The Void: dissociation, amnesia, and identity

Dissociative amnesia is not often spoken of. It doesn’t have the fascinating glamour of other forms of dissociation such as ‘multiple personalities’ or fugue states. It seems at times that there’s little to say of the losses of memory, of how frail our sense of the world is when we can’t recall it. It’s subtle but insidious, far more important and powerful than people think.

Some people with multiplicity also have very high levels of amnesia, a form of dissociation in memory. In this case, memories are laid down and stored in the brain, but the dissociation between different parts prevents access to them. So people can live in this surreal twilight world of ‘coming to’ and trying to figure out from context where they are and what has been happening. Life is a bewildering series of changes, something that slips through your hands as fast as you try to grasp it. Other parts live according to their own values, needs, fears, and understanding of the world, and you return to inherit their choices. The world of cause and effect can become brutal when you cannot recall the causes but must live with the consequences. Between skips of memory can pass hours, days, or years. Like Rip Van Winkle, you can wake to find your whole world is unfamiliar.

Other people experience amnesia without multiplicity. Sometimes it gets forgotten that this is very possible. People are told that if they cannot remember great chunks of their day – or their life – that they are probably multiple and other parts must have been living them. It’s actually very common to have amnesia without dissociation in identity, trauma both physical and psychological will often affect our capacity to remember, as can a massive collection of physical illnesses and injuries. Emotion is a key aspect of memory, so dissociation or disconnection in emotions can also affect our capacity to remember. Our ability to remember is also linked to our awareness of the passing of time. Memory is very complex and not particularly well understood.

We’re familiar with the challenges of minor memory loss, the scattered way of life when you’re constantly looking for your shoes, keys, car, phone. It’s not hard to extrapolate that to bigger, but still tangible losses – having found my car at last in the shopping centre car park, I can’t remember where I live. Standing at the checkout desperately trying to remember my PIN number, crying with frustration because I’m 19 but it feels like I have dementia. Trying to fill out welfare forms and having to ask other people what my birth date is. These bigger gaps are like black holes in the world, only in your world. Other people walk over an unbroken path, I fall through, into an emptiness. I float in a void and hope desperately I’ll find the other side of it, pick myself up quickly, dust myself off and keep walking, hoping no one notices my lack of normal functioning.

Other losses can be profound, harder to imagine. People who recall nothing of their lives before the age of 35, except small scraps. People who find that amnesia follows them, at a distance, like a stray dog, eating recall of all memories older than two years previous. People who wake in the morning next to their partner of 20 years and find they don’t recognise them. People who look in the mirror and are bewildered and surprised by who looks back at them. That moment of panic as a stranger approaches you in the street with an easy smile and greets you by name. For some there’s an overwhelming sense of shame, of being damaged and desperately trying to pass for human. For others the loss takes even the grief of loss, there’s a shrug, or a little wistfulness, or even relief. For some, behind the shield of amnesia, dreams and nightmares and all the things they once felt deeply about lurk in their shadows, haunt their sleep, beat against glass walls in their mind, evoking terror.

Without memory, it is difficult to have a stable sense of self. State-dependent memory cuts off a sense of connection to other parts. Each part has their own memories of life and draws their own conclusions based only on their own experiences. Mood dependent memory is the way we recall with ease our happiest moments when happy, and drown in all our saddest when sad. For people in the grip of intense, flooded emotions, such as some who are given the diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder, their whole lives and sense of self changes with each feeling. We sparkle when happy, and our whole world is beautiful! We are generous, kind, loving, full of good humour and good will. We bathe in the milk of human kindness, nothing is too big to forgive, too much to ask. When sad, the world is black, bleak, dark, terrifying, choked with misery, full of bad omens and evil portends. We radiate despair and flood everyone near them. We are preoccupied, desperate, overwhelmed by a sense of doom, like prophets who understand the world is ending and shake our warnings at people too blind to stop their partying and take up the ashes and sackcloth. When threatened we are sharp toothed, short of temper, we jump at shadows and see danger everywhere. We bite hands that come too close and nurse the aching wounds of all the wrongs ever done to us. We see the world as violent, unpredictable, deceptive. We look for the trick in every gesture, the hidden meaning in every word. We live with our teeth bared and bite before we’re bitten.

There are a thousand shades of emotion that people don’t even consider, like shades of colours. We are swept from heights to valleys, through quiet contemplation, deep sorrow, burning rage, cheerful spring mornings, restless wild moods, agonising pain, mischievous playfulness. When these states are split off from each other, people’s sense of self changes with each of them. Our sense of the world completely changes, our values and goals change, our expectations of the future changes, our approaches to our relationships change. The thread of consciousness that gives us our sense of stable self is snapped and chopped into bits. What has the potential to be a deeply lived, vivid experience of life becomes fractured, tormenting, and without growth.

For people with parts, fractures along these lines are common – one part will remember all things wonderful in life, another all things painful. When switching and trying to understand the self, multiples get lost in the many versions of self that leave evidence in their lives, the many handwritings in their journals. As a child I sometimes asked other people to describe me, feeling devoid of clarity about myself and seeking to use their eyes as a mirror. There’s an empty feeling beneath shattered memory that can make people feel like they don’t exist. Switching can be like forever walking into a room at the moment someone else walks out.

