Depression and Memory

My first post on this topic: Depression—The Triggers that Surprise

Our ability to remember is an amazing gift from God. I have always had a good memory; it isn’t something I developed… it was just there. I don’t know whether memory problems are generally part of depression, but here I relate how they were connected in my situation. Over the years I have discovered that memory can be good, bad, or confusing.

Memory: The Good 

From grade school through college, I was fascinated with numbers. My memory allowed me to be both fast and good. I didn’t think about it at the time, but I could do most math problems in my head. In fact (this was in the days before calculators!), in college I took 85 credits of math and 35 credits of physics—and never learned how to use the slide rule. I could write down about every 3rd or 4th step, keeping everything else in my head.

I could remember dates, people, and events very easily. When reading, I could often remember where something was on a page and sometimes the page number. No, I don’t have photographic memory. But memory was of great value. If I have driven somewhere, many years later I can drive through that area and remember exactly where to turn—and I don’t even need to know “that I turn after the third oak tree on the right after the end of the fence posts.”

Memory: The Bad

As a Christian, I have found memory both good and bad. I can easily memorize things, where they are in the Bible, Greek and Hebrew vocabulary/grammar, etc. So what is bad about memory? I can remember details of events, especially bad ones. I can remember sins I have committed years and years ago. Even more, I can remember the hurt and pain I have caused through my sins.

And that is when memory seems to be no longer a blessing, but a curse. While occasionally I can remember someone else’s sin against me, there is not the intensity and continuing rehashing as with my own sin. For several decades the memories also meant that I didn’t (couldn’t) sleep at night. My mind was too busy, going over the pain, hurt, anger, frustration, etc. of whatever I had done wrong.

In the long slide into depression, my memory took on the role of the accuser… Now instead of the wonderful aspects of my memory, the ugliness of myself, my sin, my inner turmoil were my constant companions. I didn’t need someone else to help me on this frantic descent, because I was more than sufficient, and my memory kicked into high gear. Oh, there were others who consciously or unconsciously aided me in this memory deconstruction. Even now, as the worst of the depression has passed, my memory serves me well and I remember… sort of.

Memory: The Confused

Perhaps most surprising for me is when my memory failed me in the final year before my breakdown and in the first two years afterward. There are gaps… During that time, and since then, my wife might mention something that happened, and I would look puzzled as if “what is she talking about?” To me, it never happened. And the confusing part—for me, I was usually the one who could recall events, conversations, etc.

And so, what had been a normal part of my life, a well functioning memory, was no longer “normal.” But the gaps are primarily limited to that three year period of time. Sometimes I get frustrated that I have gaps in my memory. Other times it doesn’t bother me. Mostly it confused me. In one sense during that three year period, it seemed like I was floating along as an outsider to everything that was happening. In that sense I could even imagine my memory gaps related to my floating alonside the action of life and then switching to living in the midst of that life. Mostly that three year period is a confusing time for me because of my fragmented memory.

Memory: So What?

Memory is a wonderful gift from God. And for most of my life, it has served me well. During the darkest days of depression and in the aftermath, memory failed me, delighted me, and confused me. I think the remembrance of sin and its effects stayed with me, and that haunted me the most.

Yet, right there is where God in His graciousness has worked his marvelous, loving work. In Jeremiah 31:34 when prophesying about the new covenant (testament), he writes:

[Yahweh declares:] “for I will forgive their iniquity, and their sin I will remember no more.”

God in His infinite wisdom and perfection states clearly that he will not remember my sins. That means that with my memory I am trying to “be better than God at the memory game.” My memories of my sins were tearing me apart. Those sins had been forgiven by God, and now even the memories of them were gone! That was overwhelming to me—and freeing. Forgiveness through the Word, through the Lord’s Supper, through absolution was no longer a part of life, it was the heart of my life, a life which would be destroyed by the memories, but is now forgiven, restored, and enhanced by God’s forgetfulness.

Over time, I have discovered that the memory gaps no longer have a hold on me. But even more, the memories of sin have been transformed into memories of God’s faithfulness and His forgiveness and His love. “And I will remember their sin no more.” God grant me that kind of memory.

See God Has Amnesia for more reflection on this grace aspect of “remembering.”

About exegete77

disciple of Jesus Christ, husband, father, grandfather, great-grandfather, teacher, and theologian
This entry was posted in Meditatio, Oratio, Personal Reflection, Tentatio and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Depression and Memory

  1. Ashley H. says:

    Full circle… beautiful. I haven’t experienced this particular aspect personally, but I am tucking it away to remember as I meet others who have suffered similarly.

