Surprising Myself – PTSD Memory Theory

One of the positives (maybe the only positive actually) of having an impaired memory system is that I often surprise myself. I have the ability to completely forget something my foggy brain has done.

I think everyone does this from time to time, not just PTSD sufferers, like when you search for your car keys because you don’t recall where you set them down, and find them later – in the freezer. You get a nice moment of surprise and quick little giggle at how imperfect we really are. We try to hold so many things in our working memory at once, pay attention to a zillion details, and can easily lose the little ones that slipped away, never to be transferred into long term memory.

My happy surprise was a note to myself that I found in my purse, and that I had no memory at all of writing.

I was sitting in my therapist’s waiting room, digging for a blank card from my purse, when I found one with this lovely message on it:

“Connections make you strong within your kingdom. Castles are only strong when you stay inside of them.”

Isn’t that a great surprise to myself? I can be so thoughtful, it seems, just wish I could remember that. I stared at that card in disbelief. It was my handwriting on my card in my purse. I’m no detective, but I’m pretty sure I wrote that. I wonder where I heard it?

And then I let the meaning sink in of those lovely words. And I wondered if I had previously let the meaning sink in, when I wrote it, and I was able to now have a new reaction to it. I used to live all alone, safe in my castle, but it was a haunted castle full of ghosts from my past. I’ve written many posts about it, sometimes calling it: tower, fortress, walls, prison, etc. The meaning is the same no matter what you call it and I was stuck inside, of me, and had no outside connections.

I didn’t know how to make connections to anyone outside my castle. Not even my husband knew what was going on inside of me. And so I started this blog, to figure things out, and with the strongest hope of making a connection to someone, anyone, who may understand me. My connections here, my amazing blogging friends, not only understand me, but also accept and validate me. It was through their support that I was able to find myself and continue reaching out to others.

Brains and memory retrieval are fascinating to me, and I have learned so much since my PTSD diagnosis. And my knowledge is helping me to heal. I see the brain as needing to file and organize all of the data it receives. Ordinary data is filed in ordinary places. Extraordinary or traumatic data is often filed incorrectly. If you will, the secretary in the brain responsible for putting away the memories does a great job with how much there is to process.  But when something happens that does not fit, uses too many emotions, does not make sense, or is just too large, well it is left un-filed. Picture a secretary holding our memory folders, happily humming and filing each and every one, and all of a sudden the fire alarm sounds, and she must drop the folder and evacuate to save her life. That folder did not get dealt with properly during the trauma and now is out of place, and will be found later, once the crisis is over and the secretary resumes filing.

So to me, a PTSD flashback is simply a memory folder that was dropped in a time of crisis, that we now need to examine the contents and either discard if no longer needed, or deal with properly and store in the correct location of our brain. This is my own theory based on my experiences, and may not apply to anyone else. For me, once I actually examine the flashback, look at it directly, feel the depth of it, do what needs to be done with it – usually cry and grieve since I was unable to do that when the trauma happened originally – then I can toss out the extra baggage, and file the memory as a simple memory. When I recall a processed flashback, it no longer has power over me, it is no longer devastating once it is filed properly. And it stops coming up and demanding attention. It is just a memory that I can recall when I try, but it does not force itself on me any more.

So I now understand my goal. I need to find each misfiled memory and put it where it belongs. That doesn’t sound scary when I put it that way. I also think I won’t be completely ‘healed’ until every folder has been examined and relocated. And with so many traumatic events in my life, I still have a towering pile of folders strewn about. But I know I have support. I could not even open these file folders until I had made connections (and got out of my castle!) and found support and truly trusted in my husband, therapist, and even a bit in my blogging friends to help me sort it all out.

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12 thoughts on “Surprising Myself – PTSD Memory Theory

  1. You’ve just described EMDR therapy. 🙂 That’s exactly what I was doing when I did that year of EMDR…it did help me. I processed stuff like lightning. Good for you, friend. You’re well on your way to whole, aren’t you? *hugs*

    • Yes it does sound like EMDR. I have never done that with the eye movement, but I think some of the sorting out process is similar to what my therapist does with me. I haven’t been able to look and examine until this past year, and now that I started, yes I am processing and healing so quickly!

