Forgetfulness, a psychological effect of the pandemic

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A psychologist explains why the days, weeks and months have seemed to disappear — and what we can do to center ourselves. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Metro Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — I’ve probably forgotten half of my life. Or, rather, most of my memories have been lost to the swirling, soup-like expanse of my brain. Often, I’m told I just need to focus — have awareness and mindfulness. Sometimes, it’s attributed to a lack of antioxidants. Secretly, I think my brain doesn’t want to remember.

I can’t tell you the pace of how it happened — the forgetting, I mean. The realization, however, hit me like a gushing wave of ice water. I was talking to a friend about Pokemon, about how I had stopped retaining their names after Diamond and Pearl even though I had played every single game since Red and Blue. “I don’t even remember playing Black and White, and I played both White and White 2,” I told her, laughing, though feeling a growing sense of existential dread. It sounds small, almost inconsequential. Knowing the names of all the Pokemon is not a necessary survival skill. What concerned me was that this type of remembering wasn’t the tip of the tongue kind, most commonly associated with forgetting something. When I think about Pokemon Black and White, there is nothing. No images. No sounds. It was like the event had fallen out of my brain entirely, even if I had gone through hours of gameplay twice.

Both a sociological theory and a common Internet joke is that “time is a social construct.” It’s relative. As I get older and now, in particular, after the months-long quarantine had rendered me unable to tell Monday from Thursday, I’ve started to agree with it. In my quietest of moments, my mind draws a complete blank. Sometimes, I feel like I am back in 2017, which to me feels as recent as last March. My body floats between what used to be time and what time is becoming. It is suspended like the carcass in a Damien Hirst art piece.

I brought up the subject with Bernadette Nepomuceno, the head of a trust fund that helps retiring office workers, who is also a practicing psychologist, and a good friend of my mother and late father. “Mostly, my clients would say it’s like a blur,” Bernadette, who I call Tita Bernie, said of the pandemic. She describes life in the pandemic as living in between microevents. “We cut up our ‘knowing’,” she says. “And so it becomes a blur because you have no clear path.” We know what happens leading up to our next meal or our next Zoom meeting, but the clear distinctions between days, weeks, and months have disappeared. We are now operating within this large expanse of endless time.

“It’s like a survival instinct, I think, because of the unknowing,” Tita Bernie said. “Pre-COVID, we had a knowing.” Now, as the quarantine extends, as this dark tunnel we all find ourselves in continues to grow longer, all we have is uncertainty. Without contact with the outside world and other people, “when” has begun to crumble. “Time really is a social construct,” I joked.

Forgetfulness, she told me, is another rampant effect of the pandemic. “When you’re not mindful, you don’t connect the moments of your life,” she told me.

“I think, to preserve ourselves, we go into a mindless existence. We don’t like being mindful because then the unknowing gets unbearable.”

My forgetfulness traces back its genesis even before COVID-19. Pre-unknowing. Flipping through my mind like a rolodex, I parse through my most vivid memories. Playing with a talking Elmo toy in my old townhouse. Trying and failing to jump off the high board at a swimming pool. Sitting on the bed in between my parents and my brother, watching TV shows I barely understood. With an invisible thumb, I flipped through the cards trying to find where they stopped.

The year was 2010. I was 14 years old and at the tailend of my freshman year of highschool, when my father passed away. It was the first time I felt that feeling of suspension. Time and space around me was blurring into nonexistence. I was dangling. There was too much to process all at once, so unconsciously, I had processed nothing, and I continued to process nothing. I remember what happened after through the eyes of others. If my brain played the year as a film, it would be filled with clips taken from other people’s memories sewn together and claimed as my own. Pokemon Black and White, the game that had fallen out of my memory, was released the year after. I don’t even recall buying it. Too late, too long floating in the state of nonexistence, did I realize I was beginning to forget how to remember.

Whenever we experience a strong emotion, there are two ways our memories are affected by it. The first is that the strong emotion burns itself into our memories, carving out a permanent spot. Like in the Pixar film “Inside Out,” these would be our core memories. The mix of the best and the worst emotions, affecting how we respond to the world around us. However, when the emotions are too strong, too much for our consciousness to handle, the second thing happens. The complete opposite. The memory is pushed to the deepest recesses of our unconscious until we can handle the emotional load. It’s a coping mechanism often referred to as “repression.”

