Recently, a friend mentioned seeing a segment from reality TV show in which participants discussed the worst day of their lives. I immediately cast my brain around to unpleasant areas and two days came to mind, though not in the way I expected.
I thought first of the night when my dad looked at my sister, brother, and me sitting around the kitchen table and said, “Mummy and Daddy won’t be living together any longer.” And then he started to cry. So did we.
I thought next of the morning when my now ex-boyfriend and I ended a relationship that had lasted eight and a half years. Calmly, in a fog, I looked at him and said, “Okay.” I did a lot of writing that day.
There’s a lot that I remember and still viscerally feel about those moments. I remember tone of voice and facial expression and it still makes me ache. As I write this, my breathing has constricted and my stomach has clenched. My hands are shaking over the keyboard and my chest hurts. I remember the feeling that came later: anguish, despair, and the sense of falling into thick, dark, unforgiving blackness.
But what I can’t remember at all is the day after each of those events. I can’t remember the day I got out of bed after what must have been a sleepless night and had to cope with a reality that, mere hours earlier, had been unimaginable. The day I had to begin relearning how to live because the way I’d been living no longer existed. The day the nightmare inside my head grew louder as time passed instead of fading.
I can’t remember the day after. I can only guess as to what happened.
This is probably a neural defense mechanism. My brain has probably suppressed the memories of the day that followed my parents’ separation and my breakup because they’re painful, harmful, and detrimental to my daily functioning.
The brain’s purpose is to keep you alive and the way that happens is fascinating. During a traumatic episode, the flight-or-fight response activates, leaving a sketch of what happened but relatively few details. The brain and body need to focus exclusively on getting you out of a dangerous situation. Both adrenaline and noradrenaline are released to allow you to respond quickly and to fight or flee as needed. Adrenaline blocks out non-essential information to focus on the essential (the quick response) and noradrenaline destroy’s the brain’s ability to store memories. Basically, the brain focuses on getting you physically out of a dangerous situation or mentally through a traumatic one and it streamlines its neural processes in order to do that. (Useful reading: Why Can’t Accident Victims Remember What Happened to Them?)
I’m willing to guess that this is what happened in the aftermath of my worst days. I have flashbulb memories of the specific events themselves (truly, neither of them fall in to the trauma category, which I’m inclined to reserve for real disasters, death, violence, sexual assault, etc.) but it seems that my brain’s neural processes interfered with my ability to remember the day after in order to keep me putting one foot in front of the other.
Since my hypothesis is based on one anecdotal example, I’m wondering about others’ experiences. Can you remember the day after a traumatic event? If so, is there something specific about that day that you remember? By contrast, is there a gap in time that you don’t remember? Have something else to say or a different idea entirely? Post a comment or send a message through the contact page. Thanks in advance!