On Repressed and Recovered Memory in Dissociative Identity Disorder

August 8, 2011 Holly Gray

Repressed and recovered memory isn't as dramatic as you may think. But the memory repressed and recovered may be very dramatic. Learn about how memory can work.

The terms repressed memory and recovered memory gained popularity in the mid-1980's along with the multiple personality disorder diagnosis. As a result, these terms are still strongly associated with dissociative identity disorder (DID) (the replacement label for MPD in the United States since 1994). They're also strongly associated with unethical therapeutic practices, false memories of abuse, and lives destroyed by both. And while those associations have merit, repressed and recovered memories aren’t generally as dramatic and rare as their inflammatory connotations suggest.

On the contrary, they’re usually rather boring. And they’re not rare at all. In fact, if you are a living human being, chances are very good that you’ve experienced the dynamic popularly known as repressed and recovered memory.

What Is Repressed Memory?

2370264738_2f577c710b_mWhen we talk about repressed memory what we're really talking about is dissociative amnesia, which is not exclusive to DID, but one of the most commonly and regularly experienced manifestations of dissociation.

If you’ve ever gone into a room for a specific purpose, e.g. to get a book, and discovered upon arrival that you have no idea why you’re there, you’ve experienced repressed memory. Only the term “repressed” is really a misnomer. You haven’t repressed anything; you’ve simply compartmentalized it. You’ve moved information out of your conscious awareness. Most of the time, it’s a temporary relocation. Which brings us to recovered memory ….

What Is Recovered Memory?

Recovered memory is simply the retrieval of compartmentalized information into conscious awareness. It’s integration, dissociation’s opposite. And like dissociative amnesia, it’s not something only those of us with DID experience. If you’ve ever left the room I mentioned above, having given up on remembering what you were looking for only to suddenly recall with perfect clarity, congratulations . . you’ve recovered a memory. And it didn’t hurt or anything.

See also: Retrieving Memories Lost to Dissociation Caused by Trauma

The Distance between Repressed and Recovered Memory

distance between repressed and recovered memoryOften we temporarily relocate information for brief periods of time, and all it takes is focusing on something else for a while for our minds to release whatever it is we went into the room to find, or the name that was on the tip of our tongue, etc. Sometimes, though, the distance between the repressed memory and recovered memory is much longer, perhaps decades.

Recently my partner, Tracy (who does not have DID or any other dissociative disorder), got a Facebook message from a man who was a childhood friend of hers. She tells me his adult face looked familiar, but it wasn’t until she read his message, replete with his memories of their time together between the ages of 4 and 8 that she recalled who he was. They hadn’t spoken for 30 years, and yet Tracy spontaneously remembered their long-forgotten adventures with nostalgia and delight.

Repressed and Recovered Memory and DID

People with DID walk into rooms and forget why they’re there just like everyone else. They also have experiences like Tracy’s, spontaneously recalling something pleasant, even joyful. But some of their repressed and recovered memories are darker, involving long ago traumas. It’s those darker memories that are treated with suspicion and met with questions like, “How could you have forgotten something like that?” and declarations like, “You can’t just suddenly remember something after 30 years!”

But people with DID aren’t experiencing some bizarre trick of memory that’s outside the realm of normal human experience. Their memories are sometimes outside the realm of normal human experience, to be sure. But the way they are hidden, sometimes for decades, and later recalled is not.

Follow me on Twitter and Facebook!

APA Reference
Gray, H. (2011, August 8). On Repressed and Recovered Memory in Dissociative Identity Disorder, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2024, June 22 from

Author: Holly Gray

August, 8 2011 at 11:34 am

Holly- I feel a need to reply to this and let you know that I am really loving the clarity of your recent posts. You truly are doing amazing work explaining DID in ways that other people can understand. Thank you for your amazing work.

