What Is Dissociative Amnesia?

Dissociative disorders are mental illnesses that are marked by an interruption of a person’s fundamental aspects of waking consciousness.  Dissociative disorders  involve disruptions or breakdowns of memory, consciousness, awareness, identity, and/or perception.   There are four major types of dissociative disorders.  These are Dissociative Identity Disorder, Dissociative Fugue, Depersonalization Disorder, and Dissociative Amnesia.  I’m going to talk about the one which usually occurs along with Dissociative Identity Disorder (as well as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder), both of which I have been diagnosed with.

Dissociative Amnesia occurs when a person blocks out critical personal information, usually associated with a stressful or traumatic event, leaving him or her unable to remember important events, experiences,  or periods of time. With this disorder, the degree of memory loss goes beyond normal forgetfulness and includes gaps in memory for long periods of time or of memories involving the traumatic event.  Dissociative amnesia is not the same as simple amnesia, which involves a loss of information from memory, usually as the result of disease or injury to the brain. With dissociative amnesia, the memories still exist but are deeply buried within the person’s mind and cannot be recalled. However, it is possible that the memories might resurface on their own or after being triggered by something in the person’s surroundings.

In addition to memory loss, other symptoms that have been reported in patients with dissociative amnesia include confusion,  mild depression,  and emotional distress related to the amnesia.  However, not all patients with dissociative amnesia are distressed.  The degree of emotional upset is usually in direct proportion to the importance of what has been forgotten, or the consequences of forgetting.  Some patients diagnosed with dissociative amnesia have problems or behaviors that include disturbed interpersonal relationships*, sexual dysfunction*, employment problems, aggressive behaviors, self-mutilation*, or suicide attempts*.  (*=symptoms I exhibit)

There are five kinds of dissociative amnesia:

  • Localized amnesia is when an individual  has no memory of specific events that took place, usually traumatic. The memory loss is localized within a specific window of time (usually several hours or 1–2 days).  For example: A car wreck survivor who has no memory of the experience until two days later.
  • Selective amnesia  is when a person can recall only small parts of events that took place in a defined period of time.  For example:  A veteran of a war may recall some details, such as taking prisoners, but not others, such as seeing a good friend get hit.
  • Generalized amnesia  is when a person’s amnesia encompasses his or her entire life.  These individuals are usually found by the police or taken by others to a hospital emergency room.
  • Systematized amnesia is memory loss of a specific category of information.  For example:  A person with this disorder might be missing all memories about only one specific family member or about a certain location.
  • Continuous amnesia is memory loss which covers the entire period without interruption from a traumatic event in the past to the present.

Most patients diagnosed with dissociative amnesia have either localized or selective amnesia. Generalized amnesia is extremely rare. Patients with generalized, continuous, or systematized amnesia are usually eventually diagnosed as having a more complex dissociative disorder, such as dissociative identity disorder (DID).

Treatment of dissociative amnesia usually requires two distinct periods or phases of psychotherapy. Therapy for dissociative amnesia is supportive in its initial phase. It begins with creating an atmosphere of safety in the treatment room. Very often, patients gradually regain their memories when they feel safe with and supported by the therapist. This rapport does not mean that they necessarily recover their memories during therapy sessions; one study of dissociative amnesia found that most patients had their memories return while they were alone or with family or close friends.

After the patient has recalled enough of the missing past to acquire a stronger sense of self and continuity in their life history, the second phase of psychotherapy commences. During this phase, the patient deals more directly with the traumatic episode(s), and recovery from its aftereffects. Studies of the treatments for dissociative amnesia have found that recovery and cognitive integration of dissociated traumatic memories within the patient’s overall personality were more effective than treatment methods that focused solely on releasing feelings.

I suffer from selective amnesia.  I am able to remember some of the events surrounding my childhood abuse, and I have recollection of certain people and places involved in the abuse, but I cannot remember the specific details of the abuse itself.  My psychiatrist says that I have blocked these memories due to my brain’s inability to process the trauma.  I am starting to have flashbacks and my doctor believes that recollection will occur at some point in the future, perhaps as partial memories, perhaps in one big whoosh.  I must admit that the thought of remembering all the abuse makes me very, very anxious; to be honest, I’m terrified.  I’m afraid memory recollection might drive me into a serious episode of dissociation or perhaps even to suicidal depression or maybe a breakdown requiring hospitalization.   Based upon what I’ve learned from my research, I believe that it is of vital importance to my recovery that I remember my trauma.  As frightened as I am by the thought of recalling my abuse, I know that in order to truly heal from my past, I must remember it and process those feelings.  I’ve been having nightmares since I was a child; it would be wonderful to be able to face those fears, deal with it, and move forward with my life. I’m ready to put the past behind me.