Wondering about Amnesia

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Reader’s Question

I recently came from the doctor and was told I have an STD that I can only get from having sex. I was tested for STDs just two months ago, and I am certain that I’ve not had sex with anybody since then. I go out with friends, meet new people, but that’s it. I don’t do drugs, or drink enough to black out — just socially — and whenever I drink, I can remember beforehand and afterwards. I do fantasize about having sex — with my neighbor, people on TV, and porn — but that’s the closest I come to having anything to do with sex.

Could I have had sex and not remember? Maybe also done other things I don’t remember? I’m worried. I don’t want to be a person who does things and can’t remember doing them.

Psychologist’s Reply

Finding out you have an STD when you have not had sexual intercourse recently must have come as a great shock. However, it seems a bit of a leap to immediately begin considering an amnesia disorder as a good explanation for how this happened to you. Remember, when you hear hoof beats, think horses, not zebras. I would first consult with your doctor to find out more about the incubation period for the STD with which you’ve been diagnosed. Several common STDs, such as HIV or Genital Warts, can be contracted months before symptoms appear. If you and your physician are able to rule out all possible, and even all improbable, sources for your infection, then it could be helpful to consult with a mental health professional who has experience with amnesia disorders, to explore alternative explanations.

In your question, you are specifically concerned about ‘memory loss’, or amnesia, and in particular, the possibility that you have had unprotected sex within the past two months without recollection of it. So let’s consider some types of amnesia. Presumably you have not experienced any physical trauma, such as a concussion or head injury, that could have caused Organic Amnesia. This can lead to two types of memory loss:

  • Retrograde Amnesia, where memories prior to the traumatic event are lost,
  • Anterograde Amnesia, which is an inability to form new memories after the trauma.

Neither of these types of memory loss would appear to apply to your situation, because you do not describe any general type of difficulty forming new memories or recalling past events.

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Another type of amnesia, which is rare, is Psychogenic Amnesia. This is different from Organic Amnesia in that there is no physical cause for the memory loss; instead, it is thought to be caused by psychological triggers. Because Psychogenic Amnesia is so rare, there is much that is not understood about how and why this disorder occurs. It is thought that psychological, rather than physical, trauma can be the cause, although there is debate as to whether the trauma must be recent or could have occurred far in the person’s past. This type of memory loss is also quite idiosyncratic — for some, the amnesia is very specific, perhaps for only one event or short period of the person’s life, and for others, it can encompass entire years or even fundamental portions of the person’s identity.

As I stated above, Psychogenic Amnesia is a very rare form of memory loss, and is far down the list of possible reasons why you cannot account for your STD diagnosis. However, if after a thorough consultation you and your physician are still not able to explain how you contracted your STD, ask for a referral to a mental health professional who has experience treating non-organic amnesia. It may be that there is more at play than simply your physical health, and that probing into the psychological triggers of your memory loss could prevent you from engaging in future risky behavior.

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