At 25 years old, I’d consider myself pretty clued-up about my mental illness; I know when I’m feeling teary for seemingly no reason, it’s probably because I’ve forgotten to take my medication, or I’m over-tired, or it’s just one of those days.
I’ve learned to be kind to myself on days when I feel like my limbs are too heavy to leave the house and I know that when I’m feeling panicked, it’s probably because I’ve been overthinking, had too much caffeine, or indulged in one too many glasses of wine over the weekend. One side effect of depression that I hadn’t expected, though, was significant memory loss.
I was diagnosed with clinical depression at the age of 18 during a particularly bad spell of feeling down at university, but looking back, I’d clearly been suffering with the illness undiagnosed for about two years before that.
It’s hard to pinpoint the cause of my depression (and for a lot of sufferers, there isn’t an obvious one), but if I had to guess, I’d say that my illness came as a result of teenage bullying.
I went to an all-girls high school, and was picked on by girls on the periphery of my friendship group. I’d always had very good best friends, but there were a small number of girls in my year group who seemed to have it out for me. I’d spend the morning getting ready for school in complete terror, walking to the school gates as slowly as possible to delay the inevitable gossiping, name-calling and cruelty.
I’d refuse to talk to my family about what was happening, though they could clearly see I wasn’t myself. It took moving to a different country and living independently for the first time in my life for me to realise that the depth of my sadness wasn’t normal; that I finally needed and deserved help.
When something like that happens during your formative years – when you’re just beginning to learn about yourself and where you fit into the world – it can be debilitating. At the time, I didn’t have the words to articulate how I was feeling – I just pinballed between feeling hollow and numb or in complete despair. When we think about depression, it’s often these kinds of emotions which come to mind: sadness, listlessness, lethargy. But really, depression takes different forms in different people and can have many side effects, both common and less so.
I first began to notice that my memory wasn’t what it used to be when I was talking to a best friend from university, who I’d lived with for the full three years I spent studying. We were lying in bed after a night out about a year ago, reminiscing about our university days and the many nights we’d spent together on sticky club dance floors, sipping treble vodkas. She was laughing at the memory of something that had happened after lectures one day when we were together, but no matter how hard I tried to remember the moment – I couldn’t. “What?” she said. “How can you not remember that?’ I was baffled. I vaguely remembered the day she was talking about, but not any specifics of the situation she was describing.
From then on, I began to notice my increasingly hazy memory more and more, when friends from childhood would reference something we’d done together during our teenage years, or someone we’d met on our girls’ holiday when we were 18. Again, I’d remember the location, or fragments of the day, but not any of the specifics. It was like someone had sprayed a mist over my memories; I could see their outlines and shapes, but my vision was clouded by the droplets and I couldn’t see clearly.
It seems I’m not the only one who has experienced this side-effect of depression, either. Back in 2019, Twitter user @skxllcitywent viral after posting the tweet: “Why the f*ck does no one talk about the fact that depression and anxiety can give you major memory loss??” With over 160,000 likes and 50,000 retweets, their observation clearly struck a chord with many people.
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Why the fuck does no one talk about the fact that depression and anxiety can give you major memory loss??
— 💀🌌 ren 🌌💀 (@skxllcity) May 10, 2019
I was interested to know whether my situation was uncommon (though I suspected that it wasn’t), so I spoke to Dr Paul McLaren, a consultant psychiatrist at Priory Hospital Hayes Grove in Bromley and its Wellbeing Centres in London, to find out more. He told me: “the link [between depression and memory loss] is a strong one and it’s common for people, even young people, to have memory problems when they are depressed.”
“Memory is a complex process which includes attention, being aware of what is going around you; registration or logging the significant stuff in what you see and recall. Depression, which is a thinking disorder, can interfere with all three. When we are depressed, our heads are full of negative thoughts; stuff that just pops up automatically and demands our attention. These thoughts are often ‘loud’ and ‘in our face’ and that makes it difficult to give our usual levels of attention to what else is going on around us. We miss things and don’t take them in, and that feels like our memory is the problem,” he explained.
When it comes to short-term memory, I’m generally quite aware of what I’m doing and good at picking up on social cues, though I’m as guilty of leaving my freshly-brewed cup of tea on the sideboard as anyone else. I’ve noticed this symptom of depression most when trying to recall events from the past, something which Dr. McLaren says isn’t out of the ordinary:
“Depression also blocks brain processing, so that even if we do ‘clock’ something important, we may not be able to store it or recall it in the usual way. Sometimes depression is described as a cloud that comes down on us and makes all our brain processes a bit fuzzy, including memory.”
My memory loss has caused conflict between friends and me: when they’ve thought that I’ve been pretending to forget something on purpose, or that I simply didn’t care about what they’ve told me enough to remember it. It’s affected relationships, when I’ve asked my significant other the same question two or three times and they’ve assumed that I wasn’t paying attention when they spoke.
I wish that the link between depression and memory loss was more well-known, because it gets tiresome feeling like I’ve done something wrong or that I’m a bad friend for not remembering little details about people. I have a friend who is brilliant at retaining information that near-strangers have shared with her – and I’m so envious of her being able to show her compassion and care in a way that I can’t.
I show my friends and family that they’re important to me in other ways, of course, but I do worry that my poor recall skills make me seem self-absorbed, or disinterested in the people around me.
The only way I’ve been able to combat these feelings is by remembering to give myself a break. My brain, for the last 8 years at least, has been working overtime – and things are bound to slip through the cracks. Speaking honestly about this symptom of depression with those around me has helped massively too, even if saying “hey, it’s not that I don’t care enough about your once in a lifetime trip around the world to ask detailed questions, it’s just that I can’t actually remember where you visited,” sounds a bit sarcastic. I’m not – and thankfully after explaining my questionable memory to my friends, they understand that.
The dialogue surrounding depression (for the most part) is improving, with people slowly beginning to understand the extent of the illness on those who have it. Still, I feel that the side effect of memory loss is something that needs to be addressed. Those who suffer from it aren’t necessarily uncaring, self-absorbed people who don’t listen – if anything, I’ve found that my condition has made me more compassionate and appreciative of the people around me.
Hopefully by talking about it, I can help to de-stigmatise the link between memory loss and depression, and reassure anyone else who experiences the issues I’ve discussed here that they’re not alone.