Recovering from cognitive impairment in early adulthood

Coming to terms with a scary event that slowed my brain functions out of the blue

In my early thirties, my life took a sudden, scary turn.

One day, I was a productive professional with an optimistic mindset. The next day, my brain stopped functioning at full capacity.

Without warning, my intellectual capacity tanked. I was constantly cloudy. Brain fog was my new normal. I had trouble keeping up in conversations with people I usually love to talk to. My self esteem was in a downward spiral. Making decisions became impossible.

Brain fog rolled in and stayed for months

I had no idea what could account for this sudden cognitive decline and that terrified me. As days, weeks, and then months passed with no reprieve, I concluded that my brain must have been damaged somehow. So I started the deeply painful process of accepting that I might have to live the rest of my life at a diminished mental capacity.

An explanation was not forthcoming.

I turned to Google looking for answers but queries like “sudden cognitive decline” and “cognitive impairment at a young age” didn’t help me understand how my mind could be so suddenly and dramatically dulled.

Did I have a brain disease? I couldn’t find anything that fit.

Did I fry my brain on acid? I had been experimenting with psychedelics but couldn’t find any evidence that LSD or psilocybin (the chemical in magic mushrooms) could produce effects like this.

Was there a psychiatric explanation? Many articles about clinical depression surfaced, and they spoke to me, but didn’t give me the explanation I was looking for. They did resonate, however.

Major depression runs in my family and I was experiencing many of the the symptoms (despair, a sense of worthlessness, lack of energy, suicidal ideation). But this seemed beside the fact to me at the time. I figured that my malaise was merely the predictable result of a young man facing the likelihood that his brain was forever diminished. My brain was damaged; how could I not be depressed?

I’m happy to say that I did eventually gain some clarity on what I was going through and made a full recovery.

I’m writing this article to share a few of the things I learned going through this experience, in case it helps anyone who finds themselves in a similar situation.

Major depression can cause cognitive impairment (aka brain fog).

I thought that my “brain damage” was making me depressed, but I had the cause and effect reversed.

After months of turmoil, I finally saw a psychiatrist who explained that cognitive impairment was one of eight symptoms that are present during an episode of major depression. (The others are listed here.) Because I was experiencing 6 of the 8 symptoms almost every day for months, he was confident giving me the diagnosis and insisted that antidepressants would likely help.

I was hopeful but skeptical. I accepted the idea that depression could cause brain fog, but I still had trouble believing that my intellectual capacity could swing back as dramatically as it faded away.

However, I’m happy to say that after 4 weeks taking a course of Wellbutrin (aka Bupropion) and Effexor (aka Venlafaxine), my brain bounced back.

Recovery is not linear.

My initial recovery felt miraculous. I couldn’t believe that treating my depression would restore my cognition until I experienced the reversal myself. The day my brain shifted back to a functional, I felt a profound sense of gratitude and a newfound faith — a faith in the power and possibility of healing. Faith that I would need in the months and years ahead.

The elation didn’t last very long. Recovery looked something like this:

Recovery is not linear

At this point I feel even better than I did before the depression, but there have been many ups and downs along the way. And each one of the downs is accompanied by a deep feeling of despair (“Oh shit! I was deluding myself into thinking I could heal my depression. I’m still on a downward slide and I was too naive to realize it.”)

Thankfully, I learned to hold onto my faith and keep taking healthy steps forward, even on the days that feel hardest, when hopelessness is front and center. I’ve learned that feeling hopeless is not the same as being hopeless.

My insides are not the same as my outsides.

When I was going through my first episode of major depression, it felt like my life was falling apart. I tried my hardest to bring whatever energy I could muster to friendships and my demanding job, but I felt like I was failing across the board.

My loss of mental sharpness was acute in my own perception, so I figured everyone around me must have picked up on how slow and dull I had become.

Most of us are our own worst critics, and I was already aware of this. But this experience also taught me that depression amplifies the gap between your sense of self and how other perceive you.

After I recovered and began sharing my story more openly with friends and coworkers, I found that people could tell I was “going through something” and that’s why they expressed concern, but they helped me see that my I was still loveable during this time and that my job performance didn’t suffer in the way I thought it did. I was looking at everything through a filter of depression.

This helped me drop into a deeper understanding of how easy it is to project our self-doubt onto other people, and the importance of checking those tendencies when the fog rolls in.

Depression triggers aren’t always so obvious.

One thing that made my first episode of major depression hard to recognize was that there was no obvious, single catalyst.

Episodes of major depression are often triggered by a traumatic life event. Mine came during a period where I was ostensibly on the upswing.

In hindsight, it’s clear to me that the trigger was not a single event, but rather a few shifts in perception that made me question the path I was on. (A sort of early mid-life crisis, or perhaps a late quarter-life crisis.)

The bottom line here is that depression isn’t always an obvious case of cause and effect. You don’t have to know the reason you’re feeling foggy and depressed before you get help.

Depression can offer strange blessings.

My first episode of major depression was a dark night of the soul, and a second episode accompanied another deeply challenging period.

As painful as despair is to the psyche, I can’t help but feel grateful for these experiences.

I have experienced deep darkness and I’ve also experienced the grace of recovery. This has made me markedly stronger and more resilient than I was before, and deepened my ability to empathize with and hold space for people who suffer from all forms of depression.

Depression is pain, pure and simple. But moving through pain and coming out the other side has improved my ability to love.

If anything in this post speaks to you, I hope you will seek help.

If a sudden fog rolls in and you’re feeling scared, I hope you will consider the possibility that it may be the result of depression and seek treatment.

Please know that in the darkest moments, hope remains even when you can’t access it.

I listened to this Yoko Ono song constantly when I was going through my first episode of major depression. I wanted desperately to believe that this sentiment was true:

Bless you for the times
You feel no love
Open your heart to life anyway
In time, you’ll find love in you
Yoko Ono, Revelations (1996)

In my darkest moments I prayed that this was true and practiced opening my heart even though it felt like it was soldered shut. I’m happy to report that my prayers were answered. I believe that yours will be to. Keep taking one step at a time toward the healing you deserve.