August, 9 2011 at 12:46 am

Holly - What I absolutely love about your writing, is not only how easily you make DID understandable to the average person, but how (almost) normal and sane I feel after reading your posts! What a blessing.
PS Am working on the "almost." ;)

August, 9 2011 at 1:32 am

Hi Holly, I conceive my brain to be a huge dusty room full of rows of filing cabinets. And it is in these cabinets that I file away my thoughts, emotions and memories. The cabinets at the front are my short term memory and are the easiest for me access, and the ones at the back hold my long term memories, which are not by any means inaccessible, just accessed less frequently. Then because I experienced overwhelming feelings and events as a child that I needed to forget (to be able to proceed through my life and my environment without cracking up), I created a further row of cabinets. And these I placed as far to the rear of this room as possible. Because I intended to not access them again. I also deliberately pushed the other cabinets in front of them to block my path. And over time they got covered in dust and after many years I just simply forgot they were there. The memories inside this cabinet never magically disappeared, and to me there is no mystery as to why I am only just accessing these memories now in my late 30's and early 40's. It is because therapy has allowed me to start cleaning out this room and I am at a point in my life where I am ready to take a look inside and see where these files take me. I know everyones journey is different, and how they file or compartmentalize their memories are as unique as the memories themselves. I suppose I wrote this to describe in a very pedestrian way, how I perceive my memories became inaccessible, without the process being fantastical or bizarre. 
And the fact that recovered memories are given such a bad wrap to me, says more about the agenda of those attacking them, than it does about the very human way in which we all store information and process emotions.

Paul Davidson
August, 9 2011 at 4:25 am

MYy story is so very profound if you could only phone me to talk about it.
I constantly relive many shocking events in my lifemost as a young child.
Recently a friend asked someone down the street if they could move my furniture. he said yes instantly as without me seeing him in 6 years in same street he had seen me on T.V. Talking about Hate Crime).. within moments of megetting in his truck with my carpets he said do you not remember me? no I said but then he told me we used to go in hisdads van as around 7 year olds and reminded me of when we stopped to pick up a lit torch in middl of road) I picked it up I remembered instantly how for years I was called torchy the battery boy). I had remembered this for years but to yetmore extreme trauma as an adult my mind totally forgot this. He then told me how heremembers how I was badly burned as 10 year old). As he told me this he pointed to his throat wher I had been badly burned Just how I descrime it to people pointing to my throat where a ShootingStar Rocket as fired at me. (at last a real life witness). he had said paul wont be in school for a long time). I have written in detail on my own website about most of my traumas and in media. I say from the time I was burned as that 10 year old all of my past untill 10 years had dissapeared apart from other bad experiences it was like being born as a 10 year old. years of non exhistence. now this person has turned in to my best friend ever and by far he is. just incredible im 54 now we both remember vivedly together of one attack on me 44 years ago. I constantly go in to rooms nd places totally forgetting why later to rememberthis applies as im taking medication my mindis constantly focussing on so mant traumas im not safe doing any task any time any place hense my hundreds of close encounters with road traffic. NOW AFTER ALL THESE YEARS OF RELIVING VERY REAL SPECIFIC TRAUMAS IN LESS THAN 2 WEEKS TIME A PERSON IS GOING WITH ME TO THE EXACT SPOT'S WHERE I was attacked by the rocket and the banger pus other traumas very close by 9THE EXACT SPOT). WHILE I WILL BE RECORDED RECOUNTING THESE AND MANY MORE TRAUMAS). Im sure yu will agree this is a monumental moment for me. after cheating death so many times and serious injury). it would be so special if I could share itall with you here. IS IT POSSIBLE THE mODERATOR GCALL ME TO CHAT ABOUT MY STORY? I HAVE SO MUCH TO SHARE BUT NEED GUIDENCE AS NOT TO DISTRESS OTHERS). Paul.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
August, 17 2011 at 6:56 pm

Hi Paul,
Thanks so much for your comment. You're story - and it's clear this is only one very small portion of it - is so moving. I feel for that 10 year old you were. What you've described truly is shocking. I genuinely hope your visit to that spot from your past is healing.
I want you to know that I've passed on your information to our HealthyPlace Radio and TV Show producers.
I hope to hear from you again, Paul. Perhaps come back and let us know how your journey went?

