I’ve gawked at his guitar playing, the awful things I said to him & his wife during a spell, the birthday parties & game nights, how he once said he almost didn’t ever hang out with me again, etc. All that joy, guilt, fear, admiration, etc. threatens each & every time to do me in, to drown the present.
Part of my therapy for DID is to accept my alters, & part of accepting this is communicating with them, finding out what they know & what they need. Therapists also have told me several times, “It’s gonna get worse before it gets better.” Goodness, they were right. This acceptance & communication, while ultimately leading to progress & (hopefully) integration, has uncovered some pretty troubling memories, formerly abandoned / forgotten. As Steinberg & others have discovered, alters are often where people can stash their overwhelming traumas & parts of themselves that don’t mesh in current reality; new experiences, future traumas, & random moments can unearth these parts.
Whether related to my DID or not, new experiences in college bringing out suppressed childhood memories was the first time I acknowledged this happening. For example, my first attraction to another man in college triggered a series of memories of experimental moments with my childhood neighbor RB (his giggles & dimples, specifically); making black friends for the first time in college brought guilt from my town’s racist past, along with a terrifying memory of sneaking off to a KKK rally with RB when we were like 8 or 9 out of innocent curiosity. These moments were floating just below the surface until a familiar wave brought them to the top.
In that poem of mine mentioned above, I continued towards this understanding of how it’s not so neat for me (or any of us, probably):
The natural-looking nature of those memories
Written out does not nod
Fully at how remembering works of what
His simplicity hides behind its curtain.
I remainder what is left.
A quick scrape against the overwhelming
A burst bubble
In an overflowing flood of suds.
The traumatic experience of witnessing a friend’s dog recently run over by a truck rose up two memories I hadn’t remembered in years, if ever. My mom’s mother died in July & the following September I was to turn nine, & after a couple months of dazed, monotonous living with random crying & angry outbursts, my mother got me a kitten & handed it to me a few days early. The day of my birthday, I got dressed & barreled out the door to hop in the van, starving for some attention & joy. Unfortunately, the little kitten, which I named Snowball, scuttled out to the road & got hit by a car. The pet my mom got me to help cheer up in the aftermath of my grandmother’s death was killed only a couple days later (come to think of it: I think most of this memory was relayed to me by my mother several times over the years).
The other one was a memory no one else remembers or likely ever knew. It was the summer before my eleventh birthday, I think, & I had recently moved out of our small town to live on the edge of our family’s cornfield right north of town. My parents let me ride my bike down the county line road to visit friends who lived back in the woods a quarter mile down. In my town, there had been a string of stray dogs wandering around, & early on, my dad taught me to stand with the bike between me & the dog to use as a shield to defend myself. One day I am heading home from down the road & I see this mangy mutt eating something in the ditch, so I hop off my bike & mosey on by. It quickly turns towards me, leaping out of the ditch. I push the bike onto it. Crying, I press down as the dog flails to bite me. Then I hear a snap & the movie ends.
I’ve seen many animals killed in my life, but this recent witnessing hit a specific note at this point in my life. Excitement & confidence for the night to come shattered, I was shook down to the alters, I just knew it; even though my friends assured me I didn’t do anything wrong, that it wasn’t my fault, I felt helpless & embarrassed, my two main triggers. I checked myself. I grounded myself. I did everything right in the aftermath, keeping my mouth & my mind shut. I didn’t want those two alters to come out. It wasn’t their moment; it was the dog’s last, as I stared at her limp body & stayed quiet. Later in the comfort & safety of my home, I started picturing her dead body, & that is when the child alter started to remember & eventually shared these experiences I had buried very deep.
Often, we hear of how senses, especially smell, have such strong connections to memories; for me, I believe my senses are too busy keeping me grounded in the present to be much help in terms of accurate collection. I have one particular smell that I (mis)remember so distinctly: “that bread exhaust,” as Jim Gaffigan calls it, they pump out of Subways restaurants. I (mis)remember it so clearly, this nauseating (or intoxicating?) wave of stale bread, bleach, & bologna; it affected me so much that I refused to eat there as a child, couldn’t even step inside as my mom snagged a tuna melt. Except, I can’t find that smell anymore; I rarely eat at Subway, but when I do, I take big whiffs, hoping to catch that negative nostalgia that still resides in my nasal cavities, but to no use, nothing.
I’ve faked the accuracy for years, but it’s true, I remember (accurately / actively) little in terms of details, especially about supposedly seminal / important moments. Instead, I rely on my creativity & other people’s accounts to build my own personal history. Ones I do recall, regardless of depth of the account, are so particular / trivial / specific; also I often fear that my memories have been collapsed or reconfigured unintentionally wrong. In that same poem, I tackled this question of misremembering in list form:
What do I know of my childhood?
I misremember the wedding
& the ugly tux with mauve pinstripes.
Who fell asleep.
They rode away on blue
Bicycles very straight.
