In my old bedroom, there was a mahogany bookcase-desk that my parents had pressed flush against the green eastern wall when we first moved in. Every day, I’d sift through stacks of homework, write poetry, and read books on it until the surface began to bleach in oily, hand-shaped blotches. Pasted at eye-level to the desk’s three-foot-deep hollow was a sturdy corkboard on which my mother used to tack weekly reminders, positive affirmations, family pictures, and pieces of writing I had completed. After a few years, it became cluttered, a sort of unburied time capsule at which I could stare in my more reflective moods.
Unlike the desk, the corkboard is far neater in my more recent memories—on its left half, a few index cards covered in messy longhand, a ten-page essay that I’d written for my English class; on its right half, a photo of my mother and me holding hands on Six Flags Great Adventure’s famous rollercoaster, Kingda Ka, another picture of my father, brother, sister, and me at the Fête des Tuileries amusement park in Paris—so at some point, my mother must have thrown away all of the other souvenirs gone a curling yellow with age. I remember being sixteen years old and frowning at the board’s sparser display, feeling as though half a decade of memories and emotional development had been confiscated from me.
Around the same time, I began to compile, at first in my head, a list of things I intended to remember forever. It quickly grew too long to recall without effort, so I copied it down on a sheet of loose-leaf paper and tacked it to the middle of the corkboard. It has been a long time since I last saw the list, but I still remember some of its items:
Johnny Cash Hurt Music Video—REMINISCE AND LIVE WITHOUT REGRETS!!!
Thai Life Insurance Commercials—APPRECIATE THE FAMILY YOU HAVE!!
Constantine P. Cavafy Ithaka Poem—TAKE ALL OF THE RISKS!!!!
Sharkboy and Lavagirl 3D Movie—LIFE IS ABOUT DREAMS!!!
I would regularly add aphorisms to the list, titles of books I adored, and movies that brought me to tears. If I was out of the house and heard a song that scratched a particular emotional itch, I would incessantly repeat its lyrics—verbally and mentally—until I next had access to a computer with a search engine, and if my mind fell on a nostalgic memory of a friend as I lay in bed, I wouldn’t be able to fall asleep until I’d shuffled over to the corkboard and copied down as many of its details as possible. If I somehow did let whatever was in my head slip away undocumented, I would feel nauseous and filthy, and would be unable to look in the mirror without seeing myself as the sealer of my own spiritual doom, because to misplace such life-affirming wisdom felt about as contrary to my own happiness as chaining myself to a wall and waiting to starve.
Sometimes, one of my parents would walk into my room, spot the list, and ask what I’d written on it, especially as it became longer and messier. Every time, I would either stand up to block their view or cover it with my hands as though to hide a stash of porn tapes. Because on that list, I was naked, coated in a paint of wishes and emotions that had only ever belonged to me.
I must have kept adding to the list until I was eighteen. The only reason I haven’t continued is because I couldn’t transport the desk to college.
Memory (Merriam-Webster Definition): The power or process of reproducing or recalling what has been learned and retained, especially through associative mechanisms.
At eighteen, nineteen, twenty years old, I am unsatisfied with this definition.
I believe that memory is the inevitable sum of our personal histories.
It is the filter through which we view our lives’ trajectories.
I hate that it becomes blurrier over time.
I hate, too, that at some point it is practically doomed to fail, like a smartphone programmed with planned obsolescence.
But unlike a smartphone, it can’t be replaced.
Why, then, would anyone let it wither and die without resisting?
Memory (Subjective Definition): A necessity; a burden.
Naturally—that is, without preventative intervention—I’ve forgotten many of my positive memories from college. After three years graduated, I’ve accepted this, but not without reluctance.
It hasn’t always been this way.
Freshman year, firsts struck relentlessly: my first time forming a steady, reliable group of friends; my first time drinking until I stopped caring about how bad of a dancer I was; my first time feeling attractive; my first time having sex; my first time crying in front of another man; my first time reading a poem at an open mic to two hundred people; my first time falling in unrequited love.
And my first time encountering the unbearable feeling that I couldn’t possibly preserve every memory I made, even if I were to write them all down. Sometimes, I’d lie in bed in tears after a night so imbued with excitement and adventure, knowing that I would gradually lose the details of the spur-of-the-moment nighttime drives and emotion-imbued conversations.
Sophomore year, I wrote a story about two close friends, one of whom, on his deathbed, confesses that he is terrified to lose his memories, good or bad, when he dies. Without them, he asks, have we really existed?
