Memory is Fickle — Discovering Why I Went in Search of It
By Traci Musick
“Memories warm you up from the inside. But they also tear you apart.” ― Haruki Murakami, Kafka on the Shore
Memory is fickle.
When I try to force the scenes and events from the past into the present, a wall drops. Not a curtain. Curtains can be tied back and moved out of the way with ease. I mean an actual steel wall. Try as I might, I am blocked in my efforts to retrieve many of the chunks and bits that make up the sum of my forty-nine years. Instead, what remains in the deep recesses of my mind are morsels and crumbs.
Why is this?
Most everyone can recall fond moments in time spent with family and loved ones. The best birthday celebrations, first dates, joyous holidays create snapshots and moments by which most people gauge and measure their lives. For me, when I try to reach and stretch back in time, all I see is a blank screen. A blinking cursor communicates in my mind, “there was something on the screen, but now it’s deleted.”
I didn’t much realize or care about this issue until I hit my 40s. At this age, I started realizing, the memories help sustain us for the years to come. They are the markers or road signs displaying where we have traversed in life’s obstacle course. These signs also help guide and direct in decision making: Oh, I blew my last paycheck. I’ve learned my lesson this time. That’s never going to happen again. Or, wow, I wrecked my car in an ice storm. Next time there’s an ice storm, I’ll just stay home.
Memories serve as reminders.
Or do they?
At a recent family gathering, my older sister shared in vivid detail my emotional outburst at the death of my maternal grandmother some years back. I guess I was quite the “drama queen” during this somber time.
“I did that?” I asked. “I really acted like that? Hmm…I don’t remember.”
“Yeah, but that’s okay,” she replied nonchalantly, “we loved you anyway. We just overlooked it.”
In the depths of my being, I realized at this point that I could not remember acting in such an obnoxious manner. I couldn’t even recall the death of my grandmother although I was present in the hospital during her final hours. At least, I think I was. Then, as I thought some more, I couldn’t remember the death of my grandfather either. Herein, I do recollect his battle with Alzheimer’s and spending his final days in a nursing home facility. But I don’t remember when he took his last breaths, who witnessed his final moments, or even when my mother informed me of his departure.
Why is this?
As the most influential people in my life, my grandparents were the support system of my siblings and me. That much I do recognize. They took us into their home all the time over the course of my childhood. Fed us. Gave us a place to stay during times of struggle. Took us to church. Helped out financially whenever we needed it. They propped us up every time we were down. Again, the generalities I remember.
But as I force myself to recall those childhood years, all that remains is a small version of me sitting in a corner, face between my knees, and hands on my ears.
You see, I grew up in a battle zone. My parents fought all the time. If ever two people should not have married, it would be my parents. These two personalities were as different as summer is to winter. Two totally different seasons of people.
With that marriage came four children and innumerable fights. And I’m not just referring to two individuals yelling at each other. No. No. The little snatches of memory my mind allows me to conjure is the throwing of household items—books, plates, glassware, pictures, etc.—the cracking of walls, and the breaking of windows. The cursing and crying of my mother. The orders and commands of my father. Screaming and throwing were the nuclei of these battles. All the while, four little kids bore witness to this marital war.
For protection during these weekly battles—because what child understands the magnitude of parental fights—I sought out a corner, usually in my bedroom, and cowered until the environment in my child’s eyes seemed clear. That’s what I remember. Corner. Cower. Cover my ears. Clinch my eyes shut.
It was only a few years ago that I realized how this childhood behavior and lack of memory connected. When reading J.D. Vance’s memoir, Hillbilly Elegy, he discusses how traumatic events create negative and lasting effects on a child’s health and well-being. Through growing research, the prevalence of “adverse childhood experiences” (ACEs) highlights a correlation between trauma and health.
Could this explain my foggy memory? What about my propensity over the years to allow fear to dictate my every move? Could it also explain my multiple marriages? My terrible inability to control finances? And the inflammatory bowel disease I was diagnosed with at age 19 known as Ulcerative Colitis?
