Early Memories

Given that the limbic system (responsible for encoding memory) hasn’t fully matured until after the first two years of life, it suggests that any memories we might have from that time period are actually reconstructions based on later experience, or “implants” built upon stories other people have told us. I have two early memories, one of each type, I believe.

My earliest memory is simple: it’s the kitchen in the house where we lived at that time, as seen from my perspective. Based on the vantage point, I would have been in some kind of infant seat set upon the counter and I’m looking upward. I am alone; there’s no one else in the room. The walls are a muted green, somewhere between celery and avocado. Across the room, there’s a bulky refrigerator with a horizontal handle. Near to it, light comes through a window, just above the kitchen sink. That’s all I remember.

Whether or not this is an actual memory, it feels “true” to me. I know that my mother was seriously depressed following my birth. In some important sense, she was absent and I was alone. To me, the kitchen symbolizes food and comfort. Green is a color I’ve always associated with my mother. Of the many houses we lived in during my childhood (my father was a builder and we moved a lot), the one that was more of a family home than any other had a dining room that was green.

In the second memory, I can “see” myself scrambling across the street from that same house to our neighbor’s. That’s all there is to the memory, but it’s based on a story I often heard told about me. Apparently, at that age (under two years) I was “always” slipping away and crawl-walking over to our neighbor’s house in order to find out what they were having for dinner. Whenever my mother told this story, she laughed as if it were hilarious. How did I manage to escape when I wasn’t fully walking and probably couldn’t open a door by myself? Who was minding the store?

These memories speak for themselves, I believe. You don’t need a psychoanalyst to see what they mean.

I have a client who has some early memories of a similar nature. She remembers crawling around in the backyard of the family home, still wearing diapers. She remembers being hungry and alone. She remembers there was dog shit on the lawn. While the factual accuracy of this memory is in question, my client knows this memory is “true” in some important sense because of what happened, years later. The one and only time she asked her parents to babysit for her baby, she felt some misgivings not long after she and her husband had dropped the baby off; they went back and found that her mother had put the baby out in the back yard and left her alone, unsupervised. She was crawling around on the deck; there were sharp and rusty objects nearby.

It won’t surprise you to learn that this client had a truly awful childhood. The neglect she experienced can be summed up in that one dream.

What are your earliest memories, and what do you think they mean?


I’ve just released a new eSingle for the Kindle platform. It’s a 6,000 word essay, about 20 pages long, comparable in length to a New Yorker article. It’s about Lance Armstrong and Greg Mortenson, how they cynically manipulated the details of their public personas in order to appear heroic. Some of this material appeared in my article for The Atlantic but most of it is entirely new.

THE HERO AS NARCISSIST sells for $.99, less than a cup of coffee at Starbucks. I wanted to offer visitors here a way to support the site, even if they can’t afford to buy my book. I prefer to offer something of value rather than ask for donations. If you do decide to give it a read, I hope you’ll take the time to leave a review on Amazon. Thanks!

By Joseph Burgo

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.


  1. I think I suffered a lot of neglect as a very young child as early as 2. I remember waking up to use the bathroom and no one was there, I was about 3 my parents had gone out and left me there alone at night with my baby sister. They probably thought I would stay asleep. It is sort of a blur the memory now , but I do still vaguely remember it.
    My biological parents were very messed up.

    1. It’s interesting how those neglect memories stay with us. It must’ve been terrifying, to wake up and know you were alone with your baby sister.

  2. hia what a great idea to do a single book, im not reading longer length books at the minute but i just love Kindles singles books, they are great.

    BUT i have just gone on to buy it and theres “no pricing information available” so i couldnt purchase. Im in the UK but that shouldnt be the issue should it? please let me know when its available.


  3. I was about three years old. We were living in Port Said where my army officer father was posted. I slipped and fell into a fishpond. I recall the green water and coming up for air and going under again swallowing water. An Egyptian friend of the family seized me by the hairand pulled me out. Took me ages to learn to swim in contrast to my siblings. It wasn’t until I was well into my thirties that I learnt how to control my breathing while swimming and thus learn the crawl stroke. I’m still a very strong swimmer despite some post-60 worries about getting cramp. An strolger once told me I’d die at a great age by drowning. perhaps he got things round the wrong way!

  4. I wonder if it’s possible that the memory-encoding process develops more quickly in children who have stressed childhoods. At any rate, other forms of memory are VERY active even before we’re born.

