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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

You thought it was just a nightmare, but it actually happened. Traumatic memory can feel more like dreaming than remembering. That's a good thing. Read this.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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27 thoughts on “Dissociative Memory: When Dreaming Is Remembering”

  1. It’s weird to read this bc this is the language I’ve been using with my therapist, but I’ve never heard or seen it before. I was thinking earlier today that I’d like a dollar for every hour my food sits finished in the microwave.

  2. I keep having snippets of dreams and they are snippets of things that I know have happened in my life abused as a child, my husband passing and me reviving him, my ex boyfriend cheating on me while I was have surgery. But they are just snippets, for the past three days the snippets show more of where I left off, what is this and why now? Am I fearing something?

    1. Hi. Is there a way to confirm if these clips are real events? Like i remember looking at an object, the whole clip is max 2, 3 seconds.

  3. It’s very odd to have a memory and then realize that maybe it was a dream. I think this began happening after my breakdown and suicide attempt two years ago.
    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!

    1. This is eerily similar. I too have a 9 year old son and behave in this exact way. It feels like there’s a darkness behind my heart that I’m working desperately to control and keep hidden.

  4. I seem to be experiencing something similar. ‘Seem to be’, because I’m not even sure myself anymore.
    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?

  5. Sometimes when I write people have a hard time understanding it. I was diagnosed in 1989 when I was living in California. I never remembered going to Angel Island State Park while I lived in CA. So a few days ago, which would be 25 or so years later, I saw some pictures in a box someone had disgarded. They were of strangers on a ferry and at the park. On the sign was “Angel Island State Park.” One picture especially looked familiar. It was of a big white (and yellow) house with green state trucks outside and it was in a cove. I had dreamed about that place some months ago. In the dream I was sad because Mountain Island Lake near Charlotte had changed so much. In reality I probably visited Angel Island State Park and it made me homesick for Charlotte, North Carolina. It was when I was in a bad marriage and my grown children were little and we went there with my ex-husband’s family. I’ll ask them if we went there.

  6. I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1989. The other day I was in a swap-shop and brought home some old pictures. In it was a group of pictures of Angel Island State Park near San Francisco. I recognized the place from a dream I had some months ago. In reality I may have visited the place when I lived in California years ago. In the dream it caused me to be sad because it reminded me of Mountain Island Lake outside of my birthplace, Charlotte, NC. Now I think I may have visited Angel Island with my ex-husband, children, and in-laws but I am wondering why the memories coming back to me are so vague. There are so many things that I have had to deal with as a person with schizophrenia. There is no cure but I tend to think of myself as high-functioning or in remission. It has been the hardest thing because the mental health system is so inadequate. That is an understatement. This country’s mental health system would put a bandaid on the Titanic to patch it. I’d encourage anyone with the diagnosis to read all they can about the illness. I know more than the last so-called doctor I saw. He took my reading as an insult or that I was contriving my illness. I’d rather have berri-berri. He also told me to stop taking my medicine because I was okay. He said seroquel wasn’t a medicine for schizophrenia. He came from another country and was a childhood specialist in everything. He looked like a guy who used to work at the gas station. I read his reviews and he left one place overnight with people’s records. Thank God for my medical doctors!

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