We move house, change jobs, begin new relationships, yet most of the time, most of us still experience a thread of inner continuity – a constant feeling of me-ness that transcends the various chapters of our lives. Indeed, there’s evidence that having a stable, constant sense of self and identity is important for psychological wellbeing. However, this thread can rupture, leading to an uncomfortable disconnect between who we feel we are today, and the person that we believe we used to be – a state that psychologists recently labelled “derailment”.
Mostly I find the above interesting precisely because I don’t have a “stable, constant sense of self and identity”, and I never have.
In fact I cannot conceive of the person I was when I was in grade school in rural upstate New York, or the person I was in high school in suburban upstate New York, or the person I was in college in downstate New York, or the person I was after college in Chicago or back in upstate New York or in New York City, or the person I was over two decades ago in northern California, or even the person I was when I first moved to the Pacific Northwest, or even the person I was a decade ago here.
It’s not that I don’t remember any of these times, or what I was doing. It’s that I don’t remember how any of it felt, how being any of these people felt, and I do wonder whether or not having access to how it felt to be at any given stage of your life is key to having a sense of flow from one version of you to the next.
Past online autobiographical blurbs I’ve written have included a telling statement: “If events were pictures and emotions were sounds, his memories would play as silent movies.”
On rare occasions the emotional components of my past selves can surface. One day in college, I watched an old home movie that had been transferred onto videotape, and one segment included both my late maternal grandfather and my late family cat, and I erupted in tears. (I’d not, for whatever it’s worth, cried contemporaneously at either of their deaths.) So, either the emotional components of those memories must have been recorded somewhere in my brain, or this particular emotional outburst purely was in response to the in-the-moment stimulus of the videotape itself.
I suspect the latter, since in my memory of that moment of watching the videotape I do not notice any sense of me thinking about the person I was when either of them died. It wasn’t about the then, it was about the now.
Do other people have the long-term emotional memory I lack? I’m not sure where the cutoff is, exactly, but I clearly have some sort of short-term emotional memory, since I’ve had outbursts, of the autistic meltdown kind, that can be traced at least in part to my reacting and responding not just to the stimulus of the moment but to past stimuli of a similar enough nature to be called back into the present moment, in a manner similar to the recalling of trauma.
At any rate, by the article and study above, my entire life appears to be one of routine “derailment”, per se, except in that I don’t feel the discomfort they speak of, over the disconnect between the who I was and the who I am. I’m not sure it ever occurred to me to think of myself as anything other than a succession of selves.
(I do wonder how or if the internet age affects this process. I myself have had a fairly overt succession of online identities, each one handing off the baton to another. One of them even eventually generated my legal, offline name. Could we today simply be more naturally fluid in this sense than were people of the pre-internet past?)
What’s a bit fascinating, looking at things from this perspective, is that my midlife autism diagnosis in fact has repaired some of that disconnect, as pieces of my life both large and small suddenly were granted explanations, ones that linked experiences from childhood to experiences from adulthood to experiences from middle age.
Being autistic, it turns out, is one of the few common threads that weaves throughout all of my past lives into my current one, and one wonders what impact, if any, an earlier autism diagnosis would have had upon the matter of “derailment”.
I don’t think being knowingly autistic would have somehow altered the fact that my memories don’t record their emotional track, and so I suspect the disconnect between successive selves would have remained undisruptive. Still, who knows? Maybe being aware of that single, common thread would have yielded an obvious contrast to my changing sense of self.
But would that have been a good thing or a bad thing?