When I was a patient in a psychiatric clinic, a year ago, I knew an elderly woman who was having electro-shock therapy. She had experienced temporary memory loss, one of its common side effects, and couldn't recall anything. One night, we sat facing each other over dinner in the large dining room. Around us, addicts, manic depressives, schizophrenics and anorexics were talking about their experiences, about what had brought them to this place (and what they hoped would get them out of it). Suddenly, in an urgent whisper, the elderly woman asked me, "Who am I if I do not have my memories? How will I know who I am?"We define ourselves by what we remember. Although we experience a vast amount, most of it is forgotten. It's what we hold onto – or what is burned involuntarily in our psyches – that defines how we see ourselves and who and what we believe we are. We repeat these memories as stories to ourselves and each other. Change is threatening because it replaces the past with something new. New experiences also change the context of the memories we've retained. We perceive them differently because we have something else to compare them to. For a while, we don't know who we are anymore. Other people don't know us either. We no longer match up with the old stories that connected us not just to our past (and our sense of identity) but to the people in it. Maybe that's why it's easier to change in a new environment. There are no old stories, old personas, to compete – or cope – with as we try to become someone new. When my father died, I wanted to make my life stand still so I could pretend it wasn't going on without him. I didn't want my memories of him or our time together to be lost or replaced. More significantly, his existence had played such a huge part in my life – even when we were, for a while, estranged – that I defined most of my self by whom I was in relation to him. With him gone, there was no-one else whom I wanted to impress, intrigue, surprise – or defy – in quite the same way.My father's death has given me the opportunity to reinvent myself in a way that would have been much harder if he were alive. There is an end to the stories of who I was – if only because he, as the person with whom I'd spent most of my life, right up until my early twenties, was the keeper of those stories, those memories. I still wish he wasn't gone but I'm not sad his stories are. It's been a long time since I recognised the person I was in any of them.
Now I get to start the second act of my life. I also get to re-define and re-invent myself in earnest.