Tag Archives: memory

With My Eyes Closed

Most of you know that I am a single parent. From mid-June to mid-August, my sons visit their father 700 miles away, and I get a much-needed break. I get some extra work done, take trips, and get a little time to myself – and time to miss my boys like crazy. Two months is too long of a break if you ask me, but we’ve been doing this for nearly eight years, so we deal with it.

But those ten months – from mid-August to mid-June – are all me. I am a full-time SP of two. Some days it feels impossible to fit it all in. Some weeks are so full that I feel like I just can’t do it anymore. I finally reach Friday night and collapse on the couch with a glass of wine and stare at the TV because I can’t even think straight. And so, I’ve written a bit about single parenting, including my 5 tips for single parenting with autism. When I think of that post it makes me laugh (hysterically) because it’s so difficult for me to do the things I am suggesting that other people do! Not practicing what I preach in that regard, that’s for sure. I never applied for respite. Ever. Missed that boat. My life feels so disorganized. I don’t have time to exercise. Sometimes I fear that I’m a walking “before” photo of a nervous breakdown.

So it doesn’t surprise me that last week, after trying to cram a bunch of errands in one fell swoop, I forgot the toilet paper. Not just as in “I went to the store and forgot to buy toilet paper,” but as in “I bought toilet paper at the store and forgot to bring it home.” And it took me eight days to remember that I forgot it. I was going through my wallet full of receipts at the end of the week and saw it on the receipt – a 12-pack of Scott’s 1000-sheet rolls. I get that kind because it lasts longer, so I have to buy toilet paper less often. So infrequently, in fact, that when I do buy it I just leave it on the bottom rack of the cart in the parking lot. And then I drive away. And I don’t remember that I left it in the parking lot until eight days later when I see it on the receipt and realize that I don’t remember bringing the large package into the house. No recollection whatsoever. Here I am, in the store, so proud of myself for thinking ahead because I don’t need toilet paper yet, we’re only half-way through the current 12-pack, but it’s on sale for a fantastic price, like, half what I usually pay, so I put it on the bottom rack. I am careful to mention it to the checker so that he rings it up and I pay for it, but then I promptly forget about it.

Oh, eff me, I mutter at the receipt. It’s not like it was a huge financial loss, but I just think, really? I try to get ahead of the game and this is where it gets me. I briefly consider calling the grocery store to explain what happened, to ask if maybe one of their courtesy clerks remembered seeing an abandoned multi-pack of toilet paper when corralling the carts. Eight days ago. I dismiss it – like I have time to do that in the first place. Chalk it up to loss – one 12-pack of Scott and my semblance of sanity. I’ve had to let go of worse.

But my subconscious, it would seem, will not let it go. Unbeknownst to me, my subconscious ruminates for a few more days. It thinks, Yes, she’s got a lot on her mind, a lot on her plate, but this isn’t the worst shape she’s ever been in. Surely she didn’t leave the toilet paper on the bottom rack of the cart in the parking lot. My subconscious works on this for three days, apparently, and then all of a sudden, while sitting in front of my computer and not thinking about the toilet paper, something pops into my head. A flash of memory:  I am putting the toilet paper on top of the vacuum cleaner because there is no room on the shelf where I usually store it. I gasp and run down the hallway to the closet where I keep the vacuum cleaner. I rip open the door and there is the Scott 12-pack, sitting on top of the vacuum cleaner. And I laugh.

I laugh because I realize, once again, that it’s not as bad as it seems. I may not be exercising yet (must get back into yoga), and I sure need to organize my time better (life coach, maybe?), but I think I’ve got a handle on things. If I can remember something as insignificant as the toilet paper I thought I forgot, I’m doing all right. Right? I can do this. I can do this with my eyes closed, it would seem. Some days, at least.

The Wonderful Thing About Tigger

My son has memorized the dialogue of many movies. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park, the old Pink Panther movies with Peter Sellers, various Scooby Doo adventures, Winnie the Pooh, and numerous other Disney films. Over the years I’ve often wondered if this ability to memorize movie dialogue crosses over into other areas of his memory. And it does, a bit. While it’s true that he can spell any word he’s ever read, and has an uncanny ability to remember dates and places of historical events, his memory for his own daily life generally isn’t as dependable.

