Don’t you remember?

“She explained that rather than having irretrievable memories sitting dormant in the deepest recesses of her brain, she had simply not formed robust memories during much of her childhood. She explained she had become a master dissociator.”

I really struggle with recalling the past, particularly my childhood years. My internal autobiography from that time feels like it has gone missing in action. I listen to friends retelling stories of growing up. They recall each detail, which has been painstakingly preserved and dredged up from their records, etched clearly in their memory. They seem to have easy access to a rich archive of their younger years. My store seems pretty sparsely populated.

It’s not that my memory is a complete void. I have a timeline, but within that there are spaces and times when I must have been there, but it is as if I was not. I wonder sometimes if many of what I recall as ‘memories’ are actually centred around photos, where stories have been rehearsed and shared together whilst looking back at them over the years.

I have a store of ‘moments’; the big impact times when emotions were ignited and I can see and feel what it was like to be there; times when I was connected and in the moment. I can remember watching my little brother singing his heart out at the school concert. ‘Love Changes Everything’ belted out with full-on emotion, little hands clenched by his sides seemingly grounding him, whilst our female family dribbled from their eyes with pride. I remember the joy of endless hours playing at my friend Kate’s house, which became a second home, as we scampered and explored every inch of our lives together. I remember Monday night dinners at my grandparents’ home, where cousins bonded over a weekly dose of ‘Neighbours’ and endless self-created plays for our tirelessly patient audience of two. 

What I struggle to connect with are the ordinary times. The times when I was at home with my family. The Christmases, the days out and the holidays are not accessible to me. They definitely happened and I was definitely there but there’s a gap. It’s like I’m searching through the filing cabinet for the relevant memory and the paperwork has gone missing. 

Up until last week, I thought I just had a terrible memory. I considered that I had squirrelled away these events so completely, that I was having trouble accessing the right information. I hadn’t given much thought to why that might be. I had just accepted it. Then, I heard Dr Nicole Lepera aka. ‘The Holistic Psychologist’ speaking on a podcast. I have since adjusted my view of my ‘terrible memory’. 

Dr Lepera described her lack of childhood memories and her experience resonated deeply. She offered a different explanation. Rather than being poor at recalling the events of her past, she postulated that the memories were entirely absent. She explained that rather than having irretrievable memories sitting dormant in the deepest recesses of her brain,  she had simply not formed robust memories during much of her childhood. She explained she had become a master dissociator. As such, in certain situations, although physically ‘there’, she had learnt not to be present. She had detached herself so completely from events, that effectively she was not in the room and as such had created no memory of the situations. 

The dissociation described can arise when being present in certain situations becomes too uncomfortable or too painful to participate in. Learning not to be present is a kind of self-protection. The child, not knowing how to process the emotions or information they are faced with, simply takes a back seat. The child can then cope. They are physically present as required, but critically not emotionally present. They are safe.

When I heard this description it absolutely resonated with me. I was relieved. My brain was not defective! There was nothing more to remember, nothing more to scramble around and find in the darkness. Hand in hand with this realisation, was immense sadness. I would never find these puzzle pieces which could help me unpick the past. And more than that, little Lisa had been in a situation where finding safety and solace in nothingness and disconnection was her best option. How incredibly sad.

Why had my younger self learned to dissociate? I will never know for sure, but my best educated guess is that her parents’ unhappy marriage and the aftermath that hung heavily in the air of her childhood, teamed with youthful emotional incompetence without external emotional support, meant that she separated herself from their pain to survive. I suspect that once engaged as a successful strategy, it became her default way to exist within her family. I suspect that she forgot there was any other way to connect within the family system. 

Uncovering this has made me examine all parts of my life and whilst I think I employed this strategy most completely in family life, I can see its entrails spattered across my past. I am so grateful to little Lisa for keeping me safe but need her to know that she doesn’t need to protect us anymore.

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