After a long day spent reading page after page in class, the time to abandon creaky desks and loud pencil sharpeners finally came. The clock waved its small hour hand at three, and immediately I made my way to my car and buckled in before heading home.
Although the freeway became more congested with each passing minute, I had no other option. It’s too late to change routes. Cars are stopped in an endless line, yet upon glancing in the rearview mirror, a small vehicle sped up in the shoulder lane.
As the car raced near, it began to side sweep mirrors, taking others’ car paint along with it. Soon enough, the crazy driver approached my car with force. Just as the car collided with mine, the beeps of my morning alarm bounced off of my bedroom walls. I woke up in a puddle of drool and confusion.
Like my dreams, most of my childhood memories feel incomplete. Though the two aren’t correlated, they share a similar trait— lacking an ending. Like a word on the tip of my tongue, there are several years from my childhood that feel seemingly familiar yet I don’t remember them.
This pitiful experience has coined the name “a repressed memory.” Studies from Northwestern Medicine show the brain tends to automatically hide or repress memories that are traumatic in an attempt to save itself, or cope, from the stress of recalling such moments.
It’s like being blackout drunk for three years in a row. Sounds miserable, doesn’t it? A black hole, seemingly ever-growing, is burned into the spot that’s supposed to be memories of my precious adolescence.
Though ignorant bliss is lovely for a while, studies have shown repression to cause significant damage — including anxiety, depression, post-traumatic stress disorder and dissociative disorders.
According to Northwestern Medicine, “When patients are unable to remember their experiences, therapists can struggle to help them identify and treat the root cause of their symptoms.” When these symptoms go untreated, they manifest into poor mental health.
Disappointingly so, repression is notoriously hard to resolve.
Since the harmful memories were formed during a specific state of mind, scientists argue accessing them requires being put in the same emotional state or mood. This process is known as “state-dependent learning.”
While emotions are important, the environment is equally significant. Simply Psychology accredits this to “context-dependent learning”, a theory that suggests physical surroundings aid memory formation.
When an environment changes, like moving households, it’s harder to recall specific memories. To retrieve them, the context-dependent learning theory requires the same surroundings that the memories were made in.
However, recreating memories by being placed in the same environment is hardly a considerable option. No sane person wants to roleplay traumatic arguments with their parents. In the case that they do, people, noises and conversations must be strikingly similar in order to retrieve forgotten memories.
Though even in the same surroundings and mental state, the American Psychological Association deems recovered memories a rare phenomenon.
Oftentimes, I grapple with the early stages of my OCD that manifested in my elementary school years. I look to this time for an explanation of how my current habits and obsessions were formed and, more importantly, why they’ve formed.
Despite not knowing for certain, some negative experiences in my pre-teen years regarding my at-times dysfunctional family would be textbook breeding grounds for repression. I credit those experiences as the start of my mental downfall.
While I remember the beginnings of those experiences— the build up to arguments, and the anxiety I felt— I am stuck at a dead end. This has created a lot of self-doubt and internal questioning. When you feel like your brain can’t do its job, it’s hard to trust the things it tells you.
And so the cycle begins. I recall the start of a memory but the ending is hazy. For a second, I can see through the mental fog, for a glimpse of how it ends. Then at once, the clarity disappears and I question whether that was the real ending. There is something isolating and dark about not knowing how your past actually took place. It calls into question everything — your identity, your history, your value and your worth.
Such doubts about my own existence, in collaboration with my depressive episodes, have proven near fatal multiple times.
While memory repression is a fairly new concept, ties to repression and suicide are common. The Centre for Suicide Prevention states that “in extreme cases, (this) repression results in suicide – or self-murder.”
Despite struggling to come to terms with the patches in my childhood, my mental health maintains a steady increase. In conjunction with anti-anxiety medication and dialectical behavioral therapy, a talk-therapy designed to regulate emotions, I have found a middle ground.
So I lay my head down to rest, with the hopes that I slip back into a realm that feels somewhat familiar to my childhood. There, at least I can narrate an ending.
Sophia Sipe is the editor-in-chief for The Express. Follow her @sophiasipe.