I Can’t Remember Not Being Depressed – Emotion and Memory

When I am depressed I can’t remember what it’s like not to be depressed.

It’s an interesting phenomenon, actually. Although I, logically, can state that I have spent massive chunks of my life out of major depression, when I’m depressed I feel that’s not true. I can’t remember not having depressed emotion. I literally can’t remember what non-depressed feels like. Logic ceases to be convincing. I understand there’s a high statistical likelihood that depression will pass. But I just can’t believe it, can’t remember it, when depressed.

Depression and Emotional State Memory

I can’t remember not being depressed because (for the sake of explanation) there are two kinds of remembering, physical, and emotional. Physical memory is pretty simple. Do you, or do you not, remember an event? I remember my high school graduation, for example. I remember the salad I just ate. I remember the cause of the bruises on my thigh. I remember these things and I don’t have any real emotion attached to them

Simple. Quantitative.

Emotional Memory

Emotional memory is a bit different. Not only do you remember the event, but you remember what it was like to live that event. This is, hopefully, the memory retained of good things. How it felt when you held your child for the first time. What walking across the stage to get your degree was like. How your first skydive made you feel. When you remember these things you can actually feel the emotions of those moments.

Emotion, Depression and Memory

The thing about depression is it dampens your emotional memory for everything except depression. Depression plays tricks with your mind. Depressed emotion makes it so you can’t remember non-depression. Depression tries to make you believe that this sad, depression emotional state is your life and it will never get any better. This is a lie. And the more you believe this lie, the more it will become true. [push]Depression steals your umbrella and you end up sopping wet, all the time.[/push]

Emotion and memory are complicated in terms of neurobiology but it’s enough to understand that when memories are written, emotions are tied closely to them. It’s sort of like putting your umbrella right by your raincoat. One always reminds you of the other; just like when you’re happy and your see a child in a party hat you’re likely to remember a birthday when you were happy.

And that works just fine. When you need your umbrella you’re reminded to take your raincoat and vice versa. You’re a very cozy and dry person.

Can't Remember Not Being DepressedBut then one day, it’s raining outside and your umbrella is gone. You see a sun bonnet and no umbrella. And so you forget to wear your raincoat. In fact, not only do you forget your raincoat, but you can’t even remember where you put it; you might not even remember to look.

That’s depression. Depression steals your umbrella and you end up sopping wet, all the time.

It’s actually neurobiological. If you’re really sad, depression, and you see a child in a party hat, you’re more likely to remember the birthday where you couldn’t stop crying because the clown scared you. A sad memory.

And because depression is a persistent state of sadness, the memories written when you are depressed are attached to sadness. Moreover, the memories you can recall during depression are much more likely to be sad ones.

Barenaked Ladies and Point Break

I’ve been listening to The Barenaked Ladies since I was 12-years-old. I have had many fine times singing along with them (yes, I’m that girl). They are chipper and happy and they have brought me joy almost forever.

I saw the movie Point Break when I was around 14-years-old and if you happen to be in my age bracket you’ll know – it was a definite it movie. Keanu and Patrick were hot, the chick was sexy and pretty much everything they did was terribly naughty and sexy. Plus I love bank robbers. And there’s a skydiving scene (however massively inaccurate). It was a shared “cool thing” among my peers. Again, great enjoyment was brought.

Even Depressed, I Might Smile

They were genuinely good memories untainted by mental health issues (unless you consider liking Keanu a signal of latent mental health issues, which you might).[push]These memories are before I became bipolar, depressed, crazy and the like.[/push]

And the odd thing is, if I hear the Barenaked Ladies or Point Break is on TV, I might actually smile a little through my depression. Somehow memories of those are so tied to enjoyment that seeing them, at times, they can break through depression. Other stimuli are fairly easily twisted into depressing memories and thoughts, but these young memories seem to stand strong against such treatment.

I suspect this is the case because these memories were imprinted before the bipolar, depression and crazy. It’s much more difficult to come by purely happy, untainted memories post-crazy.


Does anyone else have distinct stimuli that aren’t depressing in spite of the fact that everything else in the world seems to be? Is it related to experiences pre-illness?

  1. Very good article on depression.
    In the past I never realized how much negativity latched onto my thoughts. I had been walking in the rain without an umbrella for a long, long, time.

    My therapist told me that the negativity I grew up with has been imprinted. So when those negative thoughts pop in I have to force myself to think positively. With the meds and changing my thoughts, I’m better at managing my depression.

    I always have good memories of my children and vacations. When I think about my grandma, I always feel good. My grandma was so sweet and kind. There are some movies and plays that stir up good thoughts. I also have good memories when I was in elementary school.

