I Can Remember Everything Since I Was 12 Days Old
Living with 'super memory', autism and OCD has shaped my life, but not defined it.
My name is Rebecca Sharrock and I am a 28-year-old woman with diagnoses of autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and HSAM (Highly Superior Autobiographical Memory).
HSAM is an extremely rare condition. I am one of only 60 people in the world currently diagnosed with HSAM, and it makes me unable to forget any life experience going back to my newborn years.
I can remember an experience from when I was 12 days old, and I know my age because I came across a dated photograph of a somewhat strange experience I’d always questioned my mother about. It was of me being propped up on a front car seat while having a photo taken. I drew a picture of what I can remember seeing.
Another significant memory dates back to when I was about 18 months old. I went to bed as usual, but something happened that night which had never happened to me before. The moment I fell asleep, I found myself in some sort of factory watching oranges fall through a ball and chute machine. I woke up frightened, believing that I really had been taken away from home.
At the age of three I finally had enough vocal ability to ask my mother about what was happening each night, and she explained to me that they were dreams. I then asked about who took me to those places, and who could wake me up. Mum told me that it was my mind, and at that time I believed “mind” was a person.
I can also remember every outfit I ever put on, every meal I’ve ever eaten, every conversation I’ve ever had, and all of the emotions, both positive and negative, I’ve ever experienced.
The most challenging part about HSAM is definitely reliving memories that are negative, and just about every other person who has the condition says exactly the same. Whenever I have a flashback of a past experience I don’t just remember it, I relive it as well. Thus an echo of the emotions, thoughts and physical senses (including scents, physical sensations and tastes) from that past moment return to me.
However, my conscience and reasoning is currently that of a grown adult. So it feels very awkward and embarrassing for me now to relive an experience from when I was three years old, for example.
But I can also remember and relive the good times with just as much clarity, and that’s what makes me feel blessed to have HSAM.
As an adult I relive my childhood birthdays vividly with all of the excitement and joy. I can also re-taste my favourite foods such as Black Forest Gateau. In truth I relive just as many positive experiences as I do negative ones. So it’s by no means completely painful to relive my past all the time.
I’ve been featured in many worldwide media stories as a result of my memory condition, yet many questions have arisen about my daily life (past and present) and about how much I have changed in the past decade.
Autism, Obsessive Compulsive Disorder and HSAM have contributed to what I’ve experienced. Though the details of those conditions can be found in books written by medical experts, a person’s life cannot be defined by diagnoses (or even no diagnoses) alone. Most of our life experiences are made up of who we are within ourselves, as well as the challenges and blessings we personally face.
I have come a very long way. When I had just left school my anxiety was extreme, I had an inability to socialise and communicate with anyone other than my mother, and I was having multiple autism meltdowns (episodes where I would yell and thrash around with intense anxiety) each and every day. I also had significant cognitive difficulties, particularly in many areas of literacy, communication and organising my daily tasks. At the age of 15, I was told that it was highly unlikely that I would ever be able to work, have relationships and live independently.
I was upset by that. However, in no way would I ever let my challenges stop me from becoming the best person I could possibly be.
While school was continuously stressful, I did have very positive experiences that helped me cope. When I was in Grade 4, my teacher introduced me to the Harry Potter series. She said that she thought I would like the books, as she felt Harry sounded a little like me.
Initially I was skeptical, as I had only ever taken to nonfiction books such as atlases and encyclopaedias. But I finally agreed to read one chapter, and surprised myself. I ended up reading not just one, but two and a half chapters!
From that day forward I continued to read and reread the magical Harry Potter books, which helped me fall asleep. The only problem was I needed my eyes open to read -- so I came up with an idea of learning to recite the books to myself, word for word, from memory. That enabled me to fall asleep quite easily at night, and that has continued right through to this day.
It wasn't until I was 13-years-old (two years before I was diagnosed with autism) that I found my passion, and a way to express myself and communicate more clearly.
My school hosted a science and ethics conference at the University of Queensland, and I (along with everyone else) was surprised at how well public speaking went for me. Due to my autism, I’ve always found one-on-one speaking more difficult. But on that day I discovered that talking in a structured way to an audience was a lot easier. In fact I felt so excited, as there were always so many feelings within me that I couldn’t verbally express. Yet I realised that it was indeed possible for me to talk about them, through public speaking. It was then when I decided that I wanted to be a professional speaker after I left school.
Many people (including myself) thought that my dream of becoming a professional speaker was very ambitious. Yet I still was willing to do all I could to get myself there.
So throughout my first few years out of school I created my own kinds of lessons to do during my week days, which also kept me in the routine I was accustomed to. I used library books and educational computer games, and exercises given to me by therapists. Remembering all of my lessons at school (even those I didn’t really understand too well) was also a good help. I used those ‘lesson times’ to work on areas I knew I had a weakness for, including various kinds of literacy as well as managing my anxiety.
After years of doing my own kinds of ‘school lessons’ I didn’t become perfect in those areas. No one in life is 100 percent perfect! But I know that those lessons of mine helped because many are now surprised to hear that my autism diagnosis has (and always will be) at the relatively more severe category of Level 2; formally referred to as Mid-Functioning Autism.
My HSAM diagnosis didn't come until later. While my parents and I noticed I would excessively fixate on my past, and would constantly relive past emotions, the reason remained a mystery to us. After two years of thorough tests and brain scans, I was diagnosed in May 2013.
For the past three years I’ve been doing multiple media stories a month worldwide (largely thanks to email and Skype). Both the interviews and seeing them published give me the same nerves as the tests to find out if I had HSAM gave me. Though it’s a feeling I’ve learned to adapt myself to.
One thing is certain: I have come a very long way. There is no way on earth that I could have coped a decade ago with the constant interviews, research tests, mentoring and conference talks I’m doing now.
My life is changing rapidly before my eyes. This is equally exciting and scary for me. However, remembering every thought, feeling and experience of my life since I was a newborn child has shown me that there are far too many coincidences for there to not be a God looking after us all. So I trust within myself that everything will work in its own way, and life will continue to give me surprising opportunities to grow and learn new things.