Friday, March 3, 2017

Boomerang Memories: Artifacts of Depression

The vast majority of my life, thus far, has been dogged by the frustrating ailment we call depression.  I have what psychology calls "dysthymia" or basically, low grade, long-lasting depression.  Unlike major depression, which usually only lasts weeks to a year or two, dysthymia can be with you for your whole life.  Sort of like having chronic pain, it won't ruin your life or make you wish you were dead, but it'll sure put a damper on basically everything you do. 

So in the process of living this particular difficulty, and learning about it and other conditions in psychology, I've become rather analytical about the whole thing, and I thought I'd share a particular feature of depression that's been making my life more difficult in the last few weeks. 

I'm calling them boomerang memories, but I'm sure there's a technical term for it: when your brain reaches back into the past and drags forth an embarrassing, saddening, or hurtful memory.  So if you, like many people, have had dozens of embarrassing moments in your lifetime, you can expect to review the worst of them, regularly.  Tripped over a flat surface in the lunchroom and everyone laughed at you?  Definitely seeing that again, as clearly as if it had just happened again.  Your crush in middle school turned you down?  Going to be reliving that again, without the benefit of the years to soften the emotional blow.  Said something obviously stupid when you were talking to a someone whose opinion you value?  Hope you don't mind wincing about that again.  Like a toy boomerang, these unpleasant memories come back, but unlike the boomerang, the memories always hit you in the face. 

Taken one at a time, and infrequently, these sorts of memories are the kind of thing you'd shrug off.  They're downers, they're bad for your self-esteem, but they're probably not going to ruin your whole day.  Everyone remembers bad things sometimes.  The thing with depression is that these things don't politely visit you once a week and then stay away.  Instead, they may opt to visit you every hour.  Or every 15 minutes. 

You'll be thinking about what to have for dinner today, or what task you should focus on next, and suddenly you'll be remembering a joke you told that not only fell flat, but actually hurt someone you were trying to entertain.  BAM, your train of thought is derailed, and now you're sad or frustrated or angry. 

Now, at this point, normal people just wince, shrug, and reroute their train of thoughts back to dinner or work.  You wasted a few seconds remembering this unpleasant thing, but now you're back to the matter at hand.  Unfortunately, depression doesn't work like that.  Depression, instead, makes that thought process sticky.  Like bugs on flypaper, your brain gets trapped and then stuck on that bad memory.  You live it several times instead of once, and think about what things you should have done instead.  Psychology calls this "perseverating."

Shaking yourself loose from this stickiness is an effort for people that are depressed.  I, personally, have to tell myself, "You know what, this is a thing that happened, and that's okay.  It is long past, and no longer matters.  Let's get back to what we were doing."   Unfortunately, that is not a magical chant, and does not always work.  Several repetitions or interruptions to the sticky train of thought can be necessary, and this can waste a lot of time and energy. 

It's kind of like having your own personal deconstructive critic inside your skull.  No one else can fight it for you, or tell it to buzz off.  Your personal anti-cheerleader has full audio-video access to your brain.  And unfortunately, you have no power to permanently drive off or otherwise silence it.  You can only shoo it away for a time, knowing it will be back.

All of what I've said so far is, as I see it, solid reliable fact.  What I'm going to say next is not, but merely personal musings, so please consider them or pooh-pooh them away as you please. 

The origin of this personal anti-cheerleader is up for debate, so far as I can tell.  As a person raised in a rationalist, scientific culture, I'm inclined to think of depression and this particular facet of it as an artifact of a malfunctioning brain.  That's what medical science has, thus far, told us.  Depression is caused by problems with brain chemicals and the brain's use thereof, and is therefore an internal problem. 

But my description, "personal anti-cheerleader" also reminds me of C. S. Lewis' writings on devils (see The Screwtape Letters).  The popular image of the angel on one shoulder and the devil on the other, both whispering what someone should do, would almost apply here, minus the angel.  Boomerang memories would then be the devil's purview, brought up again and again to wear you down, make you sad and crabby, and overall distracted from your life and what you should be doing with it.

It would make sense to me if the old descriptions of mental illness, ie: demon possession, had some basis in the truth.  The fault of every age and every era is assuming they know best, and that the previous generations knew nothing of value.  Certainly, we know more today than ever before, but much of it, we'll find in 20 years, is wrong.  I don't particularly think my autism can be attributed to demons, but my anxiety and depression?  Maybe partly.  I'll have to reread that book and some of the others that C. S. Lewis wrote. 

That said, medical science has apparently discovered the physical location of depression in the brain as of late last year, so perhaps, soon, our methods of treating depression will be less, ah... shots in the dark.  And perhaps my musing on demons and depression are entirely inaccurate.  Which is fine, I'm certainly no brilliant religious scholar, philosopher, or world-mover. 

In any case, I hope this explains boomerang memories a bit better for those of you that have them, and those that don't.  It's hard to get a good understanding of depression when you don't have it, or so I'm told, and those of us that do have depression benefit from the understanding.  

1 comment:

  1. I used to get boomerang memories in high school all the time, usually as I was in certain locations. This has been an enlightening read.