In my previous post, I discussed the fact that I began suffering from PTSD (post traumatic stress disorder) when I was at most five years old, but I didn't remember experiencing any trauma. What I have since learned is that even though the trauma may be locked away, the feelings it caused may remain with you. If, for example, something terrible happens, and a young child misinterprets the circumstances and concludes that he or she is at fault, the memory of the trauma may disappear (be repressed or be lost to early childhood amnesia), but the feelings of guilt remain, causing the child to believe that he or she is never good enough. Consequently, the child may develop an obsession with perfection or experience a need for self-punishment. Unfortunately, parents are likely to dismiss such traits as part of the child's personality and not be aware of the child's distress.
PTSD has many faces, depending on the nature of the trauma. A soldier may experience survivor guilt after his comrades are killed. A child who has been abandoned may spend a lifetime looking for love and safety, while another child who has been physically abused may become unable to trust anyone. If the trauma is not remembered, sometimes clues are to be found in the emotional results of it.
One clue that helped to narrow down the time of the early childhood traumas I experienced was that I had quite a few detailed memories of events that occurred between the ages of one and three and very few specific memories for several years after that. By specific I mean that I remembered information--for example, I knew where I went to school and who my teachers and my classmates were, but it was as though I'd seen a movie of those years and never actually experienced them--as if I hadn't really been there! This phenomenon is called depersonalization. It's a dissociative disorder and results in feelings that you are an observer of your life. A similar disorder is derealization, in which you may feel detached from your surroundings. Both are protective mechanisms caused by severe stress and may be temporary, but if that stress occurs during childhood (common causes are emotional or physical abuse or neglect, as well as witnessing violence or experiencing the death of someone close), depersonalization or derealization can become a way of life that is filled with anxiety and depression.
There are a few points I need to clarify: early childhood amnesia is a term used to describe the fact that most memories of our earliest years normally fade as we grow older, and it is unusual for a person to remember much about that period. There is, however, a small percentage of the population who retain some of these memories, and apparently, I am one of them. What was odd in my case was that I never lost the memories of events before I was three, but after the age of three, certain memories completely disappeared (were repressed) and many of the rest became depersonalized.
Also, it's important to realize that almost everyone occasionally experiences depersonalization or derealization due to stressful circumstances, but such experiences are usually temporary and require no treatment. It is only when they last for long periods that therapeutic intervention is needed.
Stephanie Kay Bendel is the author of EXIT THE LABYRINTH: A Memoir of Early Childhood Depression – Its Onset and Aftermath, MAKING CRIME PAY: A Practical Guide to Mystery Writing, and A SCREAM AWAY, a romantic thriller published under the house name, Andrea Harris. She has also written numerous short stories and articles on writing.