Having an excellent memory can make it hard for someone with Asperger's to let go
But something was wrong. Because every one of us (and, again, I include myself) was relating, in excruciating detail, bad things that had been done to us and that we had done. Many of these bad things resulted from misunderstandings between a person with AS and someone without; some involved regrettable actions borne of exasperation (like punishing a child for incomprehensible, but ultimately unintentional, behaviors); and a few entailed actual malice or intent to harm. But whatever the individual circumstances, the feeling in the room that day was unmistakable: We were angry. We were hurt. We were blaming.
And the personal insults that we were recalling with such raw intensity? They had happened two, three, perhaps five decades ago. There is a downside to having a phenomenal memory. You can’t let go.
Bad memories and blame
But the most excruciating of all these memories have to do with my own mistakes and misgivings. This was also true of the other adults in my support group. We struggle continually with self-blame and low self-esteem. The people we are least able to forgive are ourselves.
I don’t know exactly why it’s so hard for people with Asperger’s to let go of bad memories and, most especially, to let go of blame. Part of it is our strong recollection, but I think it’s more than that. Maybe poor theory of mind or black-and-white thinking prevents us from distinguishing intentional misdeeds from honest mistakes, making us inclined to lay blame even if an action was well-intended. Maybe our (common) perfectionism, high standards, and strong ethics make it particularly hard for us to accept and release past transgressions. Maybe the repetitive nature of our minds transforms negative memories into tape reels stuck on “replay,” just as we return over and over to enjoyable thoughts and activities – our “special interests.”
Maybe. I don’t really know.
The four reminders
1) These (remembered) events happened in the past. They are not happening right now. Right now, I am safe, empowered, and free. (This statement echoes the grounding techniques often used to manage post-traumatic stress. Many people with AS do live with some degree of post-traumatic stress, because the experience of navigating the world with AS – particularly undiagnosed AS – can lead to any number of upsetting and even traumatic experiences.)
2) The difficult things that happened to me were not personal. They could have happened to anyone. Everyone has bad experiences, for one reason or another; my reasons just happened to have to do with my family, my illnesses, and my Asperger’s. Not everyone has these same problems, but few people make it through life without bad things happening to them.
3) Some difficult things happen by mistake. I make mistakes. My providers make mistakes. My family members make mistakes. Some mistakes are unavoidable, even when we’re all doing the best we can. It doesn’t mean we aren’t trying. It’s just life.
4) My bad memories may or may not be accurate. Extensive scientific investigation shows that memories are not reliable (even when we’re “sure”), and that the more we call a memory to mind, the more it gets changed or “reconstructed.” Just imagine if some of the things I have obsessed about hundreds or thousands of times in my life didn’t even happen that way!
By the time I have gone through the Four Reminders, I am usually calm enough to go do something to distract myself. In this way, I am sometimes able to let go of a painful memory and take a tiny step toward forgiveness. And if I still can’t let go? My final option is to let it be. Remembering, as the old saying goes, that this too shall pass.