I Can’t Remember Anything Before the Age of 14—but My Body Does
My acute amnesia has filtered out some traumatic points in my life, but it’s also erased the memories and experiences that have shaped me.
Writing this piece was harder than I thought it would be. When I proposed the topic, I didn’t take into account the level of personal excavation that it would require. I study history, the politics of memory and how institutions help to structure our memories and notions of the past. This has always come easily to me, memorizing facts and stories from the past, because it’s all very removed from my own experiences. I am able to keep my history at arm’s length while diving deep into other’s pasts, spending hours in archives and libraries studying points in time.
Before writing this, I had never really thought about the clear contrast in my life—between my ability to remember facts and stories about historical figures and my inability to do so for myself. When it comes to the study and exploration of my own historicity, I draw a blank. While I’m writing this, I am also working on my dissertation, rattling off facts and anecdotes about the artist and her muse central to my topic. Tapping into my own memories and my personal relationship with my past has proven to be much harder.
It’s Hard to Understand Who I Am Without Context
I recently wrote a piece critiquing the Israeli film Waltz With Bashir, exploring the complexities of government-manufactured memories and the role of trauma in the fabrication and loss of certain memories. It felt almost obvious for me to make some of these connections—war being a clearly traumatic event one might attempt to block out of their consciousness. Currently, my therapist and I have hit a wall. She wants to tap into an aspect of my childhood that most likely is the reason for certain patterns in my present regarding romantic partners. This boils down to memories of my parents and how they interacted with me. I attempted to jog my memory with photos and meditation, but nothing came up.
The cliche is that history is doomed to repeat itself. But how am I supposed to apply this to my own life if I can’t remember my history? As I get older, I am starting to notice my own patterns with friends, family and partners and how it could be helpful to have some context as to why I do and say certain things. Some of it is positive, and some is negative. My deep insecurities and need for affirmation are things that most likely began in childhood. My tendency to pick clearly unavailable partners—something I am trying to work on—probably came from my relationship with my parents and them not being available. In my studies, I learn about the cyclical nature of history. It’s in my nature to observe patterns and connect points in time and people to those points.
I Get Somatic Sensations in Intimate Settings
In studying other histories, I have come to better understand my own defense mechanisms. Maybe for me, my acute amnesia is not from a specific traumatic event causing PTSD but a steady flow of events. Trauma is such a complex idea, and the word recently has become more readily used in society. Trauma is relative. What might be a traumatic and distressing event for one may not have the same psychological impact on another. My own personal blind spots are manufactured by my desire to enjoy life and new experiences without the constant reminder of my past.
It seems to bother other people more than it bothers me. My parents get upset when they say, “Remember when…” and I don’t. Sometimes I feel frustrated, mostly because it feels lonely to not remember. Although many people have similar experiences of not being able to recall their childhood, I can feel isolated from my family, as though I’m not in on the private joke, even though I was there.
I am grateful, at least, that I don’t have immediate access to some of the more painful memories, such as sexual traumas from my early 20s. Every once in a while, I will get a shiver throughout my body. It’s the closest thing I have to a memory of these experiences. This somatic sensation will happen when I’m in an intimate setting and my body is reminded of something, triggering a physiological response. It’s fascinating to me how my body has stored all of the information, reacting quickly to situations that feel reminiscent of past negative sexual experiences. But my mind still can’t make the connection as to what specific memory this bodily response is coming from.
I’m Reconsidering My Relationship With Memories
My therapist practices psychosomatic therapy. At first, I found it really frustrating being asked where I felt sensations in my body after saying certain things. I was unable to track where I was physically holding certain emotions. I have had gastrointestinal issues for as long as I can remember—stomach aches, ulcers, allergic reactions to foods, bloating. You name it, I’ve had the symptom. I started to track this more carefully, following patterns and situations in which I had an IBS flare-up. More often than not, it wasn’t related to the food I ate that day. My diet rarely changes, and I know what works for my body. It was when I felt uncomfortable, scared and lonely that my stomach would swell and cramp, a physiological warning sign that something wasn't right.
Through writing this I have been able to reconsider my relationship with my own memories, as well as the memories of others. I think for my own sake, it’s helpful to look at how learning about history unrelated to my personal experience can inform the way I deal with my present as well as my past. The way other people chose to live, their actions and decisions, all can show me how to use this lack of memory and draw from external ideas and realities.