Friday, June 22, 2007

Remembering to Forget


Tony Evans

Even though I tend to gripe about the past, I'm not sure I would give away any of my memories. I like to assume there is value in overcoming obstacles and learning lessons from experience. Could I be rationalizing miseries, just as I once extolled the virtues of certain novels, merely because I had read them? Without attaching meaning and value to experiences, even the worst of them, I fear I may lose the plot of my life entirely. But what could be the harm in deleting a few scenes?

A new and experimental drug called Propranolol promises to allow the user to eradicate feelings associated with specific traumatic events. Rape victims and war veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder are targeted groups for Propranolol, which inhibits the effect of adrenaline in certain neural networks associated with traumatic memories. The drug, in effect, allows people to avoid excessively strong emotions attached to horrible events. Of course when this drug is mass marketed, it probably will be used to erase awkward dating moments from the otherwise spotless minds of prom queens, rather than be dispensed by crop dusters over villages in Rwanda where it would do the most good.

I can still remember the revelatory feeling of anti-depressants kicking in after a nauseous two-week period a few years ago following what doctors called my "post-concussion syndrome." A familiar paradigm of gloom and despair lifted from my shoulders like an old tire. I still knew every rut in the tire and could conjure its exact dimensions at will, but why bother? It was no longer wrapped around my neck.

Similarly, Propranolol is said to remove recurring, traumatic feelings, while leaving knowledge of the experience at some safe distance from immediate consciousness.

During my own experiment with anti-depressants, which lasted a year or so, I recall a particular "story" lifting from around my head, one that I had written and re-written for many years. It was based in fact and contained what appeared to be vital emotional truths from my childhood. This story came to explain what I was experiencing and what the psychologist William James once described as "a positive and active anguish," otherwise known as depression. Now I wonder if my "story" served to illuminate repressed feelings, or if its writing exacerbated an already painful situation by reviewing its details. Was feeling good always good enough?

When I look back at those years when I was holed up in uncomfortable and dingy circumstances waiting for my luck to change, it seems clear that anti-depressants might have been of great benefit. I remember pondering that option for many months, knowing that they might help me get back on my feet. Instead, with the help of some wise and compassionate older friends, I took the opportunity to go to pieces for a while and get out of the ring altogether.

I like to think I found ways to reconnect with the world in a better way during that year or two while I dug out from depression; that it was all just a shakedown from a series of youthful ego trips and misadventures. At least this is what I tell myself. This is the "story" now.

Those who suffer from far worse experiences than my own must wonder about the possibility of eliminating adventitious suffering from their memories with Propranolol. The existence of such a drug causes me to consider at what point memories and feelings associated with traumatic events push us into the abyss, rather than keep us out of it.

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