On Memory, Medication, and Meditation

A few months ago, not for the first time, I forgot something important. My wife suggested I talk to my doctor about my memory.

I got defensive. She had to be wrong.

I was always the guy who remembered everything, from baseball stats to the B-sides of obscure singles to phone numbers I hadn't dialed in decades. But recently, finding my eyeglasses and keys had required more and more sleuthing, my sense of direction had gone from mediocre to pathetic, and I could tell you frighteningly little about the book I'd just finished.

And yet... so what if my keys had a mind of their own? I still knew what to do with them when I found them. If I got lost on my way to the Farmer's Market, my car had GPS. And who cared whodunit in the new Michael Connelly novel? I still remembered every note of every Beatles song ever recorded.

I freaked because I was worried she was right.

It was too late to call my doctor, so I turned to Dr. Google.

The good Doc was unimpressed that my dad's mind was razor-sharp when he died at 91 or that my mom, well into her 80s, remains remarkably tuned in. Good genes, it turns out, don't count for much in the Alzheimer's crapshoot. That Dr. G gave me barely passing grades on a couple of online memory quizzes wasn't even cold comfort.

I felt a buzz of confidence when my mind conjured the opening theme of a piano piece I'd been memorizing and I imagined my hands leaping octaves and landing on the right notes. I froze when I couldn't think of the composer's name.

My frustration spiked as I ran through the alphabet and the composer's name, a name I'd seen hundreds of times, still wouldn't come. Then I flashed on what a friend once told me was her first thought at the most painful moment of her life: "Thank God I meditate."

I said, "Google schmoogle," turned off the computer, dimmed and the lights and settled in for a dose of mindfulness. My intention was to sit quietly and simply notice, without judgment, where my mind wandered. But my mind didn't wander at all; it ping-ponged between two contradictory thoughts: "I'm sure I don't have Alzheimer's. What if I have Alzheimer's?"

Eventually, something shifted, and I watched the dark clouds of rumination make room for four bright, beautiful words: "What about the Wellbutrin?"

I'd been taking a fairly high dose (450mg per day) of Wellbutrin, an antidepressant, as a treatment not for depression but for anxiety. It had been effective precisely because it mitigated the kind of obsessive thinking I was doing right up to that moment. It worked because it made me forget. Could this drug, without which I might not have been able to identify the drug as a suspect, be the culprit?

I'd iron out those ironies later. Another quick consultation with Dr. Google brought hope: memory loss can indeed be a side effect of Wellbutrin.

The next morning, my doctor eagerly confirmed that Wellbutrin was likely contributing to my forgetfulness. We agreed that I'd experiment for ten days with a one-third reduction in dosage, from 450mg to 300.

My memory improved within days and, astonishingly, without a discernible increase in anxiety. I wondered if this might be a placebo effect (if so, I thought, I'll take two) or the temporary, illusory relief psychoanalysts call "flight into health." But it felt real.

I cut back to 150 mg of Wellbutrin a few weeks later and recently eliminated the drug altogether. So far, so good. I still can't name that damn composer, and that makes me nervous. (I caved and looked at the score: it's the fabulous Louis Moreau Gottschalk.) But I've been flooded with detailed memories of stuff that happened 40 years ago, and that feels like a miracle.

Of course, putting this in writing has activated my JRS (Jinx Ruination Syndrome), a condition common among Jews of a certain age who grew up on Long Island and believe that the act of admitting you feel good about anything automatically ruins everything. But JRS is incurable, and I can live with that.


A friend who has kids and works with people in their twenties tells me that boomers aren't the only ones who aren't sure why they came into a room or forget where they left their keys. Those events may be warning signals -- or side effects of medication -- but more likely they're indications that if to err is human, to forget is too.

All this has me wondering whether the catastrophic, late-in-life slide into Alzheimer's that afflicts some has the rest of us panicked by what's simply an ordinary part of living.

We all need to be mindful of signs of mental decline in ourselves and those we care about. And anyone concerned that their forgetfulness may be due to Wellbutrin or any other drug should consult their doctor -- and weigh the benefits against the side effects -- before making any changes.

But if you're on meds and think you may be losing your mind, you just might be better off losing your meds.