Dissociative Memory: When Dreaming Is Remembering

November 25, 2010 Holly Gray

I dreamed I was at the mall, shopping with my partner. We strolled through the stores, bought a few things, and went home. It wasn't a particularly noteworthy dream but I mentioned it in passing to her anyway. "That wasn't a dream," she said. "We did that yesterday." How did I confuse reality for a fiction created by my dreaming mind? Memory is a tricky thing and dissociation complicates remembering. It's only because I have dissociative identity disorder (DID) and am aware of my dissociative memory problems that I believed her when she said it wasn't a dream. It didn't, and still doesn't feel like a memory at all.

Dissociative Memory Doesn't Feel Like Memory

We tend to think of remembering as the retrieval of cohesive sets of images, sounds, emotions, and sensations that serve as recordings of our histories. But what if the elements of memory were stored separately? Would it still feel like memory? Would we even recognize it as memory?

If a girl experienced abuse in the woods on an autumn day at the age of nine and goes walking in the woods on an autumn day thirty years later, she may experience physical reactions similar to what was experienced during the original abuse. In the case of DID, however, until enough system work has been done in therapy, the adult will probably be at a loss to explain her experience. - The Dissociative Identity Disorder Sourcebook, Deborah Haddock

Dissociative Memory and Childhood Trauma

You thought it was just a nightmare, but it actually happened. Traumatic memory can feel more like dreaming than remembering. That's a good thing. Read this.Take a minor occurrence like my shopping dream, add severe trauma to the dream's narrative, chop it into pieces, and send it back in time by thirty years and you have an idea of what remembering childhood trauma is like for many people with DID. They are plagued by snippets of emotion, flashes of images, and physical sensations that may manifest separately or in any combination. They may say they know a particular event happened, but have no recall of it at all. They may report seeing movies in their minds that, taken individually, don't make any sense. What results is often a maddening conviction that you're haunted by things that never even happened.

Protected by Dissociative Memory

It might not sound unsettling to find out that your uneventful dream about shopping at the mall was, in fact, a memory. Imagine though, that your most disturbing nightmare was proven real. What you were sure was a horrifying creation of your subconscious mind was actually a form of remembering. That would be substantially more than unsettling, yes?

Dissociative memory is often too disjointed and broken up to feel like memory in any traditional sense. Though it's confusing, it's also what protects many people with DID from totally succumbing to the pain of their memories. Dreams, after all, don't hurt quite as much.

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APA Reference
Gray, H. (2010, November 25). Dissociative Memory: When Dreaming Is Remembering, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, July 17 from

Author: Holly Gray

November, 25 2010 at 9:13 am

Really good subject, one I've always found interesting and valid for me. Thank you!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
November, 25 2010 at 7:09 pm

Hi tai,
Memory really is fascinating. Dissociation is too, I think, when it's not frustrating me too much to appreciate how interesting it is.
Thanks for your comment!

November, 25 2010 at 12:52 pm

This happens to me a LOT. I am always asking myself, did I dream that, or did that really happen? Dreams feel like memories sometimes, and memories feel like dreams. I wonder if there is a name for this phenomenon? So much of my life feels unreal already.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
November, 25 2010 at 7:13 pm

Hi Pilgrim,
"I wonder if there is a name for this phenomenon?"
There is! Dissociation. Pinpointing the type of dissociation is always tricky for me though. I don't think I have the objectivity to do that for myself. I suspect though that derealization and dissociative amnesia play very active roles in this dream/memory confusion. But honestly - and this is why I say I don't have the objectivity to pinpoint it for myself - it seems like identity confusion, identity alteration, and depersonalization are all present in this manifestation too.
Thanks for your comment, Pilgrim.

November, 25 2010 at 3:49 pm

I agree that "dreams" soften the blow of painful and disturbing memories. At the same time, I find it extremely unsettling to find out a dream wasn't a dream after all. Even if the "dream" was harmless. Just as I find it unsettling when I am told that I behaved a certain way, or I had a conversation that I, for the life of me, cannot remember.
I am still in the process of digesting all of this, and I'm not quite sure how long this "digestion" will take. I suspect that it is an ongoing process. There are most likely many various levels and stages of acceptance.
What I do find comfort in is just what you stated above .... as confusing as Dissociative Memory is, it really is what protects us from succumbing to the pain. Personally, I think it really does soften the blow.
I would have never thought this through had you not posted this. Very thought provoking. Thanks again Holly.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
November, 25 2010 at 7:19 pm

Hi Mareeya,
Thanks for your comment.
"At the same time, I find it extremely unsettling to find out a dream wasn’t a dream after all. Even if the “dream” was harmless. Just as I find it unsettling when I am told that I behaved a certain way, or I had a conversation that I, for the life of me, cannot remember."
It seems there are some things I'm used to, and some that I never get used to. I don't know what the differences are though. But finding out this dream was a memory did unsettle me, even though I've known I have DID for 6 years.
"There are most likely many various levels and stages of acceptance."
I think that's true. It's not easy at all.