Hoarding (Merriam-Webster Definition): The compulsion to continually accumulate a variety of items that are often considered useless or worthless by others, accompanied by an inability to discard the items without great distress.
At six, seven, eight years old, I am unsatisfied with this definition.
I often ask my mother to buy me boxed Dove soap bars.
I like to stack the boxes on the bathroom counter.
I count them, unstack them, restack them, count them again.
Only once every few weeks will I open one of the boxes.
I carefully remove the soap.
I set it on the opposite edge of the counter.
I stare at the blinding whiteness of it, the calm dove pressed into its center.
I touch it gently.
Then I put it back into the box.
Only if the bar of soap is damaged will I wash with it.
I also collect Play-Doh, heavy books, and drawings of witches.
Every item has its own special purpose that I can feel but can’t explain.
Perhaps my greatest fear about anything I collect is that it will disappear.
Hoarding (Subjective Definition): A method of survival.
Some years ago, a TLC show called Hoarding: Buried Alive aired. It painted a vivid, if disturbing, portrait of lives annihilated by hoarding disorder. In the homes the camera crew waded through: filthy clothes, crusty pots and pans, and clusters of discarded trinkets piled from floor to ceiling; dirt and grime and multicolored fluids caking the walls and, if it was visible, the floor; rats and mice scuttling about the mess of a place long since lost to its owner’s mind.
When I first watched the show, I thought that these people were sub-human; how could anyone be so willing to sacrifice their well-being as to refuse to dispose of a year-old pizza box? But swap rotten food and unused knick-knacks with lists of memories, and these people aren’t so different from me. The need to painstakingly manage environment—be it physical or mental—is the constant. The only reason Buried Alive hasn’t interviewed people who do the amassing within their heads is because you can’t see an overcluttered mind. But you sure as hell can see the inside of someone’s revolting house.
Memory Hoarding (DSM-V Definition): A mental compulsion to over-attend to the details of an event, person, or object in an attempt to mentally store it for safekeeping. This is generally done under the belief that the event, person, or object carries a special significance and will be important to recall exactly as-is at a later date.
At twenty-six years old, I am conflicted about this definition.
Six years ago, I was diagnosed with Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder.
It manifests in many forms: obsessive fears of becoming terminally ill; obsessive fears of becoming a pedophile; obsessive fears of developing schizophrenia; compulsive hand-washing; compulsive avoidance of children; compulsive, hours-long searches on Psych Central.
Over time, and with treatment, I have converted the shame of my illness into pride.
I have had more victories in my recovery than losses.
I am generally happy to eliminate new obsessions and compulsions.
But I can’t do the same with my supposed memory hoarding.
It is too easy—too demeaning—to dismiss my ache to remember as a symptom of a psychological infirmity.
I, like many, am reluctant to forget, and so attempt to capture what strikes me in poems, photographs, stories, drawings.
I admit that my definition of meaningful is sensitive, and has brought me anxiety.
But unlike my many other obsessions and compulsions, my need to remember has always felt logical, a key to understanding what binds me to my humanity.
Psychologists and psychiatrists and psychoanalysts and psychotherapists assert that this suggests I lack insight into my own condition.
I don’t care.
Memory Hoarding (Subjective Definition): A side-effect of possessing human memory.
I have not created a new list since high school, but my desire for a robust memory hasn’t dimmed. I write about the past to deconstruct my own history—say, why I can’t think back on being a teenager without also remembering how uncomfortable it was to exist.
Loath as I am to admit it, writing fails to capture the importance I place on my memories. Not because they aren’t powerful enough, but because others find their own to be far more interesting. If, I tell myself, I could perfectly convey how beautiful and immediate my experiences are to me, then maybe others would feel just like I’ve felt. But how much must I write to get there? And how and when will I know if the writing is doing what it needs to?
Yet I keep inking the echoes of the past into slices of computer paper. Not because I always like to, but because who would I be if I didn’t?
A.J. Jacono is a queer Manhattan native who has been writing ever since he could hold a pen. His work has previously appeared or is forthcoming in The Best American Mystery and Suspense, Southeast Review, The Offing, and upstreet, among many other journals. He is the recipient of the 2019 Herbert Lee Connelly Prize, and is the founder of The Spotlong Review, an online literary and arts journal. He is also the owner of Bibliotheque, an upcoming bookstore, café, and wine bar based in New York. If you would like to learn more about A.J., you can visit his website: www.ajjacono.com