Sunday, April 30

Emotional Memory: Demons and Angels of the Past

Today I had an experience that has made me think. I was singing with a friend in their ward - the song was "Scars in Heaven." I made eye contact with someone crying while singing, and where I had previously been able to sing without getting choked up, I was suddenly hit with an enormous wave of emotion. It felt like I was about to be crushed by emotional trauma. Visions of memories from my past - things I hadn't seen or remembered since they happened - all came rushing in. Finding people abused, discovering deep emotional pain in conversations, uncovering literal scars in others. Learning about suicides. Watching people die or cower in fear. A portion of the emotions and pain that I had felt in my entire life, pouring out of a door that opened just for a moment and let in a blast of cold before being closed again, proof that there was far more.

I made it through the song without breaking down or screaming in pain. The song was great. I couldn't stop crying on the drive back. And the memory of that moment haunts me... enough that I needed to write about it.

First, it haunts me because it highlights how *much* emotion there has been in my life. Some research postulates that some people with autism feel emotions less intensely than others. I could see that in my own life. I mean, if you ask me about the emotions I felt more than a few days ago, the intensity has dropped to zero. And when I've hit burnout? I don't know what emotions actually exist at that point. Other research has found the exact opposite - that some people with autism feel emotions more intensely. I don't know how they can track or compare that between people. I mean... isn't that super subjective? 

Ok. Just looked it up and it looks like at least some studies measure the chemical excitation levels in the brain between neurotypical people and people like me. So the studies that found increased emotional intensity were correlated with significantly increased chemical activities in the emotional centers of the brain. That makes sense. It seems unnatural to assume that I feel any differently than others, but that's also the attitude that kept my bipolar undiagnosed for so many years. Regardless of if I *do* experience emotions more intensely, the sheer amount of emotion that only a brief glimpse of my past brought was overwhelming.

It scared me.

It crushed me.

It hurt.

It left me lost.

It filled me with envy.

Is that what life is like for other people? Do they really have that many emotions? Can they really feel emotions that strongly... so many years after the fact?

I *cognitively* understand that emotions can build over time. On the negative side, they create emotional baggage. On the positive side, they become bulwarks of hope and meaning. I know in my head that we carry our past with us and we are a product of our experiences. That painful or joyful experiences can somehow mold people and keep causing pain or joy for weeks or months or years or decades after the fact.

But I don't think I ever really *understood* that, emotionally.

Honestly? I still don't understand. I understand some feelings and how they can have lasting impact over time. I understand a part of loneliness and abandonment, since my heart tells me they are a central part of my life even if it isn't true. Other emotions? My memory of being sexually abused is in the same place as last Thanksgiving, or planting potatoes on Friday. I'm pretty sure it happened. And if I can name an emotion it's only because I wrote about it in a journal entry and memorized it. But there's no actual emotion there.

But for a moment today I saw a glimpse of the absolute mountain that is my emotional past. And it scared me and made me jealous all at the same time.

Second, the memory haunts me because I was *able to remember*. Actually able to remember, for a moment, feelings that I had thought lost forever to the ether. I have *never* had this experience before in my life. Or... at least if I have, I don't remember it... which is actually possible except for the fact that I do write a lot of journal entries and I tend to categorize facts about the world inside my head (the fact that applies here: people in the world carry emotional baggage and bulwarks in the form of emotional memories and it can affect them a lot - I'm guessing it's sorta like how I constantly believe I'm unloved and abandoned even when I'm not? Maybe? And how that super messes me up. And I once ever actually saw the mountain of emotion that other people face and it was insane).

The crux of the issue: Was my sudden momentary feeling a one-time thing? A spontaneous gift from God to help me understand something? Or was it my brain temporarily tapping into locked but *still stored* emotional memory? And if it was the latter... *why* do I not remember? Is it something I can't control, and it was just a fluke of hormones and circumstance... or is there an actual key to unlocking it... or is it locked for a reason - a coping mechanism my mind created so long ago I can't remember its source? 

Can I fix it? Can I get access to the ability to actually remember emotional conversations, relationships with people, or *anything* beyond a few days ago?

And if I can... could I handle it? For as long as I can remember, my emotions have been like fireworks in the sky. Fierce, passionate, explosive, and present, leaving behind nothing but wisps and space for the next explosion. I almost broke down and stopped breathing today, and that was when the door to my emotional past was open for a moment. Would I even be able to function if suddenly I had full access to the emotions of my past? Being able to tap into positive experiences to sustain me would probably be great. I think. Right? That sounds like absolute euphoria to a kid whose emotional memory is so broken that he bears psychiatrically diagnosed scars of negligence birthed while living in one of the most supportive and loving environments I have ever heard of. With access to feelings for more than two days, I could do anything. I could stop the constant mental battle where my heart insists that my newest friends have ghosted me after not hearing from them for 2 days. I could do anything. But could I handle the pain? Feeling the pain of all the people close to me who have committed suicide... every time someone mentions the word? Being able to remember the emotional pain that has left me broken and torn to pieces?

I don't know that I could survive.

And that hurts.

I don't understand.

Just the memory of the experience while singing is still there. I'm struggling to function while I process things I thought I had already processed.

If I could fix it, would I want to?

I mean... people can process emotions. I should be able to process them and still be functional, right? But what happens if I can't? There's the fear that I wouldn't be able to. What if a lifetime of emotional immediacy has crippled my ability to handle stuff from the past? Or what if the brain chemical activity tests are right, and I've got a form of autism that causes me to experience emotions far more intensely? So intensely that normal processing and coping methods don't actually work... and the emotions hit the maximum allowed limit and I become a vegetable or an emotional invalid if I really could feel my past? What if fixing my link to the past completely breaks my ability to be present?

I'm probably being melodramatic. Maybe? Rereading this before I publish it, it sounds melodramatic. But I'm also a few hours later and the memory is already starting to fade.

Is it even a thing to be fixed? I feel like it is... maybe? Yes, having a limited emotional memory might be extremely useful in being able to handle consistent extraordinary amounts of emotional pain. But if I've got repressed emotional memories then it would be great to break through those.

I don't know the answer to this. I'm headed to a conference on autism in a few weeks; hoping to get a recommendation for an amazing therapist who specializes in adult autism there. I'll file this away with all the rest of my questions.

In the meantime... I think that maybe today was to help me better learn to understand people. Some people have deep emotional memories, and they can carry emotional scars and happy memories around with them their entire lives. They build on their pasts, rising above or sinking below their circumstances. Sometimes they get stuck in the past. Others of us have far fewer emotional memories. We remake ourselves each day. We live in the present. And we also probably sometimes get stuck in the habits of the present. 

What does it mean to being a better friend? It means realizing that I can create good memories or bad, and that those memories might last forever. It's recognizing that my friends have their own history, likely hidden only from easy view but still very real... and that being there for them includes both the painful and the positive from that past. It means being there for them when the mountain of emotions has fallen. It means building up a mountain of love.

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