Depression, and Revisionist Ret-con Time Distortion

(Content note: depression. Obviously.)

So I’ve been in this weird place in recent weeks, or maybe not so weird. I’ve been in this place with my depression where I have good days and bad days. I have days where I feel entirely fine — more than fine, actually, days where I feel good and happy and productive and joyful and engaged and connected and optimistic. And I have days where I can’t muster the motivation to work or shower or dress or leave the house. Because these days are coming in somewhat rapid succession (that’s unusual for me — I tend to slip in and out of my depressive states more gradually), it’s giving me a unique opportunity to observe some things about my depression. And here’s something I’ve noticed:

dali clock
When I’m depressed, my brain sometimes does this weird thing with time. When I’m having a thought or feeling that’s pessimistic or despairing or otherwise depressed, my brain goes back and rewrites my memories — so I think I’ve always felt like this. It writes a revisionist, retroactive-continuity version of my life, in which I have always felt like this. And it filters my perception of possible futures, so it seems obvious and self-evident that I’m always going to feel like this, forever.

The specific example that made me want to write about this: I was having this experience, where every time I had a moment of happiness or joy or connection, it would quickly be shot through with an intense consciousness of mortality. “Sure, you’re happy now — but remember, someday you’re going to die, and everyone you love is going to die, and everything you’re experiencing is going to disappear.” And these moments of consciousness of mortality weren’t just fleeting bits of awareness of the obvious. They were intense, they were powerful, they were painful, and they obliterated whatever pleasure I was experiencing. It was, unsurprisingly, extremely upsetting, and extremely hard to deal with.

And I wasn’t just having this crappy experience. It felt as if I had always had this experience. It felt as if every moment of joy I’d ever had in my life had been shot through with an intense consciousness of death. And it felt like this would be true for every future moment of joy, for the rest of my life.

Unsurprisingly, this made the experience that much more upsetting. Grief is hard enough, without it feeling like it’s the permanent condition of your life. It felt like, “How can I go through my life like this? If every moment of joy and connection is ultimately going to be about death and grief, how is that bearable?”

But a couple of weeks later, I had some intensely wonderful experiences of joy and connection; marvelous conversations with friends both new and old, in which I felt very much alive, and very much present in the present moment. And I did not, in fact, have an overwhelming awareness in the middle of these conversations that we were all going to die. I did have a couple of little meta-moments, moments of thinking, “Hm, this is about the time when my brain usually starts screaming, ‘You’re going to die! They’re going to die! Everything is going to be boiled away into the sun!’, I wonder when that’s going to kick in” — but it didn’t kick in. I was fleetingly aware of the reality of mortality, I noticed it — and I returned to the conversation, and to the joy I was taking in it. If anything, my awareness of mortality inspired me to stay present in the conversation. In the middle of intense conversations, I sometimes get scared of the intimacy of it and feel an urge to make an excuse and take off, but my fleeting consciousness of mortality told me, “Stay here. Stay with this. This is what gives your life value, and it doesn’t happen that often — sit with it, and run with it.” (That’s a lot more normal for me: my usual, non-depressed framing of mortality is that it drives me to make something of my life and to experience it as fully as I can.)

And I started wondering: Why did that “consciousness of mortality” experience seem so permanent? Why did it overwrite my memories, and block my sense of future possibility? It is not, in fact, even remotely true that every experience of joy I’ve ever had has been immediately tainted with an intense and obliterating consciousness of mortality. Most of my joyful experiences have not been like that. Joyful experiences being obliterated by the consciousness of death are very much in the minority for me. So why did it feel like it had always felt this way?

I don’t actually have an answer here. I’m thinking out loud here. And I’m asking other people with depression: Do you have this experience? Is there any kind of logic or sense to it? Or is this just how depression is sometimes? Is the sense that “I have always felt this way, and I will always feel this way” just another symptom of depression, like hopelessness and lack of motivation? Is this just another of the many almost random ways that depression lies? Or is there something else going on — some internal logic, or some lesson about how consciousness works?