On a recent trip to the grocery store, I was curious if Nigel remembered how traumatic it was for him to be in them when he was younger, how his sensory issues were so extreme that all the noises of the grocery store were agonizing to him and he would scream and writhe on the floor. He did not remember a thing. It was as if his mind had mercifully blocked the painful memories. I thought perhaps he didn’t remember because the majority of those incidents occurred when he was mostly non-verbal, aside from his cries of “Go! Go!” mixed in with his screams.

Part of me was disappointed because I thought that his memories would be valuable for several reasons. For one, I think it would buoy his self-esteem to see how far he’s come. Also, it would be fascinating if he could shed some light on what made things so hard for him, how he felt, and what he was thinking. Of course, the answers to those questions are obvious (The sounds hurt his ears! He felt tortured! What was he thinking? That he needed to get out of there!), but I just know that there’s so much to be learned from him, from his experiences. And so I figured that if he couldn’t remember the difficult parts of his non-verbal days, he couldn’t remember the good parts either.

Enter Tigger. Tigger is pretty celebrated around here. I’ve mentioned before how Nigel’s stuffed Tigger (bought at Disneyland during my pregnancy) prompted him to write the first little note he’d ever written. The Tigger and Winnie the Pooh stories and videos have also taught Nigel about friendship. And Tigger is responsible for enabling Nigel to do the first imaginative thing he’d ever done. Nigel used to like eating frozen corn niblets. He wouldn’t eat them cooked, only frozen. I would pour them in a little bowl and he would eat them with his fingers. One night when he was four years old, I poured some in bowl and put it on the kitchen table for him to eat. While I prepared some toast for Aidan, Nigel got out of his chair and ran out of the kitchen. He came back a moment later with Tigger. He gently put Tigger’s face in the bowl of frozen corn niblets and said, “Eat” in his little voice, his voice that was actually forming a word, stoic even from the beginning. I was beside myself with joy.

Fast forward ten years. Nigel, now fourteen, still loves Tigger and sleeps with him on his bed. He came to me a couple of nights ago and told me that he wanted to feed Tigger some corn again, like he did when he was little. My spine tingled. “You remember that?” I asked incredulously. He confirmed that he did. He said that he remembered how he felt and what he thought back then, that it made him happy to feed Tigger, and that he believed that he was really eating the corn. He said that having Tigger around all these years helps him to remember something from so long ago.

“Maybe Tigger has a magical quality because he was a gift of love,” Nigel said. I told him that he was probably right. And then he said, “Love reveals its capabilities in unexpected ways.”

I had to turn away, not wanting him to see my eyes welling with tears. “Yes, Nigel, it certainly does.” And I realized that what he said might have been a line memorized from a movie. But so what if it was? He chose the perfect time to say it. And it was beautiful.

Nigel Vs. Grocery Store

Nigel recently accompanied me to a large, busy grocery store, a smorgasbord of sensory issue hell. In recent years, I haven’t thought about it much – we just go and do our thing. We come home, Nigel helps bring in the bags from the car, I unpack. Seeing us now, one would never guess that, years ago, going to the grocery store with my son was not such an easy task. In fact, it was a nightmare.

He was about a month old when I first took him to the grocery store with me. “Wow,” I thought as he slept on my chest. “He’s loving this.” Within eighteen months, that was not the case. The baby who slept on my chest became the toddler who screamed and writhed on the floor. After a few of those incidents, I decided to leave him home with his dad when I went grocery shopping. Of course, that was not always possible. Once I had to run out for a few essentials and had Aidan on my hip and Nigel pulling on my arm. Nigel was about three years old. The sounds and the lights tortured him. I quickly grabbed the few things I needed and went up to the check stand, thankful that there was only one person ahead of us. Suddenly, someone in the customer service booth right next to us turned on an electric coffee grinder. Nigel began shrieking and sobbing and trying to bolt. It was horrible. Of course, Aidan joined in. Somehow I managed to keep Nigel from running away. Shaking, with both kids still crying, I paid for our items, and we emotionally limped back to the car.

