When my insomnia gets the best of me, I often find myself thinking of Baltimore. I think about the gray siding on my parents’ house, the wobbly brick stoop, the iodine colored rust on the underside of the thin, white railing. I think about my old apartment— pock-marked with holes in the walls, blankets duct taped over the windows, a massive swarm of fruit flies in the kitchen, spattered with cigarette butts and paraphernalia. I think of the soothing rainstorms that roll through the city on summer afternoons. I think back on one particular evening in late spring: overcast skies, the dregs of thunder in the distance. I remember the way my body melted into the mattress with slow, shallow breaths. I remember the TV murmuring in the background. I remember smiling.
I suspect that my memories are not as accurate as they seem. On the surface, most of them appear to be truthful, but when I look a little closer, I can see a number of worrying flaws. So I do what I always do: I obsess, and rationalize, and chip away at everything I find somehow unsatisfactory. I’m not good at leaving things alone.
In the hours that I have spent researching the topic, I have learned that the nature of memory is fluid— it changes over time. This is, overall, a good thing. Our autobiographical memories serve many vital purposes. We use them to solve problems, to connect with one another, to regulate our moods, to maintain our worldviews, and to form a stable sense of self. As we grow and change, our memories do so as well. This is normal, and necessary. However, this means that the human memory is not as infallible as we might like to believe.
Here is an example: Beginning in the 1990s, a number of experiments were performed to test a concept called “memory implantation”. One of these experiments attempted to implant a false memory of a hot air balloon ride into the minds of the participants. None of these people had ever been on a hot air balloon ride— this information was verified by their relatives. And yet, by the end of the experiment, 10 of the 20 test subjects recalled this false memory either partially, or clearly.
[For more information on this fascinating experiment, click on the following link:https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.900.9943&rep=rep1&type=pd]
I can’t pretend to be any kind of expert on the nature of memory. I’ve rummaged through a few studies, and a handful of articles, but my knowledge basically ends there. And if I push aside the scientific explanations that help me rationalize my anxieties, I’m forced to admit that my refusal to trust my memories has little to do with science. I was uneasy about my recollections long before I ever decided to research the subject. This unease crept in sometime during my first year of sobriety. For the first couple months, I had a lot of major blank spots in my memory. The moments that I did remember were primarily fuzzy outlines. They were unstable, ever shifting, and washed out. Entire months were missing. Everything was out of sequence. It is very likely that I misremembered quite a few things during that time. To be honest, I was happy to be rid of it all. I didn’t want to remember.
But as I accumulated more time, my memories began to return— slowly at first, and then all at once. Black and white blurs became saturated in color and detail. Images flooded back in. Events began to expand, linking together piece by piece, until they tangled into enormous, emotional knots. It was overwhelming, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
I panicked. I labeled all of it as fraudulent. I shoved it away. And I made that first Google search: “How accurate are memories?” Obsess. Rationalize. Bury it in stone cold logic. It’s what I do best. And it solves nothing.
My mind is, by nature, a chaotic place. There is no off switch; there are no brakes. My thoughts move too rapidly for me to keep track of them. Every idea is immediately followed by a sporadic mess of tangents and footnotes, which then multiply exponentially, piling on top of each other— until I find myself awake at some ungodly hour, reading Wikipedia articles about nuclear fission and Gothic architecture, with no idea how I got there. As of writing this, I have 89 tabs open in Safari. On the notepad app on my phone, there are 1,638 notes. My memories are in a similar state of disarray.
They mostly consist of vivid, interconnected fragments. Settings, scenery, songs, certain colors, sounds, smells, tastes. In a scattered web, there are snippets of dialogue, emotional portraits and composite sketches of the people in my life, chunks of events, specific dates, patterns, flashbulb snapshots, passages from books, anecdotes, opinions, schemas, and countless other pieces. There are still some significant gaps.
Most of these fragments make sense on paper. There is a consistent trajectory. The broad strokes seem, overall, to be grounded in reality. It’s the details that bother me. Every time I try to analyze the minutia of my memories, I find that I can’t. Without fail, I lose these pieces to the rest of the noise. I’ll come close, close enough that, for an instant, they become clear, only for it all to be yanked out of focus. The images twist and shift; they bleed together like wet paint. It’s infuriating.
For a long time, I have attempted to assemble this livid cacophony into some semblance of a coherent narrative. But this has, of course, brought its own problems.
My downfall is that I’ve always had a fondness for stories. If I had my way, my memories would have a well-developed plot, picturesque settings, a theme, a character arc, and no loose ends.
