What It’s Like to Lose Your Short-Term Memory

An exclusive excerpt from the new memoir by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee.

Christine Hyung-Oak Lee | Longreads | February 2017 | 18 minutes (4,276 words)

Longreads is proud to feature an exclusive excerpt from Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My Life, the forthcoming memoir by Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. Lee’s story was first featured on Longreads in 2014, for her BuzzFeed essay, “I Had a Stroke at 33.”

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Short-term memory dominates all tasks—in cooking, for instance: I put the water to boil in a pot on the stove and remember that the water will boil while I chop the onions. I will put the sauté pan on the stove to heat up the oil for the onions, and I will then put the onions, which I will remember I have chopped, into the oil, which I remember I have heated for the onions. I will then add tomatoes. While the onions and tomatoes cook, I will put pasta in the water, which I remember I have boiled. I will know that in ten minutes I will put the cooked pasta into the tomato and onion stir, and thus have a simple tomato pasta meal.

If short-term memory is damaged as mine was, it works more like this: I put the water on to boil. I heat up the oil in the sauté pan. I chop the onions and then wonder for what it was that I chopped the onions. What might it be? I wash my hands, because I might as well—my hands are covered in onion juice, and my eyes are tearing. I return to the stove, where the oil is now scorching hot. I wonder what on earth it was I was cooking, why the sauté pan was left this way. I turn off the heat under the oil. I sigh and go upstairs. I forget everything I just did like a trail of dust in wind. Two hours later, after a nap, I return to the kitchen to a pile of chopped onions on the chopping block. The pan is cool but scorched. And I again wonder why. But mostly, my eyes turn to an empty stockpot on the stove, the burner turned on high. There is nothing in the stockpot, not even water. This happened over and over again in the months following my stroke. So I stopped cooking for a year.

Short-term memory is like an administrative assistant for the brain, keeping information on hand and organizing tasks—it will figuratively jot down a number, a name, an address, your appointments, or anything else for as long as you need to complete your transaction. It stores information on a temporary basis, on Post-it notes, before deciding whether or not to discard the memory/Post-it or move it into a file cabinet for long-term memory storage. Everything in long-term memory finds its way there through short-term memory, from the PIN for your ATM card to the words to the “Happy Birthday” song to the weather on your wedding day. In fact, you are exercising short-term memory now, by keeping track of what you read at the beginning of this sentence so that you can make sense of it at the end.

When short-term memory is damaged, it cannot track sentences. It must read the paragraph over and over again, because by the end of the sentence or paragraph, it will not remember the beginning. And because it does not remember the beginning, it cannot make meaning out of the entirety.

I look at a restaurant menu. I read each item, and when I get to the end of the list, I cannot remember what was at the beginning. I reread the menu. I get to the bottom of it. My brain gets tired, short-circuits, and all I see is random words. I cannot connect my appetite to the words. I cannot remember what food tastes like. I cannot connect the ingredients, “hand-cut green noodles with chanterelle mushroom ragù and gremolata,” into a whole. I cannot put together noodles and mushrooms and chopped herbs in my brain. I cannot connect those flavors into a picture, and I cannot connect them to my appetite, because I have no memory. I only know I am hungry, because I am light-headed and listless.

I put down the menu. I ask for a hamburger if I am dining alone. I ask my companion to order for me, if I am not dining alone. I always request hamburgers, because nearly every restaurant offers hamburgers, and because I cannot parse a menu and hold all the possibilities in my head in order to make a decision.

I am surprised, every time, when the hamburger arrives at the table, because I do not remember having ordered it. I chew it mechanically. There are no images flashing through my head reminding me of the first time I ate a hamburger, or all the barbecues I’ve attended, or the time after marching in the Rose Parade that I ate Burger King because Burger King gave out free burgers to participants at the end of the route. No. There is just blank space. There is chewing. Swallowing. The end of hunger.

When short-term memory is damaged, it will not retain new names. I do not remember someone who popped her head into my hospital room a few minutes ago. I do not remember the receptionist in the doctor’s waiting room. I do not remember who visited me in the hospital the day prior. I do not remember who gave me the flowers in my room. I have to write all these things down in my notebook, so I can refer back to it later.

If short-term memory is damaged, it may not be able to move things into long-term memory, because it takes time, even if not much. It can take about a minute for the memory to be retained. But with age or injury, our brains have less time to successfully move new information to long-term memory. As a result, it is difficult to recall the details of recent events. I see a book at the bookstore, and I buy it because it looks interesting. I go home and see two copies of that book on my bookshelf because I have bought that book over and over again.