I can attest I experienced a physical shift in perception. When I came to the chapter where Vance writes about ACEs and taking the ACE quiz, I felt my heart poke a directive finger at my mind with the command, “Look into this.”
After doing a little research, I learned that the CDC’s Adverse Childhood Experience Study from 1995-1997 reveals a surprising link between childhood trauma and the chronic diseases people develop in their adult years. Additionally, links with social and emotional problems are also evident. Some of the chronic issues include heart disease, lung cancer, diabetes, and many autoimmune diseases. Check my ulcerative colitis in this category. Other social/emotional issues include depression, violence, being a victim of violence, and suicide. I can check off three items in this list. In short, the more types of trauma one experiences as a child, the greater the increase of health, social, and emotional problems.
How important is this study?
After taking the quiz, I wondered what my score of 6 meant. So, I researched a little further. I discovered that an ACE score of 4 or more increases the likelihood of adult alcoholism, chronic depression (especially greater for women), taking antidepressants, behavioral disorders, possessing serious financial problems, impairing work performance, and either perpetuating or being on the receiving end of domestic violence. More importantly, similar research on children’s brains demonstrate that toxic stress damages the structure and function of a kid’s developing brain. When a child’s brain gets overloaded with stress hormones, consequences result. Again, anxiety and depression in a young person can cause him/her to turn to biochemical solutions or engage in dangerous activities to escape environmental trauma such as the following: overeating, participating in high-risks physical activities, engaging in a proliferation of sex partners, and over-working or striving for over-achievement. Here, I see both my younger and adult selves checking off many of these items. Check. Check. Check.
Does this explain my memory loss?
Research tends to shine a light into dark closets and under beds of those who fear life’s nighttime terrors.
What I discovered as I continued peeling back ACE layers through research centers on the brain is that the higher ACEs create less gray matter in important areas of the brain—the prefrontal cortex and the amygdala. These areas of the brain control the decision-making and self-regulatory skills (prefrontal cortex) and the fear-processing center (amygdala). In addition, scientists also discovered that if a developing brain experiences toxic stress, the hippocampus area of the brain shrinks. This area processes emotion and memory as well as manages stress.
So, the answer to my question is YES.
Yes, ACEs do explain my memory loss. It also explains my poor financial skills, my inflammatory bowel disease, how I ended up in an abusive marriage, the depression I’ve experienced over the years, how fear has ruled my life, and the terrible decisions I’m prone to making.
Granted, not every person who grows up in toxic environments develops physical, emotional, or behavioral problems. This research merely indicates that one is put at a greater risk. As the findings suggest, resiliency represents the key to overcoming adversity.
This ties back to my grandparents.
A factor that influences a child’s resiliency is having the support of at least one stable and committed adult. My siblings and I had this in the form of our grandparents. Without my grandparents, I doubt that I would have finished college as an undergraduate. They offered me refuge in the form of a place to live during my junior and senior years of college. Also, they helped me out financially one semester when I missed the deadline to my scholarship program.
In 1991, I needed $1,700 to cover my tuition bill. This memory serves as one I do recall as it is stored deep in my heart. Before the start of the spring semester, I had not submitted the proper scholarship application by the deadline; therefore, I did not receive tuition coverage. Without this scholarship, I thought I might need to drop out of school.
“Dad, can you help me out with tuition? Just for this semester?”
I can recall sitting at my grandparents’ desk and phoning my father for help in this self-created conflict. My heart pounded because I hated worse than anything else to ask for help. It had never been my nature to solicit others in times of need. It was my slight independent streak at play here. I say “slight” because my grandparents were supporting me with a roof and food. I was neither self-sufficient nor independent. But I hated asking for money. At the time, I worked a minimum-wage job while attending school. This job provided enough money for fuel and textbooks but not much else.
Although the majority of specific memories are lost to the deep recesses of the past, I can distinctly remember my father’s answer to this plea:
“Why is it the only time you kids contact me is when you need money?”
His tone was not his usual kind, generous one. In this phone conversation, his tone rang full of bitterness and offense.
“Never mind,” I gasped with exasperation, “I’ll figure it out myself.”
