Memory and the Bipolar Showcase

Drew Carey, Price is RightAfter a week of fast and furious rapid cycling, I’ve made a new discovery.  Finding these little jackpots at the end of the game makes playing almost worthwhile.  At least I don’t have to leave the studio audience completely empty-handed.

My consolation prize this time was seeing how the illness affects memory and, in turn, how that affects suffering.

The first layer of this memory game is realizing that I forget what it’s like to be manic or depressed when I’m not in those states.  Maybe it’s like when women forget how painful labor is—the mind wants to gloss it over so they don’t live in fear of the next time.  But I think something else is happening, too.  I believe the extremes of depression and mania are altered states of consciousness.  The brain is altered chemically.  Thought processes and perception are altered.  When a person learns new material in an altered state, that material can’t be retrieved until the person is back in the altered state.  This is called state-dependent learning.

So any ah-ha moments I have while I’m cycling, any new tools I put in place, any comforting words of wisdom I hear from my therapist or friends get locked away behind Door Number Two until the next time.  Also, I forget what the symptoms are, how they manifest and what course the episodes take until I’m back there again.

The flip side of state-dependent learning is that when I cycle I forget what I’ve learned in a stable state.  I’m blank when I try to think of what I wanted to do differently this time.  I don’t call my friends for help because I’ve forgotten that’s what I’m supposed to do.  I forget that I just bought groceries (in a stable state) and go get more.

But aside from state-dependent learning, the stress of cycling wipes out my short-term memory.  I forget appointments.  Even if I write them down, I forget to look at my datebook.  Last week I needed to drive my mom to a doctor’s appointment.  I had Post-it notes on my computer, my bathroom mirror, and in my car so I wouldn’t forget.  As we got out of the pool one day, my friend offered me some of her fresh tomatoes.  By the time I reached the locker room, I’d forgotten what she said.

Stress focuses the attention on the immediate.  Only the details necessary for survival get any brain time.  If actions and thoughts aren’t part of a deeply-grooved routine, they get jettisoned.  Even some of those go if it takes too much effort.  I have to think that’s what happened when I forgot about my meditation group last week.  I’ve been co-facilitating the group for nine months now, but I was in such a high state of crisis, my brain dumped it.

I know lots of people my age start experiencing memory slips—names, dates, a particular word.  It’s part of getting older.  But when I’m stable, these memory storms don’t happen.  I know the difference.  At least I do now.  I probably won’t when I start cycling again.

What seems clear is that journaling and posting visual reminders are key to reducing the stress and panic all this forgetting causes.  I go back to my journals all the time to see what happened, how I felt, what I did.  Now I need to add a Memory Board.  I have a blank bedroom door that will serve.  I’ll tack up phone numbers of the friends I should call, reminders from my therapist, new things to try.  I’ll be able to send messages from one state to another—Dear Manic Girl, Remember to slow down or you’ll crack your hip on the desk again.  Dear Depressed Girl, Remember that eating a whole bag of Veggie Straws will give you a gut ache.

The biggest benefit of a Memory Board will be the reminder that I Forget.  When the cycling starts, I forget that I forget.  As Winston Churchill said, “…it is a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.”  But maybe this riddle has an entryway.  Maybe I can find one if I keep working at it.

Wayne, I’ll take Door Number Three…


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