I do not remember so many things that happened. I do not remember who was in my workshop the semester I returned to school before I was fully healed, returning because all I wanted to do was finish my degree. I do not remember the woman who befriended me in the wake of my stroke, who then months later wrote me a breakup card because supporting me, she said, was “too much.” I find the breakup card years later and look at the date in befuddlement. I do not remember printing my MFA thesis onto special paper and then assembling it and turning it in. I do not remember the names of any doctors at the hospital. I do not remember room numbers. In addition to not cooking, I do not even go grocery shopping for a whole year, because I forget what it is I have to buy, and if I write a list down, I forget where I put the list.

In the wake of my stroke, I remembered the names of people I’d known for years, even if I couldn’t remember the names of doctors I had just met. I recognized my best friend, Mr. Paddington, and my husband, Adam, and all my girlfriends, and greeted them. But when they’d leave the room and return, I would greet them once again, as if they hadn’t been in that same room just fteen minutes prior. I knew who they were, but I had lost track of time. My short-term memory was unable to move things into long-term storage.

Long-term memory, also known as reference memory, is remembering anything that happened more than a few minutes ago. Whereas short-term memory lasts well under a minute, information in long-term memory can last indefinitely, from a few days to decades to an entire lifetime. It is remembering my first trip to Disneyland, and how the night before, my father, brother, and I laid out a strategy—that we would run to It’s a Small World first, because it was at the back of the park and the lines would be short at opening. It is remembering my first day of school in New York City—how I was born in the United States but didn’t yet know English, because my parents didn’t want me to have an accent like they did—their diction made them suffer, and they did not want me to be similarly marked. How in 1977 the teachers had no experience with a non-English-speaking child. How I cried my first day of school. And how they locked me in the bathroom stall until I would stop crying. And how I did not. And how I was locked up the second day and then the third. And as I moved through grade school, how I was the only one of two Asian American children in the entire school. How when a new immigrant from Korea showed up, my beloved teacher turned to me and asked me to teach him English. How by then, at age seven, I’d forgotten Korean. How I picked up a Crayola crayon, pointed to it, and said, “Yellow.” How I wondered why the teacher could not think of doing the same.

How I would command a sofa and call it a boat—“Get up here, Richard!” How my brother would say, “I have my own boat,” as he got up on the other sofa. How I replied, “That’s not a boat! That’s a sofa. Get on my boat or you’ll drown!” How he said, “But this is a boat.” How I stared him down and said, “That is a sofa. You are captain of a sofa. I’m captain of a boat. Get on my boat if you want to live!” And how he did. And how I then told him, “Now, row. I’m the captain. You’re the rower.” How he and I were the best of friends. How one day he grew up and made other friends.

Long-term memory allows me to remember the day I got my driver’s license. My high school graduation in 1991 and how I wore black opaque hose and white pumps. Because that was the style back then. Really. It allows me to remember the organic chemistry exam I failed. How on the morning of 9/11, my boss called and woke me up screaming, “We’re being attacked! Stay home. Buy water! Don’t come into the office,” before hanging up, before I could even respond. All the times someone told me to “go back to your country,” and all the times I screamed back, “I was born here! This is my country!” The first time a short story I wrote got published. How I was alone in the house, and I opened the envelope, and held my breath, and I knew then that I should keep writing.

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There are two kinds of long-term memory: explicit and implicit.

Explicit memory, also called declarative memory, is the conscious recall of previous experiences and information. It’s what we most associate with things we call “memories.” It’s remembering getting my driver’s license, and also the driving lessons and my nerves and anxiety. It is remembering my score on the driving test.

Explicit memory is the encyclopedia of our experience. It is having been born in New York City. It is knowing that my mother was a nurse and my father an engineer before he was a small business owner, first of a gas station and then a barbecue restaurant and then a water store. It is knowing that they arrived in the United States in 1969 after the passage of the 1965 Immigration and Naturalization Act, which allowed immigration to the United States from Asia for the first time in forty-one years. That they were recruited to the United States under category 3 of that act, which favored scientists, engineers, nurses, and medical doctors.

It is remembering the name of the New York City preschool I attended. What I wore on my first day: a red dress with white polka dots and black Mary Janes. It is remembering that bathroom stall, and how I kicked the door all day long with my patent leather black Mary Janes. And the next day. And the day after that.

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There are two different types of explicit memory.

Semantic memory is composed of the knowledge we have accumulated throughout our lives. It is the textbook of our lives. It’s knowing that the San Gabriel Mountains surround the valley. That the highest peak in that mountain chain is Mount Baldy. That rock cod reside in seaweed, at lower depths than mackerel. That Richard is my little brother. That my first preschool was located in Queens, New York.

