I don’t remember the best day of my life.
It was my wedding day, which was only two years ago. Admittedly I was drunk, but I’m often drunk and high functioning. This is a bit of an overstatement. I do remember aspects of it, like the date (June 8), and I know that the ceremony was in East Nashville, on the porch of an interior designer’s Airbnb. I know that Blur’s “The Universal” played as my wife approached an altar one might have described as quaint and crafty. And I know that my teenaged brother-in-law, despite being told to press play on the Dwight Twilley song before our first kiss, just straight stopped paying attention and I had to kick him to get him to do it. What I don’t actually remember is what it looked like. I can’t see it, I have to go through wedding photos just to revisit those moments.
I have a rare condition known as aphantasia, a neurological state that has generated some media attention, but very little of it seems to probe how it affects relationships—focusing far more on how the brain adapts and learns compared to the rest of the population. Put bluntly to me once by a colleague: I do not have “the ability to imagine.” My inner thoughts are only those of vague sounds and facts. There are no pictures in my mind, along with no textures, no smells, and no tastes. Like the opposite of the kind of “super human” one might see on a low budget cable TV show, where he or she is shown a map of London and is able to draw it perfectly from memory.
If I were to ask the majority of you to conjure up the image of a car, some of you might imagine your own car. Some might think of their father’s car remembered from being a child. Some might even be insufferably creative and conjure an original cartoon car in their mind. If I were to be asked a similar task, I would hear the word “car” in my head, and recall basic facts about it like how a car is what we generally use to get around. I would think of cars I like, and subsequently hear the words “Datsun” and “Bentley” swirling around my mind. Aphantasia is such an absurd concept to most people that when it comes up, the reaction is usually a combination of curiosity and skepticism, the latter of which does not aide in the punishing feelings of isolation I endure, or more specifically, staving off the idea that almost everyone on the planet has a superpower but me.
I actually keep a folder of not just wedding photos, but ongoing shots of my wife as a sidebar on every finder window on my computer so I can see her when she isn’t around. I can tell you her height, and her measurements, and the fact that she is a brunette and an elegant dresser, but if I close my eyes, I can’t see her. Strangely, I can recognize most anyone I meet from another time. There’s the tired cliché of “I’m bad with names,” that most trot out when nervous socially—somehow, I almost never forget a name.
The most significant international study (of which I am a part of) is done by professor Adam Zeman out of the University of Exeter, the major (or at least most sellable) purpose of it being to understand that children with the condition need to be taught most subjects with a completely different approach. Joining Prof. Zeman’s study and understanding why I’ve struggled with aspects of my life has brought a certain type of ease, by eliminating efforts I might have stubbornly attempted as a younger man. Carving out activities and interests that I will never succeed at felt defeatist at first, but over time I have accepted the following:
Despite attempting to play since I was five years old, I am terrible at chess because I don’t posses the ability to see more than one move ahead.
I do not enjoy works of fiction. The descriptive texts of writers like Hemingway or Bret Easton Ellis mean absolutely nothing to me. I have never seen a film after reading a book and been disappointed by the visual accuracy. I am regularly, and depressingly, criticized for not having an impressive personal library of books, or not having any interest in art galleries. I am the one percent who is legitimately not trying to be insufferably contrarian when he says, “I genuinely get no enjoyment out of Steinbeck’s oeuvre.” Try defending your life to the literary cognoscenti regularly and you might feel isolated as well.
I pilot personal fashion by watching films and television and writing down the precise outfits of men who I think are dressed well. I’ve spent all summer dressed like the lead in Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some or in more fancy occasions, a photo I saw online of Harrison Ford in the late 70s. When it comes to style, my life is a series of cultural touchstones, which hasn’t actually been all that unpleasant. It’s my version of scrapbooking and it’s almost completely private.
I get lost almost every day. I’ve lived in my city for a decade and a half, and still get lost in the streets both walking and driving. I even get lost in my neighborhood grocery store. I have to walk up and down every aisle looking at every product because I cannot recall where they are stocked. I traverse my cityscape by attempting to remember which streets intersect with other streets and memorize how many streets in between intersections.
These are just some of what at this point I consider incidental issues. I don’t care about chess or Hemingway. My phone has GPS. I like dressing like an extra from a late season of McMillan & Wife. The more complicated stuff comes from what most people want to know about: relationships.
As a young adult, I would hear about how men supposedly thought about sex every seven seconds, and immediately I turned inward with shame and questions. I don’t and can’t sexualize anyone with fantasy. I can’t even remember what women of my past looked like nude. I can see some of my female friends as objectively beautiful and radiant, but they or any other women don’t walk by me and turn me on to the extent I’m told most straight men are. “Is this why you get to be best friends with so many super hot ladies?” my barber crudely asked me recently while I was exiting his chair. “Yep,” I self-assuredly quipped just as two sunny, young women picked me up for lunch.
“Talking to your ex, huh?” texted a friend in a speculative fashion after I tweeted a dumb interaction with a former girlfriend of five years. From an outside view, my ex and I should not be “fine” let alone communicating. There’s so much baggage a person can carry forward from a past romance. However, I can’t recall the moments of falling in love with her at 25 years old, nor can I remember her face when we would spew vitriol at one another. I can’t daydream about our past encounters (I literally can’t daydream). My past is sliced out. It’s all gone. To half of those who get a kick out of analyzing my aphantasia, that’s almost as close to hell as the idea of locked-in syndrome. To the other half, it’s a blessing.
I suppose, like anything, being blind in my mind is about attitude. There are moments of complete emotional isolation, and there are instances where I feel like I’m experiencing the thrill of romance with my wife for the first time because of my goldfish brain. I’m sure there are millions of married people out there who would pay a healthy amount to have a pill that provides this experience.
I may not remember what my wedding looked like, but it’s a lucky feeling for someone like me that my happiest day was also my most documented one.