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.”

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