FROM SUPERCOMPUTER TO FILING CABINETS - My Memory after Dain Bramage
In honor of the impending holiday season, now on pandemic-steroids.
How do I help you understand what it feels like?
If you don’t know…you can’t know.
Imagine you've always run your life and earned a living on the most efficient, new-fangled, bells-n-whistles, powerhouse supercomputer…
Then one night, because you decide to take the freeway home, you get downgraded into the basement.
Not your basement.
Nope. It’s some musty basement in somebody else’s dilapidated house. One swinging lightbulb. A rickety staircase any B-horror-movie director would salivate over. Creaky. A little too steep to comfortably walk down. At least there’s a railing when you have to carry everything downstairs, because your streamlined laptop with its monster processor, oversize hard drive, and gobs of storage has been swiped.
You can find something that’s been swiped.
It’s been obliterated. Smashed that sucker beneath squealing tires on black pavement just after midnight on Winter Solstice. Everything that could be salvaged was turned into paper and shoved into that basement.
Tonight you have a cardboard box that you carry down the skreeky stairs, balancing yourself with an elbow on the rail as you descend, one foot-patting step after another, into the murk. Smells like dust and mold down there. You’d like to say it’s not your dust. Not your mold, but after three years?
Yeah. It is.
Well, now it’s also yours.
You make this trip every night to tuck away the day’s doings into the nose-high filing cabinets that live there. Row after row after row of them. They’re all painted in that washed-out goldenrod that was popular in the 70s. Or maybe the gold was vibrant back then, but time has had its way.
You wonder, on an odd day, how the cabinets got so washed out when there’s no sunlight down here. There are a few windows just beneath the wooden slats of the ceiling (up there where you don’t look, because you don’t wanna know how much of that is the infiltrating root system from nearby trees and how much is spiderweb). The glass of the windows was broken before you got here and they’ve been boarded up, so all you have is the lightbulb near the stairs.
When you reach the bottom, you take out the flashlight you’ve learned to bring down each night and hunt for the necessary filing cabinets.
You know this is an inefficient system. You remember the SEARCH feature of your old supercomputer, how it had folders and subfolders, and entire programs dedicated to specific kinds of data of the highest quality. Videos, numerical tables, word processing documents, calendar, contacts, music, games… Each of those data files could be cross-referenced and cross-pollinated and cross-filed and hunted down in a picosecond by entering a few keywords in the search. Even their related material would show up in a handy popup you could access with one click of the mouse.
No. It’s not even a mouse. You are more efficient than Tony Stark.
You don’t have to swipe that multi-screen hologram badassery across the field of your vision. All you have to do is imagine and BING! It is there. You can keep three dozen programs up and running strong at any given time--and you do.
Okay, you did.
Because that was the supercomputer.
This is the basement, and we don’t organize things like that around here. We do it in the most logical way possible to keep track of that much dissimilar data.
We file it all in alphabetical order!
We’re awesome like that.
Say this in your best Hermione Granger voice:
Under B for Ball (get ready because it’s a monster folder): there are example photos of basketballs, volleyballs, softballs, foozballs and the like. There are video snippets from the Winter Ball in seventh grade, the big red bouncy-ball that Jenny Jenkins purposely smashed into your face in third grade, and every man’s testicles you’ve ever seen (including your father’s when you were nine and unexpectedly walked into the TV room late that one night--he had to quick adjust his position on the couch in his green robe, but the image was totally seared into your mind for alllllll tiiiiiime even though everybody pretended it never happened).
For such a broad and widely varied topic as Balls, there are a great many notes directing you to other folders and filing cabinets:
Ball, basket: see Basketball
Ball, event: see Dance: Social
Ball, dodge: see Dodgeball
—Also see Fifth Grade Fiasco: ref. Trench
Ball, fooz: see Foozball
Ball, having a: see Pleasure
Ball, slang: see Testicle
Ball, soft: see Softball
Balls, slang: see Courage
Since the Basketball folder happens to be one in which some cross-referencing has been done, you will find the following notecard taped to the back cover:
Basketball, see also:
—Eighth Grade Athletics
—Mascot Fiasco, The
—Quitter (where you would discover, if curiosity led you to seek out that file, three lengthy dissertations arguing why it was appropriate and correct to willfully be a quitter at something for the first time in your life--the largest one to yourself, another to your parents, and the last highly abridged version for your coach).