    I remember a cream-colored, wall mounted phone between a kitchen and dining area. I remember my mother hanging up after talking on it, she’s very anxious and upset. I wish she would pick me up. I want her to feel better.

    My mother tells of how both her daughters, while still infants, were in the habit of returning the favor when she patted us on the back. “Tiny little butterfly hands,” as she tells it. I think I felt a very strong early need to soothe my mother’s distress.

      1. I don’t think it’s accurate that memories prior to the age of two are implants. Over the years, each of my kids has brought up a memory of something I’d forgotten or details that I’d forgotten. It always took me by surprise.

  5. Also, I’d very happily support your blog with donations. I bought your book, but I read this blog on an ongoing basis.

    1. It means a lot more to me when someone contributes through purchasing something I’m written. I guess that’s kind of odd but it’s just the way I feel. Thanks for buying my book and visiting the blog!

  6. …. but back to the question. I think my earliest memory is of a machine at the end of our street that sold chocolate bars. I can remember the brand of bar, and what it looked like. I don’t think this is something anyone else would have told me. I guess I was hungry for something…

  7. My most long-standing friend recalls me being to sent off for my first day at school dressed in a kilt. I think she is mistaken as no parent in the Midlands of England would have sent their son to school in a kilt in the early 1950s. The ridicule I would have received would have been even more traumatic than falling into a fishpond. I did have a kilt as a small boy, but only wore it on special occasions and I guess my friend must have seen me wearing it at somebody’s birthday party then combined this recollection with the one she had of me going to school. What I recall from my first day at school is the morning assembly where a girl was invited to blow out a candle on a silver cake stand as it was her birthday and I remember my envy at not being the centre of such attention and doing such a beautiful thing. So my first memory of school had to do with the desire to receive praise and attention.

  8. My earliest memory was being alone in the house in my crib. I was still in diapers. My mother was outside hanging clothes on the clothesline. I had shit my diaper and was playing with it and had made quite a mess. My mother was very angry with me when she came back inside and found the mess I had made. I’m sure the part about her being outside hanging up clothes was told to me later but the memory of being alone and then being afraid because she was angry with me is very real. I think it set the tone for my whole life in feeling alone with no one to depend on.

    1. The playing with shit part is interesting, too. I’ve found with a few clients who suffered severe neglect that they turned to their own feces for an odd kind of solace.

    2. Along these same lines, my mother complained that we all reached in and took the feces out of our diapers and wiped them on the wall near the crib. When I was in my early teens, she offered the advice that when I got married and had kids, I shouldn’t run to a baby every time it cries because it will just learn to cry all the time to get attention. Probably a connection somewhere between the two behaviors.
      We moved from the first house we lived in in March of 1960. I would have turned 4 in September of 1960. I have a lot of memories from that “old” house. I remember sitting on the kitchen floor and apparently being in her way as she was doing whatever. She picked me up by the collar of my jacket and dragged me to the back door, feet barely touching the floor and deposited me outside on the top step. When I tried to come back inside, before she had a chance to shut the door, she put her foot on my ass and shoved me down the stairs. I remember being proud of myself for landing on my hands and my feet and not skinning my knee.
      I remember finding a pair of scissors and sitting on the living room floor of that old house, I cut the aglets (the hard ends) off of my shoe laces. When my mother saw what I had done, she told me to put them back on (re-attach them.) When I couldn’t and tried to get up, she forced me back down to the floor and and told me I couldn’t get up until I put them back on. I don’t remember how long I sat there trying and crying but it was a long time. She was always proud that she taught me to never do it again.
      I too remember falling in the river because it was just down the road from that house. Pulled out by my father choking and coughing. I disappeared constantly as a toddler often for an hour or more.
      Two weeks before my youngest brother was born in early 1960, my sister was sent to live with our cousins (2 girls roughly her age). My brother and I were sent to live with my maternal grandparents for that 2 weeks until the baby came. My grandfather was a gruff old German machinist who left at 5AM and came home at 6PM and rarely spoke. My grandmother had had a nervous breakdown and the only thing I remember her saying the entire 2 weeks was one morning when she said she liked to dunk her toast in coffee. We had food clothing and shelter, the same as at home. And even though the conditions were very similar to the conditions at my “real home”, bereft of connection and belonging, I still felt abandoned by my mother. I cried a lot. It was made worse when my father came for a visit halfway through our jail sentence. I was relieved to be going home when I saw his car, but broke down when I learned that he would be leaving without us. When we finally got home, I remember my 1½ year old brother would not go to my mother. They joked that he had “forgotten” who she was. He didn’t say anything. He just stood there, lost on how to react and unable to express what he was feeling/thinking. In later years, when my mother was angry with us, she used to threaten us with sending us to live with her father to learn some discipline. To me it wasn’t a hollow threat. She thought I was too young to remember she had done it to me once before.
      Just a few early memories of an isolated connectionless, avoidant, maybe even schizoid loner.

