Memory is a cornerstone of personality. We begin building memories from birth, and some say even before. We could say all knowledge, all learning, is essentially memory. Autonomic functions such as breathing and heart rate take care of themselves unless problems occur or we cause them, but memory is something different.
Outside stimuli and how we react to them (and face it, everything which isn’t us is outside stimuli) help make us what we are — but memory is who we are. That is because all memory, including those we seldom examine, have a direct effect on how we think and feel. And that directly affects how we live our lives.
Way back in the dim recesses of time (1981), I was a junior in high school. My friend Joe had a ’60s model Mercury Cougar, and for some time I rode to school with him. This Cougar had a cassette deck, awesome speakers and a sound booster with lights. I remember this because the classic Doobie Brothers song “China Grove” sounded amazing on it. And the lights would jump across the front as the music swelled or waned. The sound, the lights, and the rumble of an underappreciated muscle car all combined with hanging out with my good buddy left an indelible memory.
To this day, “China Grove” is one of my favorite songs, and I always have a copy of that song somewhere around my car. I mention this because of the cool visual, but there are many other memories clamoring around inside my skull. I also remember asking out a girl for the first time in all its hopeful, gut-twisting splendor.
And, yes, I remember all the times I got “shot down in flames” as well. Conversely, I remember the times I didn’t get shot down, and how those times worked out. I remember working in the hot Florida sun, and laying in the snow in Michigan changing transmissions in the sub-zero temperatures. And I also remember the times I spent goofing off in class, and the other times I spent trying to learn something.
Happy, sad, joyful, boring, scary, and a million more emotions and memories have at least passed through that strange space between my ears. And whether I wanted them to or not, all of those deliberate or eclectic memories have joined together to make me who I am today. If that is a good thing or a bad thing isn’t even really the question; it is simply how it all happened. I would like to think that I had a conscious part in it, that I made some good choices along the way, but I am here regardless. I am who I am, and if I decide I don’t like it, then I can make adjustments. But I have an identity, and I know that I am me and not someone else.
Memory is why we don’t need to reinvent or rediscover ourselves every morning when we wake up. Bob wakes up as Bob, and Sally wakes up as Sally, all thanks to the (extremely) complicated process of memory. If Bob plays the piano, for instance, that knowledge is always there in his memory. He might not think of the piano when he first wakes up or right before he drifts off to sleep, but when he needs it, everything he has learned about playing the piano comes back to him courtesy of memory. Sally might not be thinking of playing softball while she is at the dentist, but when she is up to bat, crushing that ball is right there in her mind as though it had never left. And in most people, memory has an excellent batting average.
But what if when I woke up in the morning, I didn’t know who “I” was? What if Bob woke up, and all the memory boxes labeled “Bob” had been shuffled around or emptied out in the yard? What if Sally was suddenly in the batter’s box and couldn’t remember which end of the bat to grasp or even why she was holding it? And what if she didn’t know how she had come to be there, and couldn’t grasp what all those other people expected of her? And suddenly Bob can’t decide if all those strange people are in his house, or if he is the stranger in their house.
Physical and emotional trauma has been known to cause both temporary and sometimes permanent memory loss. Alzheimer's and dementia rob people of their memories and identities in alarming numbers, making them strangers to themselves and those who love them. The results are devastating and heartbreaking for everyone.
Those who suffer are subject to acute feelings of isolation, lost in a world of strangers; and even if those strangers are kind and compassionate, they are still strangers. Loved ones care for family members, but the lack of recognition in their eyes is a special kind of torture. And perhaps most tragic of all are those cases where Bob has played the piano for Sally for decades, and now she doesn’t even remember his name.
The medical community has been making strides in understanding how memory and memory loss works. There is no cure for Alzheimer's, but there are treatments and support networks such as can be found at alz.org and brightfocus.org. There are free, downloadable resources to help both those suffering and those who care for them, because in the end everyone touched by Alzheimer’s and dementia is suffering. There are even resources available which might help prevent or delay the diseases, as well as resources to help discover your level of risk for developing them in the future.
The foundations we have laid and the additions we have built, the wealth of memories we have accumulated over a lifetime, are worth saving. We and our families and friends are worth saving. And we need to remember that it is our memories — our identities — that we are fighting for.