The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Greetings from the pandemic memory hole, where the last two years are one big blur

Some people have forgotten birthdays. Others have lost much more.

(Jialun Deng for The Washington Post)
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Even the memory of the time she forgot how old she was has gotten a little murky for Lauren Bendik.

“So, I’m trying to remember,” she says. “Um. I feel like there was a form, or there was something I was filling out, and I had to put down my age, and I had to think about it.”

She was 31, right? No, she was 32. Right. There had been two listless pandemic birthdays that had blurred into one, because two years have blurred into one, and it can be hard to pull them apart.

“I think I, in general, have a pretty good memory in terms of time and events and how long ago things were,” says Bendik, who lives in Los Angeles. But the days have all been the same, especially after last spring when she was laid off from her job as a social worker. Since then, “There’s nothing to mark the time, and you don’t know when the pandemic is going to end,” she says. “You feel like you’re waiting for something, but it’s never coming.”

For 28-year-old Gabriela Barge, a high-end-wedding planner, 2019 still feels like “last year.” Some of her clients have rescheduled their weddings three times now, meaning she has planned celebrations for the same couples in 2020, 2021 and, now, 2022.

“I have no landmarks that kind of show me, time-wise, where we’re all at,” she says.

Alexandra Lange has been at the mall — literally, and also spiritually. In the spring of 2020, Lange had been working on her book, “Meet Me By the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall,” when the virus hit, forcing her to cancel a research trip to New Jersey’s recently opened American Dream Mall. The pandemic sent both her book project and shopping malls into suspended animation — what Lange calls an “in-between space.”

She was finally able to visit American Dream more than a year later, in May 2021. The virus was on the wane, but its impact made things seem precarious inside the mall. Many stores still hadn’t reopened. When she wrote the experience into her book, she accidentally dated her visit as May 2020. It felt “like it happened in this amorphous time that could be 2020, could be 2021,” she says now. “It just didn’t register it as wrong.”

Almost nobody noticed the mistake. “I read it, and my editor read it, and the copy editor read it,says Lange, “and we were all like, ‘Yes, yes, you know, May 2020. And then in the latest iteration, the proofreader came back and said, ‘You say in the text, this is like, more than a year and a half into the pandemic. Shouldn’t that be May 2021?’”

Whoops.

The eternal sunshine of the pandemic mind: For those who have continued to keep their normal lives somewhat on hold, it seems to be getting worse as we begin a third lap around the half-empty mall of memory and experience. A study released in September 2021 of 150 female first-year psychology students at an Italian university found a significant decrease in both working memory and prospective memory during the coronavirus pandemic.

The condition of some people’s recent memories — smudged, shuffled — is not surprising to psychologists who study how memories are formed.

“Distinctiveness improves memory,” says Daniel Schacter, a Harvard psychology professor and the author of “The Seven Sins of Memory.” But when every day feels the same — perhaps because of losing a job, or child care — we lose our ability to distinguish between events, impairing our ability to make memories. “We’re not segmenting those events, separating them from one another, making them distinct from one another,” he says. “So that really sets the stage for what we might think of as more muddled remembering.”

“I’ve definitely had a lot of trouble, " says Mariam Aly, an assistant professor of psychology who studies memory at Columbia University. “You know, did this happen last week or two weeks ago? Did this thing really happen only three months ago? I thought it happened last year.”

There’s the effects of pandemic life, and then there’s the effects of the virus itself. Chimére Smith says she used to have a photographic memory until she developed covid in March 2020. She was never hospitalized and never even had a fever, but soon found herself reeling from debilitating memory lapses and brain fog.

For weeks, she would wake up in her room but not understand where she was. When her family would call to check on her, she would see their names come up on her phone, but “I could not tell you who that was,” says Smith. “I had to think very, very hard and long about who that person was, why they would be calling me.” Sometimes the fundamentals of her identity failed to come into focus. “What’s my name? What’s my birthday? What do I do? Who am I? I could not remember,” says Smith. “I would really have to spend time pulling back into the recesses [of my mind], and trying to pull who I was.”

She was a teacher, one who had taken pride in being able to memorize not only lessons and lectures but also the details about her Baltimore students’ lives — things that make students feel important when someone remembers them. Now, she doesn’t remember how to grade papers.

“That was so much of what made me a special teacher,” she says, “and what made that profession special to me, that I lost and I still have not regained, two years later.”

Smith has been prescribed memory-aiding medication by Johns Hopkins Hospital. It helps, but she still occasionally leaves the water running, or needs a calculator to count the dollars in her wallet, or puts her shoes in the bathroom cabinet because she can’t remember where they are supposed to go. Unable to return to teaching, she has become an advocate for long-haul covid patients, particularly patients of color. America must not forget about those whose encounters with the virus have left their memories scrambled, she says.

“I think because we haven’t shown a lot of attention to the memory-loss aspect . . . we are really setting ourselves up for a workforce where people, as we can see, are not able to work,” says Smith.

“Seeing the cognitive deficits that occur in people with covid is alarming,” says Aly, the Columbia memory expert. “Anytime you’re in a situation where large amounts of the population are experiencing this, then you have to be incredibly worried about how things are going to shape up over years when more and more people might potentially need more care.”

Cae Farrington doesn’t think they had covid, but they’ve had to take steps to protect themselves against memory decay. Farrington, a 24-year-old illustrator from Fort Lauderdale, Fla., started having memory problems in August 2020. They developed what they describe as a brain fog that made it difficult to concentrate on work and tasks.

Farrington made a list outlining how to make art, in case they forgot. The list has more than 20 items ranging from technical instructions, like techniques for shading, to encouraging little pep talks for the more forgetful days. Those days are frightening.

“Living in a pandemic and everything, and being inside for so long, is it going to have long-term effects on me?” asks Farrington. “Like, will this lead to something that will affect me in my old age?

How will this year of years affect any of us? Differently, that’s for sure: Forgetting your age, or when you went to the mall, is different from forgetting the foundations of the self. Those who have experienced major trauma — serious illness, the death of family members or friends, financial upheaval — won’t have the privilege of forgetting.

But for those whose memories have been merely blurred by pandemic life, remembering the pandemic years with as little detail as possible might be a small mercy.

“So much of history is about forgetting where we came from, for both good reasons and bad reasons,” says Lange, the author. “Many people will just compress it as small as possible.

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