Selective Memory Keeps you Alive

We are all hardwired for life, whether or not we know it

For as long as I can recall, my brain has deployed extreme coping mechanisms to protect me, wiping out trauma as I go along.

To date huge chunks of my life have vanished. I have a handful of clues that point to a past probably best left undisturbed lest it should reveal things I’m not equipped to deal with yet.

Where most folks have childhood memories, I have blanks interspersed with the odd scene.

Of happiness, but not only.

I do remember hunting for fossils among the peonies at the bottom of my grandpa’s garden when I was a little kid. Back then I’d go stay with my grandparents for the summer, in a tiny village surrounded by fields and woods. It was quite the bucolic break. I ate wild strawberries by the handful and went mushroom picking on occasion.

But whatever else pertained to my usual city life as a child of parents who didn’t like each other very much is difficult to recall.

My benevolent brain has wiped most of it.

At home, as long as my parents were together, the arguments were frequent and vicious. Things spontaneously became airborne and broke; one parent ran after the other and hit them with whatever was at hand…

When, to my greatest relief, they went their separate ways, I lost my human buffer and developed the lifelong habit of escaping to the bathroom for hours on end. Because it’s the only room with a lock people generally know not to enter.

My brain has formidable janitorial capacities. And yet, some clues about my dysfunctional past sometimes resurface. When they do, I must once again wonder what it is in me that ignites insanity and abusive behavior in others.

Unable to find an answer, I resign myself to living in near-constant fight-or-flight mode.

And so it goes until I collapse under the weight of it all in 2013. By then, I’ve just gotten married for the second time and immigrated to the US after years of never not being on my guard.

Cue five years out of time I will only emerge from last summer, bereft and lost, with the bizarre idea of saving my own life, one word at a time.

Because needs must.

In 2018, I’m sideswiped by an epiphany.

Any day from 2013 onward might as well not have happened.

Those years haven’t been a tribute to happiness, more of a desperate struggle to stay alive in every possible sense.

As I try and put together clues that could help me understand the genesis of my depression, the last five years remain inaccessible.

And my brain won’t help.

There are records here and there, moments of distress frozen in time recorded as notes deep within the synapses of my smartphone and laptop.

There are scribbles in notebook; digital fragments of text conversations with my dead friend in England; a third of a novel; the first draft of a nonfiction book in French; most of a cheerful children’s book about cats that I started working on back when I lived on a small, snowbound sub-arctic island but had to give up when I ran out of happy shortly after arriving in America…

There’s also a small heap of pitches and pieces from 2017 written by someone terrified of being outed as a depressive and a journalistic fraud.

When I say I couldn’t write, it’s not that I stopped putting pen to paper exactly, it’s that whatever ended up on the page was unusable, incoherent, unstructured.

And then I did give up for good and let my laptop gather dust for months on end.

Meanwhile, library data cataloging every single book I borrowed since April 2013 paints a blurry picture of an insatiably curious grasshopper mind.

Alas, I can’t remember much about those books either. I read like you eat when you’re not hungry but shovel food in your mouth because you know survival requires calories. My library card was a life support device that maintained basic intellectual functions.

At the same time, my household sinks into hardship because I’m unable to work.

Wondering how to get your basic needs met uses up a lot of mental bandwidth. It’s no surprise my brain chooses to wipe all the anxiety and anguish associated with years of lack, ill health, and making do.

As a result, my marriage looks like it’s made of empty air.

This frightens me.

Something changes during the summer.

My brain is still broken and I’m still broke, but Anthony Bourdain’s suicide reminds me how urgent it is to live.

And by extension, to write, since the two are synonymous to me.

Words may not always do life justice but they can help you find the way home.

While I could not produce any of my own, the words of others kept my mind tethered to my heart. Words prevented me from retreating even further into my own head.

Despite my brain’s propensity to wipe pain and only unlock memories when there’s no longer any immediate risk of harm, I’m thankful for all those blanks.

Because they kept me alive: Whatever my heart couldn’t process, my brain bypassed so I could carry on.

Though not through lack of trying, depression has so far failed to corrupt my survival instinct.

Instead, it helped me forget what I probably shouldn’t remember.

I’m a French-American writer, journalist, and editor living out of a suitcase in transit between North America and Europe. To continue the conversation, follow the bird. For email and everything else, deets in bio.

The human condition is not a pathology・👋ASingularStory[at]gmail・ ☕️

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store