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I Don't Recall Any Trauma

Question:

I’m 28 years old and have a history of depression. I’ve recently been diagnosed with bipolar II, panic disorder, and possibly PTSD. There have been five separate instances (from doctors and therapists) that suggested that I suffer from PTSD yet I have no memory of trauma. Is there any way possible to recovery memory… how will I know?

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Answer:

In order to diagnose Posttraumatic Stress Disorder a doctor is supposed to establish that a traumatic event has occurred (at least six months ago), and that three basic types of symptoms are currently present: 1) hypervigilance (heightened, nervous awareness, heightened startle reflexes, etc.), 2)intrusive experiences (usually spontaneously occuring thoughts, emotions or dreams having to do with the trauma), and 3) avoidance (active efforts to avoid situations that will trigger thoughts or emotions about the trauma). Since there is no documented or remembered trauma situation, my guess is that the doctors who have suggested PTSD may be an issue are responding to some cluster of symptoms you demonstrate that probably involves hypervigilance, intrusion and avoidance. This sort of reasoning on the part of the doctors is akin to saying “I smell smoke, there must be fire around here somewhere”. It isn’t proper to diagnose PTSD without your having experienced a trauma as the centerpiece around which all symptoms are organized – but something in the way you are presenting seems to these different doctors/therapists as being suggestive that a trauma may have occurred at some point.

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p> A trauma is an event wherein a person experiences severe violence or comes close to death, or witnesses the deaths of others, usually in a violent and non-natural-course sort of way (murder, torture, rape, combat, etc.). Though people cope with trauma in a variety of ways, one way that some people cope is to dissociate, or mentally ‘check out’ during or after the experience in such a way that they do not consciously remember the experience. In some cases, dissociation can lead to amnesia (selective memory loss) for the traumatic event. This is what is being suggested, if I’m not mistaken.

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p> Recovery of traumatic memory is a tricky thing. If trauma has occurred and you’ve blocked out memory of that trauma, you need to respect that blocking for what it is – a coping mechanism to help you keep yourself together. Recovery of that memory could be quite painful and even re-traumatizing and should be handled gradually in the presence of a therapist who is experienced with treating dissociation. On the other hand, you should not assume that you’ve experienced a traumatic event and have dissociated from it just because a bunch of doctors have suggested that this is the case. While you may have dissociated from a trauma, it is also quite possible that other explanations for your symptoms would be more correct. There are a number of documented cases where people have falsely ‘recovered’ (or more realistically – ‘unconsciously invented’) memories of abuse they did not experience, simply because someone in authority told them that it must have been the case that they were abused. You’ll want to find a doctor who can treat your symptoms, while not forcing you prematurely into a diagnostic box.

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p> Good luck with this.

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