  2. this is exactly how i feel, except instead of point break it’s the tragically hip, and i also cry when i smile about those memories, maybe cuz i was fucked up as a kid (still am one, but i was once worse than this.) the psych said i might be bipolar today. before they just said i got to stressed out and started dissociating, and that i’d be fine. but that was like 6-8 years ago. i honestly think i am bipolar, every symptom sounds like something i’ve been trying to communicate for years, but whenever i am experiencing the symptom social interactions and sane communication are out of the question so i avoid people, then when i get it together i prefer to act normal. an yeah i also forget what it’s like to be depressed when i’m happy. totally relate to what i’m seeing here so much. fucking sucks to talk about tho cuz us 19 year old metal fabricators are supposed to be all stoic and shit. anyone else regress? like start acting/saying/doing things from their childhood or firs depressive episode when they get depressed?

    • William—I can relate. I had a terrible childhood, never felt loved, never understood my mental disorder–cause at that time, mental illness was not as prevailing as it is now. But, what I wanted to say is that I am glad to have read how when you noticed you began to disassociate. when I was in high school, I had a lot of friends. then suddenly, I noticed myself migrating away and losing many. I’m very antisocial now, and when I am not feeling overly powered by my depression, it feels weird to be feeling “normal.” but, thank you for your post. Bipolar disorder is looked down upon by those who do not understand it. I know, my neighbors throw the BP shit at me when we get into arguments…it’s sad. BP is extremely tough for the one who suffers and those who suffer around it. I’m greatful to have my husband who has helped me through for the past 8 years. I’d be dead without him. Good luck to you. Today, I am extrememly depressed and I have everything that should make me happy. Just remember, we are stronger than those who do not have BP…if only they understood the storm we face every single day of our lives.

  3. Hi there, I thought this was really interesting, it reminded me of some of the writing I have done while actually depressed (when it feels like thats all there will ever be) –

    “Recurrent depression is cyclical. It comes and goes in longer periods than just days or weeks. Each low episode can last months, and within that time it can make everything much harder, with deep lows and any better times feeling fleeting and insecure. The hardest part of the fact it is recurrent is in the way that when you’re low you forget the good months and better years and just remember the times in the cycle where you were fighting it, and it feels like you’ve spent your whole life feeling low, that every time you thought you’d beaten it, it comes back and that there’s nothing to look forward to but more of the same. I can understand why depression is a killer. The only way to give each apparently endless low a meaning is to try so hard not to see it as a setback or as a return to the hardest darkness but to try and learn from each one, to gain as much practice in management and insight from each time to help the next time become easier. And maybe each time it comes around, each low period, be it weeks, months or longer, will get easier to manage and survive through as a result. And perhaps the low times will come less often.”

    But also, some of the stuff you write about the associations between moods and depressive thoughts sound really similar to some of the stuff around mindfulness based cognitive therapy that I have been doing and reading about. It is based on the idea that moods influence thoughts – everyday sad moods can reawaken and trigger negative thoughts if people have experienced them before. People who have been depressed in the past have learned associations between low mood and negative and depressed thoughts. Whereas most people might be able to ignore the occasional sad mood, in people who have been depressed in the past, a slightly low mood risks bringing about much larger changes in thought patterns.

    I’ve written about it in more detail here – http://fostresswrites.blogspot.co.uk/2012/06/keeping-beast-asleep-mindfulness-based.html

  4. I used to think my mania’s were far worse than my depressions, until i have been struggling with a one of the most severe depressive episodes for months. It seems like forever, the happy memories are all but erased, all i see is never seeing the light of day again. I have to work extremely hard to conjure up memories of happiness and joyful periods in my life. I make myself sit down and find things that make me smile or made me feel good to put a small dent in the depressive state. It’s like what you have written, depression takes away all that is good and blinds everything else. Making it as though sorrow is the only emotion you have. Thank you for an enlightening post.

  5. Thank you for this. I can’t really remember a time before I was depressed, and this helps to explain why. Things I can tie to films I’ve enjoyed help me, because for those two hours I wasn’t concentrating on anything but the movie.

    • Hi Kit,

      Yes, when I learned this I heard things “click” in my head too. Movies are an odd oasis. Thank goodness they are there.

      – Natasha Tracy

  6. This is very interesting. It is true when you are depressed it is so very hard to remember ever being happy.

    A few things I have done is I watch a funny movie, and only one movie makes me laugh time and time again; The Birdcage with Robin Williams and Nathan Lane. This was my favorite movie pre-illness. Or I will watch John Candy movies or Tom Hanks, all movies I grew up with, all pre-crazy. It really does remind me of a time I felt care-free.

    Another tactic I use is the F-it mindset. I’m already depressed so its really easy to say the hell with everything which gives me that much needed non-attatchment to my mind and environment. I’m much less emotional, I kinda switch my sarcasm on and become darkly humorous. Pessimism with a dash of humor and I keep the “I’m so misrable I want to die,” thoughts away.


    • Hi Samantha,

      Yup, pre-crazy movies – a speciality. It’s good you know what works for you, it can take time to figure that out.

