To Catch A Thief
An opinion piece by Kat Lombard-Cook.
Depression steals so much from you. It steals your confidence, your appetite, your enjoyment of things you once loved, your relationships, your concentration. For some of us, it may also steal our memories.
A few years ago, I read about a study about over-generalised memory. Participants in the study were asked to recall specific memories in relation to cue words. Some could not pinpoint a singular instance from their past for the cues. The researchers found a correlation between this inability to draw upon concrete memories of the past and depression.
When things are good, this form of remembering doesn’t really impact the person. When times are bad, however, people can’t hold onto a memory of when things were better. Without that reference, they can’t project an idea of themselves being well again in the future, which makes it even more difficult to recover form an episode of major depression.
This research really struck a chord with me. Not only have I suffered from depression and anxiety for as long as I can remember—I first saw a therapist when I was seven. I also have found myself struggling to grasp long term memories that everyone I know found readily.
They’re things you ask as ice-breakers or answer as part of online surveys: what was the first record/tape/cd you bought; who/where was your first kiss; who was your favourite teacher at school; what was the first concert you went to; what was your favourite book as a kid? These are questions about supposedly formative experiences in your life, and I can’t answer a single one. It’s really frustrating to be the person who is constantly drawing a blank.
I read about this study just as I was embarking on my PhD in Design and decided to use my practice as a way to fight back. By their very nature, memories are fragmentary and require our conscious mind to shape them into a constructive narrative. As I am interested in studying the boundaries of narrative, I thought I could use my own childhood memories as a liminal space to explore the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. How much could I remember about my own past? Could I remember more if I worked at it? Would my memory of certain events remain static over time? If I gave someone else the same memory fragments I had access to, would they form the same narrative with them as I do, or does our worldview shade how we assemble our stories?
When I tried to reach back into my childhood, specific moments did not come readily to mind. I could remember what other people had told me about my childhood, but I could not remember these instances as they happened to me. I found myself having to try to separate my own memories from the stories I have heard over and over again and incorporated into my life story. Other people weren’t the only ones who perpetuated these stories that felt like memories. I began to question narratives I had constructed around events whose certainty had dulled over time, where story stood in place of memory.
One thing I remember very well is the house I grew up in. I remember its layout, the furniture, the textures of the upholstery, the toile of the wallpaper, the finish of the sink, the horrible teal paint I convinced my mom to let me use in the attic. So I started there, trying to rebuild the place I called home. I then tried to pinpoint specific memories to each space of the house. I was particularly interested to see if I could remember my emotional attachment to the spaces.
One of the things that struck me is how most of my memories are emotionally flat. I would expect moments of pain or joy to jump out, to have stuck with me. Instead, I remember the yellow and the fading flowers of the couch I sat on when my parents told me they were getting a divorce. I have no idea how I felt. I recall this fragment with the exact same intensity with which I remember watching dust drift through a beam of light in the attic of my preschool during an assembly. This inability to connect memories with emotions reminds me of the description of over-generalised memory in the study. I can’t remember the good times, but by the same token, my brain has protected me from the bad as well. Maybe the fog obscuring my past is a coping mechanism gone wrong.
This is all very much still a work in progress, so perhaps one day I will unlock the feelings buried under so much time. At least I now feel as if I am doing something active to reclaim my past from myself, and maybe even working towards laying down foundation where I can have a healthier relationship to my memories going forward.