Most of what you’ll read here is life and fun, with episodes from my past, amusing and serious. But I have an unwelcome stranger lodged in my brain, as you’ll find if you explore my stories. Our destinies are interlocked, but its deadly presence reminds me every minute that each day of life is a miracle. This is my space to reflect on life, and an interactive area where we can share our experiences freely. Without you, this blog has no reason for existence. Carpe Diem!
I decided not to mince words here because I have a point to make that you won’t really understand unless or until you’re in this situation.
Most of us, whether young or old, have been in that spot where our memory of some person or thing has let us down. Something we’ve known all our lives won’t come into mind when it’s needed. Unaccountably it disappears. We go to introduce A to B and find that B’s name has buzzed off.
Embarrassing. And there is no doubt that with increasing age, this phenomenon does seem to get worse. Those of us who have had brain malfunction, dysfunction or surgery, and are on medications that promote memory failure will know what I’m about.
Generally, though, it’s not that much of a problem. We laugh about it, go on to another subject, and like magic, and usually when we’re not struggling to recall whatever it was, that forgotten thing effortlessly pops into memory.
If we’re lucky.
In fact, it’s not luck, it’s just the subconscious mind doing its fantastic, amazing job. There are very few things we lose forever from memory unless the brain has suffered physical injury. We need to locate and traverse the right tracks to get back to them.
What if you suddenly find there are ‘black holes’ in your memory? (Here I use an expression I first heard from Julie*, and has come into my everyday vocabulary.) And what if there seem to be more and more of them?
Like black holes in the universe, you know they’re there only by their effect. What does that do to your life?
It’s more serious than it looks. Much more.
Think of a large and complicated jigsaw puzzle, in which quite a number of the pieces are missing. As long as they aren’t there, you don’t know what was in the black holes in the puzzle and you have no obvious memory of them. Worse, you are probably not even aware there are black holes! As well, sometimes pieces of the puzzle you interpret as one thing now seem to represent something else, because vital parts aren't there. You don't even know they're missing.
You are asked to describe the picture in the puzzle, and you do it as best you can. But with the gaps, you misrepresent it. Your brain glosses over the gap. You don’t see what everyone else does.
Isn’t this a definition of madness? When your perception of things doesn’t agree with what seems patently obvious to all those around you?
Do I sound like I’m off my tree, when I write this? I don’t think so. There are a lot of definitions of sanity, and a lot of ‘sane’ people disagree on them. But let that be.
My point is that when the black holes strike, you lose confidence in your mind, your intelligence, your capacity to reason, and your whole self. Worse, you know that those around you lose confidence in at least some of those, and why shouldn’t they? If you insist something is X and they are all sure it's Y, it's a recipe for frustration. You feel they are humouring you by letting you say X is the reality, not Y; and they're doing it so you won’t get stressed by the dichotomy. But where does which leave you? And them?
It’s lose-lose. You don’t want to be trapped by a delusion any more than those around you want you to be. But what if you are sure you are right? How much angst does that cause for everyone? And how does it feel knowing that these perception gaps are causing grief to them? Should you just shut up and swallow the frustration? Often you do. Sometimes you don't. Either way, it creates an impasse.
Let's explore this a bit.
The best and simplest definition of intelligence is ‘the ability to perceive relationships.’ I’m not up for debate on that one, so accept it for the moment at least. I’ve always had a good memory. After all, I spent a lifetime as a professional historian! Where would I be without good recall? I need that in order to perceive the subtle connections between all sorts of things when I write or discuss history. I take pride in seeing relationships that others may have missed, though of course it’s also possible to make false connections as well.
When you feel confident in your own ability, you don’t mind being persuaded you have made a mistake. But when that confidence is lost, it changes things.
My point here is this. I can’t now be sure I can recall all the pieces of the puzzle in order to see, as best I can, the relationships between them, and be able to tell you with self-confidence what the picture is about. By the above definition, this means my intelligence has also declined. I lose the ability to perceive relationships if things obvious to others aren’t there for me to tie together.
If this is your problem, then at the very least, you and the people around you will quite rightly lose faith in your judgment. If you know you can't have faith in your own judgment any more, why would you expect others to?
This is quite novel and frightening when you are used to having reasonable confidence in your judgment and when you are used to having others feel your judgment is sound. Doubting it, especially for what you suspect are good reasons, eats away at the very foundations of who you are.
I now realise that some of the most famous ‘insane’ people in history were enraged or depressed about the onset of their insanity not so much because it was happening but because they were acutely aware of its effects, and they feared and resented what it was doing to their relationships with those around them.
And there wasn’t a damned thing they could do about it except feel frustrated – not with others, but with themselves – even when that frustration seemed directed at others.
No-one is to blame. It just feels like it. How well Shakespeare explored this theme in King Lear!