      The fuck-it mindset is one I have often, actually. I agree, it allows for emotional separation which can be necessary to get things up and going and not break down about them. And sarcasm, I’m a frequent visitor to that land too. The Dalai Lama once said that sarcasm is a rock wrapped in wool but my guess is he never had the need to break so many windows.

      – Natasha Tracy

  7. I see that someone already commented on the thoughts I was having as I read your blog post and that is that each time I am depressed it is as if I was never happy, just like you wrote about. Then the opposite happens for me when I pull out of the severe depression and I can’t for the life of me figure out what could have been so bad that I thought I wanted to die. And then the depression hits me again. During one of my worst years of depression I truly couldn’t think of one happy memory. I thought I had never been happy in my entire life. So I contacted family members, and friends from my teenage years, and asked them to send me hand written letters giving me very specific happy memories that we had shared. I needed some positive in order to try and replace the dark, negative memories that had taken over. I received such great responses from those I loved and I held onto those letters for dear life. It didn’t take away the thoughts of wanting to die, but it did give me a small sliver of hope that maybe I had once been happy and content with life. I was so grateful to those who followed through with my desperate request. I read and re-read them. I still pull them out every once in awhile and once again feel so thankful that my friends and family cared enough to take time out of their busy lives and help me during one of the lowest points of my life. Natasha, you put into words what so many of us feel but don’t know how to express. Thank you.

    • Hi Dina,

      I think you were brilliant for doing that. When others, without broken brains, can remember for us, that _can_ be something for us to hang on to. Those letters, from people you trust, must, indeed be a lifeline.

      Thank-you for your comment.

      – Natasha Tracy

  8. I …..think…. depression set in before I was 16. I’m 43 now. Yes there have been times I’ve been happy, I have smiled, I have enjoyed things….I’ve been hypomanic again and again since then too….but the depression is my “normal”.
    You have said it so eloquently.

  9. Oh my gosh. This makes so much sense. I know when I’m depressed it feels like I’ve been depressed for years…like all the years I’ve spent off and on with depression have been depression only with no rays of happiness to dampen it even a little. Right now I’m not depressed…anxious, but not depressed. I KNOW that I’m not always depressed, but what you’ve said explains why I spend so much time thinking that I am. Thank you!

  10. The only constant in my life that has ever brought me true real joy would be my pets. Dogs and cats were my secret friends. Because of this I have always had animals. They can still make me smile and laugh, when nothing else in the world can do it. I can always count on them no matter where I am at.

    • Hi Midnight,

      I totally agree with you. I have two cats and no matter what, a cat purring on my lap just makes the world seem like a better place.

      – Natasha

  11. I also experience both the inability to see good memories during the depression (or to believe the lie that it will never happen again), and the “what depression” feeling in hypomanic. For me the memory I have that can stick it’s way through the fog to reach me in depression is Legos. My husband has a secret stash for when the depression gets unbearably severe.

    Oddly (and I don’t know if this is worth mentioning, but what the hell), while I can feel that smile, even for just a moment when I’m in a major depression, it doesn’t work if I hit a mixed state. In fact most of my coping mechanisms for major depression fail utterly if I hit a mixed state.

  12. I find that I can’t move, can’t get pout of bed .. can’t do the chores, washing and the like .. I know my husband gets frustrated, but he does deal well .. 20 years of living with me he knows that I am not just being ‘lazy’ .. but yet, I know how hard it must be. But yes, people don’t realise, that I can still smile, laugh at a joke .. smile when my children give me a card, go and be a scout leader, and bounce on the jumpy castle … that even with all those things happening, I am still crippled, and have to force myself to move out the door ..

    • Hi Chiq,

      I can completely relate. You do make a good point:

      “I can still smile, laugh at a joke .. smile when my children give me a card, go and be a scout leader, and bounce on the jumpy castle … that even with all those things happening, I am still crippled, and have to force myself to move out the door ..”

      It’s almost impossible to believe but it’s true.

      – Natasha

  13. It’s very difficult for me to smile even a little. When I’m in that state and I remember those happy times I am far more likely to think that it will never happen again (like you stated ” This is a lie.”) but a very persuasive one nonetheless. I am glad they are stored though. I love recalling them when I’m in a steady and even hypo-manic state.

    • Hi Buzz,

      I definitely understand the not being able to smile thing. I feel like that right now. I feel like if I smile I face will simply break apart. It’s a real bitch.

      And like you, most good memories serve only to torment me and get twisted into negatives about how much I love for them and how much I will never have them again. It feels like what few good memories are left are there just to hurt me.

      But I’m glad to know you’ve still got them, somewhere. Locked inside.

      – Natasha

  14. I also experience forgetting what depression is like as soon as I get into a happy mood. It’s like it never happened, until the next time I get depressed. And you never know when that will be or what will cause it.

    • Hi Tanya,

      Yes, I’ve had that happen too. I’ve almost thought to myself – what was all that depression fuss about?

      But the scars on my arms usually remind me adequately.

      It’s nice though, to forget the bad stuff once in a while.

      – Natasha