Introduction: More than a ‘Fun Fact’

The “tell me a fun fact about yourself’ questions must be pretty easy for you to answer, you have HSAM!” 

I have heard this several times before in the context of ice breakers, job interviews, you name it. It seems pretty obvious what my fun fact should be. 

Fun fact about me: I never use having HSAM as my fun fact anymore. This may be why some people in my life still do not know I have this ability, and some of my closest friends didn’t know for years. And it’s not that I don’t want to share about my memory ability, I just know how careful I need to be.

Here are two reasons I choose not to share that I live with HSAM as a fun fact:

The first is if I am going around in a circle of twenty people and say “Hi, my name is Markie Pasternak and my fun fact is I live with Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory”.

The next question is, “What is that?” So I explain Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) is a memory ability allowing me to remember every day of my life in extreme detail. I tell them if you give me a random date between 2005 and now I could tell you what day of the week it fell on, what I did, current events, weather, most anything. 

And then one of two things happen. The first is I am not believed. “That can’t be true, no one can do that”. And then this results in me sitting there trying to prove I have an ability I already know I have, running around a calendar in my mind racing from one date to the next using my energy to recall details and moments of my life to prove myself.

Sometimes people do not blatantly say “I don’t believe you” but they will ask me a random date I am not prepared to recall. I sit there anxiously checking and rechecking my logic. “Well if Jill’s birthday party was on June 25th in 2007 and it was a Monday, and Michael Jackson died on June 25th in 2009, that must have been a Thursday considering leap year. Wait I can see what I was doing. Can I? What if I am wrong?” And the more anxious I get, the less fun it really is to recall. 

Getting random dates thrown at me when I am unprepared is also hard because every day is not a good day, and how do I know which day on the calendar I will sent back into? Since I do live what I would consider a very fulfilled life, full of loving and close relationships, it is likely a date thrown out at me will be a good memory. But there are bad days and when I recall them they actually come back, almost as real as the first time. When it rains it pours.

The other thing that happens if I use HSAM as my fun fact is people will start asking all the juicy questions “Are there other people like this?” “Why can you only go back to 2005?” “Do you remember every conversation you’ve ever had?” “How does it affect your dating life?” Those are pretty standard questions, but I’ve gotten some strange ones too.

One time my friend told her new boyfriend about my ability and his first question for me was, “Wait, so you can remember every day you’ve ever eaten pizza?” A little taken aback I replied, “Well, yeah I guess I could if I really wanted to.”

I kid you not, my ability to recall which days I have ordered from Dominoes or Papa Johns actually blew this guy away. 

When I use HSAM as a fun fact I recognize it has the ability to dominate the conversation. Other people have other super fun facts, and I do not want to either sell mine short by saying it and not explaining how significant it is in my life in order to not dominate the conversation or have it take over the rest of the conversation to explain how significant and intricate it really is. 

Not making HSAM my fun fact has actually led me to keep a list of other fun facts about myself in my bullet journal, so I do not default to it. It includes things like, “I grew up as a figure skater” “,  “I am absolutely terrified of birds” or “I spent a summer working on a farm that was turned into an art studio where I taught fused glass art.” 

When I am not going around a circle saying a quick fun fact to strangers, I LOVE to talk about HSAM!

I have enjoyed doing interviews for newspapers and TV shows because I am given the space to explain myself and my ability for it is. I love talking to journalists about my memory, how it makes me feel, what I see when I am recalling a date, why I think my HSAM may have developed in the first place.

I love telling my friends about the other people who have HSAM and sharing their stories and how our memories are contributing to research to combat things like Alzheimer’s disease and depression. I even just like to discuss memory and general, why do we have attachments to our autobiographical events and how does that make us, us? And that is what I hope to talk with you about in this blog, I want to answer all of your questions, whether you are a psychologist or just someone who stumbled upon this website, about this rare condition from the perspective of someone who has it. 