With that response, I hung up the phone.
Even though I struggle with retrospect, I think this moment remains embedded for the following reasons: 1. I had put myself in this dilemma through irresponsible behavior—I had not met a deadline. 2. I had to humble myself and ask for help. 3. My father’s words stung in a waspish way that left me sore and bruised. 4. My grandparents opened up their secret cash stash (located in the top dresser drawer in a cigar box), and handed me the needed $1,700. These four reasons etched themselves indelibly into my sensitive, middle-child heart.
What would have sent me running to a corner and crying to my heart’s content instead propelled me in a different direction. For the next 2-3 years, I mowed my grandparents’ yard to pay off my $1,700 debt. Again, my grandparents’ behavior aided in my remembering of this event: each week I cut their lawn, my grandmother handed me a paper receipt for $25.
Whenever my yard work was complete, she would pull out a green and orange receipt book she used for flea market sales and would record proof of my work.
“If anyone ever questions your debt, you’ll have proof you paid us back,” she told me multiple times over the years I worked for them. Sixty-eight times I mowed. Sixty-eight times I sweated and toiled over missing a deadline. This experience propelled me to never miss another tuition waver date.
I finished college because of my grandparents’ support that semester and over the years. They tried to teach me resiliency without ever naming it as such. In their hearts, they just wanted to see me succeed. Despite the conflict and turmoil of my younger years, they wanted to help. And they also wanted to represent love in action. That was their way of being. At least I think it was.
Memory is fickle.
I don’t remember much else in life. A few stories linger here and there like breadcrumbs left behind at the dinner table of my mind. I suppose amnesia is my body’s form of self-preservation. It serves as “the selective overlooking or ignoring of events that are not favorable or useful to one’s purpose or position.” That’s how Merriam-Webster defines it.
Now that I know why I can’t recall much about my past, I think it’s time for amnesiac acceptance. I must accept the fact that my mind selectively overlooks events from my past as a protective, soothing balm to the traumatized child in me. It is a gift. If the body keeps score, then the spirit suffers at the count. I don’t need years shadow-painted on my brow. What little I do know bakes its bad bacteria in the gut of my forty-nine years. The electric hive of wisdom brings forth the memory bees who sting me to my core. They buzz and hum a charged current that change is part of living and memory serves only for forgetting. I live as a trapped tin soul willing to speak my memory mysteries at dawn.
The blank screen remains.
Of all the sad wise years, I let them go.
“Got Your ACE Score?” ACES Too High News, https://acestoohigh.com/got-your-ace-score/.
Accessed 11 June 2019.
Hess, Beth. “Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) and Their Impact on Brain Development.”
Maryland Coalition of Families, 11 May 2018, http://www.mdcoalition.org/blog/adverse-childhood-experiences-aces-and-their-impact-on-brain-development. Accessed 11 June 2019.
Starecheski, Laura. “Take the ACE Quiz—And Learn What It Does and Doesn’t Mean.”
National Public Radio, 2 March 2015, https://www.npr.org/sections/health-shots/2015/03/02/387007941/take-the-ace-quiz-and-learn-what-it-does-and-doesnt-mean. Accessed 11 June 2019.
Vance, J.D. Hillbilly Elegy: A Memoir of a Family and Culture in Crisis. HarperCollins, 2016.
Traci Musick is a writer, adventurer, and high school English teacher. She lives in the foothills of Appalachia and loves to write essays on topics she contemplates from her front porch or hiking around her farm. In addition to writing, she has dipped her toes in the waters of being a Harley chick, a martial artist, a cowgirl, and wannabe jogger; all to no avail. Each venture left her sore and walking funny. So, she sticks to writing, which is a little less painful. She received a BA from Marshall University in Huntington, WV, and a MA in English and Creative Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. Currently, she teaches in southern Ohio where she prefers her log cabin country living with her best friend, David, and border collie, Holly. While she works on a memoir about teaching in Appalachia, feel free to follow her writing at https://twitter.com/MusickTraci or www.linkedin.com/in/traci-l-musick-a75a14bb/.