Ketamine is like Christmas every day. It’s the gift that keeps on giving. The latest, unexpected present ketamine has left for me is my memory. As a child, my intelligence was the one constant in my life, the one positive thing I knew was an integral part of me. It was about the only thing I really knew of myself, outside of depression, the only part of me I could connect to because it had nothing to do with emotions and therefore was not suppressed by my depression. My intelligence didn’t make me feel special or superior because it wasn’t something I could take credit for; it was a gift genetically bestowed upon me at birth. Yet, it was very important to me; it was the only life preserver I could hold onto on the constantly-sinking ship of my life. However, eventually the damage a lifetime of depression did to my brain significantly impacted my level of intellectual function.
The most debilitating effect depression had on my intellect was its destruction of my short-term memory. Until the age of twenty, I had a photographic memory. By the time I was 34, my brain was unable to retain even the tiniest scrap of new information. I had to place all the essential items I needed when I left the house (keys, wallet, cell phone, sunglasses) on a table by the front door, so I would see them before I left and remember I had to take them with me. I then had to perform a ritual before actually walking out the door, where I patted my head and all my pockets to make sure the necessary items were present on my body, while repeating their names out loud, “Sunglasses, wallet, keys, phone.” My roommate said I resembled a mentally challenged baboon with obsessive compulsive disorder.
As an English professor, this short-term memory deficit proved especially challenging. Every semester, on the first day of class, I would have to stand before my students and provide them with a disclaimer, alerting them to the fact that even at the end of the semester, I still would not know any of their names. I also had to assure them that my long-term memory remained intact (which it did), so they understood that even if I couldn’t remember what I’d eaten for breakfast, I was fully capable of teaching them how to analyze literature, write an essay, and explain the difference between a dependent and an independent clause. When calling upon them, I would refer to them by an item of clothing they were wearing or a particularly distinctive hairstyle. “Red shirt, what do you think the red convertible is a metaphor for?” Or, “Mohawk girl, what relevance does Brent Staples’ 1988 essay have today?” Fortunately, my students were very understanding and found this more amusing than insulting. I cannot imagine the same would have been true if I worked in a corporate environment.
This erosion of my short-term memory so terrified me (I was convinced I would have full-blown Alzheimer’s by the time I reached middle age), that I finally had to resort to an old Narcotics Anonymous mantra and just accept it as something I could not change and let it go. I tried to convince myself it was amusing that I could watch a movie, then watch the same movie three weeks later and have no recollection of ever having seen it, completely surprised and shocked by an ending that my brain had already received and processed a few weeks earlier. However, this made watching regular television impossible. I could no longer watch shows where the story lines built upon the previous week’s episodes. I was relegated to watching Forensic Files, Unsolved Mysteries, Snapped, and Cold Case Files. Since all this happened post 911, I am sure the FBI or the CIA or the NSA has a file on me somewhere based on my odd television viewing habits.
Now, thanks to ketamine, maybe they’ll actually throw that file away. I don’t watch much television anymore since I started taking ketamine; I am too busy living life and trying to make up for all the years I lost. But when I do watch a program, I watch a serial show, one whose plot line builds upon each previous episode because now I actually remember what happened, not just the week before, but all the weeks before. I no longer stand by the front door, flapping my arms and mumbling to myself like a mentally challenged baboon with OCD, before I leave the house. And, most importantly, I know the first and last names of every single one of my students.