November, 25 2010 at 7:59 pm

This has been a curiously thought provoking topic for me today Holly, because I have always had an issue with sleep. For me my problem since the age of 17 or 18 ( the time I was able to leave my abusive childhood behind ), has always been an inability to wake up with a clear head. Prior to this age every morning I woke up startled and in fright, both happy to see another day, and eager to exit my flat as fast as I possibly could. But after leaving this existence behind I found instead of waking up in panic and becoming alert very quickly, I couldn't wake up at all. This has persisted for the rest of my life til now. When I wake up I pretty much sleep walk or sleep talk. I can disable three clocks with strident alarms placed in different rooms and talk to someone on the phone and still go back to sleep, unaware of what I have done. I think I got so used to fear waking me up I don't know how to wake up clearly any other way. Also for many years before I even knew I had DID I would wake up not only not knowing what day it was but also how old I was and what part of my life I was living. And it would take anything from five to ten minutes for me to put the pieces of the puzzle together and remember who I was and when I was. After learning in the last few years I have DID I figured this confusion in the mornings was probably related, but now the penny has dropped because of your blog. When I wake up and don't know how old I am and what part of my life I 'm living it's probably because it's not me who is sleeping and dreaming, it's one of my alters. Wow. Well next time it happens I'll try and remember what dreams I had and see if they are any different from my usual ones. However the drowsiness on waking is still not quite clear to me.    

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
November, 30 2010 at 3:01 pm

Hi kerri,
Thanks for your comment - it's thought provoking too.
Switching during sleep is common. It's not unusual, in fact, for the presenting alter to get up during the night without the alter that presents in the morning being aware of it. I suppose it's possible that's why you're so drowsy!
I'm drowsy in the mornings too but I'm certain no one in my system is up til all hours. In my case it's that I take medication before bed that makes waking up a slow and arduous process regardless of how much sleep I've had.

November, 25 2010 at 8:59 pm

This whole subject is very interesting. I know I switch while I sleep sometimes because I have woken up in the middle of the night and not been the same person that went to sleep. I keep trying to figure out what the need would be to switch while sleeping. After all, it's sleeping. A time when nothing is required of me except to rest my mind and body. Why switch? I have no idea but my guess would be that the subconscious is busy trying to make sense of events that have happened in our waking state and I think that it also knows about all our alters. Alters live in a subconscious world most of the time, buried under layers of awareness. I would love to see sleep and DID studied more in-depth by the medical community.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
November, 30 2010 at 3:10 pm

Hi carla,
I think there are probably a lot of reasons why people switch during sleep. For some, sleep has historically been a dangerous activity so the very act of sleeping is potentially triggering. But I also don't believe switches occur solely in response to trauma triggers. Some people find that they have alters who come out at night, wake up, and do things (e.g. cook, play with toys). For them it may simply be that the nighttime is the only quiet time those alters have to get some time for themselves.
Then again, dreams themselves might provoke switching.

December, 2 2010 at 2:57 am

You describe this all very well Holly. This all gets tricky because there are some snippets which seem not to fit and I don't want to accept. My doctor told me recently that "you don't have to be perfect with you acceptance, you just have to be 'good enough'". I think I'll write on this soon. This topic is one I've been meaning to address. Thanks for bringing it up.
Do you know why Healthy Place doesn't allow comment subscription?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
December, 2 2010 at 8:09 pm

Hi Paul,
Thank you! Your doctor sounds smart. Mine tells me what's important is to take this material seriously, but not literally. That helps me enormously. Memory is just too disjointed and, like you said, so often things don't fit. Taking it all literally, accepting perfectly ... my logical brain can't do that.
I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts on this topic.
"Do you know why Healthy Place doesn’t allow comment subscription?"
No, but I'll see what I can find out. :)

December, 2 2010 at 7:19 am

We have been working on something similar in therapy. My dreams often give me information, and sometimes when I talk about them with my husband he will tell me how we did that yesterday, the day before, last week, etc.. It's frustrating, but if I can sort it out a little, I might get a snippet of memory or information that helps fill in the gaps. I'm still not processing the experiences as real memories, though.
My youngest interviewed me last weekend about my holiday memories and I realized that my memories were simply pictures I had seen over the years in an album. That shocked me. I had built up little stories around old photographs, and I couldn't remember anything beyond what I thought was happening in the pictures. When I tried to think back on it there was nothing. I guess my brain tried to make little memories out of the photos. Somewhere inside is the actual memory, but maybe it's not time to deal with it yet. Sorry to go on about that, but your article about these dreams reminded me. Those photographs don't hurt as much, either.

