Memory-loss versus Insomnia1
May 16, 2013 by lucieromarin
So. Trauma or shock can have a number of side effects. One of those is insomnia; another is memory-loss. I often find myself wondering – which is worse?
Losing the ability to sleep is like losing food or shelter; it’s something basic and necessary, something which we should almost take for granted, that only war or atomic fire should take away. Losing one’s memory, on the other hand, feels more like losing a gift; for people who have always had good memories, who never needed diaries, who have enjoyed photographic recall of images or near-perfect recall of conversations, words, or poetry, the abrupt loss of that gift is like a violinist finding himself suddenly unable to play.
Insomnia feels more like a person, like a thief. Everyone I’ve ever questioned about chronic insomnia has agreed that they experience a kind of anger during its worst periods, for they feel their sleep being stolen. It’s always that word – stolen.
When you’re alone in the middle of the night with it, it has a peculiar horror all its own, but I think the horror of memory-loss is, in some ways, worse. It’s like running easily to a familiar destination, only to skid to a halt before a great reflective glass that never used to be there. Where there used to be a scene, a word, a name, there’s now…nothing. At least, when you stare up at that glass, which is so high and so wide that there’s no getting round it, you know that the memory is still somewhere in existence behind it. Much worse is the discovery that memories have been erased entirely; that people can remind you of things you said and did, and you find your mind so emptied of any connection to that piece of the past that they might as well be recounting a story about another person.
Insomnia is physically and emotionally painful. It imposes itself on your life and hurts it…but a traumatised mind… I don’t know enough about this to know if it just signifies some chemical or biological damage or if it’s something deeper (surely shock can’t actually affect the intellect?) but either way, to discover that something has brutalised your own mind is pretty horrible. Insomnia doesn’t feel like a loss of self. Memory-loss does. Are you the same person you used to be, if your mind doesn’t function as it once did? Nobody grieves over sleep. Memory-loss makes you grieve.
It’s hard to decide! Insomnia makes the waking hours painful; the less you sleep, the sicker you feel for days on end. Memory-loss doesn’t have that kind of effect. You can cover up your embarassment (mostly) or go days without experiencing it, and have plenty of fun in between episodes. You can’t cover up exhaustion, and you’re defenceless against nightmares. On the other hand, it’s easier to mention insomnia publicly, without needing to share its causes; say, “I feel terrible; I’ve been suffering insomnia,” in the workplace, and you’ll likely get some kind of sympathy, if not understanding, whereas you can’t tell anyone why you suddenly want to cry when you can’t finish your sentence, or that you had to walk away from the chemist’s counter because just as you got there, you found yourself unable to remember the words ‘cold-and-flu tablets.’ (I used the word ‘dressing-rooms’ in the heading of a post, because I couldn’t remember the word ‘fitting rooms’ and I couldn’t bring myself to google, ‘the place in the department store where you go to try on clothes.’ I also couldn’t remember the words ‘department store.’)
I’ve never suffered the kind of insomnia that’s yoked to waking-screaming nightmares, and can’t really tell anyone how to manage it. I suppose I’m not really qualified to suggest remedies for memory-loss, either, but I can offer some suggestions. I can’t prove any of this helped, but it feels like it did:
1) Keep a tiny notebook close at hand, and every time you hear a word that you’ve not heard for a long time, or that you’d forgotten you knew, write it down. Also record new words.
2) Read. Not just because it supplies you with the abovementioned words, but sometimes you can feel your mind relearning the art of creating sentences – I’m sure that that helps the memory in some way.
3) Keep a diary. It can be really really brief; just things like, “Jane, lunch 12:15” or “Went to Post Office.” Then read over what you’ve done from time to time. Get images and dates and names working together again.
4) I’m sorry, this one is a bit pious, but…offer it to God. There are people in the world dealing with sudden paraplegia or quadraplegia, people losing the ability to walk or talk or see or hear. Memory is just one small part of who you are; it’s terrible to lose a gift, but it is a gift, and it can be returned to its Giver. There is something restorative in the act of offering; you’ve felt some dignity taken from you by this injury, but by giving the injury to God (it has to be done more than once), somehow, that dignity is returned.
5) When you can’t remember something, don’t fight to remember it. It’s like yanking the seat-belt when it’s locked. Sometimes, if you walk away from it peacefully, the glass just melts of its own accord, and the memory becomes available again.
Maybe both can be healed over time.
As a person who had photographic memory before developing insomnia, I appreciated this article. What I felt about not being able to sleep and losing my perfect recall is exactly how you described it.