The Unfortunate Reality of an “Eternal Sunshine of a Spotless Mind”

“Blessed Are the forgetful for they get the better even of their blunders.”  – Nietzsche

I’m not a detail-oriented person. And by “oriented,” I mean, I can’t remember shit – from the past and sadly, often from the present. It is starting to become a problem.

Now, part of my memory loss is the depression. It blurred life and sometimes even erased it. Blocks of times, details of events, all on the tip of my brain, but unable to reach.

Naturally, ECT for almost two years most likely played a part. ECT is only supposed to effect your short-term memory and I can assure you it does. I have only a few vague memories but most are situations that reoccured often rather than a specific time. Also, when I began ECT, my sense of smell became incredibly strong. And it still is: I’m like a police dog. I mention this because it is an effect that didn’t go away, so maybe there are longer term effects of the ECT that have impacted my cognitive skills. (Note: I still would do it again, even if it has played a role.)

And then there’s the medication that my old, shitty doctor got my body hooked on, whose main side effect is memory loss. (She never mentioned that.) I’ve been on it for over a decade but last time I tried to get off of it, the reaction was so bad, I fell into a frightening depressive episode that I am still recovering from. Still, I need to get off of it soon, especially if it’s impacting my mind.

I used to like the fact that I had a bad memory…or at least I convinced myself I did. I told myself that most of the past decade was full of depression and the bad habits that go with it. Besides, I would tell myself, I am a different person now, starting life new and fresh, so who I was shouldn’t matter.

But in truth, it didn’t make my mind “spotless” and provide me with the “eternal sunshine” Alexander Pope raves about. I might not remember, but the effect of the experiences does not allow me to be set free from my past. There is no reverie to be had.

Now I realize that while I may have lost the bad memories, I also lost the good. And for me, I lost more good than bad. It’s amazing how those bad experiences burrow into your mind, refusing to let you forget. The internal scars, the essence of the memories, they stay within you. You may not remember what happened, but you remember how it felt and in some cases, how it impacts you now. When tired or weak, your mind pulls them out, tempting you to follow the pattern of your past. (Fucking depression.)

But I’ve learned to get by. I have my friends and family to tell me stories (albeit subjective stories,) of things that have happened. (I haven’t quite figured out what to do when I’m on a date, but texting in the bathroom might come to be.) Sometimes I see a photo and I can feel the emotion of the memory even if I don’t remember it. (Does that make sense?) And I try to focus on those feelings; I argue that indeed, that is the most important piece of the memory itself. Not what we ate or the embarrassing thing I did. But rather, it’s the flutter of excitement, the lightness of that moment I can feel even though I couldn’t tell you the year or where it was taken. I remind myself that that is what’s important: when I find myself smiling or laughing at a smorgasbord of tiny, faint memories.

It’s only recently that I’ve come to resent it. After all, it’s not just a night of drinking that I don’t remember; it’s a wedding, a baby shower, helping someone in a crisis. I’m ashamed because I love my friends dearly and I hate that I can’t share memories with them. I hate having to ask who this is or what’s this restaurant even though we have been there more than once. I’ll be talking to someone and say “well I’ve never done that,” and my friend will interrupt with, “yeah you have.” Luckily, I have years of experience playing a dolt, so I can usually save the situation.

And I’m angry. Because now that I want to live, (on most days.) I want to go back to loving people, having experiences, and being someone people can rely on for whatever they need. And friendships are built on the past; the moments we share form together to create the inner heart of the friendship itself.

I always hated pictures. I thought I was so fat and ugly that I avoided them. Often, I would agree and then sneak out just before someone took the shot. And now I regret that. Because even though I know I might look at the photo and think I look disgusting, it would have helped as a marker in my “emotional memory” bank. I was so busy hating myself, I missed a captured moment of love and laughter. Luckily my “regret” bank is open and operational.

I’m getting a neuropsychological test done next month. It just feels like things are getting worse. Mainly, my cognitive skills have slowed. I can’t find words; if I take a breath in a sentence, I forget what I was talking about; I find I can only do one thing at a time in terms of information absorption; the more I try to focus on someone speaking, the less I actually absorb. If I’m driving and you try to give me dates of when you’re visiting, it’s a waste of your time. I’m also slower and my concentration is for shit. That’s probably my meds. It’s annoying, but I can make it work.

Maybe I’m just an airhead – I believe that was one of my “titles” as a child. You take that natural trait and add medication and perfectionism, and maybe you get my situation. But whether I go to school or get a job, life requires memory – both the past and the present. I’m scared that I will go to work, and I won’t be able to remember things. My wit and humor, which I have relied on, can only get me so far before my dumb-founded stare avails my ignorance. If I go to school, I will be with some of the brightest minds in the world. It’s going to be fast and it’s going to be intense. I don’t know if I will have the brain capacity to keep up.

Memories would help.

I feel like I am missing parts of myself. Pieces of me literally blurred out like in the movie Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. Looking into the past can’t fix the present. But as I am becoming a “new” self without clinical depression, I find myself often asking “Who am I?” And I can’t seem to remember who I was, to help in the formation of who I am.

I miss my memories. I miss my life. Warts and all.

 

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Who Am I: A Life With Fleeting Memories

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.

Hanging Pictures: The Power of Objects, Memories, and Emotions

My sibling came to visit my apartment the other day. She noticed I had nothing on my walls and joked it looked like I just moved in when I’ve almost been here a year now. I told her when I first moved in, I didn’t know I would stay; then I thought I might go to London for school so there was no point in setting up shop; and since then, I’ve just been busy. So, true to her expedient fashion, she had me pull out my previous art/frames/etc and decide what to put up and where.