I got meat lovers pizza
I think. I misremember the color of the bra
I glimpsed. Or the number of ice cubes
I sucked down whole.
I was seven
Or post-first cavity filling feeling.
I misremember the flavor
Of popsicle I sucked. Grape or green.
What is the peach. The sound
Of a hand on my hair.
Or my shoulder.
Or the door handle of the tiny green camper.
It was on fire
Or the sun was coming up.
I awoke saying I know somebody is dying.
I awoke saying Somebody I know is dying.
Jeep Wrangler exiting
My gullet as it exited the road.
I misremember which night
Gown my mother wore.
The hearts or the teddy bears.
The wallpaper was yellow or pink.
Or the number of deer heads
Displayed at the funeral.
They certainly each shone on the wall.
The feel of the end of October.
A hotel with everything indoors.
I misremember the size of my penis.
Who was there. Who was laughing.
My dad literally fishing my trunks
From the deep end. Which uncle chomping
Tobacco the color of his horses.
Which uncle literally fishing my trunks
From the deep end. My dad chomping
Tobacco the color of which uncle’s horses.
I misremember the first chicken I killed.
The smell of pot in the yard.
The song playing. I ate chicken legs
& I puked on Christmas Eve.
Which year & which chicken.
I misremember how I misremember.
Who brought the mac
& cheese to Thanksgiving. Who only naps
On holidays. Or what reason my uncle said
For never shaving. Right versus wrong.
For awhile last year, I found myself asking nearly every person I knew, How do you see memory?
Maybe I slept too hard on my copy of Ways of Seeing as an undergrad, but this is one of the parts of human existence that bugs me the most—the inability to know how others “see” their past. Perhaps I’m wrong, but most people I’ve talked with say their memories return in a reliving type of manner, finding themselves transported back into the situation & scene, to re-see it again through their own eyes. This has never been my experience; I do not see memories through my own eyes but instead, I watch my memories as a movie, often (but not always) with myself as the main character, often (but not always) in some sort of dream.
Lately I’ve been having dreams where I either finally recall or am fabricating from others’ accounts memories I have forgotten in dissociative amnesia. I also play out hoped-for scenes of reconciliation, understanding, & peace in my dreams. Just last night I dreamt I was at my childhood campground, & in the dream, they had built a disc golf course & my preschool students from this past year (only in the dream they were older, like middle schoolers) were there & I taught them how to play. Moments of closure, moments of understanding, imagined or reimagined, brought to me in the middle of the night are helpful & (sometimes) soothing, but also what the hell am I supposed to do with that?
Oh, these dreams of recollected amnesiac episodes—choking my ex, yelling at friends, punching myself in the face to avoid an alter grabbing a knife. The question with memories arriving like this, especially with a brain like mine, is what do I trust? How do I know what’s fabrication & what’s just pieced together from stories I’ve been told & what’s actually true, actually remembered? What actually happened? Does it really matter?
Another thing I find peculiar about the way I replay memory is that I’m often me now in those third-person replays—this size, this age, this style, etc.—regardless of the time period of the memory. Obviously, this peculiarity throws some strange tints on childhood memories; for instance, when I try to remember my childhood sports years, I see all six-foot, 205-pounds of me getting my ankles (they’ve always been very skinny / frail) & waist (I have no butt) duck-taped in my pee-wee football Steelers uniform. What’s worse is that my advanced stature doesn’t effect the outcome; I’m just as terrible a back-up tight end as ever.
As my treatment has gotten more particular & my understanding of my disorder more nuanced, my alters have become more apparent & pronounced. In this expansion of those personalities, out comes the desire to share their own pains & triumphs. For example, the kid alter often speaks about the deaths of his grandma & uncle & recently shared an incident of sexual activity with a babysitter (the jury’s still out on the validity of this one). Through daydreams, night dreams, & conversations with my little, I’ve developed a picture of this situation, but oddly enough, I see myself now with this teenage babysitter, thus recontextualizing the interaction without myself, instead, as predator.
“What else is there, but dreams, phantoms, & other people?” - Hilton Als
What I’m beginning to realize is that it is all tied up together—the disorder, my temperament (equal parts type A, anxious about abandonment/embarrassment/helplessness, imbalanced overly chill/intensely emotional, type 6 on Enneagram), my love of language, & my weird manner of memory; it is what makes me both capable of being highly successful, personable, & functional much of the time, & also highly volatile & unpredictable another part of the time. Not only do we not know what I remember & how I’ll remember it, but also who is to say who inside me will put what to use when?
That’s the thing this control freak is struggling with, the feeling that made me break down so hard when I realized I was dissociating at my job for months before I recognized it or anyone told me: right now I have so little control. With the way my brain crosses wires & signals, dumps & stores in & out of consciousness, & presents them all so vividly or negatively, it amplifies the feelings, where I’m back to that old default setting, living on the ends of the spectrums of feeling—overwhelmed with rage/sadness or bursting with joy—a bad habit I’m attempting to forget.