While doing some ironing the other day, I listened in on the program Here And Now on my local NPR station. While I steamed away wrinkles from my favorite linen shirt, I listened as Robin Young, the host of the show, interviewed Jonah Lehrer, author of Imagine How Creativity Works and How We Decide. In a recent article in Wired Magazine, he discusses memory, trauma and the making of a pill that will take away painful remembrances. Fussing away over the fact that my shirt seems to have a huge memory bank for wrinkles that are always in the same old places, I got caught up in the interview and the idea of a pill that is being developed so that those suffering from the likes of PTSD can be relieved of their suffering.
The reason for my interest is that I am at work on a memoir and have been diagnosed with PTSD. Though I am living a rich and wonderful life after years of therapy and plain old hard inner work, I am still in the process of healing my old wounds. Even now, decades after any trauma, a threatening authority figure or someone using a particular tone of voice or word can easily throw me back into my old ways of reacting. I still suffer from occasional panic attacks. And the anxiety I’ve lived with all of these years can still haunt me.
How does memory work? Does time play a role in how we remember things? What would happen if I chose to take a pill that would wipe away the pain of difficult times? Would I also forget all of the good times? Would I be the same person I am today if I hadn’t been given the opportunity to work through my difficulties and instead been given a pill to erase the misery?
In his article, Lehrer addresses those questions and more, discussing the pros and cons of such an approach to treating illnesses often brought on by trauma, such as chronic pain, drug addiction, obsessive-compulsive disorder and of course, PTSD. He explains how memories are stored in the brain and that the latest science shows that memories change every time we recall them. Lehrer goes on to suggest, “Every memoir should be classified as fiction.” Though that statement alone is something memoir writers like myself might seriously consider arguing about, my own interest was piqued by the possibility that in the future, one might take a pill to forget the pain we bring through life with us.
Though revisiting the traumatic events of my life has been extremely painful, I believe that I am a wiser person for it. After years of talk therapy, medication from time to time, and now writing my story, I’m healing and discovering the treasures of my life. Facing my own challenges head on has changed the way I see and think about the world. I know more about how my mind works and what I need to do when I feel like I’m about to have a meltdown or a panic attack. Remembering has opened me up to appreciate the beauty that surrounds me; that without the dark periods I would not know the happy, sunlit times.
Without my need to understand who I am and to live my life fully and openly, I would not know what love and compassion are. I now better understand who my parents were. Why my mother may have come to be an alcoholic and how my father struggled through his life after his wartime experiences. And though genetics may play a role in some or all emotional disorders, everyday experiences stand out as being number one when it comes to trauma.
In the end each of us has our own way of working through our lives. Perhaps for my father, who lived the untold horrors of war on a regular basis, would have benefited from such a pill. Perhaps my mother would not have been an alcoholic. And maybe those who have lived through one of nature’s tragic catastrophes like last year’s earthquake and tsunami in Japan would be helped to find a peaceful way to exist after such a horrific experience.
There is also the question of what would happen if the pill that helps us forget gets into the wrong hands. Is this one more step along the highway to Big Brotherhood?
None of us knows the answer to life’s toughest questions. And when we do have answers they only work for some of us. I am grateful that I have learned to deal with my own struggles and need not ask myself what it is I need or would like to forget.
How about you … would you take a pill to forget?