I did not take him in any more stores for several years after that. His dad and I were divorced, but for a while he still lived in our area, and he would have the boys two nights a week, so I did grocery shopping then. When Nigel was seven, his dad moved 700 miles away, but fortunately I had a boyfriend then who would stay with the boys while I ran my errands. That lasted until five years ago, when Nigel was nine. At that point, he could actually sit for a while in a restaurant, so I figured I could try taking him to the store again. I had to, because there was no one to stay home with him.

I was nervous, remembering all the screaming and writhing on the floor. And I was nervous because I didn’t know what my options were if it was still going to happen. We prepared using a homemade social story about going to the grocery store. I made rules, such as “hold onto the cart and stay with Mom.” And I promised rewards. If you are quiet in the store and stay with Mom, you can pick out a treat. And you know what? The planets aligned and Nigel did okay. He covered his ears a lot, but at least he knew to do that. It took him a few years to learn how.

About a year ago I decided that if I put on a movie for him that I could leave Nigel and Aidan home alone for an hour while I ran errands. My cell number was posted by the phone, and we practiced them calling me or a neighbor if anything happened. And I got used to them not going to grocery stores with me most of the time.

Last week, Nigel came with me because he had a gift card to use at a different store that was nearby. First we went to the grocery store. As Nigel calmly walked beside me through the entrance, I was suddenly thrown back to the days of sensory issue hell. It struck me how vastly different it is for him now. I have read about autistic adults who have vivid memories of their childhood and how agonizing their sensory issues were, and I wondered if Nigel remembered those old grocery store experiences. I described for him how he had been, reminded him of the time with the coffee grinder, and gently asked him if he remembered any of that.

“No,” he said. “I don’t remember.” He even sounded a little surprised.

Part of me wonders if it’s a case of him subconsciously blocking those memories because they were so traumatic, which is something that members of our family are known to do. Or maybe he just cannot access memories from before he was verbal. I know that I can’t remember anything before I started talking. In a way, I wish Nigel could remember his early years because I would love to hear his perspective on them now. That would be simply amazing. But it’s probably good that he can’t remember those painful times, for his sake. It’s enough that I remember them and can feel so fortunate that somehow he learned to filter the bombardment of sensory input, and now he can participate in so much more of our life. Even if it’s just a trip to the grocery store.

No More Heebie-Jeebies

Like many families with autism, we start planning for Halloween early. When Nigel was younger, it was to prepare him for the sensory issues that would come up. Eight years ago, the Halloween that he was six, while we carved pumpkins I played a cassette tape of “spooky” sounds: wind blowing, doors creaking, chains dragging, and an occasional howl or scream. Nigel was very disturbed by the tape, so I shut it off so that he could join us with the pumpkin carving. For the next hour, even though the music had remained off, Nigel would say every few minutes, “Music is off. Music is finished. No more music.” We didn’t hear much spontaneous speech from him in those days, but he was really motivated to tell me how he felt about that tape. Every time he said it, I assured him in a calm voice, “That’s right, no more music,” but he continued to make his statements until we were completely finished carving the pumpkins. (I realized that maybe because I left the tape player in the kitchen with us that he was afraid that the music would start again; I should have put it away, out of sight.) The following year, when Nigel was seven, I mentioned getting pumpkins to carve for Halloween, and the first thing out of his mouth was “And we will not play the Halloween music.” (His sentence structure improved greatly that year.) Then he said it a few more times that afternoon, and we hadn’t even bought the pumpkins yet.

But in recent years, the reason we start planning for Halloween early is because we love it so much, especially Nigel. We have many decorations to put up – both inside and outside, costumes to piece together, a party to plan (Nigel’s birthday is October 27), and movies to watch. Our all-time favorite is Disney’s The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, and we try to watch it only in October. Nigel couldn’t wait any longer and had it on the other day. I walked past him as he watched it in the living room, and he commented, “Brom Bones is a bully. He is an angry DNA strand.”

Brom Bones I told him that was a good way to put it.

Then a few minutes later, after the scene in which Brom Bones sings his spooky song at the end of the party, Nigel said, “I remember when those kinds of sounds scared me. They really gave me the heebie-jeebies – when I was a little kid. But I’m not afraid anymore. You know that music you played while we used to carve pumpkins? I don’t mind it now. Because I’m a little older.”

Halloween? Scary? What scares me is Nigel’s memory.