In June 2015, my DID system collapsed. This was accompanied by almost a completely global amnesia. I shared yesterday that this experience was more terrifying than any of the trauma that I’d been through. Not only did I lose most of my memory and skills, I also lost any sense of self that I had.
On top of that, I saw different counselors over the last four years who simply were not experienced enough when it came to DID or repressed memories to actually help me. In fact, for the most part the 6 different therapists that I tried hurt me. They did therapies that were not recommended by DID patients, which resulted in a flooding of traumatic memories, flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, and more. So, while I was trying to deal with memory loss, including not remembering good memories, I was being catapulted with traumatic ones. And, the counselors that I was seeing kept using the same techniques that caused flooding to try to stop the flooding, which made things worse. No matter how much I complained, though, these counselors did not seem to want to listen to me. They all seemed pretty set in their ideas, ways, counseling methods, and what “worked’ for a client, even if it wasn’t working for me. It’s like they were blinded by their pre-conceived notions. One even told me that I am the only person with DID that I’d ever met who had remorse, which is absolutely not true; most people with DID I’ve found are more empathic and compassionate than most. I’d been with this counselor for almost two years at that point, and she had made herself out to be a DID expert. When she said this, though, I quickly knew that she absolutely was not and that she likely was mistreating me because she had some sort of weird vendetta regarding DID patients.
I did eventually start to get regular and good memories back along with the traumatic memories. But, like the traumatic memories, when I got them, it felt like I was kind of processing the memories but not really feeling them very well or fully integrating them. They, as well as the traumatic memories, were quite dissociated, and it didn’t feel like they were mine even though I knew that they were. Because of this, it took me a long time to even recognize the trauma that I’ve experienced, and I had to consciously re-learn a lot of things from the memories that I saw rather than just remember these things.
There are some in the field of psychology who now considered what was called repressed memories to be dissociated memories. What this means is that while the trauma was happening, that a person dissociated so much that the memory of the trauma takes on a different form, and thus is harder to access than regular memory. It’s not so much, then, that the person is repressing these memories. The memories are simply being encoded in a different way and likely are stored differently in the brain, which makes them very difficult to retrieve. And, when they are retrieved, because they differ so much in nature to regular memory, it can be really hard to process and accept them. The idea, though, that the memories are not repressed but dissociated I think takes some of the blame and shame off of the survivor and also explains why it is so terrifying to recover dissociated memories. This is because many people feel like repression is intentional, even if the person does not know that he or she is doing it. And while it is intentional yet a survival mechanism, people who have repressed memories might feel like they did something wrong. I know that I did and still sometimes too. And, there are people out there who implicitly blamed me for repressing my memories and the long term effects it caused. But when you rephrase the term and meaning to a dissociated memory that you just were not able to retrieve or put away in a different part of your brain than other memories, it’s harder for others to “blame the victim”, and to me, helps me to know that my “repression” of memories was not as intentional as it is believed to be.
Also, if we review the idea of state-dependent learning, we might be able to explain, too, why it is so very difficult and traumatizing for trauma survivors to retrieve dissociated memories. State-dependent learning theories are based off of the idea that if you learn material in an altered state, that you will not be able to, or have a limited capacity to, retrieve these memories in a non-altered state. Researchers have conducted studies were participants learn material after they have been drinking, for example, and have found that retrieval was diminished in participants who attempted to retrieve the learned material sober versus participant who attempted to retrieve the material after drinking.
This theory and these experiments show us that we cannot always retrieve memories that were formed while in an altered state. And while you might be saying, duh, everyone knows about blackouts, these findings really can be expanded to explain much more than what happens to us when we are drinking. When you consider how distressing it is for trauma survivors when they either intentionally or unintentionally retrieve dissociated memories, you must realize that likely, those memories might be being retrieved in a state that is similar to the one that the person was in when the memory was encoded, meaning that they could be in a state of dissociation, panic, and fear that mirrors exactly how the person felt when the actual traumatic incident occurred that produced the dissociated memory. This is because memory retrieval can be state dependent, meaning that if a person is not in the original altered state, it does not happen. And, in order for a memory to even be dissociated, the person has to be in a highly dissociated and traumatized state. Thus, when a person has a dissociated memory, it’s not like when you think back to a hard time in your life and feel the emotions of it. The person might be in a state of terror as if they are in the traumatic episode itself while at the same time seeing traumatic and dissociated memories that he or she has never seen before and did not even know happened. And, part of this could be simply that the person either regresses to that state due to state dependent learning and other cognitive process, or if a person is triggered into that state, then the dissociated memories will start to just roll out.