—Things I Suck At
Were you to open any one of these folders, you would find, randomly stuffed inside, all the snapshots, video clips, soundtrack music, scratch-n-sniff patches, magazine perfume ads, documents, and ledgers for each listed category. Some folders are better organized than others. Some possess items that are faded, crumpled, torn, water-marked, and illegible in spots. Some of the videos and photos are grainy; others are as clear as a spotless mirror.
But no matter the organization or disarray, the whole ginormous lot is still filed alphabetically. Cross-referencing is an onerous treasure hunt about as rewarding as an old Cracker Jack toy on Christmas.
There is also no rhyme or reason as to which folder any information will get filed into. One person’s favorite perfume will get filed under their name; another’s will get filed under Perfumes & Scents. Sometimes the scent of cigarette smoke will also get filed under Perfumes, whereas sometimes it goes into Icky Stuff with a reference to someone’s name. Sometimes there’s no reference name. It’s just plain Icky.
This makes for a troublesome issue when asking one’s self things like, “Why I am avoiding this person/activity/location? Why I am so pissy with this person? Why am I depressed?”
Having everything filed alphabetically and semi-randomly means that it’s much more difficult to make whole pictures from a myriad details, to extrapolate themes, make deductions, comprehend meaning, and apply understanding to other affected areas.
This means decision-making is a Spoon-Devouring Beast, and decisions that can be made are often based on incomplete data.
Sometimes I don’t even realize that a decision needs to be made. I just know that I’m miserable or aggravated, and can’t figure out why.
If I can figure it out, translating my emotions from the alien language of this filing system into verbal communication other humans can understand…that is a different part of the brain that was also damaged, and a feat we’ll get into on another day.
Instead, let us turn to what used to be the supercomputer’s desktop. Because it’s not good enough to merely store this information, right? In order to actually use it--it truly is all in there…
Okay, it’s mostly in there.
But in order to access and use it, you have to haul it back upstairs, which is a pain in your scoliosis-tilted tuchus. There is also that towering, chuckling gorilla-of-a-door-guardian who takes immense pleasure in whimsically revoking your access card that would allow you to remove files from the basement and go through them where there’s…I dunno…decent light by which to read?
Then we have The Purges. Entire swaths of long-term memory data from several specific time periods that were obliterated from the supercomputer, in whole, across the board, just before everything was downgraded to analog. You've searched and searched, but you have to accept it. It's just GONE.
The discovery of this vanishing act only comes to light when you meet someone who says you know each other.
Suspiciously, you have no file on them.
They don’t even have a polaroid in that bulging album you made of Faces Without Names. If you're lucky, you recognize or even know the person, but when they speak of something you supposedly did together, you have zero documentation in storage.
Blink…blink… “We were in a play together? I was in a play that year? Ummm…huh.”
For such data, you have inserted red construction paper into the filing cabinet where there should have been a folder. Hand-scrawled titles decorate the garish paper in your familiar all-caps:
--THAT COMMUNITY PLAY I HEAR I WAS IN DURING MY JUNIOR YEAR OF COLLEGE: REDACTED.
Now…why that particular memory was chosen to receive Hermione Granger’s Obliviate spell, we will never know. It’s just what we do around here.
So night after night, you huck your handy box of the day’s doings down the stairs and you put the documents, images, and other keepsakes in the correct folder. Sometimes you have to shuffle things around to make room.
Other times, the filing cabinet gets tired of being overstuffed and unable to be closed properly--it doesn’t like that, you see. So while you’re snoozing or working hard on plumping the day’s box full of memories, the Filing Gremlins are surreptitiously rifling through your old, unopened, obsolete folders. Everybody has these helpful little beasties. They determine what to shred so you can hope to stuff new documents into whatever type of storage format you use.
But your documents don't always stay put.
Because the other thing you don’t realize is that, at night while you’re drooling on your pillow, the Gremlins are playing. These green little cacklers are assholes, you see, and they have a sense of humor.
Sometimes they make meticulous notes about everything you just filed and they swipe it all at 6:56 a.m. They make a merry bonfire for themselves while roasting weenies and deep-fried Twinkies over the ashes of your short-term memory shrapnel.
