How I Found Out

I always knew I was different.

I realized at a young age other people couldn’t remember the date Easter fell on four years ago or what day the Super Bowl was in 2007.

Maybe the 2007 Superbowl stands out to me because my father was a diehard Chicago Bears fan living in a house with two Green Bay Packers fans, and this was the season he finally had some glory.

Or maybe that Superbowl is memorable because my dad bought our family a new TV for the first time since 1985 to watch his big game.

Either way, I realized that I was different. Not only by having an ability to remember things other people couldn’t, but I also had a unique set of challenges too.

The first time I took a psychology class was in high school. I remember the day in class we talked about memory. My teacher explained very simple concepts and taught us mnemonic devices and other tricks to improve our memories.

From the back corner of the classroom, I slowly raised my hand and asked, “What about tips to forget things?”

The teacher gave me a puzzled look.

I explained that I had no trouble remembering things, but I wanted to know how to forget things instead.

So at that point in my life I was aware I had an ability most people didn’t have. But didn’t know it had a name or a purpose until my junior year of college when I found myself sitting in a different psychology class.

This class was called “Learning and Memory.” Anything to do with memory always intrigued me, so when the class suddenly opened up in the middle of summer, I signed up right away.

The professor’s name was Dr. Nielson. She is a tenured professor who studies Alzhiemer’s disease in what was known as one of the best labs in Marquette University’s Psychology Department, or at least as an undergrad we all thought it was because it was the hardest lab to get a spot as a research assistant in.

On August 26th, 2014, I sat in the front corner of the classroom. There were only about fifteen of us in the class. As it was the first day, Dr. Nielson reviewed the syllabus and outlined our tests and projects for the class.

She told us that although during the year we would study memory deficits, at the end of the semester we would each do a final project on enhanced forms of memory. 

She explained we could pick from topics like people who can see a city once and draw a map from memory. Or people who have photographic memories, the ability to take pictures with their minds.

Finally, she added that the university where she did her postdoctoral work, UC Irvine, had a neuroscience lab studying people with a specific type of enhanced memory for their own lives called hyperthymesia (now known as HSAM). 

“These people can remember almost every day of their lives by the date. They can tell you the weather, current events, what they were doing. It is very specific to autobiographical memory.”And that was all she said about HSAM for the time being until I approached her after class. 

The two of us were out in the hallway when I told her I could remember dates like the people she talked about. So right then and there she gave me a chance to show her my ability:

“My birthday is December 11th, what can you tell me about that day?”

I told her in 2006 it was a Monday.

My dad was in the living room watching his beloved Chicago Bears play the St. Louis Rams while trimming our new Christmas tree we had cut down that Saturday. It was too tall for our house, so he was going to cut off some of the stump. When my mom and I walked in the room during halftime, we started laughing uncontrollably. Because unbenounced to my dad, he had been so distracted by the football game he had accidentally cut off the top of the Christmas tree instead of the bottom. It looked absolutely ridiculous.

And just to tease him a little more, we got a picture of him standing next to his deformed tree that I later made the screensaver on our family computer (and he didn’t know how to change it).

After I recalled that day Dr. Nielson just stared at me without saying a word, so I jumped to another December 11th that stuck out in my mind:

In 2009 it was a Friday.

I had just been asked out by a boy at another high school named Thomas. Thomas was not the usual type of guy I was into. I was more into guys who shopped at Dick’s Sporting Goods, while he preferred Fleet Farm- if you catch my drift.

Thomas went as far as calling Fleet Farm, “the man’s mall” and whenever he would drag me into that god forsaken place, my nose bombarded by the smell of tires and lawn care products, I would recognize all the men’s clothes on the racks because he already owned most of them.

That particular night we had gone to the mall– the real mall– and were now watching a movie in my living room when my parents came home from a Green Bay Gamblers hockey game, at typical Wisconsin date night.

It was the first time my parents were meeting Thomas so my mom politely shook his hand and introduced herself when they walked into the house, like any normal parent would. My dad, however, was a different story.

