I Can’t Remember My Life

Reader’s Question

I have read a lot of answers to questions on why people can’t remember their childhood but have not encountered an explanation to my question about myself. I not only cannot remember my childhood but also anything else — my teen years, my friends in school, and even some of my adult life. I can remember a handful of events and names but that doesn’t seem normal to me. I am 32 and can’t remember my life. I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately and am growing concerned that I might have a problem that might need professional attention.

Psychologist’s Reply

Issues with memory are pretty complicated. For example, while you mention that you can’t remember your life — this is impossible. In truth, you are remembering your daily routine, where you live, your language (both written and speaking), ability to type and use the computer, etc. In this manner of thinking, your memory is working very well — otherwise you’d be totally lost everyday.

What you are describing is difficulty with Memory Recall — the ability to purposefully recall specific memories or events in your past. We know your memory has been working, so recall is the major issue here. Some thoughts and impressions:

  • Your memory is being used every minute, allowing you to operate in your daily routine. Your ability to recall memories is also being used — but mostly in a nonpersonal, automatic manner. You’re having difficulty when you want to recall specific personal memories on demand. As you describe, your ability to recall these memories is inefficient and spotty. It’s important that we not take a catastrophic view — that we can’t remember our life — and recognize that we’re having difficulties with on-demand recall of our personal memories.
  • Our ability to recall memories can be influenced by a variety of factors, including high levels of stress. When you mention you’ve been thinking about it a lot lately, that suggests that you may be obsessing about this issue. In most cases, as anxiety increases, memory recall decreases. It’s like asking for help from a distressed librarian. Try relaxing your approach to recalling memories such as listening to music from those times, looking at pictures/yearbooks, or looking at old possessions.
  • Any type of emotional distress can weaken our recall ability. Review your symptoms. Are you also experiencing sleep problems, stress, crying spells, appetite problems, fatigue, etc.? These are signs of depression that would also interfere with your ability to recall memories.
  • Recalling personal memories is very often related to your emotional state. However, we can have difficulty recalling nonpersonal and nonemotional memories and when that happens, we may be experiencing neurological issues. It’s possible to lose your ability and/or understanding of how to operate your cell phone, automobile, etc. You may lose your ability to know your location in your hometown. You can lose your ability to perform math operations or be unable to find words during conversation (called aphasia). When we have difficulty recalling the memory needed to perform our daily routine, then a neurological consultation is recommended.

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As you explore this issue, I would suggest:

  • First review your emotional status and symptoms. Take a few of the depression and anxiety screening tests on this website.
  • Consider a consultation with a mental health professional — one with a background in neuropsychology if possible.
  • Consider your medical status, as changes in medications and various medical conditions can influence the neurochemical system that increases or decreases your ability to recall memory.
  • If you have problems with isolated yet nonpersonal memory problems, such as losing your ability to understand how the remote control works — then see a neurologist.
  • Research the Internet for suggestions on improving memory.
  • Remember that memories are stored in different locations and through all senses. Auditory memories are very powerful, so listening to songs from years ago can bring up a variety of memories. Smells are also useful. For my high school years, I could buy a bottle of “English Leather” aftershave for a brief olfactory (sense of smell) flashback. Experiment with using different senses to improve your memories of the past.

I suspect your memories are still there but you may be trying to hard to recall them, creating anxiety that only makes recall more difficult.

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