Dissociative Memory: When Dreaming Is Remembering
I dreamed I was at the mall, shopping with my partner. We strolled through the stores, bought a few things, and went home. It wasn't a particularly noteworthy dream but I mentioned it in passing to her anyway. "That wasn't a dream," she said. "We did that yesterday." How did I confuse reality for a fiction created by my dreaming mind? Memory is a tricky thing and dissociation complicates remembering. It's only because I have dissociative identity disorder (DID) and am aware of my dissociative memory problems that I believed her when she said it wasn't a dream. It didn't, and still doesn't feel like a memory at all.
Dissociative Memory Doesn't Feel Like Memory
We tend to think of remembering as the retrieval of cohesive sets of images, sounds, emotions, and sensations that serve as recordings of our histories. But what if the elements of memory were stored separately? Would it still feel like memory? Would we even recognize it as memory?
If a girl experienced abuse in the woods on an autumn day at the age of nine and goes walking in the woods on an autumn day thirty years later, she may experience physical reactions similar to what was experienced during the original abuse. In the case of DID, however, until enough system work has been done in therapy, the adult will probably be at a loss to explain her experience. - The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook, Deborah Haddock
Dissociative Memory and Childhood Trauma
Take a minor occurrence like my shopping dream, add severe trauma to the dream's narrative, chop it into pieces, and send it back in time by thirty years and you have an idea of what remembering childhood trauma is like for many people with DID. They are plagued by snippets of emotion, flashes of images, and physical sensations that may manifest separately or in any combination. They may say they know a particular event happened, but have no recall of it at all. They may report seeing movies in their minds that, taken individually, don't make any sense. What results is often a maddening conviction that you're haunted by things that never even happened.
Protected by Dissociative Memory
It might not sound unsettling to find out that your uneventful dream about shopping at the mall was, in fact, a memory. Imagine though, that your most disturbing nightmare was proven real. What you were sure was a horrifying creation of your subconscious mind was actually a form of remembering. That would be substantially more than unsettling, yes?
Dissociative memory is often too disjointed and broken up to feel like memory in any traditional sense. Though it's confusing, it's also what protects many people with DID from totally succumbing to the pain of their memories. Dreams, after all, don't hurt quite as much.
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Gray, H. (2010, November 25). Dissociative Memory: When Dreaming Is Remembering, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, August 17 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/dissociativeliving/2010/11/dissociative-memory-when-dreaming-is-remembering
Author: Holly Gray
I forget meeting people that obviously know me. It's difficult at work because I don't remember seeing them earlier and I find myself repeating myself. Or redoing something because I don't know if I did it already. It seems like I hide things from myself cause I'll find them and wonder when I did put that there.
I find my battery dead on my phone and when I turn it back on I don't remember the texts I sent. My girlfriend and I fight because she thinks I'm avoiding her, but it seems like I spend all my time with her outside of work. I wake up in bed not knowing if it's morning, afternoon, or the middle of the night. Memories seem like a dream. I think I lie to myself. I find things I've written and don't remember writing it but it's in my notebook in my house.
I get very confused and unsure of what is real, but i also know that it was not reality. The memory feels absolutely real!
My life has become unbarable, since my DID has dominated my daily life to the point of disabling me. At the same time i have lost everything, i live in poverty and i feel some kind of pain everyday. I really need help to finction, but i have none. I just do the best that i can on any given day. The hardest part is when i am with my 9 yo son. Staying present, calm, not agitated, lose my patients, or show any of my severe syptoms in his company. It has happened once, and he started crying and was scared. We both cried, finally my ability to speak normally came back. I also grunt in his company and we make it something funny, but truthfully i am functioning on very thin ice.
It is like being possessed!
In my case, instead of mistaking reality for dreams, or dreaming of something that happened a long time ago, I end up having such realistic dreams that I mistake them for reality.
Is there a term for that?
1. The greatest saddness I have is recognizing try as I might all my child raising of my kids is snippets I convert (lie to others) as memories. They are not.
2. So much of the blog and especially commentary are not utilized in psych training professionals. Worse, the continued labeling and therefore medicating continues without end. Even is only 10% of us recogniza and be cogent enough to learn, the professionals are not incorporating our stories, our "science " or discoveries from blogs into rehaping the diagnosis process. My view from medical world is these professional blinders are perpetuating relief of suffering and actually aids in continued victimization.
