The Year Without Memory

by Sam Biddle

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At the end of 2015, I realized I felt completely fucking insane. Not manic (I rarely have much more energy than the level required to write a blog or adjust Wi-Fi router settings) or delusional (keep your expectations low, rigid, and right, I say), but just fucking weird. My ability to map my thoughts and actions to the underlying reality was off-kilter, and I had no idea how to explain it. I just felt wrong. After some Googling and rare stretch of self-examination the lasted for more than five minutes, I realized at some point recently I’d lost the capacity to create and recall short-term memories.

It’s a blessing to be defective in an obvious way with simple signs and textbook fixes, but the unrelenting and pathological anxiety I’ve dealt with since my teens is murky and slippery. Treating it with a circa-2003 Shock and Awe bombardment of bunker-busting Klonopin pills in 2010, followed by a surgical deployment of quieter, agile Zoloft tablets beat it back almost entirely. I no longer had to spend hours of each day wondering if I had said something wrong in an conversation, with a vast branching tree of dialogue nightmares, stopping only when I decided that Yes, indeed, it was likely that I had said something that was interpreted in a way that would somehow hurt me in the future and anger others. I never again had a panic attack like the time in 2009 when I told a girlfriend I was en route to meet her but hadn’t even left my apartment yet, and then agonized over the possibility that someone at an adjacent construction site had seen me through the window, caught me in the lie, and informed her. I can’t believe I can even type that and it applies to me — but it’s over and that’s great, right?

The downside to mashing your worries is that everything else gets stomped on too, a phenomenon doctors I’ve googled often refer to as emotional “flattening” — the bad goes way down but good and normal feelings are also compressed. Think of it as an overly aggressive spam filter: you’re no longer getting ATTN EBAY SAM F BADDLE YOU WILL BE FIRED FOR SPILLING THAT CUP or A+++ VI@GRA CATASTROPHIC SOCIAL CONSEQUENCES, but the things you want are also suctioned away.

It’s dull and frightening to feel this way — like you’re missing most of your emotional guts — and it’s the reason I was so averse to medication until things became internally unbearable in my twenties. I’d like to think that the status quo, flat or not, is workable for the rest of my life should that be the case — I don’t feel great, but I feel good enough. So when a psychiatrist suggested I try adding Wellbutrin to my regimen for its stimulant effects, I was hesitant. I didn’t want to start taking medication to medicate against my other medications, uppers against downers, a neurological ping pong match. This was going to take my brain chemistry, speeding in one direction, and drive it directly into oncoming traffic. On the other hand, my doctor told me there was little chance the pill would make me fat. So I plunged in, and within days felt more broken than ever, having not been warned against the extreme and abrupt memory loss side effect of Wellbutrin.

I tapered off after a few weeks, and will begin 2016 not knowing whether or not I could’ve soldiered through the fog and regained a fuller emotional palette. On the other hand, I can now remember all my pleasant sandwiches and fun nights at bars and decent sunsets and good mornings and conversations with my grandfather and worthwhile articles and a lot of very, very stupid tweets.

Save Yourself is the Awl’s farewell to 2015.