It’s hard to resist the urge to fill in precise details where the truth might be a little blurry. It’s tempting to shift the tone of the past to make myself more sympathetic. When I look back on my life, there is a sick part of me that wants nothing more than to do some editing— just to tidy it up a little. That part of me wants to erase the moments that do not align with how I want to see myself. It wants to take artistic liberties to brighten up the dull spots. It wants to manufacture false memories, put a spin on them, and make them dance. It craves approval and excitement; it is dishonest and manipulative. If I had my way, by the time I was finished, there would be little left of the truth. I know that if I tried hard enough, I could tell a great story about a hot air balloon ride.
I like to believe that my wariness is a rational response to my skewed perception. Because there is always something with its hand on my shoulder, with its mouth by my ear. It deftly extracts from me the delirious euphoria that I felt the first time I did heroin, on that warm evening in late spring. It knows exactly what details to conjure up. It knows how to warp the truth to suit its agenda. It whispers to me: “Nothing else in the world will ever love you like this.”
I was lying in bed, covered in a blanket with a cigarette burn on it. Hair tied up to keep the itching at bay, a few persistent strands stuck to my forehead with sweat. Eyes closed, a smile playing at my lips. I remember the smell of it— a sharp tang in the nostrils. A gentle, glowing warmth between the shoulder blades, humming in the muscles, trailing lovingly down the spine. The joy of opening a door that should have been left shut.
It isn’t real.
When I examine it objectively, the core remains the same: late spring, Baltimore, a cloudy, humid evening. A gram of tan powder. A blue blanket with a cigarette burn on the upper right corner. The rest is all illusion.
The happiness that I have paired with that memory is disturbing, and entirely untethered from reality. But, in a way, it’s too late— the image is already captured. And on those long nights when it manages to worm its way back into my thoughts, I’m left to grit my teeth quietly in the dark until I finally fall asleep.
It will be gone by morning. It always is.
I am grateful to have that memory now, as strange as that must sound. I don’t regret that day anymore. It does not haunt me the way it used to. It no longer entices me. It no longer scares me. I have analyzed it, picked it apart, and unraveled it like an old sweater. And I have reached the personal conclusion that it is, most likely, not entirely true.
Over the span of 11 years, I used 67 different substances. I took my first drink at 11, my first Percocet at 17. I did heroin for the first time on a gray evening in May 2018, when I was 21. And I got sober on March 5th, 2019, when I was 22. Those are the facts. No flowery language or dazzling images. It is the objective truth. And yet, this also feels, somehow, incomplete.
There is a distinct indigo tint that washes over the sky just before dawn. It filters through the glass of the sliding door in my room. The curtains rustle in the breeze. Sometimes, on these early mornings, I’ll pull on my boots and go outside to have a cigarette. The chairs are damp. Condensation dribbles down the side of the ashtray. The haze of smoke drifts slowly upwards, as the glowing ember inches its way closer to my fingertips. Everything is quiet and still.
It is in these moments that Baltimore returns to me.
I remember getting coffee with my friend Kevin at Bean Hollow. I remember going to punk shows at the Ottobar, the Sidebar, and at Charm City Art-Space. I remember exploring abandoned buildings and goofing off on train tracks. I remember smoking a cigarette on the fire escape of a small restaurant on Light Street. I remember walking to the Dunkin Donuts on York road with my friend Matt at one in the morning. I remember the sound of the trains that howl in the distance late at night. I remember how the city becomes a wind tunnel in November, and I remember the bleached-gray skies of January. I remember the downpours that burst in the spring, and I remember the hot, humid summers. I remember chatting with my Dad in his car, and watching Nova with him on PBS. I remember that my Mom smells like flowers and Covergirl blush, and I remember drinking coffee with her as a teenager. I remember my brother’s laugh, and his sandy-blond hair.
I don’t want to lose any of it.
Memories are not facts. They are under no obligation to make perfect sense. They are subjective, malleable, messy, incomplete, and important. There is ugliness, and wreckage, and love. There are inconsistencies. They will never be perfect, and I have no control over how the human memory works.
I need to leave the past alone.
Some interesting resources and articles pertaining to the human memory:
● Hot Air Balloon Experiment:https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.900.9943&rep=rep1&t ype=pdf
● Further reading on memory implantation:https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5248593/
● Articles about the accuracy of memory:https://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2013/11/how-many-of-your-memories -are-fake/281558/
● https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/idea-happened-memory-re collection