Ruminations on Memory and Loss, Pleasure and Pain
by Mary Sojourner
When I was twenty-seven the world broke into particles: the shimmering leaves of the elm became lozenges of gold; the color red leaped out from everything I saw; corners, then curved edges seemed to seize my perception so that I had to lift my thinking above them. I was certain I was going crazy. I was raising three kids on my own and there was no time to go crazy.
Twenty years later, I was reading a novel when I found myself wondering how I knew the meaning of the word “cedar”. Did I see a picture of a tree? Did I sense associations? How did I know what each letter was? For months, I surfed above the ruminations, forced myself to speak and to understand what was said to me. I knew I wasn’t crazy, but I was terrified it was the beginning of dementia.
In late November 2008 I walked with my grown son across a Mojave desert playa. He talked about a friend of his. I had never met the man. Suddenly I wondered how I experienced the man. Did I imagine him visually? How, in fact, did I experience anything someone said to me. Again, I forced myself above the loop delay in my mine and pretended I was listening as I always had.
My son left for Singapore the next day. It was a loss and it was a relief. I didn’t have to struggle to comprehend what was being said to me. Then I drove down off the mesa into town and realized there were multiple lacunae in my experience of the world. I saw a person and understood I knew nothing about them. They were simply a pattern of visual stimuli. I looked down at my hand. It was the same. And all the while the watching and thinking part of my mind talked me through the terror. This time I was sure I had Alzheimers.
I talked with friends and googled ‘withdrawal symptoms’. I knew I was the cleanest I had ever been in all of my many and beloved addictions. I asked my sponsor if she thought I should go into treatment. She laughed. “Why? All you would get was people who knew less than you know about your brain, encouragement to take medication and locked in.” Treat the next thirty days as though you were in treatment. Go to lots of meetings, don’t use, call me and make no changes in how you are living.’
I did as she suggested. Those thirty days seemed endless. On the twenty-seventh day I was sitting in my old rocker looking out at the winter desert. I knew better than to try and lose myself on the internet or by reading. Suddenly, between one breath and another, I remembered something from my childhood. The memory is not mine to share. But in that instant, I at least understood the shifting parameters of the tsunami that was carrying me. And I understood the immutable power of the physiology of the brain.
I went to the computer and wrote:
Consider this: my hands on these keys, your eyes on these words, the elegant connections between eyecells and braincells; between fingercells and braincells and back to fingercells — none of this is mysterious, all of it is beyond miraculous. Welcome to the impossible. Welcome to your brain.
Enter this memory: I was thirty, raising three kids alone and wrestling myself through a psychology degree split between get-to-know-and-love-yourself counseling and physiological psychology. One of my teachers gathered us into a circle, in which we told our deepest stories, confronted each other, acted out our dreams, cried, froze in silence, held each other and often wanted only to escape. We all sat tight. We were learning Rogerian therapy and Gestalt technique in our bodies — and by the seat of our pants. Our teacher warmly insisted we call him by his first name. Some of us slept together. That was never mentioned in our cozy circle.
Three hours later, I would walk across campus to a brightly lit classroom in which desks were aligned in rows with military precision. An austere fine-boned man would walk in at 4, not one minute sooner or later. His lectures were contained, much like listening to a diagram. He drew nerve pathways on the board, his handwriting as precise as his speech. We had never seen him smile. And we were always to call him Doctor.
One gray December day, I left the therapy class circle in my own fog. I had finally cried over my mother’s repeated suicide attempts. One of the other students had gently taken my hand and said, “Now your body and spirit can heal.” I walked slowly on the icy sidewalks as though I were made of glass. I wondered where my spirit resided and I had no idea how my body felt. For years, I had considered myself a huge and difficult mind on a great pair of legs.
By the time I reached the neuroanatomy classroom, I could feel the cold air in my lungs. My thoughts had cleared. The professor walked in at 4. He did not turn to the blackboard as he always did. He stood silently in front of us for what seemed forever. We waited.
“Tell me,” he said, “who you are.” It was not a question. It was a command. The room was silent. Then, a wild-haired young man raised his hand. The professor nodded. “I’m a psychology student, a guitarist and a person on his way to his real life,” the student said. The professor nodded again. An older woman raised her hand, “I’m a mother, a grandmother and a nurse.” Five or six students spoke. I didn’t. I seemed to have no answer.
“Thank you,” the professor said. “Your answers are at one level, correct. And, they are thoroughly inadequate. You see, if someone were to introduce a powerful anticholinergic inhalant into the air ducts, an inhalant that had no scent, you would within seconds not only have no idea of who you are, you would have no idea of you or are or who.” He allowed himself a small, almost sad smile, turned to the blackboard and wrote: acetylcholinesterase and brain function.
I watched his hand move. His hand moving, my eyes watching, my brain decoding what my eyes see, these very thoughts, only neurotransmitters releasing and arriving, moving through cell membranes, releasing again. That is who he is; that is who I am. I wondered that I didn’t feel diminished, though, of course, I had ceased to have the same meaning it once had.
The next Spring, I stood at a tall table in the Neurophysiology teaching laboratory. The instructor placed a jar in my hands. “Don’t do anything,” she said, “until I give all of you the instructions.” She handed jars to everyone and then taught us how to carefully remove the human brain inside.
I took the cold mass into my hands. The voice of the instructor seemed to fade away. I felt the weight of an unknown person’s words and touches, of memory and loss, of longing and pain, of pleasure and knowledge. Your answers at one level are correct and they are inadequate. The voice of the lab instructor came back. “You will never know who belonged to these brains,” she said. “And, as you will learn in the months to come, our brains do not belong to us. We belong to our brains. And, in that, to our bodies.”
Mary Sojourner is the author of the novel Going Through Ghosts (University of Nevada Press, 2010) and the memoir She Bets Her Life (Seal Press, 2009), among her many books, and is the author of numerous essays, columns, and op-eds for dozens of publications. Sojourner is also a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision, where her columns appear on the third Friday of every month.