  9. I had 3 “memories” pop up when I read the blog. One is me looking down into our basement (around age 2-3) from the top of the stairs. My grandfather is working putting in a new rail. I don’t know if this is constructed from later stories but I had fallen down those stairs and suffered a concussion as the family story goes. I have a distinct memory of accidentally bumping into my father and spilling his coffee onto him. I remember it was the back porch and he had a crisp white shirt on. Everyone was very angry at me. And I have a very strong memory of being in the basement of a neighbor’s house (age 2-3 again). My parents were away and we were being watched by a mean old German woman on the block (she babysat for us a lot). The basement was completely pitch black. We were sleeping on the floor (my older sister and I) and I remember doing a little experiment and trying to see how close I had to get my hand to my face to see it. I couldn’t get it close enough to see. I remember feeling really scared and alone and completely helpless. Kind of sums of my childhood, unforgiving family, everyone was always angry, and feeling alone.
    I’ll be happy to read your article!

    1. Kim, it’s interesting how some of those early memories seem to “sum up” our childhoods, as you put it. Thanks.

  10. I have *very* few early memories.

    I do remember multiple times being in middle school, waiting to be picked up from evening band concerts that I performed in. I was almost always the last one picked up, and at least once I was left standing outside, in the dark, after the building was locked up. (The band teacher, before he left, asked me if I needed a ride; I assured him that my father was coming to pick me up. )

    I suppose it doesn’t take a psychoanalyst to figure that one out either. (Picked up? Heck, why weren’t either of my parents *there* to watch me in the concerts?)

  11. You’ve given me a gift with great timing. My first memory is of me crawling out of my crib. And then crawling down a long dark hallway toward the kitchen door, which was mostly closed. I could see the light underneath. I knew that the live-in maid whom I credit with teaching me love by loving me (unlike my mother) was in there. It seemed forever but I finally reached the door and pushed it open. She was washing dishes and screamed. I guess she must have thought it was a ghost. Then she saw me, ran to me and picked me up, hugging me. I felt no fear throughout it. Just determination and curiosity. For many years, I’ve had so much fear in me due to trauma. But that part of me, determined and curious, is always deep inside and has come out to help me at times. I was feeling today that I could take the next step for real to freedom, to being myself, to seizing life fully, that I could do it, let go of fears and old strings, that I had it in me. Then I saw your posting, remembered. Yeah. 🙂 Thanks. Really, that is what trauma does, it adds so many crap layers, strings, fears that keep us from just being true to ourselves. It’s nice to find joy and freedom in a memory, since usually there’s so many full of pain and fear.

    1. That memory really speaks, but it’s wonderful that you found love at the end of the hallway.

  12. I had a very traumatic childhood with no memories until I was about 5 or 6.
    My many siblings and I lived in constant fear from a highly abusive father who basically tourtured his wife and children their whole lives. I could go on with the many instances of abusive but its obvious how witnessing &/or experiencing physical abusive effects one’s life. I find it interesting that some can recall as far back as when they were two because I certainly can’t! Am I blocking out these memories? I’m currently in therapy and working on the disconnection/lack of empathy I have towards my childhood self. Can I expect these memories to come flooding back?

    Btw, love your blog, thank you for doing it. Just purchased your book via amazon and look forward to reading it.
    I’ve tried to register for the discussion group but get an error message.
    Is the group still open or is it me?

    1. I closed enrollment after a couple months because the group had become cohesive and had a process going on between members that I didn’t want to disturb.

    2. MsR, although your post is almost a year old, I wondered whether you had made any progress finding your early memories and becoming empathic to your childhood self? If so, I would be very interested to hear your thoughts as I have a very similar difficulty.

  13. I find early memories to be really interesting too. Some of my earliest memories have to do with curiosity. In one, I remember being very small: still in my crib, spinning some large beads (about 2 inches wide) that were attached to the headboard of the crib. In another, I was at my grandma’s house with my mom, eating in a high chair. Someone had sliced a banana in half and gave me a half of it with the peel still on and I was young enough that I couldn’t figure out how to peel it so I was just chewing on the cut end. The other memory is an alone and scared memory: crawling around in the yard at my other Grandma’s house and finding a knife in the grass. I was young enough that I didn’t know it could hurt me. I picked it up and cut myself enough to draw blood. My Grandma eventually found me with the knife and scolded me for playing with it.

