How Dissociative Amnesia Affects Daily Life and Ways You Can Help
Dissociative amnesia is a response to trauma. About one percent of men and 2.5 percent of women experience this forgetting of memories or identity in their lifetimes. Loved ones of people who go through this serious mental illness can be important sources of support. They can provide a compassionate and patient ear to listen; they can push for professional treatment; loved ones can participate in treatment and therapy; and they can help amnesia patients transition back home and support healthy lifestyle changes and positive coping mechanisms for past trauma.
Dissociative amnesia is uncontrolled, involuntary forgetting of aspects of your past or your identity. It is in response to trauma or significant stress, but why some people react this way and most do not is unknown.
If you have a loved one with dissociative amnesia, it can be very upsetting and disorienting. Memories can come back spontaneously, but treatment can also help bring them back sooner. Your loved one needs your support now. Encourage treatment, be understanding and compassionate, and provide your loved one with a safe environment in which to heal from trauma.
The common term amnesia, a loss of memories, specific events, or aspects of one’s identity, is more correctly called dissociative amnesia. It is one of a few conditions categorized as dissociative disorders, mental illnesses that cause you to lose touch with reality in some way. In the case of amnesia, you lose touch by forgetting events, people, or identity and personal history.
Dissociative amnesia is any significant loss of identity or memories that is not consistent with normal forgetting. We all forget some details of our past, but amnesia is more serious. It can persist for months or years, or memories may be recovered within hours or days.
The underlying cause of dissociative amnesia is a very stressful event or traumatic experience. Amnesia is an involuntary coping mechanism. The brain reacts to trauma by erasing certain memories for a period of time. Not everyone who experiences trauma will go through this, and why some people do is not well understood.
There are different types of amnesia based on the type of forgetting. Localized amnesia is the loss of memories associated with a specific period of time or event. Selective amnesia is when a person forgets something specific, like one person or their own identity. Generalized amnesia occurs when someone forgets everything about their past and identity. This is very rare.
When a Loved One Has Amnesia
It can be pretty distressing to have a family member go through a period of amnesia. This person may forget who you are, who they are, or even your shared past. The first thing you can do to help your loved one and yourself is to come to terms with the situation. Recognize that it is likely not permanent, and that while it may take time, those memories and forgotten aspects of identity will return.
Avoid taking the forgetting personally. Also, be aware that the fact that your loved one is going through dissociative amnesia means they experienced something traumatic or extremely stressful. If it isn’t clear what triggered the amnesia, you may be in for an even greater shock when details emerge with returning memories and treatment.
Getting Treatment for Dissociative Amnesia
Once you have accepted the situation, the next most important way you can help your loved one is to get them into professional treatment. You’ll need an evaluation and a diagnosis to get the ball rolling. When selecting treatment for amnesia, consider the severity of your loved one’s memory loss and impaired function.
If your loved one is really struggling to function normally, residential treatment is the best option. This will provide them with a safe place to explore the trauma that triggered memory loss. In residential care your loved one will benefit from a team of experts. Treatment will revolve around therapy, including cognitive behavioral therapy as well as trauma-focused therapy.
Therapists will help your loved one remember the trauma, face it and process it in a healthy way, and learn positive ways to cope with the experience. They will also help your family member recover the lost memories and aspects of identity that have gone missing.
Work on Your Relationship
Relationships can be seriously damaged by dissociative amnesia, especially if you didn’t identify the issue immediately. Amnesia is not always noticeable right away. Instead, you may have experienced the repercussions and complications of your loved one’s forgetting: dysfunction at work, substance abuse, depression or anxiety, self-harm, sleep issues, and many others that likely hurt your relationship.
The most effective treatment for your loved one will include your participation to help repair your relationship. Make sure you choose a treatment facility that will allow you to get involved. This may include participating in family psychoeducation groups, to learn more about amnesia and how to support your loved one, or going through relationship or family therapy together.
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Work Together After Treatment for Dissociative Amnesia
When your loved one has completed residential treatment, they may have recovered memories but this doesn’t mean that life will suddenly be perfect. They may still struggle, especially if they have remembered their traumatic past. It is important for loved ones to be supportive during this transition period, to provide a safe environment and encouragement for continuing with treatment and healthy lifestyle choices.
Recovering from trauma may take longer than one session in a residential facility. Your loved one will likely need outpatient counseling. You can help your loved one continue to heal by working together with them on things like family therapy, practicing coping strategies like meditation or journaling, and by doing healthy activities together such as preparing good meals and exercising.
Kerry’s Story of Dissociative Amnesia
“My sister Kate developed amnesia when we were in our twenties. We were roommates at the time and she lost all memories from a few years previously and didn’t remember a boyfriend she had at the time. It was pretty disturbing for me at first, until I convinced her to see her doctor. She got the diagnosis of amnesia, which made a lot of sense.
At first we just tried to cope with it, because it wasn’t like she didn’t know who she was. But the holes in her memory started to trigger some big issues. She started drinking more and missing work. We also fought a lot. I was tempted to just move out, but I decided to help her get treatment instead.
What Kate found out in therapy was so shocking and upsetting. She remembered that her boyfriend of a couple years ago had been abusive. I guess she blocked out the memories because they were so painful. This felt like such a huge issue, and I just didn’t know how to help her. Her therapist convinced me to come participate one day, and that made a big difference. I learned more about trauma and how it impacts people.
For a while, having her memories back made Kate feel worse. She was angry and depressed. I insisted she stay longer in treatment. I came to therapy a few times and we worked on our communication skills and learned how to fight less and more productively.
When Kate came home, I got all the alcohol out of the house. I took her to therapy sessions, and we took up running together. It was a rough road, but a year later we were in a completely different place. My sister still struggles, but with the treatment she got, and I think with my help too, she is now much happier.”
Dissociative amnesia is a serious mental health issue. Having family and friends to provide support during the journey to recovered memories is so important for overall wellness and healing from trauma.
If you’re concerned about a loved one and believe they may need residential care, we can help. BrightQuest offers long-term treatment for people struggling with schizoaffective disorders, schizophrenia, and severe bipolar as well as co-occurring substance use disorders and process addictions. Contact us to learn more about our renowned program and how we can help you or your loved one start the journey toward recovery.