Talk to me about dissociation... or whatever my problem is
May 19, 2012 10:27 AM   Subscribe

Is this dissociation? I would really like to learn more about my slightly peculiar experience of living life, and what it means, if anything. I've been suspecting some form of dissociation, but I'd love some pointers to books, articles or sites, or informed experiences that might help make things clearer.

All my life I've been aware that most other people seem to have a distinctly different way of remembering (and possibly even experiencing) their own lives. I've always been amazed by the memories that most people seem to have of their own lives, the details of so many experiences reaching back to young childhood, while I... don't. My childhood memories are terribly sparse -- and, on examination, most of those are really family stories that I've internalized more than actual first-person memories. Even in adulthood, I simply don't remember most of my own experiences clearly or at all.

But before I go further, I need to emphasize that I had an almost ridiculously lucky home life emotionally: very supportive and loving parents whose greatest parenting sin was to probably spoil me just a bit (for the era, anyway), who were always involved, present and encouraging, and who also loved each other and were (and are) very happy together, and kind to each other and other people -- so no trauma on that front. I have one sibling, younger, who I have a great relationship with, and we did not live near other relatives, so I don't think it's any sort of "dark family secret" thing. I'm really, really old enough and smart enough now to discern if there was anything at all "not right," at home, and that's not the problem. The problem is that I don't know what the problem is. Except.

I have one thing stuck in my head on more than reasonable replay that gives me horrible shivers: we lived next to a family with twin brothers who were around 12 when I was about 5, and every time I think of these boys my mind freezes, but I get little flashes of memories... they were terrible bullies and cruelly abusive of their nine-year-old sister, and of their family dog, and of me, I think, though I can't remember much. I get flashes of being held down in the snow, pressed down, pinned. I have memories of hating, loathing, to walk by their house, which I had to do in order to go anywhere, including school. (We all walked to school, and back.) I remember being scared all the time.

I had at least one recorded behavior complaint from school at that time, when I punched a boy who tried to kiss me... in kindergarten. I don't remember it, but it was on my report card. And I was always peeing my pants coming home from school every day for a long time. That, I remember. It was a big problem. I also had some recorded learning problems, which, okay, fine... but I later excelled in the same areas, definitively. Not bragging, but mentioning, because it was out of character, as was the assault on another child. I never had problems with anything like that later.

Many, many years later I learned that one of the next-door twins committed suicide by hanging himself at a very young age (around 16 -17) after we moved from that place. The feeling I had at the point of learning this information much later as an adult was... relief. It was only for a moment... or maybe a bit longer, but that is so very much not like me. Also not very much like me: since then my imagination has supplied an image of this young boy swinging from the rafters of a barn, and it became something of an obssessive ideation, almost like (ironically!) some super distinct memory of actually seeing that, and it makes me continually go back to trying to figure it all out.

The family was freaky and weird in my fragile memory (except for their daughter, gods help her) and who knows what went on there to make these young boys into the monsters of my imagination (or perhaps semi-memory). I guess they were super religious, because I remember the story about their mother harshly scolding my mother for calling me "angel" once, because it was heretical.

Anyway, okay... I maybe had some sort of trauma attached to that, whatever "that" was. But I've been this way all my life. I don't even really care that much any more because it's just how I am, and I'm pretty old now, but my curiosity would like to be assuaged. Can a single experience or a series of terrifying experiences at a young age set the cache memory to mostly "delete" forever, even for good/neutral things? There are so few things that I remember vividly (or at all), and I don't understand why. (I don't remember my husband asking me to marry him; he swears he asked, and I swear he never did, or that I asked him... but I don't really remember that either.) All my life is sort of like a gentle blur with a few stand-out moments. To describe it I would have to say it's like watching a film once, and then recalling/reciting the film years later.

My memory is probably above-average otherwise, and I can spout trivial (or serious) information that I never even knew I had tucked away until a question comes up, so I don't think it's brain damage or other organic problem. I'm also pretty much an autodidact, a big reader (I mention this because it's the excuse I've always given for not remembering stuff: I was too busy reading), and apparently have a really high IQ -- at least the last time I was tested. Which I don't remember at all.