The next morning, you get up. You go about your day. You fill your box. Maybe someone asks you about something you did yesterday, so you dash down to the basement to look up the answer, only to find that the daily log is gone. Perhaps there will be one fuzzy, grainy Polaroid to goad you. Perhaps not.
Perhaps you’ll realize that Gremlins have been shredding most of your memories for the past three weeks. Perhaps this goes on for months. Or many, many months until you realize that you only have a handful of snapshots for the first three years after your supercomputer was smashed before your very eyes on that bridge overlooking Uintah Street.
Oh, but the car wreck itself?
Man, we have that thing in high-def from four different angles, including the forehead cam and the one mounted to the overhead drone.
Everything else from that year, including little occasions like 9/11? Pffffft...
You have a couple 3-second video clips of a plane crashing into a tower, a muffled audio recording of the phone call telling you to turn on your television NOW, a few emails sent to your family, and a couple pages of the incident report. Unfortunately, coffee got spilled on the report and most of the ink has run. You've hand-scribbled a stickie note after having conversations with others who were traumatized by that world event: "Apparently this was a really huge thing for our country. I have mixed feelings about the fact that I barely remember it."
At least you have your museum galleries of the Impressionist paintings you made to console yourself because the last two decades of your life are just…fuzzy.
One of my favorite galleries
So when you haven't been with someone for very long and you find yourself wondering in exasperation how the honeymoon can be over already...why you’re fighting all the time...why you reflexively shudder in revulsion when he kisses your neck...why you’re both absolutely miserable with each other...
Perhaps you’ll traverse that other set of rickety stairs into another dusty space. In the back of the attic, in another cardboard box, you’ve stored the last four years of journals written religiously since that summer you did Julia Cameron’s The Artist’s Way. Perhaps you’ll start digging for clues about how everything went wrong by reading about your life, staring with the night you met that gorgeous guy backstage at that snooty, horrible show before the car wreck.
If you’re very, very lucky, perhaps you’ll read--in your own hand, in your own words--what he did to you three-and-a-half months into the relationship when he was very, very angry with you in the alley on the way home.
Perhaps you’ll read month after month of your penmanship asking the same questions and coming to the same conclusions every day, only to ask the same questions and come to the same conclusions the next day because Gremlins shredded the incident report overnight. Perhaps you’ll read your suspicions that he doesn’t really seem to like you very much, which means he certainly can’t be in love with you like he swears he is whenever you start poking about the subject.
But you know. Deep in there somewhere, you KNOW.
You just don’t remember it the next morning.
So perhaps you’ll read about what he did when he was very, very angry with your cat (although you know it was actually you he was angry with, but he couldn't do that to you and not go to jail). Perhaps you’ll read about what he does, day after day after week after year, frequently when he walks in from his workday and you chirp, “Hi, honey!” at him, only to feel the invisible knife go in.
Perhaps you won’t shove those journals back into the attic and allow the Gremlins to shred this report overnight. Perhaps you’ll scrawl a sticky-note and press it inside a new manilla folder called What I Forgot He’s Been Doing.
The folder is empty now. But perhaps the next time you go digging in the folder about this relationship for clues as to why you’re so unhappy, you’ll notice that manilla folder and spy your handwritten note:
--See Journals: December 2000 to current date! NOW.
Better still, perhaps you’ll leave the sticky note under your favorite coffee cup so you’ll find it first thing in the morning after he’s left for work.
I hope you will.
I re-read those old journals until the Gremlins wouldn’t even contemplate shredding the dissertations I wrote in my new journal about what I had been living with since that Winter Solstice when a drunk driver rammed me on the freeway. Granted, I was no peach to live with. But still. #NoExcuse.
Eventually, I read my words so many times that I was able to construct a mental video tape for myself, a patchwork collection of images outlining what I needed to remember.
I can’t help you understand what it’s like to live with Traumatic Brain Injury.
I can only help you understand what it’s like to live with mine.
CHOOSE YOUR OWN ADVENTURE
--UP NEXT: I AM FORGETFUL LUCY-LIGHT - A bit more about those Impressionist painting galleries.
--In the meanwhile, if you don't know this tale about me and Traumatic Brain Injury, it begins HERE.
--OR you can find the entire Brain Injury Series HERE.
--THE NAVIGATION TABLE OF CONTENTS
If you're on Medium and want to follow me there, I've started cross-posting some of my writing over there. You can find this piece HERE.