Dissociative Identity Disorder Video: Dissociative Memory

January 9, 2011 Holly Gray

We know Dissociative Identity Disorder is a trauma disorder. In the past, many clinicians approached treatment as if it were an archeological dig, excavating for traumatic, dissociated memory. I think most people agree at this point that that's at best ineffective and at worst harmful. But the nature of dissociative memory is such that most people with DID have more questions about their histories than answers. And while I think those of us with Dissociative Identity Disorder do have to learn to tolerate some ambiguity, I also think we have more answers than we realize.

[caption id="attachment_1439" align="alignleft" width="240" caption="Photo by edwardwilliamosborn"]Photo by edwardwilliamosborn[/caption]

Dissociative Memory Holds Answers that May Not Seem to Match The Questions

There is an urgent drive for many with Dissociative Identity Disorder to know what happened, to have explanations for the odd, disjointed fragments of memory, the nightmares, the flashbacks - explanations that match the level of horror, terror, shame, etc. that accompanies all of those things. So, we look at our histories for something that matches. I've heard from people with DID who are fully capable of recognizing that what they already remember was a full-fledged nightmare, but more often what I hear is, "But that's not that bad," or "Something worse than that must have happened to cause DID!"

This line of thinking is a trap for two reasons:

  1. It speaks to preconceived ideas about the kinds of trauma that can cause Dissociative Identity Disorder. And not just ideas, but stories, rich with horrifying detail, that have been dramatized and sensationalized. Even if the bare-bones facts of your situation were exactly the same as some famous case history, it still wouldn't feel on par.
  2. It ignores the very nature of dissociative memory, which quite frankly, may never seem to match the gravity of pain and distress it causes.

Watch the Dissociative Identity Disorder Video on Dissociative Memory

In the following video, I discuss a very mild example of how dissociative memory can escape our notice and leave us searching for answers we already have.

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APA Reference
Gray, H. (2011, January 9). Dissociative Identity Disorder Video: Dissociative Memory, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 18 from

Author: Holly Gray

January, 9 2011 at 11:31 am

This is really great Holly. Thank you for doing it. I think a lot of times, people automatically assume that their reactions (sometimes extreme) must match actual physical events. Sometimes they are about internal conflicts, especially for those of us with DID.
To follow on your police example. I have a mixed reaction with law enforcement. Sometimes I can see them as protectors and have no problem, but other times it's the exact opposite. When I do have fear, I finally realized that it's about internal conflicts. Parts of me inside look at life through child-like lenses and ask: Why didn't the police save me from abuse as a child since their job is to protect?
Or, another way of thinking of it, from another set of lenses is that when I was a kid I always thought I was bad and I was always the one that got in trouble (which is why i thought i got abused) and police call out people who get in trouble. So, the thinking goes: I'm a bad boy, the police are supposed to arrest me (or something like that). In fact, I had a history of acting out as a kid during my abuse, and eventually the police did come knocking at my door and nothing happened except my father gave me a talk. So, the police didn't do what they were supposed to do, in some part's eyes.
I also know that one time I went to jury duty and it was a child molestation trial. Ever since then i have a visceral reaction to jury duty (or going to court) and had to get my doctor to write me a letter to get me permanently out of it.
I'm playing up your example about law enforcement, because it's a good one. But the larger point I think you are trying to make is that our reactions can be every bit as complicated as we are. And being dissociative and having parts means that we are bound to have a host of reactions to many types of events. And those reactions do not have to indicate a trauma memory.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
January, 9 2011 at 7:33 pm

Hi Paul,
"But the larger point I think you are trying to make is that our reactions can be every bit as complicated as we are. And being dissociative and having parts means that we are bound to have a host of reactions to many types of events. And those reactions do not have to indicate a trauma memory."
Beautifully said. Yes, that is exactly it.
And your description of the various "lenses" (great word choice, I like that) we see through is so on point. And all of it matters - what this part feels, what this other one believes, historical fact, sensory memory - it all matters. I get concerned when I see those of us with DID assuming historical fact is the great legitimizer because it's not. My fear of police officers does not have to be legitimized and corroborated by any specific trauma.
I see even professionals, clinicians who should know better, make the mistake of assuming every nightmare, every distressing compulsion, every everything MUST represent concrete, historical fact. I'm just grateful none of them were my therapist when I was trying to figure out why every time I saw a police officer I was flooded with fear.

