I have a bad memory. Not just I sometimes forgot appointments or where I put my keys bad. It’s atrociously bad. I forget your hair colour and type of pants within a moment after turning away from you (unless I make an active attempt to remember). But it’s also not clinically relevant bad – it’s hyper selective and almost impossible to aim, because it’s a neurodivergency symptom. (For example, ADHD isn’t a problem with concentration, it’s a problem with being able to decide on what to concentrate on.)
I never leave my keys at home, I never miss any appointments, and if you chat with me it’ll usually take a month or two until I forget the first fact about you. Or rather: It’ll take that long until you notice. Because the reason I’m still functional are heavy-duty routines. I’ve installed them self-medication style way before I was even aware that my memory is bad – in fact, I’ve started to realize less than a year ago that this is even true at all because these routines are so robust and the moments they didn’t protect me I chalked up to just being inadequate in some way (as it goes with traumas as mine) and people who say I’m disrespectful are probably just right, even if I never meant to be and really, really tried, right?
I had a moment with someone I’m dating a week ago or so. I had asked to meet on a Tuesday more than once, and every time she said she’s gonna be out with her horse. As soon as I picked up on the fact that she said that on a Tuesday several times, I noted down that she’s probably out with her horse every Tuesday and made the mental note to stop asking on Tuesdays. But during a metacommunication about our dynamic, she voiced feeling disrespected and like I don’t care because I forgot that she’s always out with her horse on Tuesdays and Thursdays. I don’t know if she said that in person in a way that made clear it’s a regular thing (and, mind you, I hadn’t picked up on it being Thursdays too yet) – I don’t trust myself to know, with my bad memory – but I know, because I checked, that that wasn’t clear from the way she communicated it in chat. (I checked for my own reference, I didn’t mention that I checked towards her.)
I explained to her how I function: That I have horrible memory and only operate with thorough and solid routines in daily life, that I do care, and tried to give examples that, within how I function, show that. That I noted down her horse routine as soon as I picked up on it, our flausch had made it easy to remember her hair colour for once, and of course I remember her dog’s name! But at that point she was already in a wave of hurt because she had made thoroughly disrespectful experiences in the past, and this reminded her of that – and me “deflecting” wasn’t completely different from what other people had done too. I don’t know how else to handle something like this. I know I need to be understanding; I try to make that clear in everything I say, explicitly, and always before saying anything else. I make clear that the emotions are valid no matter what my intentions were, I know this can sound super weird but I’m completely missing the intuition for organic ways of making this clear, and I also try to explain what the background was, if the hurt, like here, is based on a false assumption, like that I don’t care. While explaining that I don’t want the person to think I’m not respecting their feelings and I want them to know I’m ready to do emotional labour and accommodate anyway; at the same time, the person is saying something about me that isn’t true, and I really don’t know how else to handle that, how to ~emotionally~ show that me not caring about the person, not respecting the person, finding any emotion valid.
So, understandably, considering her background, she got defensive from this; that’s healthy and appropriate, since she’s been told she’s overreacting and just wrong so often and it’s healthy to own your feelings, don’t let people invalidate them and validate yourself. The way she did that was by telling me that I “Just need to make it happen anyway”. That wasn’t okey. She told me, pretty literally, that she knows other neurodivergent people and “there are ways to make it happen”. That’s really not okey. That’s telling me X-Men style “Have you tried not being neurodivergent?” – nooooope. I made clear that that’s not an okey reaction, that I understand her hurt and she didn’t deserve the way she’s been treated (and she doesn’t deserve to be reminded of it either), and that there’s a limit to what I can do and, because I do care, I’m already reaching to its ends to make it happen. We’re still talking and I think we might be reaching common ground.
Anyway. This was a lot of tangent to give one example to make my point: I actually have a horrible memory and the fact that I’m usually just able to pretend that I don’t, because it very quickly hurts people if I don’t manage to achieve that, doesn’t mean that I suddenly do or could easily “do better”, it’s more indicative of the solidity of my routines and workarounds than anything else, and in the end, the last thing is the question of whether you trust me or not. I suppose I could always be lying? I don’t know how to prove that I’m not, I think that’s impossible. (If I was given false information and spreading it unrealibly, I wasn’t lying was I?) The relevant conversation to have is to specifically talk about what you need – which I of course need to tell you too – GFK-style (gewaltfreie Kommunikation – Nonviolent Communication), so just about what you need, not about what you need me to do, because that way I can say what I can do myself, and what I in turn need accommodation for in order to be able to meet your need, like saying some things very clearly and explicitly so I can properly parse/process and sort them into my mental filing cabinet of data points about individual people for better memorization.
I’d like to give some examples of my routines.
When I leave the house, I routinely pat my body three times for keys, phone & wallet/cards; once after I grabbed all the things, once after opening the front door, and once the moment before pulling it shut. This way, if something disrupts any part of this, like a message coming in, a person in the stairwell talking to me, me having to walk back in because I realize I did forget something or anything similar, I never forget any of these three essentials. — When I started cycling, I frequently – ten times within two or three months – let my keys dangle off of my front door during the night; I had closed it without pulling them out, because coming back home with a bike, which I have to push in through the front door into my bedroom, disrupted my open my front door routine so much that I didn’t realize the keys hanging from the lock when I came around to finally closing the door. I had to install a routine just for that to not happen anymore (which it never again did).