Paul Davidson
August, 9 2011 at 4:31 am

P.S. PLEASE FORGIVE TYPING ERRORS. My mind is also to focussed to notice errors.
Best wishes to all. also is it allowed to share my website its also full of my possitive activities

August, 13 2011 at 6:46 pm

Very well said!! As you already know first hand, repressed/recovered memories can be such a controversial topic, but you've just illustrated why it really shouldn't be that controversial. I can't say for sure, but from what I have researched, you are the only person to explain how the phenomena of repressed/recovered memory is actually quite normal.
I agree, that darker memories are treated with suspicion. This is where the controversy starts swirling, and that is understandable if those memories have been coaxed or suggested through unethical therapeutic practices.
But as far as someone repressing memories for long periods of time, I don't find that hard to comprehend at all. I have huge chunks of my life that I don't remember, and now that I understand how this happens, I've learned to make peace with it. I have no desire to launch a full scale investigation to discover those lost memories. When, and if I'm ready, they will reveal themselves naturally. That's just what feels right for me to do.
Great post, Holly!! And so well written!

Holly Gray
August, 17 2011 at 7:11 pm

Thank you all for reading and taking the time to comment.
@Dana That's wonderful to hear! I so appreciate the feedback and I hope you're well.
@Dane Truth be told, I'm working on the almost too. :)
@kerri I love your metaphor! I've thought of file cabinets too. I like to use visualization in meditation and I often picture all the information in my brain in file cabinets. (Then I picture myself throwing out anything I don't need ... it's remarkably relaxing.)
@Mareeya There are entire careers dedicated to the study of memory and I certainly haven't even attempted to tackle the complexity of memory, the various ways in which we store memory, etc. So that's probably why my approach is new to you ... it's so primitive! Plus, it's my own way of conceptualizing it. I'm glad it works for you too!
@Gabrielle Welcome! And thank you for your kind words. I hope to see you again soon!

August, 18 2011 at 2:40 am

Thanks so much for having the courage to post this blog.
I chuckled when I read about entering a room and not knowing why Had gone there. It is so normal brain fart I call those times. I used to say in my teens that senility had set in earlier for me. but the remembering very painful experiences of my life are so difficult to go through I wish at times I could just keep them hidden in my little book, but ales I know that each memory brings a part of me closer to me. to be embraced as me. I don't feel so alone after that which is nice.
from your other blogs like not wanting to deal with DID been there many times over the years. even as a youngster I ran from my others oh yeah I know they where there and I had gotten diagnosed in my early 20's and just seniled it so to speak. But today I don't do that and for the most part a great many of me communicates, works together and holds the good time tight.
be well.
Drew of LeeDeb

Marina P
June, 30 2012 at 2:47 am

I am not DID. Have always had masses of the other types of dissociation.
hat really confuses me is that I seem to regularly repress the most important bit of information in the day if it is something threatening to me.
I know you explain things very nicely here but from what I understand the brain is supposed to prioritise the most important peice of information.
That is where the experts dispute repressed memory. That we would have access to anything important and that traumatic memories are the least likely to not be available.
But that does not seem to happen foe me. I try to think of everything that happens in the day but wont have access to anything threatening.
According to general opinion in the psych would that is impossible. I am too afraid to tell any professional as a result.

cookie monster
May, 27 2013 at 9:43 am

I was wondering about my escape from reality and no memory as to what goes on during them. I also have times when I get really agitated and go into terrible fits and those also escape my memory. I have had multiple hospital stays which seem to go along with stresses in my life and I escape
to an imaginary world. I have phsdo seizures than I have distorted memories of. My psychologist now says along with everything I`m living with. He says I have dissociative confusion to realities of my current stresses and trauma. He`s right it is confusing. And I have a hard time knowing the reality of my dreams. Is that my escape or turn off what is going on before. Now I have muscle weakness and am unable to walk. I crawl schoot or however I can get to bed and fall asleep is my DR the one who`s confused? Need feedback please.

anne michelle welty moore
July, 4 2014 at 6:51 pm

Thank you, so much. I thought it was only me. Please continue to write in your clear, easy style.... It helps.

Katie Schoof
November, 1 2017 at 8:47 am

I forgot why I came here. lol im funny ik

Leave a reply