    • I’ve been trying to think of a good answer to your comment, and I’m not sure how to easily explain. My memory is actually better than most people’s, for many functions, I think, in my ability to attach information and use it for work or learning, like memorizing long codes that others would need to look up. Same for phone numbers, I have so many in my head. I tend to remember things I pay attention to with exact detail and can hear conversation again word for word, like I have a tape player in my head. The key here is paying attention I think. I tend to struggle remembering if I ate lunch or not, I think because I just eat while working and it was nothing that grabbed my attention, and so it does not get stored. I will often get out of the shower with conditioner in my hair, forgetting to rinse it. I rely on to-do lists and calendars to keep me going through each day, and yet I can pass any test with 100% accuracy and have always had perfect grades in every course. And then it seems I have some fuzzy gaps, spanning my young adulthood, that I’m not sure if it was due to the depression itself, or the anti-depressant meds, but I can look at pictures of me in my twenties and not remember being at that place in the photo. It is a surreal feeling. And I struggle severely with sequential memory. I can recall an event perfectly, but have no idea if it happened before or after other events until I reconstruct to place a year or season. Other memories are so strong they never go to rest. I have no idea how unusual this is, just stating how it is for me.

      • In this answer you gave to ‘Wuji’, I can totally relate! I used to refer to myself as a walking phone book, for instance…that is, until I was introduced to cellphones and “speed-dial” lol! I still remember my phone number when I was 8 years old. I also remember my old license plate number from an 89 Toyota Camry I had 22 years ago! I remember strange things like that. I also have a difficult time recalling events (at times) or things said, five minutes ago. Other times I can recount events and discussions, as if being played by a recording (dvd) in my mind… I can recall what people were wearing, events prior and directly after a certain event, what was for dinner 20 years ago (or a week ago) and so fourth. I’ve often wondered why. This is something that has been on my mind, off and on, for the past few years, as it seems to have gotten worse since leaving my abusive ex.

        My mind never stops. I never stop thinking, rehashing, introspecting or extrospecting. It’s a trap that I can’t find any way out of. Most of the time, doing these things (intro-extro) has proven to be a good thing, but it’s so intrusive most of the time, I can’t concentrate on very much. It’s those times, especially, that I realize I can’t retain information, either. When someone is speaking to me, for instance, my mind still continues willy-nilly, to the point that I have to ask the person what he/she said. I’m interested and need the information, much of the time. I appear “slow” or “unintelligent” to others much of the time, due to this issue.

        Having learned a lot about c-ptsd, I am almost certain it’s been a factor in my own life, all along. My counselor attempted to apply EMDR, but I became anxious just “sitting there” being directed by the counselor. I finally ended our sessions due to the discomfort. The discomfort wasn’t due to the memories (my dissociation is substantial, according to my then, counselor), but feeling “on the spot” to perform this way or that, at her direction. I don’t know if that makes sense.

      • Thanks for sharing all this, yes we do seem quite similar. I have never tried EMDR but I understand what you are saying, that would make me uncomfortable too. For me, writing my memories takes some of the pain away and allows me to examine them more closely, and makes me more able to discuss them at therapy. But it seems that until I say my painful memories aloud to someone, in detail like my dvd brain plays it for me, it seems they remain stuck and unprocessed. I am still learning about c-ptsd and what it means for me. I foolishly thought I no longer had it at several times over the past few years and I’m only know beginning to recognize and accept the long term damage. I’m now making plans to live with this condition, instead of hide it or constantly fight against it.

  2. What great insight you show here! I love this post and am happy and proud to stand beside you in your journey in this way. I believe you are on the right path to your recovery. Keep on going.

  3. Pingback: Memories Can Hurt Your Brain | The Healing Journi

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