The University of California Irvine (UCI) is doing fantastic research on HSAM and has published numerous articles about how it impacts different types of memory, the similarities and differences between people with HSAM, and many other psychological topics. But as there are only around seventy of us living with HSAM in the world, I think myself and the other “HSAMers” as I like to call them, have a unique perspective to share with the world on what it is like to live with total recall. I believe our narratives can prompt more questions about HSAM and memory research in general. I also think our voices can challenge people without HSAM to take a good look at their own memories- how they are formed, recalled and manipulated to create the unique person they are. 

Back in 2016, Friday, April 24th for those of you testing me, I was at UCI participating in research and filming a segment on HSAM for 60 Minutes Australia with one of the other HSAMers, Becky. We were sitting in a courtyard outside of the research building and an older man with a long white beard started to walk towards us. Becky and I both knew who he was and we were immediately starstruck.

It was Dr. James McGaugh, the researcher who discovered HSAM back in 2006.

He approached us, knowing who we were, and jokingly asked us to recall a random date. We both answered, me telling him about what I was doing in Wisconsin five years ago and Becky telling him what she was doing in Australia. But then the conversation got deep. We asked him, “how can we help with your research?” Since we have this ability and you and other researchers are trying to find out more about it, what can we do to help you? And his answer was simple: write your story, uncensored and unprompted, tell us about what it is like to be you.

This brings me to the second reason I do not use HSAM as a quick fun fact: my story is precious and requires a lot of context.

Just like anyone’s story, it is something you must handle with care. The story of my HSAM can be quite deceiving, coming off as just a fun party trick. But impressing bartenders to win a free drink once in awhile because I can tell them what day of the week their birthday fell on ten years ago is just the tip of the iceberg. Buried in the reality of HSAM are a host of difficult things like mental illness, anxieties, grief and trauma, but yet accompanied by a plethora of good things like nostalgia and access to different parts of your mind and the past itself.

When I was a freshman in college, I attended a profound talk by a local mental health advocate named Sue McKenzie. Sue worked in the Milwaukee area sharing stories of people who had gotten treatment for a mental illness. During her talk she addressed what it truly meant to share your story, and her metaphor always stuck with me. 

Sue told us a personal story is like a gemstone. Maybe it is a diamond or a ruby or an emerald,  but each story is different and precious. And because you own this gem, you have control over what you do with it. You can cusp it in your hands and peak at it through the cracks of your fingers, letting no one else see it. You can open your hands up and extend them away from yourself to show someone else your gem. You can choose which parts to show. Do you want people to see every edge and crevice, or do you just want them to be stunned by the initial color and shine?

There is an element of vulnerability when you hold out your gem to someone else. They could say something about it that hurts you, have a reaction to it you did not want them to have. They could even take the gem away from you, it could get scratched or even broken once it leaves the safety of your own hands.

But if we do not take the chance to share at least some of our memories, then no stories are ever shared. And when people’s memories and stories are shared with others in a careful and compassionate way, they have the power to be inspirational, a motivation for new ideas and change.

This idea really resonated with me because I had always viewed each one of my memories as a gemstone.

Each of my personal memories illuminates a different color, representing the emotion or season it was constructed in and each one is carefully labeled with a date and stored in my own mental calendar. Because memories are malleable, able to change whenever we recall them, showing my gemstones can be frightening. To know my perfect, untouched memory, could be shaped in a different way by another person or even by simply recalling it is a lot to fathom. And as I have talked with other HSAMers, it seems we all view memories in this similar way- as our most prized possessions. 

HSAM isn’t my “fun fact” because it requires me showing my gemstones to a large group of people without being able to tell them how careful they need to be with my treasures. This blog will be full of gems I am choosing to share with you- some prettier to look at than others.

With all this said, I hope you will share my gems in a way that will add value to your life and the lives of others. Through this blog, I have the space to tell you all you need to know in order to handle my gems with care, and I am trusting you to do so.

However, my greatest hope is when you go out and share your own memories with the world, the precious moments serving to make you who you are, you will treat them like precious gems as well– because they truly are one of a kind.

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