Last week, we published the first part of the interview with Australian Rebecca Sharrock, 27, diagnosed with an extremely rare condition – the Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory (HSAM) or simply "super memory syndrome".
Experts believe that, worldwide, fewer than 80 people are carriers of the disease, in which patients forget almost nothing of what happened in their lives, having the ability to remember very old facts with precise date and time.
Check out the second part of the interview with Rebecca:
HC: How do you mentally organize yourself to leave the past behind and focus on the present?
RS: It took me many fears to learn how to do this. A few years ago my therapist who I see for my anxiety gave me a few grounding exercises to practice. My favourite exercise is called “Leaves on a Stream”. It's where I sit down during times of mental chaos and notice my racing thoughts and just imagine myself picking them up and placing them on leaves floating down a river. This way I not troubling myself even more by forcing myself to get rid of the thoughts/feelings, yet I’m aware enough to notice they exist and to put them on hypothetical leaves. Taking notice of them in this tranquil kind of way grounds my mind into what's happening in the present moment.
HC: Because your memories, good and bad, are always fresh, do you find it difficult to forgive yourself for mistakes and forgive others?
RS: I generally do forgive people for past mistakes. Though sometimes (especially with family members) reliving the emotions of past hurts can give the impression that I hold grudges. At the same time however, I find it even more difficult to move on from my own mistakes. It hurts me so much when I relive myself saying or doing something mean as a child. Also when it comes to reliving embarrassing memories, I will cringe and desperately hope that everyone else has forgotten it!
HC: What is the earliest moment of your life you recall?
RS: I don't remember my birth, but my earliest memory is of me laid down in a crib looking at the standup fan next to me wondering what on Earth it could be. I definitely wasn't aware of calendar dates back then. Though I do know that it happened before an event when I was 12 days old of which a photo was taken of.
HC: How did you feel and how did you think when you were only a few months old? What gave you the most joy?
RS: For the first few months, I was intensely curious about taking in the physical details of everything. Back then I would hear people talking and see people walking. Though it was the idea of verbal communication that initially fascinated me more. I realised that people were speaking to communicate early on, and instinctively linked my own babble to that. I’d spend a lot of time practicing vocal sounds but the hardest part at first was having the cognitive ability to link sounds together to make words. In those early days/months I’d get so much pleasure from things I take for granted as simple things now. Exploring (initially with my eyes and then I progressed further) the physical details of objects gave me a sense of joy and would entertain me constantly. I also felt happy and comforted when I knew that mum was around. My feeling is that I knew her most because I had been inside her for 9 months, and I think babies are attached to their mum for survival reasons.
HC: What used to make you cry when you were a baby?
RS: To begin with, I cried out of confusion and fear. When the whole world is a new experience for us, just about everything brings this along. However it didn't take long for me to realise that crying brought people, food and nurturing to me. So as well as crying out of fear, I’d sometimes use it as a method of communication too.
HC: How was it to discover new places and sensations?
RS: Up until as far as four years old new experiences were something that I was used to and mainly took for granted. Yet it was at the age of around four and a half years when I began to feel excited about discovering new things. I started school at six years old and I was initially excited because it felt like I was becoming much more grown up. But even so, that excitement wore off within a week when I realised that school was primarily about learning and not playing!
HC: What is your best childhood memory?
RS: My best childhood memory was definitely when I discovered the Harry Potter series at nine years old. When my teacher suggested that I should read the books, I was skeptical at first because I preferred nonfiction books like atlases. Yet once I began reading the first chapters of Harry Potter and the Philosophers Stone during recess I immediately connected with the series. To this day I read over the books and movies constantly. As well as finding the Harry Potter series interesting, there's also a deep emotional connection to it based on that memory of my favourite school teacher.
HC: Can you tell if the way you were raised and cared for by your parents influence your behavior today?
RS: My mom raised me well and she taught me many life skills. Early on she taught me how to respect other people's feelings and possessions. As a five year old child I deliver scribbled all over my sister’s book. Though mum then said to my sister “choose one of Rebecca’s books to keep”. Jessica chose my favorite Cinderella book and I burst into tears. But that punishment taught me about how to respect other people's feelings.
Mum would also make our birthdays extra special which taught us to enjoy those dates every year, and to also acknowledge our friends/family members’ birthdays too.
HC: How do you handle bad memories? Is it possible to balance the sadness they cause with happy memories?
RS: Absolutely, though it did take a while for me to figure that out. Yet as an older teenager and woman in my early twenties I realized that I could force myself to relive a happy memory whenever I involuntarily relived negative ones. Though the speed at which I can change my emotions that way all depends on how intensely I’m reliving the negative ones. As I’m continuing to gain more years, the number of positive memories are increasing (as being an adult is so much easier for me than being a child).
HC: Do you consider yourself privileged or do you believe that you live a burden that is often very heavy?
RS: I'm naturally a pessimist so initially I looked at my kind of memory as a curse. Though as I’m learning to look a little more on the happier side, I’m beginning to see that there are just as many privileges as downsides.
This was another text from the series on HSAM. Check out Portal Health Connections for new materials on the subject, featuring patient Rebeca Sharrock and specialists.