Depression, and Revisionist Ret-con Time Distortion

14 thoughts on “Depression, and Revisionist Ret-con Time Distortion

  1. 1

    I don’t have quite that experience. During my depressive episodes, I’m really only afflicted by the perception of present and future (“I feel this way now, and I will never feel differently”). I can clearly remember that at past times I felt differently, though this typically just makes me more depressed (“Not only will I never feel that way again, I know what I’m missing”). However, from discussions with others I tend to think I’m atypical in not having the “I have always felt this way” element..

    As to mortality …. increasing awareness of my and others’ mortality is one of the surest signs I’m going into an episode. The more severe episodes tend to be overlaid with an almost dark glee that however bad it gets, death can be counted on to come, that everyone else around me is nothing more than a bag of meat on bones just waiting to die, and I have some special insight into this that others don’t have (“You think you’re happy, but just wait…”). Obviously, it’s not pretty.

    I’m not great about putting my experiences with depression into words. Never can quite seem to find sentences that adequately convey emotional state. The above is accurate, but simultaneously glaringly wrong.

  2. 2

    Hmm I don’t think I’ve ever randomly had existential anxst ruin a good time.

    But something like the “empathy gap” (the difficulty imagining emotional mind states other than your present one) might be part of that illusion that things will always be like that.

    I recall one day, a couple months after I started taking medication. I forgot to take the medication one night. The next day, I was back to having fairly bad depression. But it was interesting, because I was suddenly for the first time able to compare in a short time span the different states. And I remembered that I had been this way very very often before the medication. And it was a shock, like “really? this is how it was all the time?” and so I was actually able to view the feelings I was having from a distance. Like it wasn’t really “me”, it was something happening to me. It made that day more bearable, even though I had awful feelings.

  3. 3

    Greta, I was so taken aback at what you said because I have these kinds of “mortality consciousness” moments all the time. It really comes at me like a dagger to the heart and sends shivers down my entire body, and sometimes I have to catch my breath because the feeling is so sudden and acute. The most striking thing you said was that they can interrupt a moment of joy and shift my entire mood.

    It’s one of the reasons I really had to curb my drinking. When I’m hungover, my depression and anxiety are orders of magnitude more severe, and I become OBSESSED with thinking about death and mortality.

    The more I read you talk about your depression, the more I realize how similarly we experience it. It’s actually comforting, because when I talk to other people who have mood disorders, I very rarely can identify with their experience.

    Question for you: do you have experiences with depersonalization/derealization? I have times where I literally do not feel like I’m in my own body, that my body and mind are separate. I know I’m controlling my movements and thoughts and I never lose touch with reality, but it still FEELS like I’m not in control. Every thought feels like a non sequitur from the last. These episodes are very distinct and very acute, and have a clear beginning and clear end. These episodes often accompany those mortality realization moments.

    Thanks for talking about this because it makes it easier for me to do so. 🙂

  4. 4

    Is the sense that “I have always felt this way, and I will always feel this way” just another symptom of depression, like hopelessness and lack of motivation?

    Yes, and not only in my experience, but also according to many books I’ve read over the years, and based on observations of friends dealing with depression.

    I’ve been dealing with some degree and anxiety and depression dating to childhood and I was 15 when the depression became so severe and long-lasting enough for me to consciously realize, “Hey, something’s really not right here”, but it wasn’t until I was 17, and after a couple of years of drug abuse, that the depression became severe. I’ve been receiving treatment ever since then and I’m now 45. When the really severe depression hit, I recall, after just 2 or 3 episodes, within a short period of time (a few months) and with nothing resembling full interepisode recovery, thinking and feeling that it was never going to end. After about a year-and-a-half of fits and starts in the recovery process, I got to the point where I was semi-steadily not severely depressed and even experienced some genuine please from time to time – and yet often feeling like I was just dangling by a thread – like the slightest bump in the road could bring me all the way back down (and unfortunately having experience back up this paranoia). I was phobic about depression for those first few years (though phobia is not the most accurate term, since fear of depression (clinical, major depression, the type you are talking about, Greta), is hardly irrational, though my attempts to avoid it had somewhat of a phobic aspect to them). I don’t quite remember when my depressive episodes started rewriting my past, but after dealing with the depression for about 5 years, I realized that I was never going to get fully better and that it was more like I had brief, recurrent episodes of happiness because the depression had become the norm (mind you, this could be an example of me to some degree, though certainly not completely, rewriting my past). I don’t recall when I became aware of my diagnosis (seeing it on an official form or something), but when I found out it was Dysthymia with Recurrent Major Depression (and once I found out what dysthymia meant: chronic mild depression), I thought, “Yep, that’s me.” The rewriting of my past has worsened over time (as has the intensity of the dysthymia, my feelings of hopelessness, lack of motivation, anhedonia and pretty much every other symptom of depression) and the periods of time between the major depressive episodes have shortened. But I’ve often, even in the midst of major depression, realized had good times in the past, but that actually can hurt me more because I think “Oh, things were so much better…..but they never will be again”. So I guess I’d have to say that when my depression rewrites my past, it’s selective – it casts an overall pall on my past, but some of the good parts still show through (it’s just that they’re not helpful).