I am not kidding when I say, my father did not speak one word to greet Thomas. Not “hi” not “nice to meet you” or even the old “If you hurt my daughter I will…”

 Oh no, not my dad.

Instead he decided to promptly pulled a leftover hot dog wrapped in tinfoil out of his pocket from the hockey game, looked at Eric, and asked, “You want it?” When Thomas confusingly shook his head no, my father shrugged and just went to his room to watch ESPN highlights.

Dr. Nielson just kept staring at me as I talked about December 11th. Finally with an astounded look on her face, like she had just found buried treasure, she asked “Can you tell me this much about every day?”

I smiled, knowing I was believed, “Yes I can.”

That semester Dr. Nielson and I worked together as I learned about the different facets of memory to prepare for my final project- a presentation to the class on HSAM.

It was Tuesday, November 25th, 2014 the last day of our Learning and Memory class when I presented my final project. Before I went up in front of the room I handed out slips of paper to every student in the class. 

“Write down your birthday, just the month and day,” I told them.

When I collected all of the papers up in the front of the room I opened my presentation with, “I have something called Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory. I can remember every day of my life since February of 2005. Want to see?”

As I pulled the first slip of paper from the pile, I saw from the corner of my eye all the students getting their phones and laptops out, looking at me suspiciously.

It was me against Google.

The first slip of paper read October 6th, “That was a Saturday in 2007” I said, sat the paper down and quickly moved on to the next one.

I just said the days of the week so they could understand how quickly my memory could work. If a current event instantly popped up, I would throw it in as well.

As I rattled off years and days of the week, I could hear my classmates typing quickly and one by one as their birthdays were read off they looked up at me- no longer skeptics.

I pulled one of the last pieces of paper and saw “December 11th”, I smiled a little and looked at Dr. Nielson, “2006, Monday.”

I pulled the last piece of paper and my heart stopped. It read March 16th.

There is so much that could have come out of my mouth at that moment.

March 16th was the day I was dropped off back at Marquette after spring break. The day my mom drove me to Milwaukee, my dad staying behind because he didn’t feel well. The day I had a marketing assignment due that I was up working on and had skipped Mass to finish. The day people on campus thought I would have been at church and were trying to find me because they had heard the news before I did. The day I heard my mom say over the phone, “Markie, dad died.”

I mustered up the breath to say,“It was a Sunday, this past year, 2014,” And moved on.

Now I had the class’s attention and the space to tell them what I had learned about HSAM.

As I spoke about how it felt to have HSAM and how I believed from my own experience and the research how HSAM worked, I saw Dr. Nielson at the back of the classroom- beaming.

The expression on Dr. Nielson’s face was not only one of pride but also one that read, “this is just the beginning.” And it really was:

I did not know that day Dr. Nielson would offer me a research position in her lab to study HSAM. Or that she would sponsor me through the McNair Scholars Program during the coming summer to do research to pay for my graduate school applications.

After my dad passed away, money was a large issue for my mom and me. I was really doubting at this point if I had the means to even go to graduate school, and HSAM was how I made it there. But more on that later!

The class asked all sorts of questions. Many questions no one had ever asked me before. Really I was never asked questions beyond someone testing me, making myself prove I had this profound ability. This was the first time I was asked what it was like to be me.

One of the last questions was from a girl in the front of the class, “If you could make your HSAM go away, would you?” 

That question pulled me back to August 5th, 2008. My dad had just driven me to registration for my freshman year of high school. When we got home, he looked at me and smiled knowing four short years later I would be 18-years-old and going off to college.

“Markie,” he said, “ No matter what never change, never change for anyone.”

So would I give it up if I could? 

I responded:

“I always knew I was different. And there were sometimes I wanted my memory to be like everyone else’s, I wanted to forget things. But HSAM is what makes me, me. I wouldn’t want to change it, not for anything.”

Me and Dr. Nielson
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