December, 2 2010 at 9:51 am

"I realized that my memories were simply pictures I had seen over the years in an album."
Hi Lisa,
I had the same experience. Going through the photo album and realizing I could not remember the event from one picture is was in before the age of 12. I was there in the photo, but unable to remember anything that happened.
Helps me see I'm not alone...Thanks

December, 23 2010 at 3:09 pm

We've actually been dealing with a memory that until recently I was sure was just a very bad dream. So, your article means a lot to me especially today. Thanks.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
December, 28 2010 at 2:41 pm

I'm glad it resonated for you, cetcetera. Thank you for reading. :)

September, 8 2011 at 9:04 pm

Two comments on an excellent review of how our minds are different:
1. The greatest saddness I have is recognizing try as I might all my child raising of my kids is snippets I convert (lie to others) as memories. They are not.
2. So much of the blog and especially commentary are not utilized in psych training professionals. Worse, the continued labeling and therefore medicating continues without end. Even is only 10% of us recogniza and be cogent enough to learn, the professionals are not incorporating our stories, our "science " or discoveries from blogs into rehaping the diagnosis process. My view from medical world is these professional blinders are perpetuating relief of suffering and actually aids in continued victimization.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
September, 12 2011 at 8:52 am

Hi Coach,
As to your first comment, yes, that is sad. I understand. My son is 13 now and I do remember things ... but not nearly enough. And what memories I do have are characteristic of my dissociative memory ... flat, distant, like someone else's.
As to the second, I couldn't agree more that treatment for Dissociative Identity Disorder will never be thorough if treating clinicians don't take into account what those of us with DID say about DID and our lives with it. It's arrogant to assume that we don't have any wisdom to offer in this area. And treatment suffers in part because of that arrogance.
Thanks so much for reading and commenting, Coach. I hope to hear from you again.

April, 9 2014 at 12:30 pm

I was diagnosed with schizophrenia in 1989. The other day I was in a swap-shop and brought home some old pictures. In it was a group of pictures of Angel Island State Park near San Francisco. I recognized the place from a dream I had some months ago. In reality I may have visited the place when I lived in California years ago. In the dream it caused me to be sad because it reminded me of Mountain Island Lake outside of my birthplace, Charlotte, NC. Now I think I may have visited Angel Island with my ex-husband, children, and in-laws but I am wondering why the memories coming back to me are so vague. There are so many things that I have had to deal with as a person with schizophrenia. There is no cure but I tend to think of myself as high-functioning or in remission. It has been the hardest thing because the mental health system is so inadequate. That is an understatement. This country's mental health system would put a bandaid on the Titanic to patch it. I'd encourage anyone with the diagnosis to read all they can about the illness. I know more than the last so-called doctor I saw. He took my reading as an insult or that I was contriving my illness. I'd rather have berri-berri. He also told me to stop taking my medicine because I was okay. He said seroquel wasn't a medicine for schizophrenia. He came from another country and was a childhood specialist in everything. He looked like a guy who used to work at the gas station. I read his reviews and he left one place overnight with people's records. Thank God for my medical doctors!

April, 9 2014 at 12:43 pm

Sometimes when I write people have a hard time understanding it. I was diagnosed in 1989 when I was living in California. I never remembered going to Angel Island State Park while I lived in CA. So a few days ago, which would be 25 or so years later, I saw some pictures in a box someone had disgarded. They were of strangers on a ferry and at the park. On the sign was "Angel Island State Park." One picture especially looked familiar. It was of a big white (and yellow) house with green state trucks outside and it was in a cove. I had dreamed about that place some months ago. In the dream I was sad because Mountain Island Lake near Charlotte had changed so much. In reality I probably visited Angel Island State Park and it made me homesick for Charlotte, North Carolina. It was when I was in a bad marriage and my grown children were little and we went there with my ex-husband's family. I'll ask them if we went there.

