Reality, Memory, Blurred Lines


I have this incredibly vivid and tactile imagery in my mind of a time when I was flying. It starts very slow and simple… with walking. If I think hard enough about it, I can feel the shoes around my feet, and the thrumming persistent rhythm of the soles padding against pavement. I’m outdoors. The surroundings are sunshine, blue skies, tall glass buildings, open spaces, and smiling people; everything that I hate and that makes me uncomfortable.

I start to move faster, and as my strides widen, I’m bounding higher and higher away from the ground. With a jump I take to the air, and find I don’t need to touch down as often, or at all. I try and stay lower, willing myself closer to the earth, but the rhythmic connection of shoes to surface is gone. The simple act of walking, that I had never previously considered routine and reassuring, is no longer available for me to apply as a means to keep calm and centred.

The image changes. I’m gasping, and grasping out for anything in reach. I connect with trees. Buildings. But nothing slows me down, or causes descent. Moments pass and there’s no longer anything for me to connect to. The ground is fading as I ascend to unreasonable heights, only able to manipulate my direction by turning or twisting my body in angles that are difficult to maintain.

I close my eyes to avoid seeing the distance between me and the ground, and while I don’t remember opening them, I can picture the earth rushing towards me, and the thought is enough to speed up my heart rate and cause me to clench my jaw.

I know this is a dream, because logistically it cannot be anything else. Yet my brain reminds me of how it felt to fly through the air, connect with solid surfaces, and to slow to a sudden gravity-free stillness elevated above everything in view.

This is why I hate dreaming.

My mind’s eye is a vicious bitch.

When I was still the youngest child, before my parents started fostering, I learned that I was really good at finding things. If someone lost a set of keys, a pen, a toy, the remote control, I always seemed to know where they were without needing to actually look for them. It didn’t occur to me at the time that my memory was creating snapshots of the information related to the items, based on noise, or movement. I could hear the slight tingling of my father’s keys being jostled from his pocket while he slept on the couch, and I knew they’d settled somewhere between the cushions, and I even retained this information to assist locating them the following morning when he was getting ready for work.

I can rationalize this away as something that happened nearly every Monday to Friday. After work and eating my father would always lay down on the couch to take a nap, and he rarely emptied his pockets before doing so. How hard is it to recall that keys are in the couch when that’s where they are 75% of the time?

Others have referred to it as a trauma response. An over-developed visual-based memory being present in a young child as a means to placate the unstable counterparts that they have no choice but to live with. Demand meting supply.

I recall being about six or seven years old, when I still loved Barbie and all of the accessories we couldn’t afford to get to go with her. My mother bought keychain backpacks for her and my aunt from a penny saver. It had fake pockets to make it look like a real backpack, and in the large compartment they both kept tissues, spare change, and packaged mints. I often asked to play with it, because it was the perfect size for a doll or a teddy bear, and I thought it looked hilarious as an every day accessory for a toy. Oh Mr. Bear, are you off to college? Good for you, don’t give up on your dreams! On occasion she would let me use it, likely because while playing I would empty it out and discard the used tissues, and refill it with fresh ones for her.

One day, the keychain had been left down on the floor beside my parents’ bed, and I scooped it up to engage in play, quickly sifting through the contents to discard the crumbled tissues into a waste bin, and filling it up again to give it back it’s shape before fastening it onto my Barbie’s arms and sending her off to school. Time passed. I remember hearing my mother bang around looking for something, and then demanding to have it. I gave it to her and went back to playing, but she screamed my name after a few minutes from the main floor, and her banshee voice meant the patience was already gone. I ran to her and asked what was wrong, and she was on me, both hands, gripping my shoulders, shaking me. And despite how vivid it all is in my mind, I don’t hear the words. Her voice is simply noise. Grunting shrieks, the smell of cigarettes and beer, her fingers leaving bruises on my arms. There’s other adults there, my aunt is at the table, she says nothing. I passed my father in the living room, he says nothing. The contents of the keychain bag are missing. It wasn’t only dirty tissues, a necklace for my aunt is gone, and now I’m a thief. She pushed me, and I fell back onto the floor, collected myself and ran away. I hid for a little while, until I was calm, and then I went to look for the necklace.

I knew which bin I’d placed the tissues in hours earlier, and the trash hadn’t been taken away yet, so I dumped it out on the bathroom floor to sift through. At first, all of the refuse looked the same. Tightly wadded balls of soft white fibres. Some stained. Some sticky. Some clinging to other bits of trash. I stared at all of it, not wanting to touch it any further, when an image swam to the forefront of my mind. In my head I could see the lines and wrinkles on the item I had withdrawn from the bag in crisp detail. I held the picture in my head and looked over the items again, finding the piece I was looking for immediately, retrieving the necklace and replacing the trash in the bin. I took the gold chain to my mother, who passed it to my aunt without acknowledging me.

