“I tried my insurance, Kaiser Permanente, for therapy. They assigned me to an intern because I wasn’t suicidal. He diagnosed me with PTSD on the first appointment. But on the second appointment, I told him something that happened to me the previous week. He was packing up his office because he was leaving. His internship was over. He just stared at me and said “WOW!’ Then he told me I could see someone else if I wanted to make an appointment.”

I was sitting in a small private office for an initial appointment with a psychiatrist. I was angry with the way my healthcare provider had treated me, and I was willing to pay out of pocket for help. In the yellow pages, this man had his listing under psychologists who treat trauma. I didn’t know he was a medical doctor. 

“What was the ‘WOW’ thing?” the psychiatrist asked me. “What made the intern say ‘WOW?'”

“I was on the phone with a friend and telling him about the harassment at work. He said, ‘Oh my god! They are trying to fire you! Call your attorney immediately. They’re trying to fire you.’”

“After that, I started to panic. I went into an anxiety attack. My heart started racing, I could barely breathe, and I was pacing back and forth in my bedroom. Then I was out on Shelter Island on a walk. That’s where I usually walk. When I got in my car, it was 4 hours later. I don’t know how I got there! I don’t remember driving there, but I was there. I had the car keys in my hand! I don’t know how I got there! I don’t know where the 4 hours went.”

The psychiatrist paused for a moment. 

“It’s a fugue.”

“ A what?”

“A fugue.”

“F U G E or F U G U E?” I asked him unsure of the spelling.

“F U G U E.” he replied.

Once I got home from the appointment, I looked up the term “fugue.” It’s a musical term. But, it’s also used in psychiatry, and I wasn’t happy to learn that it fell under the category “abnormal psychology.”

Thus began my journey into experiencing dissociative states. It also began my journey into hiding my experiences because of the stigma and my confusion.

I continued therapy after my initial appointment with this psychiatrist, and I was lucky. I didn’t want medications, and he was willing to simply talk, although most psychiatrists do only medication management. In addition, he was a clinical professor at a renowned medical school and director of the PTSD clinical team at the VA Hospital. He kept a very small private practice on the side. I benefited immensely from his experience and knowledge.

During the next year, I was confronted frequently by actions I had taken but didn’t remember.

These actions weren’t necessarily bad. I paid my bills twice each month. My statements arrived in the mail with credit balances and two identical payments about 2 weeks apart from each other. But, I didn’t remember making any payments.

Other actions were not pleasant. 

My long-term boyfriend called and asked why I had stood him up on the very night we were going to discuss marriage. 

I didn’t recall anything about that. That was the last time we talked to each other.

In my personal experience, the commencement of these dissociative states began the moment my memories of childhood sexual abuse flooded back into my fully conscious state. It’s hard to describe to anyone who hasn’t experienced such a phenomenon, although I gave a thorough explanation in my book, Family Legends, Family Lies.

For me, the memories weren’t really repressed. I remembered the childhood sexual abuse, although I rarely thought about them. But the memories were completely disconnected from any feelings, both emotional and physical. In one instant, those intense, traumatic feelings reconnected to the memories. I had already been diagnosed with PTSD after experiencing sexual harassment at my previous job. Once the feelings reconnected to the memories of sexual abuse, the dissociative states began.

The issue of recovered memories of sexual abuse receives plenty of heated debates from the experts. Survivors frequently keep silent about the subject to avoid derision and scorn from disbelievers.

Many mental health organizations have advised providers to view recovered memories of childhood abuse with considerable skepticism. Plenty of studies show that memories can be malleable and manipulated. Some famous cases of recovered memories of child abuse proved false due to manipulative investigators or therapists, such as the McMartin Preschool case and the case against Dale Akiki.

But many psychotherapists who work with adult survivors of extreme childhood abuse argue that the studies don’t prove that recovered memories are false. They put forth the argument that traumatic experiences in childhood may be split off from normal conscious awareness, which is referred to as dissociative amnesia.

Amnesia is well documented in 

  • Head injury
  • Severe illness
  • High fever
  • Seizures
  • Brain surgery, and more

So why do recovered memories of childhood abuse receive such skepticism? Where do the memory wars stand today?

An article published in the April edition of Scientific American highlights a study that takes a look at amnesia and other dissociative experiences. The study was published in the February 2021 edition of the American Journal of Psychiatry.

The same edition published a laudatory editorial for “[uncovering] a potential brain circuit mechanism underlying individual differences in dissociative symptoms in adults with early-life trauma and PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder].”

Interesting findings: MRI scans done on PTSD patients with dissociative amnesia show less activity in the amygdala and more activity in the prefrontal cortex. However, PTSD patients without memory issues show the opposite: more activity in the amygdala and less activity in the prefrontal cortex.

The Scientific American article has many more details and information about other studies. As a person who has experienced dissociative states and the stigma, I find it heartening that researchers are committing time and resources to study the problem. They may never find any treatment that helps, but at least some scientific validation of recovered memories exist.

Of course, the best development would be the elimination of childhood sexual abuse and other abuse that sets the stage for dissociative amnesia.

 

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