During a late night conversation, my friend said she’d like to see her life divided in percentages — how much of your life you’d repressed. “I’ve probably repressed 50% of my life,” I said. “Maybe even 70%” It was a joke, but as my father always said, jokes are half meant. At 25, I began to forget at 14 years old. Discounting the first few years of my life, which are punctuated mostly by important milestones, I only have five true clear years in my memory.

That isn’t to say I don’t remember anything at all about the years that followed. I do. I remember my first track meet, graduating from high school, my first weeks at college, my first love, my second love, and little moments in between. But I remember them as if they occurred one after the other, progressing all within the same year. After 2010, the years started to run away from me, and time became this weird thing I never seemed to have a full grasp on. In 2020, I still find myself writing dates down with the year 2018. On particularly rainy days, I’ve written 2012.

No person ever realizes how much they are truly repressing. After my father died, two old friends followed, and then my Ninang, my grandmother, and my tito. Each trauma gave birth to more repressed memories. When I picture the landscape of my brain, it looks like a valley slowly crumbling into each other. Every time a memory is repressed, another piece of land crumbles, taking anything nearby along with it.

Ten years later, I am continuously surprised by the bits of memories that resurface. Sometimes they’re triggered by a large event, like the first time I heard my dad’s voice after he died and the tears came before I could process. Mostly, they happen when I’m buying snacks at the supermarket or I take a sip of a particularly good cup of coffee. They pass through levels of association to retrieve a repressed memory, like leveling up a video game and unlocking the next stage. As the years go by and I remember a little more, I realize how much I had forgotten.

“I think, to preserve ourselves, we go into a mindless existence. We don’t like being mindful because then the unknowing gets unbearable,” Tita Bernie told me.

In college, part of my Cognitive Psychology class was a unit on mindfulness. Mindfulness is, as the name suggests, the act of being consciously aware of yourself and the things around you. For 50 minutes, we were asked to still ourselves, to close our eyes, and to the focus on our breathing. To observe the way our chests moved up and down with our breathing. To be aware of the gentle humming of the air conditioner. I’d always had a problem keeping still, so mindfulness bored me. I spent most of the class trying fighting the perennial urge to yawn and take a nap. It just wasn’t for me, I thought.

What I didn’t realize was how much energy I was mentally burning because of all the memories being repressed. “The mind gets fatigued because it’s trying to hold back a sense of despair,” Tita Bernie said. Mental energy, like physical energy, is finite. Each person can only take so much at any given time and if too much of their threshold is consumed by repression, then there is nothing left for other things.

“I think, more than ever, this is the time that we have to do mindfulness, where we quiet the mind and give it space.”

Because of the pandemic, this has become a common albeit unconsciously global predicament. There is a collective anxiety enveloping us like a weighted blanket. It is a dark, endless tunnel, with no turns or signs, just a straight path disappearing into the jet black abyss. We don’t know how to operate within this “new normal.” We don’t know how long we’ll have to live in fear, six feet apart, even from the people we care about. Not even the experts can promise when an effective vaccine will come. Because of that, we shut down. We stop processing things. We suspend ourselves and allow time to dissipate.

When asked what she advises her clients, Tita Bernie said to practice mindfulness. “I think, more than ever, this is the time that we have to do mindfulness, where we quiet the mind and give it space.” The act of being mindful allows us to center ourselves, like an anchor at sea.

Mindfulness does not necessarily need to be some form of meditation — not everyone is able to find a safe space to quiet themselves for an hour a day. Like a fingerprint, each person has their own preferred way of finding their center. Tita Bernie has a client who likes to debone chickens because she feels like the act of removing bones after a struggle is like the physical manifestation of her stress melting away. For me, mindfulness is eating a slice of toasted bread with coffee. The act of heating the bread and making myself coffee is when I feel my mind at total ease. By focusing on the measurements of my latest coffee concoction — lately it’s been cold brew coffee with honey, last month it was a matcha latte — I’ve created an event that defines my mornings. It’s helped me recreate the division of days that had disappeared. While I may not have pulled away from the suspension, slowly, I feel a hand reaching toward the ground.

Having a routine does not help me magically remember everything I’ve forgotten. Pokemon Black and White remains a mystery to this day. What centering myself has helped me do, however, is build bridges where the gaps are. To connect what I have like a quilt, rather than viewing them as stray bits of broken landscape. It’s true, my brain doesn’t want to remember. At least if I build a bridge, I can walk through the gaps without falling into them.