January, 9 2011 at 12:24 pm

There was an article by Gleaves & Williams (2005), which I found to nicely define the difference between the autobiographical and sensory memories. They say that even if the autobiographical memory is affected by a factor, that the sensory memory can remain intact. While I think there are dangers in taking this idea too far; I find it helpful when I get those sorts of reactions you describe Holly and Paul.
I'm terrified of bugs, but I know that this has nothing to do with a trauma history; I just hate how quick and unpredictable they are. And some of them are kinda ugly.
Gleaves, D., & Williams, T. (2005). Critical questions: Trauma, memory, and dissociation. Psychiatric Annals, 35(8), 648-654.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
January, 9 2011 at 6:05 pm

Hi castorgirl,
Thank you for the article reference. I'll have to read it, it sounds like something I'd find intriguing.
Memory is such a tricky thing, and not terribly reliable. When you throw severe dissociation in, things get even sketchier. That's why I think it's more important to honor the feelings than to attempt to nail down historical fact.
I like bugs okay. Spiders though ... *shudder* ;)

January, 14 2011 at 2:01 am

Overall - memory has been a VERY tough obstacle for me. I mean - if the flashbacks I've had are true enough, my father abused me by playing games. The horsey game, the peek-aboo game, etc etc. And I go "ok, that's not exactly a good thing." But if that created DID in me, then just about 1/4 of all women should be like me! If about 1/4 are abused..... though that also includes any woman at any age, not just kids under 7 years old. STILL - if that's all it took for me - then why aren't more people DID??!!
I seem to have a ton of ritual abuse type flashes and images and "stuff" too - but feel like it's so far out there. If that stuff happened, then it seems more reasonable that I have DID.
But really - if it doesn't take that much - and with all the child traffiking around the world, etc - there HAS to be a TON of people with DID!!! .. seems to me anyway...
struggle struggle struggle...

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
January, 18 2011 at 3:47 pm

Hi chariots,
"STILL - if that’s all it took for me - then why aren’t more people DID??!!"
Many, many people suffer severe trauma in childhood and do not develop DID. That's because trauma is only part of the story, but it's the part that gets the most attention so we forget that there are other very important factors that play a role in the development of Dissociative Identity Disorder. I think there are a myriad of things that come together that, in combination with the individual's particular temperament, trigger dissociation. If those factors continue to shape that person's reality, eventually they may have DID. But trauma is just one factor. For instance, I've noticed many people with DID had the experience of having to accept more than one completely different, and opposite reality throughout their childhood. The environment demanded that they compartmentalize, and so they did. But there are children who grow up in abusive homes who are not subjected to that complete denial of one or more realities. No one is pretending. I think that dynamic plays an important role in whether or not a child copes through dissociation.
It's important to keep in mind that all children who suffer severe trauma must find ways to cope. Dissociation is just one of those ways. In other words, all those people who were abused but don't have DID aren't necessarily unscathed. They just coped in different ways.

January, 17 2011 at 11:18 pm

I know what you guys are talking about, because when I was first diagnosed with DID I assumed it had to be wrong or that I was somehow inadvertently faking it because I remember all the abuse and trauma I suffered as a child. Part of keeping me safe was to always remember, because my father would often change from being violent and abusive to very kind and sweet in a heart beat. So I needed to always remember his unpredictability so I wouldn't be surprised every time his mood shifted. Also I have heard some absolutely horrifying tales of abuse and neglect in my time and to be honest I never felt my childhood was half as bad as what these other children went through. Therefore I concluded I had no right to even have developed DID. In a twisted way I felt I wasn't deserving enough to have it as a diagnosis. That's when one of my alters started at me with the question, how do you know what you might have forgotten if you've forgotten it. He would ask me this incessantly until I was going around the bend. In the end I realized he wasn't taunting me with knowledge he had and I didn't, he was asking because we were worried that our DID diagnosis meant we must have more buried memories somewhere that were absolutely horrifying. Once I realized this is what was driving his obsession, I was able to relax and eventually so was he. I'm not mitigating what happened to me as a child, there were horrible times and much pain and fear, but I now accept that no matter what happened I don't have to follow some formula to "qualify" for DID. My pain was real for me, and that's all that matters, and I don't have to put it on some sliding scale of comparison with other people.

