Remember When…

On several occasions I’ve written about the ways in which we begin to come into being as unique persons from within an interpersonal mommy-daddy-baby matrix.  The impact of these early interactions are so vital and long-lasting, they inform our behavior and beliefs about relationships for the remainder of our lives.

What’s fascinating about this formative, dynamic process is that much of it occurs before we actually have a personal historical memory of ourselves.  In fact, the ability to recall events occurring in early childhood with distinct clarity actually suggests a developmental disruption or trauma, because vivid historical recall occurs only if our seamless infancy and early childhood development suffered from impingements or premature interruptions.  Essentially, we have lucid recall only if we “come online” too soon.

Feelings and memory

Recollections of early life later emerge as strong feeling sensations that often appear inconveniently, seemingly without an immediate or present moment context.  Terror, dread or rage appear to insert themselves into situations that don’t warrant such strong reactions.

Patients often speak of feeling overwhelmed by strong, visceral emotions that strike “out of the blue,” while simultaneously frustrated by an inability to describe or mediate these feelings with language.

Early memories punctuate lifelong emotional themes

While we all retain snippets of crystallized memories, in general, we do not have the capacity to recall actual events in our lives much before the age of four.   These snippets are significant, though, because they punctuate central and often recurring themes in our lives, particularly when viewed sequentially or as a group.  In general, a five year old child can tell you about a recent trip to the zoo, while a two year old cannot and must be reminded with commemorative souvenirs or stories.

There is something indescribably satisfying about a child who begins to tell you her story.  This is an exciting time for families, because they can begin to build a shared history together.  Looking at photographs becomes an evocative experience rather than a simple didactic one.  “Here we are in the hospital the day you were born,” becomes “Remember how much fun it was to see the sea turtles.”  The devoted caretaking of infancy is rewarded with mutuality.

Self-awareness and personal identity

When children acquire what is referred to as an “authorial self,” they begin to hold a sense of their own subjectivity and personal identity.  They recognize themselves as individuals with personal tastes, desires and direction.


This means that in addition to being able to recall historical events in their lives, they become capable of actually planning and scripting what may occur next.  They become the authors of their own lives.  Of course this leads to skirmishes, but this is a watershed developmental achievement.  When children attain this capacity, they concurrently develop an interest in the ongoing constancy of other peoples’ lives and often begin to ask direct questions.

I recognized this developmental achievement in a friend’s eldest child when he suddenly realized that I simply didn’t disappear when my car turned the corner at the end of the street, because he began asking personal questions.  He wanted to know about my house and whether or not I had a “husbin.”

It had suddenly occurred to him that I entertained a personal life that preceded and followed our friendly visits in his kitchen.  He identified his own newly discovered constancy in me, and I became an object of interest.  He was permanent, and so was I.

He could then begin to think about and comment upon future and past visits.   Life and relationships now had continuity.  He could begin to hold me in his mind when I wasn’t around, and he could imagine that I remembered him.  He began to appreciate that his mother and I had been friends since we were respectively three and four years old.

I remember you…

His younger cousin once raced up to me after a party as we were all dispersing in the parking lot and breathlessly asked, “Do you remember when we all went out to lunch and went shopping?”  As if I could forget herding five little girl cousins between the ages of five and eight up and down the crowded streets of Laguna Beach on a warm afternoon.  Our wild little cabal took up an entire lunch counter.  “Of course I do,” I responded, matching her enthusiasm.  “We really had a great time together, didn’t we?”  Sweetly shared memories with a child exude a conspiratorial charm not unlike private moments shared with a lover.

Her father later informed me that I had become her new best friend that day.  She had been about five years old at the time of our excursion and so had remembered it clearly, because she had begun to develop an authorial, historical identity.

Had she been younger, she might have experienced an uncanny affection for me without really knowing why.  What I withheld from the conversation was my own memory of her cousin’s amusing remark upon examining an extremely tacky piece of florid red, polyester lingerie, “Oh, this looks just like you Aunt Mauri-Lynne…”  Fortunately, my capacity for accessing historical memories is also fairly well developed and singularly better than hers.

Body memories

But what about all those early imprints that cannot be explicitly recalled, those pertaining to events that occurred in our lives before we were four or five?  What happens to them?

Memories that can’t actually be recalled are referred to as “implicit” memories, meaning their existence is implied rather than explicitly recalled.  It does not mean, however, that they don’t exist.  In fact, they are often more powerful than historically stored and retrieved memories, and they emerge mostly as feelings.

Baby-at-Play-FULLWe each have a store of implicit memories that the mind-body “banks.”   They make themselves known nonverbally, mostly via sensations and emotions.  I wrote in my last column that our first feelings are imprinted neurologically as responses to stimulating or dampening stimuli.  This is how implicit memories are stored.

The trifecta of language, memory and thought

We accrue and store sensory bits that are only later linked with language enabling us to think about them.  When these unarticulated bits are reactivated, they are experienced as powerful, unadulterated or primitive feeling states.

Because they are bound to events occurring before we had language, we don’t have words to describe them.   They frequently materialize in dreams, and when they do, we have another opportunity to decode them.

These preverbal “memories” can be pleasant, such as feeling suffused with serenity upon climbing into nice clean sheets at bedtime or, if the imprint was traumatic, the reactivation can be terrifying and mystifying.

A patient once told me that for some unknown reason, she became very depressed during the summer.  She could recall no reason for her annual mood shift, though was very distressed by it.  Every summer she seemed compelled to withdraw and sleep.

Feeling herself wither, she said, “It just sort of hits me every year, and there’s nothing I can do about it.”  She experienced herself as being hijacked by feelings that seemed to have little to do with her actual life.  Strong feelings coupled with the absence of language communicated to me that she was experiencing the activation of an implicit memory.  The annual repetition suggested an anniversary of some sort.  We began to explore her feelings, expanding and finding words to describe them.

Psychoanalysis links language with feelings

Psychoanalytic therapy helps patients link feelings with language, so amorphous, shapeless “bits” acquire an identifiable form and meaningful historical context.

My patient began to relate the story of a grave childhood illness recounted by her mother.  Though she couldn’t remember this illness explicitly, she had almost died during the summer she turned two years old.  Hospitalized for meningitis, she lay ill for many days.

Melancholy-FULLEvery summer thereafter, she experienced a repetition of this near-death experience in the form of a very depressed mood, a nearly-dead state of being.  She was equally disturbed by an inability to regulate her own moods or body states.

Her only memory consisted of her mother’s narrative and her annual summer depression.  She was troubled repeatedly by the reactivation of this potent implicit memory.  It seemed to have a life of its own, retraumatizing her every year.

Integrated memories instill peace

As we linked wordless feelings of near-death with language, she began to integrate this early experience into her overall archive of life events and memories.  Though her mood will always tend to dip as the anniversary of her illness recurs, she will no longer feel as if she’s been swept out to sea in a dangerous riptide.

Language has permitted her to understand and modulate herself more comprehensively.  She has become the holder of her articulated memory; it no longer possesses her.

The course of personal development is continuous, beginning in the womb and ending only when we die.  Each moment in our lives presents an opportunity to further consolidate our identities, increase our emotional capacities and expand self-awareness.

Impediments to fulfillment are often connected to inaccurate beliefs formed very early in life before the acquisition of language or the development of an authorial self.  Feelings are the frontier between these two domains.  Psychoanalytic therapy can help you unravel and understand those impediments, permitting you to resume a meaningful developmental path.

  • Patient identities and clinical material have been disguised to guard confidentiality.

This column originally appeared in the Orange County Register.

Contact Dr. Heller at or 714/662-7975

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