This is why counseling techniques that cause slight dissociation, such as EMDR, Lifespan Integration, CIMBS therapy, are like playing with fire if the patient has dissociated memories. This slight dissociation can result in full dissociative episodes, along with dissociative amnesia and/or fugue states, along with the flooding of dissociative memories of trauma that the person might not even have any awareness of. This is what happened to me, and it was highly traumatic. And, the frustrating thing is, too, that I had been complaining about memory loss for a long time to my providers, which should have clues someone into the fact that I had and have a lot of dissociated memories. But, even when I told counselors that I was having “repressed memories”, they still did not seem to understand exactly what this meant and kept pushing therapies that led to more dissociation and more dissociated/repressed memories.
The counselors that I saw also gave me weird ideas about what memories were important and what memories were not, as did people that I knew in real life.What I’ve been figuring out this week, though, with memory loss and recovered memories, that it is not always the retrieval of the big stuff that really counts. When I first started to really recognize that I was experiencing memory loss, the types of memories that I tried to retrieve were things that I learned in school, skills that I had just recently lost, like driving, and memories of my loved ones. To me, these seemed like the most important memories to retrieve.And, I had counselors who encouraged this. In some ways I was right, because trying to remember how to drive, for example, is pretty important to do. I saw re-learning or remembering how to drive as a necessity though. I know now that it really wasn’t, and that I would have been fine if I didn’t drive for a while. But, I was stubbornly set on driving, and I had counselors who were trying to convince me to re-learn how to drive rather than convincing me to stay home when I was having these types of memories.
I also really felt like retrieving memories of my cats was important, particularly because they are growing older and I want to remember them after they pass away. So, I was on a bit of a rampage to recover those memories. I see now, though, that I have time to do this because even if they did pass away, I’d still be able to recover those memories later on. But to me it felt pressing that I do this, likely just because I perceived losing them without a lot of memories of them as a form of abandonment rather than just loss. And, I’ve had a lot of abandonment in my life in many ways.
So I think that I was retrieving memories in a way that I thought would be helpful for me based off of the little that I could remember about life. I’ve slowed down my intentional retrieval of memories though over the past few months, and am finding that I do not really know which memories are the most important until I have them. Either last night or the night before, I suddenly had some memories of being cuddled up, warm, and safe in bed. This memory(s) were from before my system fell apart, and it was not a dissociated memory. For me, it was so nice to get these really comforting memories back, especially because I’ve been so tense and hyper-vigilant the last few years that I have not been able to achieve this type of comfort. It is really nice to feel the kind of comfort that I was able to experience before I had to deal with system collapse and severe amnesia, which tends to make it hard for me to relax and feel safe.
I’ve been bringing up a memory of feeling warm and safe in bed, then, for the last few days in order to comfort myself. Sometimes I am hard on myself for my time before 2015, in that I was in denial about trauma, in abusive situations and was unaware of it, and didn’t always act like myself. Still, I do miss being able to do things like naively and innocently bask in the feeling of a warm, comfortable bed. So, I’m hanging on to this memory like I haven’t done with any other one that I’ve retrieved. It brings me hope and joy along with comfort.
What this tells me is that the little things in life absolutely matter, so very, very much. And the truth is that I don’t know if people fully recognize this until they do not have those small things. I didn’t recognize it until now simply because I wasn’t aware that I had lost anything like that, because I just couldn’t remember what those little things actually feel like. Now I know, though, that there is this whole world out there that I had simply forgot about for about four years and have been unable to connect with due to dissociative symptoms. But the fact that I’m beginning to connect with some very basic memories tells me that there is a chance that I will be able to experience things like true comfort in my life again.
Memory loss from trauma really can be devastating, much more than most people know or could ever understand. Those of us with it really struggle in ways that most people do not understand. My hope is that by reading my last few blogs, you might open your mind up a little as to what survivors of severe trauma go through. Most of the time, it is not what you might believe it to be.
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