I Can’t Remember Most of My Life, and Now I Understand Why

Photo of woman under water
Photo by Christopher Campbell on Unsplash

Sometimes it can be hard to understand why we go through what we go through, why we have to suffer, or why the people that are supposed to love and protect us, are the ones that cause us the most pain. Growing up, like a lot of people, my life wasn’t easy. During my formative years, between the ages of 10 and 18, I grew up in a home with a drug addict father, who was also both mentally and physically abusive to my mother. Additionally, on that long road of navigating living in a highly dysfunctional environment, I also was sexually abused by a close family member. I am also the eldest child in my family of 4 children, which meant that at the early age of 8 years old, I had to take on responsibilities that no child at that age should have to take on. I was often left home alone with my brother who is two years younger than me, and I always felt like I had to be the good kid that never got into trouble or cause any additional problems for my mother to have to deal with. This is the time when I took on people pleasing and perfectionistic tendencies, which meant that even when things happened to me, that were not my fault, such as when someone at school was bullying me or I was being abused sexually, I never would stand up for myself or tell anyone. I just deeply internalized everything that would happen in my life, never talking to anyone about it, and never outwardly showing any emotion, including crying. To say the least, getting through all of these challenges was difficult, and the icing on the shit cake, was also having to navigate going to school and feeling like I was living a pretend second life at school. In this pretend life, no one knew what was going on at home and I just would put on a happy smile and pretend that life was just peachy. I was by no means a popular kid in school, in fact I was picked on quite a bit for the clothes and shoes that I wore, because unfortunately we didn’t have that much money, so my mother couldn’t really buy me the cool, fashionable things that were considered in at the time. I remember wearing Payless shoes, when most of my classmates were wearing Nikes and Jordans, and wearing ankle hugger jeans that I ripped at the legs, hoping to have the bell bottom look that everyone else was rocking in those days. So of course, my life sucked all around, I hated being at home, and I hated going to school, I felt like no matter where I went, I had no safety to exist in and as a child I had no control over my environment or the people that I had to be around.

Many, many years later, as an adult, I began to realize that I couldn’t remember huge chunks of my life, no matter how hard I tried. I couldn’t remember any of the few birthday parties that I had as a child, the places I liked to hang out, favorite place that I’ve visited, my favorite present that I’ve ever received from anyone, activities I enjoyed as a child, what made me happy, what my views on people and life were through the lens of my little girl eyes, the faces of my childhood friends, what my old room looked like, or the first time that I kissed a boy. It is like I never really lived a life, almost all of my memories were and still are gone, and it is a very painful thing to have to live through. I’ll never be able to tell my future children about what I was like as a child and what I was good at, when I am out with friends at dinner, I’ll never be able to contribute any of my life stories to the conversation. I’ll never really know who I was as a child or young adult, because even though she is me, in many ways she is a literal stranger to the adult version of herself, which feels very weird. It’s very difficult putting into words having family members tell you stories about your own life that you can’t even remember happening, and it feels very scary to view my life through the lens of how someone else experienced a story that I was apart of. Just because someone says that’s how an experience happened, that doesn’t mean that they got the details correct, because generally our minds aren’t very good at remembering the details of how and why things happen. So, if I myself did remember a childhood story, there would be some valid details there, but I too wouldn’t remember every detail exactly as they happened. It’s also more peculiar, because you would think that when someone would tell me a story that happened to me, that the details that they give me, would help jog my memory and allow my brain to pull up the file for that memory, this unfortunately is not the case.

Photo by Anita Jankovic on Unsplash

The inability to remember important details about your life is called dissociative amnesia.

The National Alliance on Mental Health(NAMI) states that “dissociative amnesia may surround a particular event, such as combat, or abuse, or more rarely, information about identity and life history. The onset for an amnesic episode is usually sudden, and an episode can last minutes, hours, days, or rarely, months or years. There is no average for age onset or percentage, and a person may experience multiple episodes throughout their life.”

So, why do some people not remember significant portions of their life?

According to Mayo Clinic, “dissociative disorders usually develop as a way to cope with trauma. The disorders most often form in children subjected to long-term physical, sexual or emotional abuse or, less often, a home environment that’s frightening or highly unpredictable. The stress of war or natural disasters also can bring on dissociative disorders.”

In other words, our brain buries our memories deep down in our subconscious mind to protect us from the pain that we have experienced in our life.

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

Now I’ve told you some of my personal story, what dissociative amnesia is and why it happens, now what can you do to cope with having such significant loss in your personal historical memories?

  • Be kind and patient with yourself, recognize that your memory loss is not your fault, it is involuntary and your body is just trying to do the best that it can to prevent you from emotional pain. Being hard on yourself isn’t going to help with getting your memories to resurface any quicker for you to process them.
  • Keep a journal to help you remember the people in your life, and the things that you get to experience. Writing down the details of things that you want to remember can help you have something physical to reference whenever you feel the memory slipping away. The more detail that you write in your journal the better. Drawings, photographs, or tangible items like a leaf, receipt, or brochure will do wonders for engaging your other senses to remember what that particular experience was like for you.
  • One of the most important things that you can do starting today, is to not stuff your feelings. If you are upset at someone, don’t just hold it in, talk it out with them or someone else that you trust. It is very important to feel and process your feelings, so that you don’t continue to dissociate from your body, which prevents your brain from being able to store your memories in a way that you can access. Your journal will also come in handy for helping you to process your feelings in a safe manner in which you can tell the truth, because you are the only one reading your journal.
  • If you feel like you don’t know who you are, or what to do with your life because of the lack of self knowledge, try different things that you think you might enjoy. Step outside of your comfort zone to learn about yourself, and when you are moving through life, make it a point to be fully present, so that you can pay attention to how things that happen or things that you experience make you feel. You can’t control what has happened in the past, but you can focus on how your life is unfolding now and become fully awake to yourself, so that you can create new great memories and learn about yourself today, for a better future.
  • I know that there are millions of people in the world that do not have access to mental health services due to proximity, or being uninsured, but if you can afford to seek help and have access to a medical practitioner in your area, there are many modalities to help treat dissociative amnesia. Seeking help will allow you to process the emotions that you have buried, with the hopes of helping you to be able to recall your memories. Some modalities that help treat dissociative disorders are Cognitive Behavioral Therapy(CBT), Dialectical Behavioral Therapy(DBT), Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing(EDMR), Creative Therapy(uses art, music, drama, or animals to help you explore your emotions and memories), mindfulness and meditation, and hypnosis. Help is definitely out there if you do your research on where you can go and some places will even work on a sliding scale to make treatment more affordable.

Having to navigate your life with memory loss is painful, it can be disheartening, confusing, lonely, and the most difficult part of coping is feeling like a stranger to yourself, but know that you are not alone in this. It has taken me a long time to become educated on not only dissociative amnesia, but how I can take back control of my life and how to take the necessary steps to learn who I am and what I am meant to do in my life, and you can too! You and only you have the key to unlock your potential for self realization and happiness, just because you had a painful past, that doesn’t mean that you are destined to have a painful future as well. Commit yourself to the journey of self rediscovery.



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