As to your first comment, yes, that is sad. I understand. My son is 13 now and I do remember things ... but not nearly enough. And what memories I do have are characteristic of my dissociative memory ... flat, distant, like someone else's.
As to the second, I couldn't agree more that treatment for Dissociative Identity Disorder will never be thorough if treating clinicians don't take into account what those of us with DID say about DID and our lives with it. It's arrogant to assume that we don't have any wisdom to offer in this area. And treatment suffers in part because of that arrogance.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Coach. I hope to hear from you again.
I had the same experience. Going through the photo album and realizing I could not remember the event from one picture is was in before the age of 12. I was there in the photo, but unable to remember anything that happened.
Helps me see I'm not alone...Thanks
My youngest interviewed me last weekend about my holiday memories and I realized that my memories were simply pictures I had seen over the years in an album. That shocked me. I had built up little stories around old photographs, and I couldn't remember anything beyond what I thought was happening in the pictures. When I tried to think back on it there was nothing. I guess my brain tried to make little memories out of the photos. Somewhere inside is the actual memory, but maybe it's not time to deal with it yet. Sorry to go on about that, but your article about these dreams reminded me. Those photographs don't hurt as much, either.
Do you know why Healthy Place doesn't allow comment subscription?
Thank you! Your doctor sounds smart. Mine tells me what's important is to take this material seriously, but not literally. That helps me enormously. Memory is just too disjointed and, like you said, so often things don't fit. Taking it all literally, accepting perfectly ... my logical brain can't do that.
I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on this topic.
"Do you know why Healthy Place doesn’t allow comment subscription?"
No, but I'll see what I can find out. :)
I think there are probably a lot of reasons why people switch during sleep. For some, sleep has historically been a dangerous activity so the very act of sleeping is potentially triggering. But I also don't believe switches occur solely in response to trauma triggers. Some people find that they have alters who come out at night, wake up, and do things (e.g. cook, play with toys). For them it may simply be that the nighttime is the only quiet time those alters have to get some time for themselves.
Then again, dreams themselves might provoke switching.
Thanks for your comment - it's thought provoking too.
Switching during sleep is common. It's not unusual, in fact, for the presenting alter to get up during the night without the alter that presents in the morning being aware of it. I suppose it's possible that's why you're so drowsy!
I'm drowsy in the mornings too but I'm certain no one in my system is up til all hours. In my case it's that I take medication before bed that makes waking up a slow and arduous process regardless of how much sleep I've had.
I am still in the process of digesting all of this, and I'm not quite sure how long this "digestion" will take. I suspect that it is an ongoing process. There are most likely many various levels and stages of acceptance.
What I do find comfort in is just what you stated above .... as confusing as Dissociative Memory is, it really is what protects us from succumbing to the pain. Personally, I think it really does soften the blow.
I would have never thought this through had you not posted this. Very thought provoking. Thanks again Holly.
Thanks for your comment.
"At the same time, I find it extremely unsettling to find out a dream wasn’t a dream after all. Even if the “dream” was harmless. Just as I find it unsettling when I am told that I behaved a certain way, or I had a conversation that I, for the life of me, cannot remember."
It seems there are some things I'm used to, and some that I never get used to. I don't know what the differences are though. But finding out this dream was a memory did unsettle me, even though I've known I have DID for 6 years.
"There are most likely many various levels and stages of acceptance."
I think that's true. It's not easy at all.
"I wonder if there is a name for this phenomenon?"
There is! Dissociation. Pinpointing the type of dissociation is always tricky for me though. I don't think I have the objectivity to do that for myself. I suspect though that derealization and dissociative amnesia play very active roles in this dream/memory confusion. But honestly - and this is why I say I don't have the objectivity to pinpoint it for myself - it seems like identity confusion, identity alteration, and depersonalization are all present in this manifestation too.
Thanks for your comment, Pilgrim.
Memory really is fascinating. Dissociation is too, I think, when it's not frustrating me too much to appreciate how interesting it is.
Thanks for your comment!