I Can’t Remember Being Maid of Honor

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Reader’s Question

I can remember snippets of my childhood, but don’t seem to recall a lot of it. That doesn’t really concern me — it looks like that’s quite common. What does concern me is this: I recently reconnected with a childhood friend who mentioned her wedding and that I was her maid of honor. Not only do I not remember being her maid of honor, I have no recollection of her wedding. None whatsoever. I was 18 at the time and took no meds and never drank alcohol. Does this seem strange, and do you have any thoughts on this? I am perplexed.

Psychologist’s Reply

Not remembering much of one’s childhood is indeed fairly common, but not having any recollection at all of a wedding in which you were maid of honor is interesting. Even people who do not remember much of their childhoods do typically remember relatively more of adolescence and adulthood.

There are two possible explanations for this — one organic and one functional. Organic, or physical, causes for memory problems include extremely high, sustained fever(s) in childhood, seizures, and/or head injuries. Certain disease processes, such as Alzheimer’s, can also cause memory loss. (Alcohol and drug abuse of course can impair memory, as can some prescription medications, but you have already ruled that one out.) If there is an organic cause you should see problems for other kinds of memory. For example, you might have trouble remembering your schedule or memorizing new information. Memory for things that just happened this morning (long-term memory) may be as much of a problem as memory for things that happened years in the past (remote memory). You may have problems remembering things you are going to do (prospective memory), like going to the store or making a phone call. Or you might have trouble remembering how to do something (procedural memory) that you once had no difficulty with at all. An organic memory problem is likely to express itself similarly day in and day out, or to get worse with time in the case of a progressive disorder such as Alzheimer’s. This kind of memory problem can be fairly easily identified through neuropsychological testing.

In other cases, we forget things because it works for us, or serves a function, to do so. Such forgetting is motivated by a desire to avoid too-painful emotions. In other words, this kind of forgetting is the end result of an unconscious defense process.

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One such defense is dissociation, which works by dis-associating unacceptable behaviors, emotions, physical sensations, and knowledge from each other or from the rest of our conscious minds. We may know, for example, that we nearly died in a car accident, but the emotions that would normally go with that knowledge are completely dissociated so that we can say this about ourselves without experiencing any of the feelings that one might normally expect — as if it wasn’t important, or happened to someone else. In this case, emotions are dissociated from knowledge. We have conscious access to the one, but not the other.

Memories, of course, involve all these aspects — behavior, emotion, sensation, and knowledge — and can be dissociated in their entirety from the rest of our conscious mind either if they are, in and of themselves, unbearable or because they are closely associated with something unbearable. In the latter case, to remember one would be to remember the other, so they both are dissociated in order to protect us.

Dissociation can be a one-time response to extreme trauma and can appear for the first time at any point in the lifespan. Functional, or defensive, memory issues, unlike the organic variety, can fluctuate according to stress levels, waxing and waning over the lifespan. People with chronically traumatic childhoods, however, can develop an over-reliance on this defense and bring it into play constantly throughout adulthood even in relatively less-stressful situations. When that happens, it can reach the level of a disorder.

There is also a third possibility, the false memory, which I wonder if you have considered. Did you verify in some way that you ever were in this wedding, or even present as a guest? Maybe your friend is remembering something that never happened!

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