January, 20 2011 at 2:41 pm

Hm. Well - it would be true for me then, that I had a polar opposite situation, especially if the darker stuff is true too. In one piece of artwork I did, I drew my father's face with a line through it. One half was angelic, the other half a devil. And I titled it "Two". I suppose that would suggest something.
I'm still a little baffled though - that DID isn't just an ordinary run of the mill issue, given the number of kids abused in the world.
Thanks for replying everyone.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
January, 20 2011 at 4:01 pm

Hi chariots,
This is why I wish trauma wasn't the only thing most people talk about when they talk about the causes of Dissociative Identity Disorder. It confuses people. Personally, I think denial was a bigger factor in my own development of DID than trauma was. If you really consider what might happen inside the brain of a very small child when something traumatic happens and everyone around them behaves as if it didn't you begin to see how monumental a role denial can play in the development of DID.
If you haven't already, you might be interested in reading a series I wrote on the causes of DID, trauma being assumed and therefore not addressed. Here's the first post in the 4-part series. Links to the other 3 posts are at the bottom.…

January, 21 2011 at 5:16 pm

The 4 part series was good! Thank-you! Of course all my gnawings and questions aren't totally answered, but this was helpful to read.
I still have to ask - why isn't DID commonplace? Why is it even a questionable dx? Relatively speaking, it seems to me there ought to be a lot of people in this world with DID.
... I'm not really asking anyone to answer those questions btw!!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
January, 22 2011 at 2:07 pm

Hi chariots,
"I still have to ask - why isn’t DID commonplace?"
I imagine it is underdiagnosed. Particularly in war torn countries where access to quality mental health care is a joke. I don't believe it's necessarily common, but perhaps less exceedingly rare than statistics show. Remember that there are a lot of factors that contribute to the development of DID. All the planets have to be aligned just so, so to speak. And I suspect most come into this world without the innate ability to dissociate to the degree required to form a dissociative disorder. It's imagination gone rogue and, as such, develops - I believe - in people who are naturally very imaginative. Bottom line, developing DID takes just the right elements, at just the right time, in just the right setting, happening to just the right person - over and over and over again. That's unusual.
"Why is it even a questionable dx?"
It's entirely possible that there's someone out there in the world who has a very good grasp on Dissociative Identity Disorder but doesn't believe it exists. If there is, I've never heard from them. Without fail, every time I hear from someone who doesn't believe in DID, when they expand on the reasons why it's glaringly obvious that they know next to nothing about DID. Their perceptions of it are mired in misconception and myth. This is true of just about anything. You tell someone with Bipolar they just need to eat right and they'll be fine ... well, you haven't a clue what Bipolar Disorder is. You tell someone with an anxiety disorder that it's all in their head ... you've never once experienced severe, incapacitating anxiety. You tell a parent with an ADHD kid they just need to use some discipline ... your education of ADHD comes from soundbites and hearsay. This is reality for anything and everything, not just DID. It will always be a questionable diagnosis to some people, just like everything else.

May, 20 2015 at 6:09 pm

I'm a non, but I fell in love with a woman with DID. Your articles have shown me I'm not crazy. I've watched my partner lead separate lives, keeping me out of her other relationships. I seen her not be able to answer questions about her own life activities with the words "I don't remember." I have watched simple logic and conversation turn a switch in her head and an alternative self, an angry and mean woman come at me with rage, yelling horrible things at me. Splitting. I'm so sad because she blocks me, feels remorse and then violates again. She hurts and feels much pain. It is so sad for me to see her like this. Too imagine what she suffered that this is how she copes. I'm afraid of her. I have filled a restraining order against her. I still love her, but she is losing her home, out of work, losing me and going to get served. I tried so hard... Countless take backs and broken promises. And yet I grieve for her. I wish she could meet another lovely DID she could learn from. See that she is not alone. I sent her a link, but alas, I think one of her 'others' won't let her read the website that described our relationship so perfect... I must move on. I'm a survivor with PTSD and depression. So I decompensated with her. I made the right damn choice for me, but I still feel so horrible. Like I'm going to hurt her badly and yet, I know that the 'her' I love will let others inside of her think me evil. I just want to say, a Non's love is real. I want her to hit a bottom, but I don't know if she will get there. How did you figure out and come to accept your bottom? Thanks and I so appreciate your words and candid sharing. Much blessings to you.

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