“Holy shit!” I yelled from my office. My husband and stepdaughter couldn’t believe it either. Here I’d been, for years, so intrigued and baffled by my body and hormones. I’d read books, interviewed women, and gone binge writing at tiny cabins in the woods. And then so simply, almost cruelly, “PMDD” just sat on the page in my patient portal, the same way my eye color might have been noted.
Memory exercises I have used for years in my classes:
From Write What You Don’t Know by Jessica Handler: “Creative nonfiction is a gloriously flexible genre. What we don’t know or can’t know doesn’t have to wreck our writing. Instead, what seemed at first to be only an empty space can be an opportunity to shape and expand a narrative, exploring the gaps and writing our way through the myths.”
But I thought I was writing what I did know.
Often, I tell students to go back to the time they’re writing about. Read all of the journals, calendars, texts, and emails. I also find playlists of music from the year I’m writing about and use them to trigger that part of my brain. It works. I did all of this for The Red Zone, even finding years-old phones to listen to voice memos from.
It never once occurred to me to log in to my patient portal. Perhaps that’s a good thing. Perhaps (see, I’m perhapsing here) if I’d looked at the patient portal, obsessed over the patient portal, I’d have lost the thread, the arc my book needed. The seeking of the diagnosis took up the first half of the book. How would the book have looked without that seeking? Why would anyone even write a memoir if they weren’t seeking?
Just last month, a new paper was released based on the findings of a global study conducted by the International Association for Premenstrual Disorders (IAPMD). Of those with Premenstrual Dysphoric Disorder (PMDD), an alarming 34 percent had attempted suicide. Because previous studies of suicide and ideation have relied on less valid self-reported measures of PMDD, the new findings offer the strongest scientific evidence to date that the disorder is likely an independent contributor to suicidal thoughts and actions.
“Our study reveals just how destructive PMDD is,” according to Sandi MacDonald, IAPMD executive director.
If a medical disorder wherein 34 percent of people who have it contributes to suicidal ideation, then how is it legal for a doctor to put PMDD into my chart without talking to me about it?
How would my life have been different if, in 2014, 2015, and 2016, doctors had mentioned PMDD to me and hadn’t just marked it in my chart? I would have learned about PMDD at age twenty-seven instead of thirty-one. Would this self-knowledge have made my life easier or harder?
But the fact that doctors were listing me as having PMDD and not once talking to me about it is a whole other essay and deeper issue.
There’s a crime even worse that I can barely stand to face here on the page: Did a doctor talk to me about PMDD and I simply . . . forgot? Me, who can remember the color pedicure I had at your rooftop birthday party in 2006? Me, who knows which dress you wore when we went to see CocoRosie perform at the Warsaw? Me, who can remember the exact intonation in the way someone said something and which song was playing in the background when they said it?
My memoir, like all memoirs, was structured around memory and my attachment to my narrative. As Michelle Tea points out in her essay “Against Memoir,” from her book of the same name, writing memoir is the opposite of Buddhism: You are attached to stories about the self.
Now, it turns out my narrative was all wrong, or at least more complicated than I thought. It is so important that doctors communicate more holistically, looking at all of the moving pieces instead of compartmentalizing. If I’d known there was something called PMDD that lined up with my symptoms in my twenties, perhaps I could have found medication and conquered it earlier than I did, at age thirty-five.
Recently, my aunt and I were on vacation. She was talking about how “bad” her memory was. She couldn’t remember anything from childhood, she said. I challenged her. “What was the name of your third-grade teacher?” She knew. She then went on to describe the teacher’s outfits—and that led her to a memory of being at her friend’s house, and that led to a crush she’d had, none of which she’d have remembered without the prompts I kept giving.
There’s a school of thought that you must have a good memory to write a memoir. I don’t subscribe to that way of thinking anymore.
Often I hear writers and students describing themselves as falling into this “good” and “bad” binary of memories. You don’t have a good or bad memory. You have a memory.
I am not the young writer with the impressive memory anymore. Maybe I never was.
So how do we reconcile with our faulty, malleable memories? We continue telling our stories, shaping narratives, while also holding space that memory is out of our control. The stronger you are convinced you are right about something, the more I’d encourage you to question it.
Chloe Caldwell is the author of The Red Zone: A Love Story, the critically acclaimed novella WOMEN and essay collections I'll Tell You in Person and Legs Get Led Astray. Her essays have been published in The New York Times, Bon Appétit, The Cut, Longreads, Nylon, Buzzfeed, and more. She lives in Hudson, NY.