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Ask the Mental Health Expert Archives 2001-2004

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Memory Loss

Q. I have been looking at articles about repressed and suppressed memories and the information is a bit controversial. I have almost no memories of my childhood at all and the few things I remember might be an outfit or basically other inconsequential items of that nature.

I start having some memories from high school but not before. My parents showed me a scrapbook I had done when I was 14 which had a newspaper article about a friend's body found in a ditch, and I had made a notation about it being my friend that I had seen a few days before. I have no recollection at all about that or anything else in the scrapbook. It's as if it had been done by another person. Would you have any insight about this, or what could be causing such a long-term memory loss?

A. I can't explain such a profound memory gap in your case, but it's certainly possible that some kind of trauma in your childhood is playing a role. When the child is confronted by some overwhelming trauma--be it death, serious injury, or physical/emotional abuse, either direct or indirect--the psychological defense of repression may kick in, sealing off the traumatic memories from the conscious mind. But whether that is true in your case, I certainly can't say. And, as you note, the whole concept of "repressed memory" is quite controversial among mental health professionals.

I think the larger question for you may be, "Why is this so important to me, and why now?" If you are basically a happy, creative, productive individual with no serious psychological problems beyond this memory gap, there may be no compelling reason to probe further into the matter. On the other hand, if you find that you are basically unhappy; unable to form lasting and meaningful social relationships; suffer from puzzling flashbacks or voices that you can't identify; feel depressed, anxious or emotionally numb most of the time; or struggle with aggressive or self-injurious behaviors, then I think the question you are raising may be more pressing.

If so, I would recommend that you seek professional evaluation and treatment with a mental health professional who has special expertise in the area of trauma. You may also be interested in reading the book "Coping With Trauma" by Dr. Jon Allen (American Psychiatric Press). I do hope you get to the bottom of this, and are able to move on from there.

July 2002

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