Episodic memory is about the experiences and events of our lives. It helps us time travel. Episodic memory is about the Sundays my family spent hiking the San Gabriel Mountains, how I kept gasping for air, and how no matter how often we went, I never found it easier. How I went fishing with my father for rock cod as a child. How we had to cast our lines differently than with other fish—a long line that we let go on the reel until we felt the weight hit the ocean floor. How I loved the rocking boat and the ocean and waiting for the tug on the shing line.

Semantic memory tells me I was born in New York City. That New York City is the largest city in the United States. That I entered UC Berkeley as a double major in English and molecular cell biology. That I graduated as an English major with a minor in Asian American studies. That I earned my MFA at Mills College. That I spent twenty years working in tech. That I’d married Adam in San Francisco. That we went to Brazil for our honeymoon. That Brazil is in South America.

But episodic memory says that I grew up in New York City, eating pizza for lunch under the El in Queens. That I crumpled under my parents’ wishes for me to become a doctor. That they thought a writing career was too daring. That I pursued it anyway. But that first I worked in tech to earn a living, because before I did become a writer, I too thought it was too daring. That during the hora at our wedding, my friends hoisted me with so much strength, my body left the chair, and that I laughed with both surprise and joy. That I barely clung to my end of the white cloth, the other end of which Adam grasped. That Adam and I went to Brazil for our honeymoon a few days later, and the first meal we had upon arrival was at a churrascaria. Where we scarfed down meat and filled our bellies in fteen minutes, and laughed when we got the bill for all-you-can-eat beef and chicken and lamb: it was less than nine dollars for both our meals. Where we woke up to the sound of the ocean below us, which reminded me of all the times I went rock cod fishing with my father, liberating and strange, the waves crashing repeatedly.

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In the wake of my stroke, my explicit memories were largely unavailable. I could recall modules. But I could not splice them together, even when prompted, which in the neuroscience world is called priming.

“I went to the store,” I said.

“And?”

“I don’t know. I went to the store.”

“And you were trying to buy groceries?”

“Oh yes!” I said. “I couldn’t buy any!”

“And?”

“I forget. What was the point of this story?”

“You tell us. What are you trying to tell us?”

“I don’t know. I just went to the store. I guess that’s it.”

I spoke only in images.

“One time we went camping in the winter. We woke up in the morning, the tent covered in snow.” I could remember no more. I had a picture, and that was it. I could not say what happened next. I could not remember the point of my story. In this way, I realized that memory and storytelling are modular, vignettes that I had to weave together with an overall theme and story. That I did go camping in the winter. That we did wake up in the morning to a snow-covered Alpine forest. That it was difficult to collect water from the lake. That we boiled the water for oatmeal. That it was beautiful. That the forest was silent, save for the crunching of the snow under our boots. That it was Adam’s and my wedding anniversary that weekend. That Adam and I used to go backpacking. That I missed doing so. That the best times we had were when we were alone, away from the material world.

The stories were gone. Left were the images, the concrete details.

As a prose writer, I found it frustrating to not recall a story. To not retrieve memories in their entirety. To have only an image to hold. To have lost imagination, which is a way of lying, which is a memory exercise in and of itself.

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Implicit memory is an unconscious, unintentional form of memory. Remembering my hikes as a child is an explicit memory, but improved mental endurance from the hikes, where I learned to take smaller steps and count in multiples of ten and tell myself that the pain would not be forever, is implicit memory, much like knowing how to ride a bicycle. Once you learn how to ride a bicycle, you need never recall each motion that has to be completed to rotate the pedals, to maintain angular momentum so you can keep upright. Implicit memory is knowing how to type and not having to recall the placement of each key. Or knowing how to play a piano without having to remember which key to press. It is knowing how to wash one’s face or body. It is knowing how to eat. That you must chew and swallow. It is knowing how to sh. Understanding what it feels like to be on a boat. To go with the boat’s listing. To stand up on my toes without thinking. To do the same in a subway car. It feels like instinct.

It is coming to understand the critical role of communication from the experiences I have had, such as being locked up in that bathroom stall on my first days of preschool. That if I do not end up communicating my wants and fears and needs in words as opposed to screams and punches and kicks, I will end up in a place very similar to a bathroom stall. That words will unlock me from that stall. Only words will save my life. That rage will bring me attention, but language will bring me out from isolation.

All this would make me a loudmouthed little girl, who believed that her perfect, unaccented English would help her feel like she belonged, that it would counter her little Korean face, which was perfect but made her feel less than perfect throughout her life. And this loudmouthed girl would grow up to be a loudmouthed woman, who would in turn become a writer. Words will save my life.