Do I have a problem? And if so, what is it? How can I learn more about that? I'd just really like to understand more about my psychological ecology, if possible. (Despite this fairly weird thing, I have a very happy life, and I don't live in a place where therapy is really an option.)
posted by lizwykys to Human Relations (12 answers total) 19 users marked this as a favorite
I have been diagnosed with dissociation. What I have been told is that the experiences were too painful for me and I was unable to physically leave situations, so I left the room (environment) mentally instead.

Once something happens in your life, it is created as a memory. But, the problem is that if you have learned to leave the room (mentally speaking) then it's very difficult to recall memories or to retrieve the memories. These memories are still there, but it's a matter of retrieval.

I have experienced a lot of traumatic situations involving various people throughout my life so far. I dissociated without realizing it, but I then somehow managed to struggle with remembering other things in my life such as positive experiences. It's kind of like my mind is a deep big sea, I keep trying to retrieve information but I am unable to.

When you are in the midst of experiences such as a proposal, you may just naturally shut down and freeze up. You might be able to go through all the motions required so that things don't seem 'off' to other people, but you probably shut down during certain times just like a computer does when it can no longer compute information.

I would say that this only has to be problematic if it's affecting your life negatively. I had certain signs which indicated that I was truly struggling. I developed depersonalization according to my diagnosis as well. I felt like I was living in fear because I wasn't in my body and other signs too.

I would say read more about dissociation if you haven't already. The Body Remembers is a book that you might be interested in reading in order to learn more about your psychological ecology.

If you want someone to talk to about this then feel free to memail me.
posted by livinglearning at 10:47 AM on May 19, 2012

What you describe is very similar to my life experience. I don't have poignant memories that play out like flash backs unless they're traumatic, I have trouble remembering distinct events and everything feels like a fuzzy blur. I definitely understand what you mean by seeing a film once and recalling it years later.

I haven't found this to be a problem. I tend to see it as an effect of having ADHD - my mind just bounces around too much, is never truly present enough, to form strong memories. My friends/partners/family are alright with this and I've learned not to argue with them should my vague imprint be different from theirs (it's not worth it, they have "facts" that they remember and I have nothing of the sort).

It might be worth noting that my primary coping mechanism is to "check out" of the situation. If something stressful happens, I shut down and go into evasive mode until I'm in a safe(r) place where I can process it at length. This avoidance likely isn't conducive to complete memory formation.
posted by buteo at 10:59 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

This sounds like what happens when I check out, too. I'm really good at remember exact words and phrases spoken in meetings, by therapists (when I wasn't crying/upset at the time,) etc., but I have only vague impressions of stressful situations. These last few weeks have been extremely challenging, and I can't really even describe what happened when my treatment team asks me. I tend to suffer from depersonalization, and to a lesser extent derealization, and when those symptoms are more significant, my ability to form lasting memories of those periods is severely impaired. Conversely, in moments of extreme situational anxiety the adrenaline rush seems to make my memories last longer/be more exact.

Also consider the possibility this is garden-variety suppression of trauma.
posted by Fee Phi Faux Phumb I Smell t'Socks o' a Puppetman! at 11:49 AM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I was diagnosed with dissociative disorder. I don't retain most of my memories, very much in the way you describe. I can't tell you whether or you are experiencing dissociation, or whether you have a problem. You might like to visit a psychologist to nail that down.

When I was younger, I coped with this by keeping detailed journals. Later, I learned to recognize when I was exiting and stop myself. My memories have improved slightly, in that there's something there that I can sometimes make out, rather than a black void. I remember conversations much better.