I was hesitant. I told her maybe I had outgrown them. She asked if I still liked them, and I said yes. So we hung it. We put up my two large framed pieces of art, and then she had to go.

I felt uneasy all night. Sitting there in my living room, I kept looking at the art, trying to understand why it was making me feel uncomfortable. It is beautiful art, but I missed my white walls. I generally take an unusual amount of time processing change – yes, even something as simple as art on a wall – so I assumed it was just me trying to accept I might be living here for longer than I expected and why and what that might mean.

I realized walking into the room this morning what it was. It’s lovely art. Very much the style I like. I bought both of these in the first few years I left college and was living in Washington, DC – including the one I lived in before my breakdown. And last I had them up, was the year I was suicidal  in my studio apartment in Berkeley. During those years, I spent many nights and days lying in bed, looking at these paintings. Turned on my side, tears slipping over the ridge of my nose, wondering if I had the energy to take the next breath. I often sat at the bottom my bed, looking across from these paintings, rocking myself, consumed with a hatred that made my stomach ache.

This is a little out there for me, so take it with a grain of salt, but somewhere in their essence, the feeling of my pain still exists. My memories trapped within the paintings still slowly leak out and I remember the emotional, physical and mental anguish I barely survived. Sadly, there aren’t just paintings anymore – they are a past that is constantly breathing on my neck, threatening to consume me again.

Pretty fucking intense for a painting, right? But it does explain why I haven’t put up any pictures of my friends, my family, or poems that friends sent during the past five years to uplift my spirit. Seeing pictures of people I have lost touch with, people I miss, me smiling while knowing what I was experiencing at the time – it’s tainted. I assume over time, when I see these paintings or pictures, I will not forget, but the emotion attached to it will fade and it will just be a fact connected to the painting or picture in my timeline.

So as for the paintings, I figure I have a few options. I can wait a few days and see if the memories fade and it just becomes art again. Take them down and sell them. Maybe look for new art that I can appreciate with my new lens.

But I think maybe I’ll take them down and I won’t put anything up in their place. I’ll just continue to keep my walls white. There is a calm comfort in knowing I don’t have to define myself yet. Acknowledging I am still living in a slightly off-white, unknown. This apartment is a safe space, and I am grateful for it; but it’s a place of transition, at least right now. Maybe some think it feels empty, prison-like, un-lived in. But I guess for me, it’s more of a state of possibility – a literal blank slate.

Memories Erased: A Life Forgotten

My best friend of 16 years, came to visit me this past week from the East Coast. As we spent time together, we “reminisced” about college, our time in DC, and our lives since then. As we spoke, we both realized I can’t remember shit. And it’s not just because I have a bad memory, drank a lot in college, or had ECT two years ago – though those all have played a role I’m sure. But I think the depression blurred all my memories into just this swirl of images and deep, painful feelings. And I miss those memories. I miss hilarious debauchery from college; embarrassing nights in DC; weddings; deaths; adventures abroad and stateside. I also don’t remember a lot of my life since I’ve been home. I don’t remember how to get places from my childhood, or people that visited while I was suicidal, or even how to get to where I lived when I first arrived three years ago.

It’s hard listening to other people tell you about your life. Not because I don’t trust them – even if they lie, as long as it’s funny, I don’t care. It’s that I can’t remember a hysterical incident or watching my best friend marry the man she loves. I can’t remember how I set a friend up with her now-husband, or a gym I went to two years ago. Sometimes I get images, or I look at pictures and I feel emotions about the events, but I think a lot of times, I’m manipulating what people have told me into an imaginary memory.

I mean, I remember that we laughed hysterically. I know for a fact that I made an ass out of myself repeatedly. I know that I was so happy for all my friends who found their loves and that my toasts killed. I am so thankful for their love, devotion, and support which I can feel even if I can’t remember exactly what they said, or when, or where.

But I feel so empty without my memories. They are a testament to a life lived. For me, depression is not living, it’s just being. And every time I can’t remember something, I feel like it’s a part of me that was taken away; stolen violently from me to be replaced with images of searing pain and endless crying.

When I mention my loss of memory, everyone always assumes it was during ECT. And yeah, it fucks with your short term memory. While I was getting ECT, I don’t really remember the other things I was doing. I do remember laughing because I would ask the same question twice within a ten minute period. I know I relied heavily on my mom to keep track of the days. But nothing was happening during ECT that really needed to be noted and stored away. In fact, it wasn’t until I got a job and tried to keep doing ECT that I realized I couldn’t actually live a productive or meaningful life while I was doing it. But those aren’t the memories I miss. It’s the ones stolen by this wretched, unforgiving disease. The good ones. The ones you pull when you need to laugh or remember why you forgive someone after they’ve done something mean.

Every year my dad ages, his stories become more and more embellished. Instead of being a faculty member in a story, that person is now the dean. Instead of him watching an event, he was actually there doing it. At times, I can’t decide whether I’m angry at him for lying, or sad that I think he actually believes what he’s saying.

I’m not one to embellish. In fact, I tend to downplay stories rather than pull out narcissistic exaggerations like him. However, I worry that my memories will be manipulated. Like myths and bedtime stories, my life will be put together through the tellings of others. And now, that the cloud of depression has lifted, I haven’t many things that I want to store in my memory bank. A few lovely occasions, one or two kooky nights, maybe a phone conversation that made me feel loved.

I hope to add to that memory bank – to start living a life and have stories to tell from my perspective. But if we are the sum of the experiences that have made us who we are, then no wonder every day I struggle with the terrifying feeling that I still don’t know who I am or who I want to be.

I guess I should have kept a journal.