Last week, something frightening happened to me. I was talking to a friend about Downton Abbey—a TV show we both love—when I couldn’t remember one of the main character’s names. I pictured him clearly, and I could describe everything about his experiences on the show. He’s my favorite character, but I just couldn’t recall his name to save my life. I racked my brain, but I was stuck. The harder I tried to focus, the blanker my mind became. Before you say to yourself “Oh, I’ve done that, it’s not so scary,” consider this: I usually have a perfect memory for things like movie titles, and actor and character names. This was way out of the ordinary for me. I don’t know about you, but because I live with bipolar disorder, any potential disruption in my thought patterns worries me. It could be an indication of an impending episode, and that’s not something I take lightly.
I recently quit my job. I finally admitted to myself that after sixteen years working in the film industry, I was burnt out and exhausted. The cumulative stress had built up and became toxic to my system. My decision felt liberating, but it wasn’t until my memory breakdown that I realized I wasn’t fully recovered. Just because I’d eliminated the main stressor in my life didn’t mean I was fixed. That will take time. Additionally, my bipolar disorder can make recovery more challenging, and getting back feeling to “normal” can take longer than it does for “normal” people.
I can’t multitask. The more take on, the less focused I become. Between managing household needs (cleaning; keeping groceries stocked; taking care of my cats); my health and safety regarding COVID-19 (making sure my reusable mask is clean and my backup disposable masks are handy when needed); my social life; my family life and personal projects, my circuits are overloaded. It’s no wonder bits of my memory are failing.
I’m slowly learning some useful skills that help me focus and keep me from feeling overwhelmed. Hopefully some of these tips will make your life easier, too.
(1) Don’t Try to Multitask
Human beings are wired for multitasking, but only to a point. Our brains are constantly processing information and making decisions based on external and internal feedback. Our minds work overtime on involuntary tasks like circulation, digestion, respiration, and reflexes. On top of that, we’re constantly processing information about the world around us and reacting accordingly. But just because we’re built to handle multiple functions at once, doesn’t mean it’s wise to regularly take on too many things at one time. Occasionally, I can manage a day with six or more errands, but the more I try to accomplish, the less mental energy I can devote to each task. By the evening, I’m wiped out both physically and mentally. The worst part is, I don’t even remember how I got from point A to point B, because my thoughts were focused on the next item on my list of chores. It’s a weird feeling to know you arrived somewhere but have no memory of the journey. Because I recognize this, I try to prioritize what’s important and save less crucial responsibilities for later, when possible.
(2) Make Lists
I read somewhere that highly successful people are list-makers. I have lists for groceries, home repairs, general to-dos, professional development ideas, and even potential vacation destinations (that’s the fun one). I don’t always complete everything, but just keeping written running tallies of obligations helps me stay organized and on-track. List making enables me to record priorities, and then let them go so they don’t hang in my mind occupying valuable space. I can revisit the list when I’m ready and I have time set aside. There are tons of free online list making apps that can be shared with anyone and updated anywhere. If I’m at the grocery store, I don’t have to rely on a paper list that could’ve easily been left on the fridge at home. I don’t have to call my boyfriend to ask what he needs, because he adds items to our grocery list app when we run out, so it’s always up-to-date. Another great reason for list apps is to keep from forgetting things. I have a list of streaming shows I want to see. The other day when I was out with friends, we were recommending Netflix programs to each other. Instead of just listening and thinking to myself “Oh, I need to watch that sometime,” I pulled out my phone and jotted down the series names. Now, when I’m sitting in front of the TV and I have no idea what to watch, I just pull up my handy-dandy list. It’s better than relying on an in-streaming-app list. Netflix doesn’t save Amazon Prime shows.
(3) Walk away for a while
Have you ever noticed the harder you try to remember something the more your mind locks up, but later, when you’re not worrying about it, the memory floods back? It happens to me all the time. When I’m feeling stressed or overloaded, I struggle with memory issues, and things get blurry. When my bipolar disorder causes scattered, disorganized thoughts, I take a deep breath, close my eyes, and let go. It’s only when I don’t cling so tightly to things that I can truly grasp them. Sometimes, just giving my mind a break is enough to refill my engine. Then I can return to the task at hand refreshed and ready to move forward.
(4) Practice Mindfulness
I often lose focus because my mind has drifted elsewhere. I’m a planner, I like to be organized by preparing for the future. I also want to learn from my previous mistakes, so I don’t repeat them. Although those are all useful skills, they’re only helpful if I don’t get bogged down in memories of the past or dreams about the future. To function effectively, and enjoy life, I must be present. Only by practicing mindfulness can I stay focused and clear-headed. It doesn’t take a big commitment to elaborate meditation rituals or special abilities. I just simply stop myself whenever I become aware that I’ve lost track of where I am and what I’m doing. I look around, inhale deeply, and shift my focus to my immediate surroundings. I take note of sights, sounds, and smells around me. It’s a simple, quick way to re-orient myself, and that centers me.
(5) Cut Yourself a Break
If you’ve been experiencing cognitive impairment recently, you’re not alone. The last year and a half has been a marathon of stress, confusion, uncertainty and fear. Everyone is grappling with their own challenges. Whether you lost a job or a loved one, none of us could’ve predicted the massive amount of resiliency we’d need just to survive and make it through this mess. Do yourself a favor: don’t beat yourself up for being inattentive or forgetful. Our brains were not ready for this kind of continual onslaught of anxiety. Forgive others and—most importantly—yourself when you can’t think straight. It’s understandable, and it’s okay. If you live with bipolar disorder like I do, pay attention to changes in your thought patterns, but don’t come unglued over it. You may be experiencing an episode, but you may also just be living what is the new normal. Talk to your doctor or therapist. Get some feedback and perspective from an outside party. I’ve also found strength in support groups (many of which are online now). Sometimes it’s helpful to realize other people are going through the same things I am.
When I couldn’t remember who the character from Downton Abbey was, I freaked out a little. I was afraid I could be hypomanic, manic, depressed, or otherwise mentally compromised in some way. The more I worried about it, the further down the rabbit hole I fell, until all I saw was darkness. Within a few hours, I’d convinced myself I must have the beginnings of dementia. Then, that night while brushing my teeth, I remembered. “John Bates!” I yelled through my toothpaste-filled mouth. I laughed, and accidentally spit little droplets of foam onto my bathroom mirror. His name was so easy to remember once I’d relaxed and stopped worrying about it. I was struck at how silly I’d been to allow my fears to snowball into such an extreme conclusion. Next time, I’ll take a deep breath and just let it go. Sometimes that’s the best solution.