My Memory is Full of Empty Spaces

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I don’t remember much of my childhood.

I’ve touched on this briefly before, but I thought it was something I needed to dwell on a little more.

I’m not saying that I don’t have any memories. I have some incredibly clear and vivid recollections of specific, random moments.

Like the time I was playing the baby in our breaktime game, I screamed wildly (ever committed to my character), and it was only when I finished screaming that I realised the bell had rung and all the other children were standing silently.

Or the time we were tasked with a big class-wide design project, and I was devastated that we were building a cardboard car rather than my suggestion – a cardboard dog kennel.

But other than these moments – sporadic, unlinked other than a lot of them make me embarrassed in hindsight – I don’t have any real coherent memories that have stuck around. Other people can seemingly spout endless memories, hilarious anecdotes, or bulging chapters to fill out autobiographies. If I tried to do that, I’d either have the shortest book in the world, or I’d be lying. 

Maybe other people are lying? I’m not very good at working that stuff out.

I know that, for a decent part of my primary school years, I was unhappy. I had been flung into a world that I didn’t understand, with people who didn’t care, and for a large portion of those years I was bullied, excluded and generally offered no support.

If you’d have asked me then, I don’t think I would have said I was unhappy. I didn’t know any different. The moments when I was happiest were tinged with the inevitability that something would happen, a friend would turn on me, I’d do something ‘uncool’, and I wouldn’t be happy any more. It was a constant state. Being actually happy, without the sense of dread, was something that just didn’t happen that much.

Maybe that’s why I don’t remember most of it. It’s all a big blur of grey fuzz. When you’re eight years old and you wish you would just not wake up in the morning, I guess the acknowledgment or retention of pointless, meaningless memories is not going to be very high on your brain’s to do list.

This lack of solid recollection isn’t limited to my pre-teen years, as many people would say is more normal. Large chunks of my teen and even post-20 years seem buried just out of reach – or maybe they’re not there at all. I can remember the exact lyrics to a ridiculous song I learned in choir at the age of seven, or an obscure fact about The Phantom of the Opera (which I fell in love with at twelve and drifted away from at fifteen), but if you asked me to write a book of tales about my first twenty years on this Earth, it would probably be little more than a pamphlet.

Sometimes my mum will remind me of something that happened when I was younger, and I won’t have any idea what she’s talking about. If I hadn’t had her there at my appointment three years ago, I wouldn’t have been able to tell them anything useful about my childhood/early-adulthood; and maybe I wouldn’t have gotten my diagnosis. I’m beginning to suspect that some of my earlier memories are not actual recollections, but fantasy memories stacked together from stories I’ve been told.

I can tell you about some terrible experiences that have gripped hold and continue to play in my head when I least need them there. But beyond that, I can’t give you much more than a general sense of how I felt emotionally over those long stretches of time.
I just know I wasn’t happy. All I can visualise is a grey fog, weighing down on littler, younger, more innocent me.

I wondered if this was an ‘autism’ thing. I think this with surprising frequency. Is this thing I’m experiencing an ‘autism’ thing, an ‘I’m just a weirdo’ thing, or an ‘everyone else experiences this and the autism part is you can’t read or replicate their bullshit’ thing?

So I did what I always do in this sort of crisis.

I typed can’t remember much of childhood is autism? into google.

(Yes, that is a direct, verbatim copy of what I typed into google)

To my dismay, my first result (that was written by an autistic person – sorry neurotypicals, but I wanted the autistic expertise on this) detailed autism as being the reason why many people have better memories of their childhood. Some even remembered vivid instances as babies. People had stories. Stories I couldn’t relate to.

The creeping sense of imposter syndrome is something I’m unfortunately well acquainted with. I’ve felt it in the neurodiversity community, when I’ve seen people sharing experiences I don’t recognise. I’ve felt it in the LGBTQIA+ community, as a bi-identified woman squirreled away in the corner at Pride. It’s that awful feeling that maybe you’re not part of this, maybe it’s a lie, maybe you’re a fraud…

Luckily, the next result was a forum of people discussing an experience much closer to my own. Stories of no memories, but of floods of feeling instead; stories of remembering tiny details, lyrics and facts, but an inability to hold on to the things that actually happened.

But I guess that sums up a lot of the beauty of autistic people. We can’t just have a fairly decent recollection of our younger years like neurotypicals seem to, oh no, either we remember with ridiculous clarity or we remember so damned little that we question whether we weren’t just conjured on this  Earth in an already grown body with badly implanted false memories. 

We’re all different, but similar in that we take and experience the things we differ on to the extreme.

I like to bring my writing to conclusions. I feel incomplete without it. I’m an English Literature graduate – bullshit conclusions are essentially part of my genetic make up at this point. But I don’t feel like I can here. I had something I wanted to explore about myself, and I found out a little bit more on the topic, and I ultimately worked it out a little through writing it down. In the course of it, I’ve discovered that the lack of memories could be a perfectly normal neurotypical thing, an autistic thing, the opposite of an autistic thing, or a reaction to trauma.

Either way, I can’t remember large chunks of my childhood and young adulthood. That’s just a fact.

The main thing I’ve learned from writing this is that, once again, being autistic – and being me –  doesn’t come with an easy-to-follow rule-book.

 

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