When the (illusive) past overdetermines the present: lacking emotional memory, dissociation and nostalgia

Ah, how to start this one. I guess I’ll begin by saying that I am not in the best emotional state right now. In the past week or so I’ve been completely destabilized by a new surge of intense dissociation, substance dependence, sleeplessness and anxiety. I don’t want to complain about any of this though, I’m functioning with the semi-convinced awareness that things will shift again and I will feel okay at some point in the not too distant future. It is kind of terrifying how slipping into an extended, almost comfortable state of dissociation can go entirely unnoticed – until after the fact. Hours, if not entire days can pass and I’ve been completely dissociated. I find, and I’m sure this is actually to my detriment, weed is the least consequential means to bring me out of dissociation. The catch 22 however, is that the more often I smoke, the more pronounced and automatic dissociation becomes when I don’t smoke. A strange issue to consider – even stranger to type out.

But dissociation is fine, sometimes even helpful. By that I just mean it’s not the worst way your mind could cope with whatever it is that you’re afraid of confronting. While it is frustrating for nearly anyone else involved, internally and if isolated, it can be an effective way to pass time unaffected, shielded from your own self – repression or not. One of the most antagonistic elements of dissociation is the impact this has on your emotional memory. Forgetting things – who you are, what you did, how you felt, where you went, what they said – is annoying if not sometimes altogether humiliating. It does a relationship poorly when one half of the relationship seemingly doesn’t exist except for in the present moment.

The thing with memory is that, for me, like most things, it’s all or nothing. Either I experience an intense, vivid and hyperrealistic flashback where not only the series of events, but the emotions are experienced again as if for the first time, only this time from a detached and observer(ish) perspective. Or I remember nothing at all. I’m generalizing of course but this is typically how my memory is patterned – flashback (episodic memory) or none.

When emotional memory, if not memory in general, fails you, if often fails the people around you as well – including those you love, those who are counting on you to be reciprocal in terms of engagement, commitment and investment with each other. Being an adequate friend or lover means remembering your past together and it means enjoying the emotions you have today and appreciating the way in which your connection to one another is predicated on your shared history. So if you, for instance, dissociate almost automatically when things become too emotionally heavy or you shut-off when you feel emotionally threatened, your emotional memory lapses. These lapses are consequential in that these critical moments, the highs and lows of emotional closeness that construct the foundation of a relationship, are absent – inaccessible when it matters. The inability to move forward emotionally becomes paralyzes any relationship and without the emotional memory to work through something difficult to recall the dedication a partner has proven over time, all meaning is lost.

I think is contributes to why it is so difficult to trust someone when express love or fondness of you. And I think lapses in emotional memory also implicate the weak-memorized subject in a process of constant reapproval. Not only do I seek approval constantly, or imply the need for affirmation on a moment-by-moment basis (yes, this is in some sense an exaggeration, I typically never show emotional vulnerability to this extent and would never state a need for affirmation but I feel like I would be nice) but I also feel the constant imposition to prove myself – over and over again. Say I am hanging out with a friend whom I have known for almost six months already – well, every single time we meet up I will feel like it is the first time we have hung-out together. This is no word a lie – this is my reality. And I think this is why it’s so much simpler to get high before hanging out with people because at least then I can feel like a stable “self” (arguably one less inhibited, more witty and self-conscious but who takes herself less seriously). An absence in emotional memory may even cause me to project this insufficiency onto others – and I think this is exactly why I feel the need to re-prove myself compulsively. Because I can’t for the life of me remember a time or a self that resonates with the current me I am experiencing I assume others don’t retain any memory of our times together either and thus feel implicated to impress upon them by “best”(stoned) self.

It also hurts people. Lacking emotional memory causes me to live in a blurry anxiety that oscillates between overthinking the present and worrying about the future. It is as if I have never existed prior to this moment and nothing that predates this moment has any significance whatsoever. People want you to remember that time you ______ or when they told you about _______ or that they’re planning on going to ______. You get the picture. And it isn’t as though my memory is completely obliterated, because that is not true, it does come through every now and again with absurd and random points of interest. For example, when I briefly rekindled romance with an ex, it was as though I was experiencing him as a person for the first time. Meanwhile, he knows every thing there is to know about me (things I don’t even know about myself because…you guessed it: no memory of a past self.) So he would describe to me situates we were once in or reactions I once had and it was as if he was telling me stories about a character – someone entirely detached from myself. Fucking shattering to say the least.

And yet, here I am, always, without fail, allowing the past to overdetermine the present. It’s as if my memory, selective as it may be, embellishes the humiliation and short-falls of my being and hides away any redeeming quality that could inspire confidence. So the past, biased, cynical and self-deprecative as it appears, dictates how I conduct myself in the present. Fantastic. I find the moment I imagine or reimagine the past in an optimistic light, I am indulging in something I am almost addicted to: NOSTALGIA.

Nostalgia is yet another mindfuck. I remember my dad sitting down with me one afternoon, after he found me locked away in my closet, almost asleep from crying so much. I don’t remember what sparked the crisis but I assume it was something to do with reconciling the past and present. Coming home from trips was almost always heartbreaking for me. I would spend the duration of a trip anxiously counting down the days, hours and moments until I would be forced to leave rather than living in the moment. I would work myself up about leaving so much so that the trip itself became a recipe for depressive episodes. I would always relish in the “first day” of something, feeling this this was the moment I will always want to return to so why not enjoy it. Then the second day would come and it was all over – the progression of time had begun – accelerated and demolishing. So coming back home, returning to “life” – regular and routinized – broke me down to tears on countless occasions. My dad was quick to notice when this would happen to me. Finally, one afternoon he explained to me that he also feels this thing…this anxiety about time, this desperation for a return to the past, this guilt for never truly enjoying things as fully as he might have liked etc. etc….. he even gave the feeling a name: NOSTALGIA.

Ever since, I was completed floored at the idea that others could be plagued by this illusive and idealized version of the past. It was complicated for me because while I could not realistically remember any moment or feeling experienced, I would construct an image of an event or period of time and torture myself with the stark comparison it presented to my current situation.

There is no roundabout way to wrap this up. Apart from remarking on the frustration and crushing dissatisfaction I feel in my relationship to a past “self”, I am nearly certain that dissociation and nostalgia will continue to structure my everyday for years to come. In saying this, I guess there is little to do but accept and understand why. I think both of these coping mechanisms, while amplified and exhausting in my own experience, are common and shared amongst us. When you can’t remember who you were three months ago, when you’re repulsed by who you were three days ago and when a version of yourself from 3 years ago seems particularly put together and charming, things can feel a little futile. 

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