Last night I lost my memory – a state of amnesia – and went back to age 15. It wasn’t a flashback, as such. I was conscious and awake, only seeing the real world around me…but I was 15. Such an episode is called ‘dissociative amnesia’:
“Someone with dissociative amnesia will repeatedly have periods where they cannot remember information about themselves or about events in their past life. They may also forget a learnt talent or skill.
These gaps in memory are much more severe than normal forgetfulness, and are not the result of an underlying medical condition.
Some people with dissociative amnesia will find themselves in a strange place without knowing how they got there. They may have travelled there purposefully, or wandered in a confused state.
These blank episodes may last minutes, hours or days – and rarely, months or years.” (http://www.nhs.uk/Conditions/dissociative-disorders/Pages/Introduction.aspx#amnesia)
I had such an episode a couple of months ago, where I ended up catching a train and had no memory of having done so…but last night was the most severe episode in really quite a long time, and very distressing.
Imagine waking up, in a house you do not recognise. You have no idea how you got there, no idea what you’re doing there. You can hear someone in a room behind you – sounds like a kitchen – and there is someone asleep in front of you. It looks safe enough, except the person is a stranger, this place is alien, and you’re dressed in clothes you don’t recognise. That is what I fell into last night. It is terrifying. My most recent memory, which felt only minutes ago, was being at home aged 15. Now I was here? It was reasonable, given my childhood life, to assume I’d been drugged and taken here. Which meant only one thing – I was going to be seriously harmed.
So I took no chances. It sounded like the person in the room behind me was making something; the kettle was boiling. I panicked, thinking it was someone preparing a drugged drink for me. I hesitated, looking at the sleeping person in front of me, wondering if they were one of the ones planning to hurt me, or another victim? Should I wake her? I almost did, then panicked – maybe I had only moments before the other person came into this room.
Frightened and feeling very dazed (and assuming this was knock on effects of drugs), I left the house. I didn’t even take the time to close the front door; I didn’t want to be heard or spotted. I just opened it, and left.
But a few minutes later I heard running behind me. A strange man ran in front of me and tried stopping me from getting away. I was too scared to scream, and tried to act tougher than I felt. But who was this man? He said he was worried. Like I believed him, yeah right. What strange man has me in a strange house and then refuses to let me leave? I kept walking, sidestepping him, finally asking “who are you?!” I expected cruelty, but – randomly – the man turned and left.
Hooray! I kept walking. I didn’t believe for a moment that he’d let me go, but was instead going to try a different way of taking me back into the strange house. Sure enough, a few minutes later, he was back. I wanted to cry. I crossed the road to get away from him, he followed. He didn’t hurt me, but that didn’t reassure me at all. I was convinced this man was trying to gain my trust so that I would follow him back, and then what…then he could seriously harm me.
Then a car pulled up alongside me, and a woman – the person who’d been asleep in the strange house – got out and tried to block my path. I didn’t want to aggravate her; what if she or him did something awful to me? I was already winding them up enough by leaving, I was sure. I wanted to fight, to get away, but I was scared. I tried pushing against her, pushing her out of my way, pushed past her, and ran. I was so frightened. Really so scared.
She ran after me. He ran too. Now I was very sure these people were trying to kidnap me. Two strangers chasing me, at midnight, to try and get me back in a strange house? The woman spoke gently, calmly, sounded reassuring but I didn’t trust her. It felt a trap. She walked alongside me for a while but didn’t try to grab me. Tried suggesting we went somewhere warmer. Another trap. I refused to fall for it. Of course this woman didn’t care about how cold I was…she was just trying to seem friendly so that I went back with her.
It was extremely frightening, and I had absolutely no idea where I was. I kept walking, running, trying to run from them, darting across the road, trying to escape.
This went on for a good while. I remember passing out. Then being in a car and trying desperately to get out, but being held back by the woman. Somehow they’d got me in the car and we were going somewhere. Terrifying images and thoughts crossed my mind. What were they going to do to me? I screamed, kicked, fought hard against falling into hysterical fear. I knew if I fell into that, I wouldn’t be able to think straight and escape or protect myself. But God, I was so scared.
That was my experience.
Now let me tell you this…
The man and the woman were two of my closest friends, whom I have known for 4 years. But I didn’t know them when I was 15, which is why I had no clue as to who they were. They have been incredibly supportive, always, and have held my hands in the middle of the night whilst I have flashbacks more times than I can count. I have wonderful memories with these pair, lots of giggles, and trust them entirely, with my whole life. They weren’t trying to kidnap me at all, but rather were in control (from what I can now see), and just trying to calmly reassure me and ensure that I was safe during the episode, whilst still trying – as best as possible – to respect my agency. So I could leave the house but not wander alone in that state, for example. They were there simply to keep an eye and try to wake me up, as they have done multiple times in the past. They didn’t get me into the car without consent – I had woken up and remembered who they were, and was scared and distressed by waking up outside. I remember clinging to my friend, really very scared and disorientated. I got into the car, but then the amnesia hit again. The strange house is in fact one I lived in for the last 3 years.
It’s always very hard coming out of these episodes and realising I have forgotten such incredible friends. I feel extremely guilty – they have been such wonderful friends and have played a huge role in my life in the last 4 years – how could I just forget them?! How can those attachments just vanish into complete nothingness?
It’s difficult describing to others what dissociative amnesia is like. It sounds like a simple case of forgetting things for a bit. But it’s far more profound and terrifying than that. I forget aspects of myself, of my life, of those around me, of where I live. I forget all of the things, that ultimately have ensured my safety after the ring.
This happens to me because of the harrowing trauma I suffered in the ritual ring – dissociative amnesia is a symptom of the trauma, of the aftermath, just as PTSD is and dissociative identity disorder (DID). I used to experience such episodes often, now it is much rarer. Stress and exhaustion, as well as triggers and traumatic anniversaries, are all factors which can trip me into one of the amnesia episodes. Yesterday, I’d had a build up of all those factors, and apparently my mind eventually hit a wall. Ironically the amnesia is part of my brain’s attempt to cope and survive. I become overwhelmed and lose some of my memory, go back a bit. Maybe there’s something important about that particular time of my life that I need to look at, feel, or communicate to my friends which I could only otherwise do in flashback, or maybe not at all.
So, as ever with recovery, the symptoms can be terrifying and disabling…but the amnesia, if dealt with safely, can actually allow me to process more of my past or escape an overwhelming present.
Today I feel drained and achey. I haven’t ran like that for a long time – fibromyalgia doesn’t approve! I’ve had a hot bath to try and soothe the aches, and was overwhelmed with emotion earlier…I sobbed and hyperventilated and just let the emotion out. It’ll be another day or so before the knock on effects of last night have ceased…
Please never underestimate the knock-on effects of traumatic events. Last night did not happen because I am weak, it happened because I survived, and my mind and body took a brutal amount of torture and pain throughout that survival. If you know a survivor, let them be overwhelmed. Give them that space. We couldn’t afford to feel it as children, it wasn’t safe. But it was nonetheless a truly overwhelming and horrific experience, and sometimes us survivors just need to feel overwhelmed, to feel the emotions we weren’t able to feel at the time of trauma. We have a right to that. It helps us recover.
Just be gentle, be calm, don’t panic with us, be compassionate, respect your boundaries, and have faith in the fact that we survived. We can continue surviving recovery too.