Ilse Watson

My Bipolar Disorder And Memory Loss

By Ilse Watson

I’ve never needed a diary to keep track of things. Not even when I worked as a personal assistant over many years – although back then I did keep a diary for my boss because it would have been very embarrassing if I forgot something important. But what I’m trying to say is that I didn’t need it – my mind was alert and I was on top of things.

I’ve suffered from depression since my early twenties, but it wasn’t too detrimental. There were many times when I didn’t need any medication.

But then, after a divorce in 2009, I slid back into depression and I experienced a constant downward spiral. By January 2014 (when I was 49), I experienced more than just depression symptoms and so I decided to see a psychiatrist. I was diagnosed with bipolar disorder type I and major depressive disorder.

It wasn’t easy to accept the diagnosis, but I educated myself about my mental illness and took my medications religiously.

During a very difficult time in 2015, I noticed that I’m forgetting things – my short-term memory took a hike. I’ve read up about it and have learned to live with it. I now have to make notes of important things people tell me that I must remember. And when I forget to make notes, I simply have to ask again: “What did you tell me yesterday about your meeting?”, for example.

Bipolar and Memory loss can be a real problem. And to make matters worse, sometimes the cognitive symptoms of bipolar such as memory loss, lack of focus, and fuzzy thinking are made worse by medication.

So why does bipolar disorder create problems with thinking as well as mood?

Memory, attention and concentration can all be disrupted by the same neurotransmitter disturbances that cause mood swings. This undermines our ability to study, to work, and even interferes with personal relationships. However, the better these problems are understood, the easier they are to deal with.

“Many people with bipolar disorder are extremely bright, so memory or other thinking problems can be extremely frustrating and confusing.”

So what can we do about bipolar and memory loss? We can structure tasks to make them easier.

* Take the time to analyse tasks and break them down into small steps. Although this takes time and effort we may feel we just don’t have, it will make life easier in the long run. The idea is to structure things into smaller pieces that put less strain on working memory. Do this in writing. Using index cards can be useful.
* It is much easier to store and retrieve information if our brains already have a context for it. If we go through the steps of anticipating what information a task will require, we have some ideas in advance are less likely to get stressed or overwhelmed.

The good news about bipolar and memory loss is that:

1. For some people, the problem is very mild. Not everyone experiences the same amount of difficulty.
2. Bipolar and memory loss is largely episodic. When episodes of mania and depression abate, so will symptoms like memory loss and other cognitive difficulties. We can reduce the number of episodes we experience and increase the time between relapses. Therefore we can also reduce memory loss.
3. Lithium has been shown to increase gray matter in the brain and improve cognitive functioning.
4. We can interrupt the bipolar and memory loss cycle by reducing stress.
5. Simple tools like lists and calendars can make huge differences. Instead of fighting bipolar and memory loss, accept it may be a problem and plan accordingly.

Memory loss is just one problem – overall impaired cognitive function is also an important factor in bipolar disorder.


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