I hate filling out medical history forms. I don’t remember family history, or what year I saw a doctor, what medications I have taken, surgeries I have had. In the past few years, now that doctors have online patient portals, I can look stuff up online, but otherwise, it’s a call to my mother for a history of all things about me, my body, and my mental health. As I was filling one out yesterday, I became incredibly agitated and sad. Then this morning, I had to go over dates for my upcoming move to London. I had prepped this stuff when I thought I was going last year, and while everything felt familiar, it was annoyingly still new. The dates were on the tip of the tongue, I just couldn’t pull them out.
When I was prepping for ECT a few years ago, one of the possible side effects was short-term memory loss. For a lot of my friends, this seemed like a scary prospect: to not remember what happened the day before or even a few hours ago. For me, I was at a point where I didn’t feel like I was creating memories anyway, except for maybe sad ones that involved me lying in bed, angry at every breath that continued to push its’ way in and out of my diaphragm. I went three times a week for about a year. A few months in, we noticed some changes. I might ask a question and then half an hour later, ask it again. This was usually on the days of the treatment itself so we would laugh it off. As for the blur of memories of that year, it wasn’t like much was happening. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, my mom got me up early, I changed my pajamas into other sweat pants, and got in the car. I had the procedure, slept in the car, got back home, usually slept some more, and then watched tv until I fell asleep. I’m not sure what I did on the days when I didn’t have the procedure. I might have walked the dog, or driven in the passenger seat while my mom ran errands. I realized that the tv I was watching, the books I read, probably would blur. Conversations with my friends probably drifted off after a day or two. I probably should have kept a diary so I could reflect on it later.
After about a year of treatment, I was feeling better and I decided I wanted to go back to the world, happy and healthy. I took a job a few hours from home. It wasn’t what I wanted to do, but it was something I was familiar with and good at doing. I continued to receive treatments every couple of weeks, though I’m not sure how I did that, since they didn’t offer them on weekends. Evidently, my memory got worse. My mom told me I would call in a panic forgetting where I placed a file on the computer. I don’t remember this but that’s what she said. And I was starting to get depressed again. It could have been because I didn’t really like the people, the town, or the stress of the job. I knew I was doing well and that people liked me, but I could feel the depression coming back in. I started missing more and more days, until it became weeks. I finished the project and quit. I came home to continue doing treatments full-time. It was at this point, the treatments stopped working and I was re-diagnosed with bipolar II.
But in all honesty, the memories I miss most are not from ECT. Most of my childhood through college, and then my seven years in DC, a year in Berkeley, and the two years after the year of ECT. So yeah, pretty much my life. Sometimes I think I have a memory when I look at a picture, though I’m not sure if I’m just looking at the picture and envisioning a memory from it. Sometimes I tell a story about my childhood and a family member tells me that it was actually them that did that or it wasn’t like that or that never happened. I remember specifically horrible times. When I was bullied as a kid, the times I have been sexually assaulted, some of my self-harming episodes. Mostly, I remember feelings. Like when I think about someone, I get a feeling inside. Or when I think about a time in my life, I have a sense of how moments made me feel. My friends might describe a night in college when I did something particularly ridiculous – I usually don’t remember the moment itself, but I can remember that feeling of doing something ridiculous – the high of making people laugh and feeling free to be myself.
I don’t remember a few weddings – just what others have told me. I barely remember my best friend’s wedding and I was the maid of honor. I recently caught up with someone I haven’t seen for five years and evidently, I did some amazing things to help her while I was in DC.
I also don’t remember things people have told me. Stories of my grandparents, family history, names of people I have met, people I have had coffee with, conversations I have had with people, things I have said or done.
I joke that my best friend and my mom are memory banks for me. I call them sometimes to ask if I went to something or if I liked something. If I had a feud with a certain person or why we no longer kept in touch. Sometimes I will complain about something from my childhood and my mom will tell me that they did actually do something or it wasn’t how I remember it to be.