May, 23 2014 at 3:00 pm

I seem to be experiencing something similar. 'Seem to be', because I'm not even sure myself anymore.
In my case, instead of mistaking reality for dreams, or dreaming of something that happened a long time ago, I end up having such realistic dreams that I mistake them for reality.
Is there a term for that?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 29 2017 at 9:05 pm

Me too! It really freaks me out.

August, 6 2015 at 6:26 pm

It's very odd to have a memory and then realize that maybe it was a dream. I think this began happening after my breakdown and suicide attempt two years ago.
I get very confused and unsure of what is real, but i also know that it was not reality. The memory feels absolutely real!
My life has become unbarable, since my DID has dominated my daily life to the point of disabling me. At the same time i have lost everything, i live in poverty and i feel some kind of pain everyday. I really need help to finction, but i have none. I just do the best that i can on any given day. The hardest part is when i am with my 9 yo son. Staying present, calm, not agitated, lose my patients, or show any of my severe syptoms in his company. It has happened once, and he started crying and was scared. We both cried, finally my ability to speak normally came back. I also grunt in his company and we make it something funny, but truthfully i am functioning on very thin ice.
It is like being possessed!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

July, 29 2017 at 9:03 pm

This is eerily similar. I too have a 9 year old son and behave in this exact way. It feels like there's a darkness behind my heart that I'm working desperately to control and keep hidden.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

March, 15 2018 at 3:35 am

I’m 19 years old and I’m experiencing this same phenomenon. Anybody know more?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

April, 19 2018 at 3:56 pm

After I walked out of my sexually abusive parents lives, my depression got deeper and darker and I couldn’t work or take care of myself. I had no where left to go and was so desperate. I did something I never imagined myself doing, I asked Jesus for help. I was never religious either and still am not, but therapy only did so much. After asking Jesus for help, my life did a major transformation. I no longer have abusive people in my life, my incessant anxiety is totally gone, my depression is also gone and I can work again doing something I love. I’m like a new person. I still have a little more heal to do, but so many of the giant hurdles and deep darkness are gone. I hope my experience shows there is hope to overcome a life of abuse and trauma.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

September, 2 2020 at 4:30 pm

Amen God bless u

September, 26 2016 at 1:37 am

I keep having snippets of dreams and they are snippets of things that I know have happened in my life abused as a child, my husband passing and me reviving him, my ex boyfriend cheating on me while I was have surgery. But they are just snippets, for the past three days the snippets show more of where I left off, what is this and why now? Am I fearing something?

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

November, 14 2017 at 11:52 pm

Hi. Is there a way to confirm if these clips are real events? Like i remember looking at an object, the whole clip is max 2, 3 seconds.

October, 25 2017 at 6:29 pm

It's weird to read this bc this is the language I've been using with my therapist, but I've never heard or seen it before. I was thinking earlier today that I'd like a dollar for every hour my food sits finished in the microwave.

March, 17 2019 at 2:01 am

That's what happens to me. I hear the microwave beeping telling me the food is still inside and it's already cold. Or I'll find clothes in the washer that have been there for days. I drive for hours and when i get there i forgot the directions there. I remember being places that I don't think I've ever been to before. I wake up tire & find I've smoked all my cigarettes, but i remember having a few left before going to bed. Or I'll relight a cigarette that I don't remember starting in the first place. I don't remember eating but I'm but hungry.
I forget meeting people that obviously know me. It's difficult at work because I don't remember seeing them earlier and I find myself repeating myself. Or redoing something because I don't know if I did it already. It seems like I hide things from myself cause I'll find them and wonder when I did put that there.
I find my battery dead on my phone and when I turn it back on I don't remember the texts I sent. My girlfriend and I fight because she thinks I'm avoiding her, but it seems like I spend all my time with her outside of work. I wake up in bed not knowing if it's morning, afternoon, or the middle of the night. Memories seem like a dream. I think I lie to myself. I find things I've written and don't remember writing it but it's in my notebook in my house.

December, 14 2021 at 9:01 am

Hi! I just had a dream of a memory that I had when I was younger. I remember snippets of the experience but this dream showed me more in-depth what happened. It wasn't good so I think that I must have subconsciously suppressed it and now it's coming to light? Any thoughts?

April, 28 2022 at 6:57 am

Let’s say I have a bad memory from my childhood, how do I know if it’s a memory of a dream? If it’s a memory it would completely ruin my family but if it’s a dream then my mind is really gross and dark.

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