When I encounter an information that is in any way relevant to my planning, I immediately, without exception, put it down into my calendar. This goes from doctor’s appointments over meeting friends over a holiday being announced in the doctor’s office over friends telling me when they’re out of the city to public transport announcing a construction anywhere on my standard route. I also always note down the address, at least of where we meet, even if we frequently met there or the address is already in my address book, just to make sure the information is complete in the place where I might need it some day; maybe I delete the doctor’s contact when I switch doctors and need to look up the old location in a year and the doctor moved and the address on the website is not where I went? It has happened, and putting in this information is quick, so I just always do it, to make sure it’s there for the very rare moments where I need it to be. In the same way, I note down people’s birthdays and addresses the moment I hear of them for the first time – and I immediately check the zip code for the street they give me so that the data set is complete and I don’t have to look up the zip code while in some acute moment I might need it. I save every phone number with its +49 country code for Germany, just in case it might be relevant in a moment where time is essential so I don’t have to change it then.
When I chat with a friend and they refer to a previous conversation, I look it up asap, usually even when I do remember it because I don’t trust my memory to be reliable, in order to check what was said, how I said some things (and how they did, for my own reference), and to get an idea of the emotional state I was in when the conversation happened as relevant context (as in, relevant information for me to process language and communication) for the way the other person remembers it. I do this so quickly, and have such a good routine of finding synonyms for words that probably happened in the conversation so that I can quickly find it, and am good enough at organic communication at this point that it won’t be very detectable that I only just looked parts of what I’m referencing up instead of remembering it, that you probably won’t be aware that I did it at all; I do this to ensure a natural flow of the conversation, prevent the person from feeling disrespected and because adding information such as this always bloats the chat (if there’s a natural, short way to add this information in subtext, I don’t know it).
These are just three major examples that take place several times a day in my life. You may have noticed a lot of my routines might seem arbitrary – surely I won’t ever need the country code of a friend’s phone number so quickly that I can’t add it when I do need it – but there’s an overarching theme around all of these routines, a purpose they’re aimed at: I need to be able to trust myself, and I can only do that if I always act in a way that I know “sounds like me”, is “something I would do”, and opt to do small acts of labour when I have the very first opportunity to do it at all times in order to reduce the labour that’s required to make my existence possible at all in the long run. A lot of these routines have never turned out to be necessary, but some routines that seemed as arbitrary as the country code have turned out to have been helpful and I cannot know which will before it does happen.
I need to be able to trust my intuition. I can’t really make a case for this towards others; to every new person, I need to prove integrity and reliability of decision-making anew. But in order to be able to not gaslight myself all the time and feel like a person incapable of living – and there was a time when I felt this way all the time – I need to always be truthful towards myself and pre-plan for the ways I realistically know I function. When I need some item at my home, I can only find it quickly, or at all, because I know where to look, because when I put it down, I put it in a place I know I would search when I’d be looking for it. My place isn’t orderly like an Apple Store, but every small thing has its place and I never have to tidy up because I don’t let things just lay around anywhere [for long] because if I were to do that, many many of my routines would collapse. [for long], because this kind of compulsive tidiness is very oppositional to physical or emotional needs sometimes and for the sake of my own physical and mental health I am trying to learn to allow myself to not at all times do these things immediately and trust myself to be able to do them the next day when I’ll notice something being out of place (which I can only notice if most other things aren’t), but that’s a hard process, because, again, these deep routines are how I always survived. (Good mental health is how I survive as well, so it is important to learn this.)
If you’ve been at my place and forgot something and couldn’t find it you may have noticed how I found it within 20 seconds because I not only recognize something in a place where no thing is supposed to be quickly, I can also anticipate where someone else might have put a thing pretty well. If I’ve been at your place – people at whose places I’ve been more often in recent times have no doubt picked up on this – I’ve regularly forgotten things if I didn’t remember to start collecting my things half an hour in advance, to make sure I have enough time to remember all the things I might need to collect. I know this makes people feel like I don’t care about their place, or them, or like I’m ~making myself at home~ a little too much, but I swear, I’m not. I tried, I really did, and I’m so embarrassed about it that as soon as I remember, I always apologize to the person digitally immediately (also to tell them where a thing I forgot is located so they can pick it up and store it somewhere safe); I don’t know if this is the “organic” way to do it and I’m sure people might feel weird about it for reasons I can’t see through, but I don’t know how else to do it and per default I’d rather be transparent about an inadequacy or mistake than not. I’m open for input!
I’m writing all this down because I think some transparency about this aspect of me might be healthier than trying to make it not a factor the other person is even aware of in my general social life. Trying to allow myself to exist at least a little bit more as the person I am instead of who I want other people to perceive me as is really hard with my background of social isolation and accidentally hurting people (not all because of stuff like this, I also just fuck up and make mistakes, I think everyone does), but it’s also essential in order to be able to work on that trauma, and I’ve come to realize that it might even help reduce some of that hurt too if people are prepared in advance that this is a thing. So here you go. Please remember that I have a horrible memory and respect my routines I need to do in order to be able to live. Thank you.