“Memory is… one of a suite of higher or ‘executive’ brain functions hobbled by depression.”
“Memory Loss and the Brain”, Daniel Pendick (1991)
“The problem is that eyewitness acounts, while more convincing than hearsay accounts, are not always reliable. Research on eyewitness testimony is very clear about this fact: Observations can vary and err as a function of a variety of factors such as prejudice, temporary expectations, the types of details being observed, and stress. It is very easy, in other words, for one’s observations (and one’s memories about observations) to be distorted or flat-out wrong.”
“Philisophical Issues in Journalism”, edited by Elliot Cohen (1992); ‘Understanding Errors and Biases That Can Affect Journalists’ by Holly Stocking and Paget Gross
Who am I?
What am I doing?
Where am I going?
Where have I been?
Why am I here?
— My Five W’s.
Manic depression, left untreated, will steal… your life in more ways than the obvious. We know Depression fucks with our memories. A good man with some heavy responsibility — Bryan — recently remarked on the clarity of my memories, he wrote: “I know for me I would have a really hard time putting the detail into my history that you do. A lot of it with me right now is muddled in a medicated haze that doesn’t allow me the clarity to remember my work history fully let alone some of the parts of my past…”
But my memory sucks. There are — albeit very rare — days, times, specific moments when I get so frustrated about losing words I want to grab my keyboard and start bashing it against my desk. A few weeks ago it actually did happen to my printer. Almost always the feeling comes from the frustration of not being able to find something I think should be obvious, a piece of paper I just put down, or a shoe, my wallet, but most often it’s a thought or a memory.
Even beyond the eighteen-years of being unmedicated, living the life I did — more than 30 different homes before I was twenty, clinical depression since I was nine — has left me unable to recognize people or to remember the names of people who aren’t in my life constantly. I’ve known Richard for three years, only recently have I been able to remember his last name. I still couldn’t tell you for sure how it’s spelled. My little brother has been dating the same girl for two years, they’re now living together, I’ve walked past her in the street without seeing her.
And yet, I can do this: “My memory has become, or has it always been? like a seive.” I wrote that in 1991, sitting on my bare mattress in a rooming house two blocks down from the Soviet embassy in Ottawa (there’s no spellcheck on a Bic pen). “Or”, I continued, “is it merely selective with the switchman asleep, with the dial continuously set to purge?” How do I know it was 1991 when I wrote that? How can I be so fucking sure when my memory has so many huge holes in it? Because I have dated everything I’ve written from 1987 until right now. Date, time of completion and usually with a little signature to boot.
When I began my treatment three years ago I started to keep a journal. Every time I had a thought worth recording I’d jot it down. I carried it with me everywhere. The first entry was “Becker — Ted Danson”, that’s it. I started to keep track of the programs I liked to watch, or people I wanted to Google. I started to make lists of albums and books I should buy, just one at a time. Then, when I was in Ottawa, I’d bring the journal and walk around the bookstore finding the books.
I also started writing down lists, trying to put memories in order. Like a list of places I’ve lived and the order in which I lived in them. Or, because when I’m asked these types of things I always freeze, a list of my favourite movies. It’s not an immediate thing. You don’t just start this kind of project and turn it off a few days later because you don’t see massive, life changing results. The post-treatment journals have been a three-year project. I started the lists in 2005, the shortcuts are on my desktop. Whenever I can think of something, the list gets changed. Or I start a new one. The last one I started was last Spring and it’s a list of all the women I’ve dated and when it was we went out. I’ve also started putting in the reasons for breaking up. One thing leads to another. On my favourite movie list I’ve started to put in the information surrounding where I first saw the movie and who I was with.
Right now, just to write this post, I’ve used pieces from three different pre-treatment journals and there’s a fourth I’d like to be using but I can’t find it. In one of them, for three months, I kept track of everything I ate. So I know, on Saturday, June 8, 1996, my daily intake consisted of three brown bagels, with cream cheese and cold cuts; three pops and one glass of milk. Which, at the time, was a really good day for food.
When you don’t have hard material to reinforce your memories — photos, journals — it’s easy for the Disease to take away your certainty. It’s easy to start doubting everything and everyone. Before I started my post-treatment journals I always found excuses not to start… pen, but no notebook; notebook but no pen; I’ll start tomorrow, or; I’ll remember that until later, I don’t need to put that in the book now. I did the same during my unmedicated years. I can remember just wanting to keep a calendar for a few months to keep track of my medication cycles, but — honestly — I couldn’t find a nail to hang it on so it stayed in the closet where — in my diseased brain — it would be safe until I could find a nail.
My advice, to anyone willing to listen, is to find a notebook that fits into your pants pocket. Use a pen with a cap so it doesn’t explode in your pocket, and start writing down whatever you can remember. Even if it’s a favourite colour. Then, later, write down why it’s your favourite colour. You can get some control over your memories, which is vital as memories can help define who you are. And, Bryan, it works, even when the medications take over from the disease as something which leaves you unsure of yourself and in a fog too thick to think out of. What you write down can be as simple as the time of day or where you were when you remembered you had the notebook in your pocket, or the number of birds in the sky. Memories are contagious, one leads to another and to another. If you can remember where you were last Wednesday at 3pm, maybe you can remember the weather, or what you were wearing… and pretty soon you’ve got a list.