Tuesday, July 15, 2014

mellifluous amnesia

But who can remember pain, once it’s over? All that remains of it is a shadow, not in the mind even, in the flesh. Pain marks you, but too deep to see. Out of sight, out of mind.
 ― Margaret Atwood, The Handmaid's Tale

The other day, I felt the strangest sensation: I could actually feel my mind repress a memory.
About thirteen years ago, on the fourth of July, my little sister choked on a piece of paper in our basement (I was remembering the other day what it's like to have little babies around the house, and how I miss it so much. I miss having baby toys strewn all over the floor of the family room, I miss making space for the highchair at the dinner table, I miss fighting over who gets to hold the baby in Christmas photos, I miss having baby gates at the top of the staircases, I miss stopping by the baby food aisle in the grocery store, and I miss getting to walk to the back of church to comfort a fussy baby. I don't miss, however, worrying about all the small things that fall to the floor ending up in a curious infant's mouth.) 
But as I remembered that awful day, and scared little nine-year-old Renée praying very hard and peeking down at the team of paramedics from my safe retreat in the top floor, I felt my mind cover up these images. As pictures of that day popped up in my head, almost as quickly, my mind muddied them, and sent them back into the darkness of forgetfulness. Because, as each image of that horrible hour (it was probably an hour tops, but it seemed like forever) came to the foreground of my mind, a surge of awful panic and terror accompanied the pictures of my younger brother's scared face, my mother's strained voice, my sister and I talking. This brush with death was too much for my mind to truly comprehend, so it covered it up.
Part of me wanted to remember that day, to see if I could piece together a narrative. 
But the images stung my brain like thistle prickles, and so my mind let them go as quickly as they picked them up. And then I became fascinated by what was happening. Because even as the conscious, willing part of my mind summoned up each memory, this powerful, instinctive part of my brain dismissed each memory just as quickly. 
Because, wrapped up in these memories were emotions that were almost too large to process. I wouldn't be able to fit them into my brain. And as these emotions welled up, my brain shut them down quickly by erasing the memories that were causing them. It was fascinating to observe.
In order to function, my brain had to forget about these emotional memories. The facts are not forgotten, but the actually sense memories of that day have to be stifled, or otherwise, my brain would go slightly berserk (not that it's not already slightly berserk already). 
How interesting, that we can assent to this partial amnesia, for the sake of being able to live each day without pain forcing us to a stop.
I wonder if our brains did not control our memories of pain, if there was not a part of us that automatically dulled our memories, how we might live differently, in a world where our experiences of pain were always constantly before us.

Your memory is a monster; you forget—it doesn't. It simply files things away. It keeps things for you, or hides things from you—and summons them to your recall with will of its own. You think you have a memory; but it has you
 ― John Irving

No comments:

Post a Comment