    I think the feeling that the depression is never going to end is a normal response because when depressed we cannot imagine feeling any other way so of course we’ve ability to see it getting better. In the grips of depression, we cannot imagine happiness or any other positive feeling and personally when I feel the most depressed, I can’t imagine anything at all – not even my most wonderful fantasy coming true – lifting me out of depression at all. On top of that I’ve had good things happen to me when depressed yet have not been able to feel even the slightest bit better. In fact, those things can make me feel worse because I know that I should feel better. (the same is true for sunny days when I’m depressed). The thing is, I’ve had periods of good days (or rather part of a day, one day, almost never as long as a week, and I haven’t had any of these for a long time) when I feel the opposite – on those really good days I cannot imagine being depressed! I wish those days were the norm.

    I cannot relate to any concern with my mortality bringing me down. My mental illness – the two depressive disorders plus GAD and primary insomnia – makes me, and has made me for about 21 or so years, though it’s gotten worse over time – make me not want to live. The only thing about my own mortality that would make me sad is that my life has just been a painful pathetic waste of time. When it comes to the mortality of others, that has become a severe issue with me and I fear it will be for the rest of my life (which of course worsens the depression and anxiety). But my current issue is with grief. My youngest uncle died unexpectedly in 2012, his older brother died not-unexpectedly and worst of all, last year, my oldest sister, my father, and an old friend who I use to be very close to, died in an eight month period. I really can’t imagine getting over that and it’s made me very paranoid about losing other loved ones. It’s like, “Who’s going to die next.” It’s just awful.

    I don’t know if any of this will help and it seems like a journal entry (if I had one) so sorry if I went on for two long.

  5. 6

    That’s interesting, and thanks for sharing it, Greta. I’ve only just recently started coming to terms with my own depression, and as I’m trying to navigate treatment/mitigation strategies, it’s really helpful to hear other peoples’ stories.

    For me, I experience a similar sort of distortion, but in almost the opposite direction. Each depressive episode feels overwhelming and new, and it’s hard for me to contextualize it with previous depressive episodes. It takes some cognitive work to make myself aware that the current depressive episode I’m in may not actually be worse than anything I’ve previously experienced. As for the future, though, that’s similar; my depression makes it hard to recognize that the episode I’m in is just an episode, and will end.

    Conversely, when a depressive episode does end, I’ve recently realized I have a tendency to rewrite history to underweight the severity of the episode, attributing my behaviors during the episode to negative personality traits like “laziness” rather than depression. I think this distortion was one of the major reasons it took me until very recently to start getting treated: when I’m in a depressive episode, I am more able to recognize that I need treatment, but summoning the energy to seek it out is too difficult, but once the episode ends I am no longer convinced that I need treatment.

  6. 7

    Thank you Greta and commenters for sharing your experiences. Depression alone is a horrible illness, and the ignorance and stigma associated with mental health only magnify it, so it’s really helpful when those who have enough courage stand up to defy the stigma and address the ignorance. It inspires more courage in others, which in turn can give them the strength to seek professional help.

