Amnesia (any kind of memory issue) is a challenge for many people! Far less sensationalised than multiplicity, it doesn’t get anywhere near as much attention. It can be very difficult to find books, groups, or other resources specifically for managing this experience. However, the effects can be devastating and far reaching. Some people experience amnesia alongside multiplicity – being unaware of other parts and simply ‘losing time’ or blacking out when they are active. However, it is a myth that all experiences of losing time like this mean that multiplicity is part of the picture. You may ‘come to’ in a strange environment without knowing where you are or how you got there because another part was out. It’s equally possible that you ‘zoned out’ and were operating on auto pilot, in a kind of trance before you suddenly came to and took stock. It’s also possible that you knew exactly what you were doing and had a clear plan in mind, which you have just forgotten. Either way, these are forms of amnesia that do not involve any kind of multiplicity.
Amnesia can be caused by many different things! It’s extremely important not to assume that amnesia is a psychological process, especially if it is suddenly a new issue, or quite severe. Amnesia can be caused by many physical issues such as low thyroid function, a blow to the head, and some drugs and medications. Amnesia is also common following trauma and while under stress. It’s dangerous to assume that amnesia is caused by a something psychological without checking for other common causes. It is of course, also possible to have both physical and psychological causes for amnesia, such as alcoholism and a history of childhood abuse. Whatever the cause of amnesia, access to resources and peers can be extremely helpful.
Memory is an extremely complex field of study. Our ability to remember things is a key aspect of how we navigate the world around us. It is part of our sense of identity and belonging, crucial for connecting with family and friends, and essential for maintaining work and using skills we have learned. People can experience amnesia in many different ways and may find some aspects of their memory affected while others remain intact. For some people, amnesia is a blessing, protecting them from overwhelming trauma. Others find that amnesia started as helpful but became problematic as it affected other areas of their lives. Other people suffer greatly due to their experiences of amnesia and are desperate to reduce or resolve it. Some people experience the absence of memory as a terrifying void, as a subtle persistence sense of something wrong, as white noise, or as living in a fog. In some cases, people are not aware that they have amnesia and rapidly forget about any events that reveal gaps in their memory.
Memory and emotions have a relationship. Things we feel more strongly about we are more likely to remember clearly. That emotion is the reason we can vividly recall specific details of our wedding day or child’s birth but not what we were doing on a different given morning 10 years ago. However, intense emotion can also make memories more prone to being forgotten. Children who have been abused may find relief in amnesia for those experiences. Experiences that are never spoken about and are pushed out of thought do not become part of our life ‘story’, the narrative we have about who we are and where we have come from. These events even if strongly emotional are much more likely to be suppressed and forgotten until triggered by something similar. Some people find they seem to be both forgetting and intrusively remembering the same traumatic memories – unable to recall an incident but reliving it in flashbacks and nightmares for example.
Sometimes people with multiplicity find that memory is split up between different parts. Parts may even ‘take’ and ‘hide’ memories from other parts. Sometimes different parts may remember the same event differently.
Sometimes people (or parts) who have a memory gap will fill in the details with a possible scenario – without being aware they are doing so. The mind does not like to be aware of memory gaps and will fill them in with possible scenarios. This is an automatic brain process called confabulation. Common in survivors of head injuries, it can be mistaken for lying and cause people a great deal of distress.
Memory is not perfect, not like a recording of the event safely stored in our minds. Even in the immediate aftermath of an incident, witnesses will vary greatly in their descriptions of events. This does not mean that all memories are unreliable – witnesses will generally agree on crucial matters such as ‘there was a huge fight and this man was punched in the face’ even if they disagree about how it started, or the colour of the tee shirt of the man who did the punching. Sometimes memories that were lost for awhile and then recovered are inaccurate. Sometimes memories we have always remembered are inaccurate. Sometimes memories are confused by stories we have told ourselves or information other people have given us, such as a young child remembering seeing the ‘dragon’ that burned down their house, or ‘remembering’ the series of three surgeries you were told you had on your hands after the fire, when in fact there were only two. Sometimes people deliberately attempt to confuse people’s memory to discredit them.
Here are some ways dissociative amnesia can affect people:
- Missing all memory of a particular event or time period, such as everything on the day of the car accident in which your child died, or all the years between age 12 – 22 when you lived with your stepmother
- Forgetting important day to day information such as your own name, home address, pin numbers, and so on
- Struggling to ‘keep up’ with current events, waking up or coming to at times to be startled by life changes such as a house move, new partner, or death in the family
- Losing time, zoning out, blacking out – there are many different ways people describe this experience of suddenly coming to and not being able to account for the past several hours or days
- Struggling to learn new information – not being able to retain any information from books, movies, studies, lectures and other experiences where you were concentrating and trying to retain information
- Fogginess, being unable to recall important information or plans, feeling confused and unable to think. When this only happens in particular stressful situations or in the presence of certain people, it is sometimes called situation-specific amnesia
- Losing skills you previously had, such as knowing how to drive a car, play piano, or cook
- ‘Trailing’ amnesia where memories are lost after a certain time period has passed – eg. forgetting most details of your life from before 5 years ago. New memories are lost as more time passes.
- Resetting to a particular time in your life – losing all memories after you turned 45 and thinking that you are still 45, being confused and surprised by everything that’s happened since
Recovery is possible! Some people find that amnesia issues reduce on their own as stress reduces, for example a high level of foggy thinking of common in people who have become homeless fleeing domestic violence but resolves with time as they make a new life for themselves. Some find that a key trauma or incident must be confronted and processed. Some people find it very helpful to work on attachment or adjustment issues. Some find memory aids such as reminders on phones, lists, and chiming watches useful to help them jump their mental gaps. There are many ways to approach amnesia and often people find a combination of tools is most effective.
For more about the impacts of amnesia, including in multiplicity and borderline personality disorder, see The Void: dissociation, amnesia, and identity.
For more about how memory and the brain works, see Can Your Brain Really Be “Full”?