After that I started taking pictures in my head before completing any task. Still images were the easiest to recall. Knowing how things were arranged allowed me to easily hide that they’d been interfered with. My siblings liked having me do this in order to acquire snacks from the hidden places in the house where my parents liked to stow them away.

Moving images are things I’ve only started mastering recently. Directions are difficult for me to follow and provide. Once items start rotating in my mind they stop making sense. It’s hard to accurately articulate the journey to others when I consider the length of time, duration of traffic lights, landmarks, number of songs heard, my position on the road, and the level of my anxiety due to driving part of the process. Trying to give verbal directions as a passenger can be thrown off by loud sudden noises, or the driver using a lane I wouldn’t.

It shouldn’t be that hard … the fundamental details don’t change, after all. Strip away the excess information and focus to get to the destination! But I can’t. So whether I’m a passenger, or a driver, I rely heavily on GPS (and the unreasonably loud volume of my car stereo) to keep me calm and present.

That’s both ends of the spectrum for my memory. Being able to recall and restructure from a single visual instance, and remembering so many details, in excess of the visual, to the point of disfunction.

So where’s the middle ground?

Oddly, I think it’s in my imagination. The only things I am able to recall one hundred percent without a degradation in details, or disorganization due overwhelming additional stimulation, are dreams and ideas.

I can remember plot and scenery information from stories that I wrote twenty years ago. But not directions to a friend’s house if my regular route is interrupted by a detour. I can tell someone about a dream I’ve had with such detail they say it’s like listening to a story … but it took me three years to absorb the fact that my husband’s eyes are blue. Sometimes I still forget.

Memory is often clouded by emotion, and physical or external interference. The finer details can be difficult to bring back clearly because of those distractions. Yet I find it impossible to separate these details when I want to remember something.

The worst part about memory is when it creeps up on its own accord. I don’t know anyone else that this happens to as much as it does me. I wish I knew someone who went through it so I could have someone to relate to.

It’s similar to when the sun sets. Here and now drifts away like the light fading into the horizon. It’s gradual, and natural, but still surprising to notice, like when I pass by a window and realize how dark it is. I’ll be sitting in my chair, keeping my hands busy with a craft project, focussed and engaged in the task. A fleeting thought will occur to me that I don’t even realize. When was the last time I did this? When was the last time I saw them? What are they doing now? A slow casual expression of interest in another time and place, and the present is pulled from my focus. The memory will overtake me if I let it. I am in that other time, seeing it again with seasoned eyes. This would fascinate me if it were not so overwhelming. Or isolating.

The crucial details remain the same, but my dyslexic brain has a tendency to mess up the orientation. Doorways appear on walls they shouldn’t. Room layouts in reverse. Colours being the wrong shade. Sun streaming in an incorrect angle. Instances where I’m holding pens and writing with my left hand, when I’m right-handed.

Dreams and imagination do not fault me in the same manner. When I see through my unconscious eyes and I’m flying through the air, unable to cease or slow the ascent, it’s more real to me than things I have actually experienced because the dream never changes. Dyslexia doesn’t reach my dreams, but it corrupts my memories. I noticed this distinction a long time ago, and I have no explanation for it.

Repetitious dreams or dreams where I interact with people I know are worse. My dreams are as sensory to me as my waking hours, and it takes a few minutes for me to recognize that I’m sleeping. Thankfully, due to my chronic pain, I’m a light sleeper. I’m almost always aware of my body huddled under my covers when I’m unconscious. Rather than indulge a dream and create a difficult to distinguish visual experience for myself for later, I deny the imagery and focus on colours and shapes so I can rest until the morning comes.

But these are simply dreams, who cares if you confuse the details?

I have had arguments with people based on dreams that I mistook for actual occurrences. I had to be told several times that what I believe had transpired did not factually take place. I’ve had to double-check the physical world for evidence of my unconscious ordeals. I’ve had to do these things more times than I can count or recall. And I don’t know why.

It’s easier to deny myself access to dreaming than it is to sift through the visuals in my mind and compare them with reality. Dreams are both easy and difficult to debunk, depending on the subject matter. A long emotional conversation? Difficult. Flying through the air and colliding with buildings until an impossible height is reached by body alone? Easy.

What about a nightmare? I’ve had dreams where I’m being chased through the woods by a wolf, or a bear. Have I ever been in the woods? Yes. Have I seen creatures there? Yes. Was I chased? Sometimes I’m not sure.

What about nightmares sprung from real circumstance? The original memory shifts and manipulates with time due to the machinations of my own mind but a terror manifested from that remembrance forms its own permanent imagery.

Which one is real? The one that’s scary. Which one is more real? The one that’s scarier.

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