    I’ve known a few people with depression, and I studied it quite a bit while doing my BA in psychology. Of course a mere BA in psychology teaches you practically nothing clinically relevant about psychology, but the altered memories seem to be a common symptom at least among the friends I’ve talked to. One thing I learned in school that does seem to be relevant to this discussion is that memories are a lot less robust than they feel. False memories and alterations to memories occur surprisingly often, even among people who don’t suffer from any mental health issues. The idea that this natural flaw in our minds seems to be hijacked during an episode of depression almost makes sense in a way.

    This lecture is really good for anyone interested in an academic perspective on depression:

    “Brain Games” is a really great show about the weird things our brains do, and this episode is all about memory…and I swear if you haven’t studied this stuff before, it will change your life:

  7. 8

    Question for you: do you have experiences with depersonalization/derealization? I have times where I literally do not feel like I’m in my own body, that my body and mind are separate. I know I’m controlling my movements and thoughts and I never lose touch with reality, but it still FEELS like I’m not in control. Every thought feels like a non sequitur from the last. These episodes are very distinct and very acute, and have a clear beginning and clear end. These episodes often accompany those mortality realization moments.

    Derick Shamblin @ #3: I don’t experience that exact thing (although it wouldn’t surprise me to hear that other people do). But I do experience something similar — a disconnect between my conscious, willing self, and whatever part of myself it is that actually does things and moves my body around. This is very much how I experience my amotivation, which for me is a major symptom of my depression. I will think to myself, “I want to do X (e.g., get some exercise, leave the house), I am going to do X, I’m going to do X right now” — and then I sit and watch myself completely and utterly not do that. Or I think to myself, “I am not going to do Y (e.g., eat large amounts of unhealthy food, watch TV for hours)” — and then I watch myself do it anyway. I don’t even make excuses or rationalizations — I just make a decision, and then watch while my body does the opposite. I experience my amotivation as a disconnect between my body and my mind — or between the part of my mind that thinks it controls my body and the part of my mind that actually does.

  8. 9

    Greta @ 8: I can definitely understand how that would be frustrating. Finding motivation or even inhibition can be difficult if you feel like you’re just out of touch.

    One thing I’ve struggled with is binge eating disorder. My therapist was a big proponent of the ego depletion model – basically, self-control is a finite resource that can be depleted. Though she never came out and used that phrase, I just do a lot of reading on psychology so I put the pieces together.

    One of the things she’d have me do was systematically recreate the mental stressors and the environments in which I would binge, and then practice a methodology to resist that urge and divert myself. I actually made a “binge box” of food I’d take to my room and out lay on the bed and then analyze my thoughts. Over time, it started taking less and less mental energy to resist the compulsion. It was like my inhibition “muscles” were getting stronger. Wellbutrin helped a lot too.

  9. 10

    Memory is reconstructed at the time of access based on the available context of the mind.

    So a depressed brain constructs depressed memories. That sucks. But it makes sense.

  10. 12

    I find it impossible to imagine what it’s like to feel the way I’ve felt a million times before. At the moment I really want to be getting on with recording my music and working on my website idea. I don’t particularly enjoy making music, or doing anything for that matter so I have to force myself to do it. Sometimes I’ make a time table for myself. I will do 2 hours of website programming, and then have a break and do 2 hours of working on my music. And on days where I manage to do this, I always think the same. “Yes I’ve cracked it now. I be able to stick to this schedule and be really productive. I mean I still feel crap and lack motivation, but I managed to make myself do something”.

    Then I’ll keep that up for a day, and wake up and I just can’t make myself do it anymore. Although I thought I was doing stuff when I felt really bad, I had forgotten how the lack of motivation feels when it’s even worse. It’s such a subtle difference between being able to force myself to do something, and not being able to force myself to do something. And when it’s so bad I can’t do anything, I can’t imagine what it feels like to not feel like that. I feels like I always feel like that.

    That probably made no sense. I’m in a hurry and I can’t check it back.

  11. 13

    Maybe your brain isn’t rewriting memories so much as when they are stored they have an empty spot where your current mood goes in. I know when I have trouble feeling things, I can’t remember what it is like to feel things, even though I remember actions that only make sense in the context of feeling things.

    You journaling this phenomenom here is pretty helpful for not falling into that hole for long, though.

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