I once watched a documentary about Clive Wearing, who suffers from chronic severe amnesia due to a virus that damaged his brain. He has almost no recollection of his past (although he has what is called procedural memory, that is he can still do things he once learned to do, such as walk, dress himself, and play music). Clive cannot hold onto to new memories for longer than about 30 seconds. He lives entirely in the moment. He has a diary that moves me deeply. Each previous entry he crosses out, as he cannot recall having written it. Each new entry is achingly similar.

8:31 AM: Now I am really, completely awake.
9:06 AM: Now I am perfectly, overwhelmingly awake.
9:34 AM: Now I am superlatively, actually awake.

There’s an agony here, an awareness of loss and a claiming of life that turns out to be without permanence or meaning. It’s deeply painful to see his distress and be unable to knit back together the damaged areas of brain that leave him in the void. The process is familiar to me, I recognise echoes of the same voids in myself and others.

For those of us with multiplicity, even when co-conscious, the emotional distance of watching but not living all our lives can create subtle breaks in our sense of self. Disconnection in emotion can fragment our ability to emotionally process our lives. Switching can be our own version of suddenly feeling awake. We sweep aside all the knowledge of other parts, sometimes even of our own previous memories, with this sudden conviction that now, I am truly awake. That now, I am really alive. This time, I understand. That this time, I’ll make it work. We do the same things, with the same tools, from the same values, backed by the same seeping aside of our history, and are horrified, surprised, and devastated when we get the same results. We cut ourselves off from our own wisdom, learn nothing from our history, disregard all previous insights. We make abrupt, unsustainable life changes, that change only the names and places, but repeat the same crisis dynamics over and over. When we are briefly aware of this sense of being trapped in a cycle, we feel so helpless and ashamed that it’s a relief to let amnesia or switching sweep it all aside. It’s like having an internal reset button, we go back to the start of the maze and go looking for the cheese all over again, often with the support of people around us and mental health staff who are pleased we’ve stopped being paralysed by our awareness of our futile cycles and are tackling our lives with vim again.

Health and recovery is sometimes sold to us as stopping this process. Limiting the extremes, preventing the switching, shutting down the states. A single part is chosen to be the ‘real’ one, a single emotional state or small collection of them are selected as the ideal, calmest and most rational. All the knowledge in the rest is discarded, all the wildness that gives life deeper mythic meaning, the wrestling with angels and demons, the being moved by things we can’t name are suppressed instead of connected. The goal becomes staying still instead of learning how to dance through them. Life becomes staid, the suppressed grow wilder and stronger, we find ourselves fighting not only with our weaknesses but also our strengths. We dissociate more and more from ourselves and our experience of life.

These processes are not unique to multiples. We all use dissociation to contain memories and feelings, to compartmentalise our worlds so that we can function. Not enough dissociation, being unable to contain emotions and memories can be just as destructive. It can be very difficult for any of us to step back and see the whole, to watch our own patterns and honour our history. We are all partly dependant on the stories we’ve told through which we understand ourselves and the world, and the perspectives of others. Sometimes they help, something they make us blind or tell stories that do us harm. Step back too far and we become numbed observers. Remain forever utterly in the moment, and we fall into the void. In that place, we run to anything that makes us feel better, calmer, safer, no matter how crazy. We self destruct with passionate, spectacular indifference. We search for a sense of self that the search itself destroys. The experience of the void can induce a sense of absolute panic, a desperate, frantic need to DO something, anything, to feel like you exist. Even blood, agony, the fireworks from your whole world being destroyed can feel better than the void.

For me, my journals – and now this blog, are the trail of breadcrumbs I leave for myself to help me see my selves. I write, and then I read, and re-read, seeing my selves through different eyes, charting my life. I find causes for effects. I learn about those people who have the most profound impact upon my life, but whom I have never really met – my other parts, the rest of ‘Sarah’. I am startled by the complexity of life, all the things I do not see that they do, the vast spectrum of colours I cannot perceive, of feelings I know only as words. There’s a sense of being blind, but learning life and self by its feeling in my hands, its taste in my mouth. Sometimes someone comes out who is missing so many threads of information, so much of what we have learned and how we have changed. Sharing our history connects them back to us, to the present moment, to all the gains and losses of our life.

I reconnect the thread of self by honouring that I am alive now, and that I have always been alive. All the parts are real, all the emotions are meaningful, all the experiences are important. I look for the common ground between all the states and parts, and I also learn to celebrate such wildly diverse ways of experiencing the world. I find the things that stay the same no matter what – a fear, a value, a need, a tiny chip of identity. I look for ways to carry them with me through all the changes, I notice the way that feelings or switching changes a value like kindness, the way different light sources make a gemstone look like it’s a different colour. Ideas are refined. A sense of self is not so much found as created. The void remains, but it no longer consumes everything, and my life is no longer spend running from it in fear and back to it in need.