Lately, I try to focus on being mindful and present in the moment. My life still slips away behind me, but my now is more colorful, richer, sweeter.
posted by moira at 12:31 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and while I no longer journal, I constantly take notes.
posted by moira at 12:32 PM on May 19, 2012

It sounds like your way of remembering is a lot like mine, which I always thought was normal. It's pretty common to see pictures and hear stories and subsequently internalized them as (or perhaps bolster) your real memories. I'd be willing to bet you would remember much more if you were to sit down with your immediate family and talk about your life as a kid. You have memories, but sometimes it hard to unlock them when you are so far out of context in your current moment. It's especially common to have much stronger memories than others, and some people do dissociate to lose memories. Don't be intimidated or scared about the word dissociation. There are more serious ways people dissociate, but most everyone has done it. It's called day dreaming!

I study human episodic memory and psychology. MeMail me for more!
posted by two lights above the sea at 12:53 PM on May 19, 2012

I have the same experience with memories - and with both good and bad memories. I have very vague memories before 5 or 6 years old, and also very spotty from then on. It sounds like this is the case with you as well. I had no idea that this was known as dissociation, or that it was something you could be diagnosed with.

I've always seen it in terms of 'living in the now.' I just don't bother with the past a lot. I'm amazed sometimes at people who live in all this sediment of memories, although I don't judge it negatively. My ahistoricity given me certain lack of sense of attachment to my past, which has enabled me to live a number of different lives (different work/careers, different skills, different countries, etc.), something which I have very much enjoyed.
posted by carter at 1:41 PM on May 19, 2012

I think all of us remember only small chunks of specifics. Assuming you can remember the day to day details (where you live, who you're with, etc.) and what you need to do to do your job, there's probably nothing wrong with your brain.

I used to think that I didn't remember much about my early life because, you know, I was really little then (ex. ages 4-7 or so). Now I'm in my 40s and couldn't tell you more than 2-3 names of teachers I had in high school. People ask to friend me on FB and say they're high school classmates, but I have no memory of them at all. Well, this is all about as spacey as when I was 7, when you stop and think about it. And I think this is pretty much normal. Now, if I forgot the name of my BEST friends, that might be a little weird, but completely forgetting that this guy had one class with me? Not strange at all.

Your childhood experiences were some traumatic shit, I won't kid you about that. Obviously, they were crazy people and they were abusive to you. If you're blocking anything, you might be blocking things that happened in connection with that. But that doesn't mean you're blocking out the rest of your life.
posted by randomkeystrike at 2:40 PM on May 19, 2012

You might be interested in Galen Strawson's article Against Narrativity.
posted by BungaDunga at 4:15 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

Do I have a problem? And if so, what is it? How can I learn more about that? I'd just really like to understand more about my psychological ecology, if possible. (Despite this fairly weird thing, I have a very happy life, and I don't live in a place where therapy is really an option.)

First off, I'm pretty much the opposite so far as suffering REM ("remember every moment") much of the time, or so it feels. But I do have several acquaintances/friends who came to mind when I read your self description and who have spoken about backgrounds quite similar to yours, including occasional concerns like the ones you mention above.

As far as having "a problem," then, I'd say that very much depends on the quality of life you currently experience: Are you fulfilling your responsibilities to others and yourself? Is your present lifestyle satisfying and healthy? For lack of a better term, are things more or less "normal" most of the time, etc.? If they are, and the way you describe your life seems to indicate yes, then no, there's likely not a problem, per se.

(As an aside, however, my first reaction to the description of your dealings with the neighbor boys was to wonder what your own family members recall about those apparently pretty intense and disturbing episodes. If your parents were as loving you claim, it seems like they'd have been tuned into what actually happened to you [or didn't] at times you recall being this uncomfortable as a young child. Not to deny the importance of subjectivity - if it felt bad, then it's likely bad - but there should be some ways to check for basic accuracy about what took place back then, even if you can't recall with confidence, etc. From there, obviously, if those kids or others back then actually traumatized you in any of the ways you mention, then I think that needs to be dealt with today, even if by just acknowledging it informally to yourself and others in lieu of seeking formal therapy, etc., regardless of how you're feeling.)