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  2. Lynda Elmendorf says:

    “my memory took on the role of the accuser”- that statement rang bells with me. When my “memory” starts accusing and beating up on me that is when I become a “cave dweller” . . I just want to crawl into a hole and stay there . . something always brings me out but the memories are still lurking until the next time – I know that has to be what it is because I keep cycling through this process: accusations – into the cave – out of the cave – accusations . . . and yes, I review in my mind I Jn 1:9 and Jer. 31:34 . . but that has never helped very much . . until recently . . finally my heart is connecting with “Forgiveness through the Word, through the Lord’s Supper, through absolution” . . the Lord’s Supper and absolution are making the difference. I think it may take some time to lose those “cave dwelling” habits but as you say, it is freeing.

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    • exegete77 says:

      That cycle is tough to break. Ultimately it was the Word, Sacrament, Absolution that proved a turning point for me.

      I rejoice with you that the corner is turned, Lynda!

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  3. Mary Johnson says:

    Wow, you and my husband must be doppelganger twins. Your history and his are remarably similar. He reads off equations and formulas he learned in High School and College like he’s reading from a book. Always bothered me…I’m lucky if I can remember my name sometimes.

    But, in all seriousness, he suffered the same symptoms just prior to and after his stroke. He was in a very deep and dark depression that the stroke finally got him to take medications for. Until that time, he would never consider himself “depressed” although he spent most of his time sleeping or drinking when not working. He was to smart to believe he had a problem.

    Those two plus years were a tangle of forgetting, like his short term memory took a vacation. I got so used to it, I began ignoring each time it happened. Not good. I also began wondering what it would take to “make him see” he needed help. It took an act of God really to turn him around and this winter I worry as I see the tell tale signs begin to creep back in.

    You are doing a great service in writing about what your experience has been with this. There are so many hurting people who have no clue that there is a “on the other side” to this. Also, I don’t think you can ever be clear of it once you’ve been down the road, it’s always possible to have another episode sneak up on you.

    Thank you for these posts. I pray for you and your family that the healing continues. It is a hard road to travel, even in retrospective.

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    • exegete77 says:

      Wow, Mary. Thanks for sharing this. My heart goes out to you and your husband. BTW, my next post will deal with those live with the depressed person.

      Your last two paragraphs make all this worthwhile. I am almost in tears because of it. I had feared so much even writing a little of it. But comments like yours make me realize how critical this is. And how much the Church needs to wade into the deep end of the depression pool.

      Blessings to you in Christ.

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  4. Dave Spotts says:

    That’s a very intriguing phenomenon. I have had it only on a smaller scale. One of the symptoms of the migraine headaches I have had for the past 21 years has been memory loss. I’ve never had a very retentive memory except that I can remember pieces of music that I played a few times many years ago. But my family has reported, and I have observed as well, that when I’m heading into a migraine headache whatever information I am taking in gets pushed aside. After the headache is over I have to rebuild most of my shorter-term memories. For instance, I’ll teach a class, have a migraine before the next class meeting, and have no recollection of anything that happened in the past class time. This has led me to habitually writing down whatever I actually need to know so as to refer to it later.

    The challenges for people who have lost a large period of time are amazing. Yet at the same time God’s providence in concealing some of our struggles from us is also incredible. What is it that causes us to go into this defensive mode? All sorts of struggles might lead to it. What is it that ultimately rescues us? It’s something that is “extra nos” – The work of Christ on our behalf, revealed and delivered to us in Word and Sacrament – this which is outside of ourselves creates the foundation on which we can stand, or lie down as the case may be.

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  5. Ashlie says:

    Rich,
    First of all, I so admire the fact that you are willing to open up your life in order that others can learn and be encouraged. SO many Christians struggle with depression but it is honestly a topic that is sadly glazed over in many churches. I think depression is often harder for Christians because we have the added “guilt” of…well, shouldn’t I just be happy? Because of Jesus? For one steeped in depression, it’s just not that simple. It’s also a lonely road because of fear of what others within the church will think (among other reasons).

    Secondly, you remind me SO much of my dad.🙂 That is a huge compliment, as he is one of my best friends and a Godly man whom I deeply respect. He has struggled much of his adult life with depression, and has also been very open about the journey he has travelled. God has used it to touch many people, and I pray He does the same with your writing!! Much of what I know about it is because of my close relationship with him (and because I tend to be a “thinker”), but your words help me to understand it even better.

    Thank you, again, for allowing the Lord to use you through the broken seasons in your life. It is an encouragement and blessing to all of us fellow cracked pots. Keep writing.🙂

    Ashlie

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    • exegete77 says:

      Thanks for your words, Ashlie. I especially appreciate your comments about your dad. My next post, ironically, will focus on those who live with or are friends with the person who is depressed. Specifically looking at how hard it is to communicate both ways, and what a tremendous help it is when people extend grace by coming alongside to listen, rather than judge or withdraw. Your experiences will be helpful on this next post.

      Given how this affecting me right now, it may be a few days before I respond.

      Blessings in Christ, Rich

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  6. Pingback: Have you hugged your porcupine today? | "believe, teach, and confess"

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