Implicit memory, also known as nondeclarative memory, is knowing how to drive home. To have done it so many times that even if my brain was damaged, I could find my way. Or how to drive at all, once you’ve learned to drive. It is taking all the driving lessons and the driving test, and then not being able to think about how to do it again, but doing it anyway.

It is being able to punch in the correct phone number for Adam, even though I couldn’t recall the number if asked.

This nondeclarative memory drove me through recovery, though I did not know it at the time. All the lessons of my life to date came to light. This kind of memory retained all the things I knew how to do deep in my bones and helped me navigate a landscape in which I was otherwise lost.

I couldn’t remember, I said, but the implicit memories were there. Those Sunday hikes I took as a child with my family taught me to manage that which was not easy, and that at the end of each path was a reward, even if it was solely the achievement of having completed a journey. The lessons learned and hardships overcome were resources invaluable to my recovery. As was the value of being creative in the face of adversity, like picking up a crayon and saying “yellow” and another and saying “purple” in order to teach another person English.

My childhood stories became lessons.

In this way my life had prepared me for such an emergency. It had taught me to anticipate hardship, to push through pain, to wage battle.

But my stroke would teach me things too, among them the value of taking a break from the unending pressure to be perfect.

My childhood would help me survive; in turn, surviving would erase my childhood.

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When episodic memories are woven together and combined with semantic memory—there is a gradual transition when episodic memories lose their association to events over time and become semantic memory—they create autobiographical memory. Autobiographical memory is what I am using to write this memoir. Autobiographical memory is creative, consisting of vignettes that we remember from our life. The most vivid autobiographical memories are from emotional events— like my first memory, of throwing a snowball.

Heightened emotion can increase the likelihood of memory storage and retention—I remembered my neurologist’s name when I could remember no other doctor. Maybe it was because he had the same surname as a childhood friend. Or maybe it was because he was kind. Emotional memory is how, in hindsight, I remember certain things and not others in stroke recovery without prompting. It is why certain dates hold significance in my mind. Why the sound of the 7 train on the tracks through Queens gives me such comfort.

It is why I try to make positive memories for my daughter. Emotional memory gives us the memories that haunt. I’ve always hated Halloween, because I remember all the arguments in my household; because my parents were immigrants, my costumes were never the caliber of other children’s. How for some, Halloween is Samhain, when ghosts travel from other worlds to ours. How I feel so haunted on Halloween, my ever-vigilant self so ill at ease among ghosts and scary surprises, because of cultural superstition and the fact that my parents had one of their biggest fights on Halloween. I now try to celebrate a holiday of which I am not fond, so that my daughter can form her own associations with October 31—a decision I made based on my emotional memory and with the intention of creating happy emotional memories for my child.

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The thing with memory is that it changes, it shifts, it is subjective. For me, memories are like reading a novel—you have a different emotional connection to The Great Gatsby, for instance, upon first reading than on subsequent reads. When in high school, I saw it as an illustration of the American dream. In college, I saw the bits and pieces of it, the car for the material dream of America, the language to be admired. As an adult, I related to it as a psychosociological snapshot of wealth, situated as I was in the Silicon Valley, surrounded by newfound wealth. And I saw the issues of race within.

When I read Junot Díaz’s Drown for the rst time, I was entertained. I thought Yunior was a cad. When I could read again, I read his novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. What a guy, I thought—Yunior’s got issues. And again, Oscar, the nerd boy marginalized on all sides, extinguished. And then later in life, after having experienced infidelity in my marriage, having been betrayed, I experienced rage and disdain toward Yunior, whose flaws included cheating on girlfriends. How could he? And then finally I felt compassion for him. The cheater is bereft of power. The cheater is trying to find power. The cheating is not the problem.

The writer is trying to find power. The writing is not the problem.

The girl is trying to find power. The problem is her mind, she thinks. The problem is that everyone else can exercise to exhaustion and she cannot. The problem is that she must not be strong enough in mind. The problem is her body. Her body must be ignored. Pain must be ignored. The mind must override everything. The mind has decided the body does not count. The mind has decided to punish the body. She will starve her body. She will purge her body. Her mind will count every calorie that is eaten.

The brain will excel in school. The brain will be the star.

The mind will make up stories for the body’s deficits. The mind will say her body is a failure. The mind will favor the brain. The mind will fault the body for the stroke, of which the brain has become the victim.

The mind, without the brain, will finally have to learn to forgive the body.

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From Tell Me Everything You Don’t Remember: The Stroke That Changed My LifeCopyright © 2017 Christine Hyung-Oak Lee. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.