Having said that, I guess part of my interest in your question probably comes from occasional reservations I have about one of my friends whose background resembles yours. Outwardly, she's very competent, well liked, artistically gifted, and just calm and pleasant to be around most of the time, except that this general demeanor pretty much depends on a consistent pattern of selectively "tuning out" on a regular basis when there's the potential for conflict or anything emotional coming up. For instance, we might have animated discussion of some issue where we disagree, and in which she expressed a definite opinion, yet even a few days later, not only won't she recall what we discussed or her own position, but she doesn't acknowledge that the entire episode even occurred; that is, where we were physically, when, what took place around us. At first I thought I was the one making stuff up, but now I've seen this pattern play out enough times to know it's not me. Again, however, it's not exactly a problem because there's never any edge/conflict in her reactions; instead, it's a calm, almost dreamy sort of disconnect, which leaves the other person (me) less put off than simply questioning often what actually took place, although the few times I have pushed back a bit, as in "now, wait a minute, you stood right there in the break room on Wednesday morning and told me how you believed...", she will get uncomfortable (and I'll end up letting it go).

The same goes for moments when emotions get expressed. Even though at times she can be highly intuitive and emotionally engaged with an event or problem as it happens, soon after her entire recollection of what took place often changes: "Did I say that?" Or there's no acknowledgement going forward when she obviously seemed to experience something intense (excitement, frustration, etc.). A lot just seems to selectively disappear, but never in a way that feels conscious or malicious, just dreamy and forgetful. Needless to say, from what I've gathered, this tendency has made her history with dating/relationships somewhat limited, even though by common standards, she'd be considered really attractive.

Anyway, I'm rambling a bit here, in part because you've actually provided more details and backstory from your life that might help explain such a pattern of behavior than what I know about in hers, so I'm otherwise left to speculate most of the time. I do know she's mentioned in much more vague terms some uncomfortable events in her extended family that seem to have happened when she was around the age you describe, which leave me wondering, although she's also adamant about how close she is to her parents, and from what I can tell it's a loving family in many ways. FWIW, one thing that has come up is her general disdain for the topic of therapy as well as much of psychology overall, even though she likes to tell the story of how she got hypnotized a few times in college and was "really good at it."

So, the best I can offer regarding your questions is that it seems you're not alone, and in the case of my friend who sounds similar in many ways, at this point there isn't a problem exactly, even though I find myself somewhat confused when similar instances of disassociation show up in her behavior, and I'm left with a vague sense that although things seem calm and together in her life presently, there's likely more emotional sorting out that she'll need to do at some point, if she's willing. Or maybe it's just that we're really different people....
posted by 5Q7 at 9:58 PM on May 19, 2012 [1 favorite]

I feel like this is how a lot of people's memory works -- you may think as an outsider that they remember everything else much better than you do, but realize that they're constructing a narrative based around the snippets of memory they have and extrapolating the rest. I get this feeling a lot when I try to remember experiences with people I'm no longer in touch with -- once someone is out of my life, my memory of my experiences with them, even if I was living with them for four years, becomes much more foggy because they're no longer around to fill in the gaps.

Yet I didn't even become aware of this until quite recently, even though it had really always been the case, so again it's likely that this is completely normal and it's just become apparent to you before your peers.
posted by modernserf at 9:58 AM on May 20, 2012

This sounds... creepily like my own experiences. Weird. I've said for years that I have "A memory like an encyclopedia without the table of contents/index. If I know what page to go to, I've got it, and given context I might be able to find the page, but otherwise it's tough knowing if the page is there".

Ahistorical is also a good way of putting it. I'm... very moment-to-moment. ((I also had the ridiculously lucky childhood and have the oddly-good memory of trivia as other points of congruency))

I haven't found a specific name for this, but I've tried to analyze/track it by being very careful with lists. Listing things I need to do, and noting down things I want to remember in the future (for mental states in particular, I've had some luck writing poems as a way to capture emotions/headspaces).

Memail me if you have any particularly personal questions to ask/check to see if things match up on it. This has dogged me for a good chunk of my life (since I noticed it, really), and it's interesting to know that I'm not alone (and neither are you) on it.
posted by CrystalDave at 9:31 PM on May 20, 2012 [1 favorite]

« Older Horses over hockey???   |   Nashville, where can I pedal for entertainment? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.