I laugh it off, but the frustration and irritation lingers and grows. I not only feel I have lost something precious, I feel bad for my friends. They had me in their life-changing moments, and I can’t even remember the speech I gave, or what conversations were had. I know I was there, but can you really share a moment if you can’t remember it? For the most part, I have tried to take this all in stride. I believe the depression blurred a lot of my past – making my memories lose focus, and become distant until they faded. I don’t know if the ECT has anything to do with any long-term memory – they say it’s only short term. For most of my life, we all blamed it on me being an airhead – and that is true. Sometimes I really am listening but almost too hard and I don’t actually absorb the information. I avoided pictures most of my life because I hated looking at myself so I have few pictures to help me store my memories. I rarely kept journals, only when I was really depressed, and in college, I evidently expressed myself through poetry which I can no longer access because Microsoft has some shitty software problems. Most of my time in DC, I complained that I didn’t want to remember – but now there are documents I created, bills I helped fight for, and I can’t even remember unless I look at the date and know I was working at the organization at that point.
I tell people it was all worth it. That maybe that was the sacrifice I had to pay. Maybe it was my brain’s way of protecting me. Or maybe it was depression’s way of punishing me. Maybe my brain is picky, and only maintains what I need to know when I need to know it. Or maybe I’m a free spirit and I live in the moment or some bullshit like that. But the truth is, I miss my memories – good and bad. I feel so empty sometimes, just a body of emotions. It’s embarrassing to look through my contacts and not remember why I know someone, or worse for someone to contact me and I have no idea who they are. I hate having to rely on others for my memories. It’s not that I don’t trust them, but memories are subjective. I take what they say as truth, but deep down I still wonder if maybe I do remember it correctly – and they just remember it their way.
I’m about to embark on a few intense adventures and while self-doubt is a learned trait, I think that my memory loss scares me as well. What if I don’t remember how to write as well? What if I don’t remember what I have learned, or worse, what I am going to learn? I have to write a dissertation, read tons of books. I will be living in a fast-paced environment. It will be an intense, fast year of my life and what if I don’t remember it? What if all the medications, the depression, the ECT – what if it has changed my brain chemistry and I have limitations now that haven’t been tested but I will soon find out through my failure – either at a job or in school?
Not everyone has a rock solid memory bank. While a lot of people I know do remember quite a bit, I was talking to my sister the other day about our childhood. I mentioned that I can’t remember us spending time together growing up. That maybe I was wrong, but I just remember her being gone, and by the time my memories do start, she was already disconnected from the family, out of the house. She told me she doesn’t remember much of childhood at all, so she can’t really tell me if we did spend time together or not. She might remember a memory here or there, but not much. She didn’t seem upset about it – I suppose she knows the main components and remembers what she needs to, and I know she remembers other aspects of her life. So maybe we all just blur parts of our childhood.
But it makes me feel like a liar. I tell a story and I wonder if it’s the truth. I try to express a relationship to someone or to explain a person’s personality and I wonder if I should be trusted. I know at some point, I knew the time and circumstance for each of my self-made scars. Now, I only remember a few, and I don’t even know if I’m right. I’m not planning on having children, and I suppose maybe I will need to get over my self-hate and start taking more pictures of my life. I don’t know if I will never be able to really store information long-term. I don’t know the implications in the long-term, devices I may have to employ, the radical acceptance I may have to have.
I hear people talk about the time when they were five, and I crave to tell a story as well. I keep a general diary card for DBT and my coach will ask what happened that day to make me feel a certain way or give in to a certain urge and I can’t remember. I suppose I could keep copious notes, that’s probably the solution, but I’m bitching now, so no need for thinking rationally.
What I do know is that for the first time, I am angry about it. I suppose that is a good thing – wanting to be in a place in life where I care about remembering. But while I believe we are who we want to be, I still think our past plays a large role in who we are. And if I can’t remember my past, then how can I know who I am, what I have become, what I don’t want to become, and who I strive to be? I feel like an outline, a resume of facts and vague overtures of experiences. But at my core, I feel empty and for some reason, a liar within my own body. People see me but I feel paper thin, merely an echo, an imprint of the experiences that have formed me, but which I cannot remember.