    1. Another baby, crawling around alone in the the back yard! It feels to me like there’s a lot in that memory.

  14. One my earliest memories is of moving house. I had a favourite toy, a Fisher Price parking garage. Among other things, you could put a little car in it at the bottom of an ‘elevator’, turn a crank and the car would go up to the the top ‘floor’ and the suddenly pop out to be parked. My mother had brought the garage to the new house and put it in my empty, new room and I remember going into the empty room and seeing it there. I feel like this is a direct memory from childhood, like it might just mean I have a long memory. Only, at the same time, I had a very nasty experience as a teen with moving and my mother. This was exceptional of her to be so thoughtful.

    As an aside, I took a creative writing class some years ago, and we were asked to write about our first memories. I wrote about playing with the wonderful parking garage. For some strange reason, the teacher was cross and said that I should try and write about a “real memory” instead. I wasn’t making it up! This also had a certain resonance with my mother issues.

    1. Bad teacher! I suppose she meant you should write about something traumatic, as if happiness is less authentic.

  15. My father was more of a carpenter than an actual builder – but he did build a few houses including our house in the country when I was 2. I too remember being in the kitchen, but I was sitting in my pj’s in the frame of where the kitchen counter would be. I was eating a bowl of cereal. I think I was sitting beside one of my brothers.

    And apparently, I too, took to running down the street at our home in the city. My mother was in the hospital with my baby brother and I was at home being looked after by my older brothers and my father. I took off down the street one day buck naked (18 months old) and my mother couldn’t figure out how my 3 older brothers and my father couldn’t watch over one 18 month old girl. It’s not a memory of mine, but a story of my mother’s and apparently I could really move. They couldn’t catch me to go home back to the city either after spending a day tromping through the fields of where our new house was being built.
    So, there is your giggle for the day!

    I didn’t have memories of bad things that I can recall – some things of mine I think are imagination.

  16. My first memory is sitting looking as a small four legged stool in my grandmother’s backyard knowing I couldn’t have made it. (Yes, competence is a core concern for me.)

    I’m not sure whether the development of the lymbic system is the same as accuracy of memory. I guess it would be hard to determine. We have probably all found that some of our memories can be stunningly accurate and somewhat misleading.

  17. One of my earliest memories (I was about 3) is of being tied to a tree by some older boys who were pretending that I was an Indian and they were the cowboys who had captured me. Needless to say, I was terrified. My grandmother, who was visiting, found me and rescued me.

  18. One of my earliest memories is of being bitten all over my chest by wasps by the backyard pool at 2 years old. My mother was fairly quick to respond and quite comforting, I think. Still, was very scary. Another early memory is of carrying the family cat up onto a high besser-block wall to sit and watch the world go by. I felt scared, but very big and brave!

  19. My 18 yr old daughter told me a couple of months ago that when her birth mother left her she did not know what to do next. I was stunned. I asked her why she felt that way because she had her dad and I to guide her and tell her what to do. She told me that she always felt like she wasn’t sure what to do next. The interesting thing, and my heart breaks to think of the trauma her little mind must have gone through, is that we brought her home from the hospital at 8 days old. That would tell me that she remembers that break from her birth mother and the thought of an infant days old searching for some direction from the extention of one self ( her mother) and never getting it moves me to aamy core. It made sense to me when she told me because she use to look at me some times with a wisdom I never understood and people would speak about her as an “old soul”. She then told me that when her sister came 5 1/2 yra later she felt she had to tell her what to do because she had not known herself. Her sister has the same birthmother and we adopted her at 13 days old. All 13 yrs of the younger sisters life the older one has mothered her. She told me when she was only 6 yrs old to watch her arm, don’t let her do that, stop running, do this don’t do this. I can not tally the times we have told her that we are the parents and we will make the decisiions. It is not normal older sibling bossiness- she feels she needs to direct her. We have had to rescue the younger one from her grasps many times. My daughter also spoke to me about a dream she had where the baby was in a room by herslf and she told me that she did not understand why people think it is right to put babies in rooms away from their mothers. She then said,” mom you didn’t do that- you put me in with you and dad. When she was little she had excyme and would scratch so hard it would make her skin bleed so we would take turns with her lying on our chest and gently rubbing her skin so she could sleep. She reminded me of the time when I couldn’t find her one night and I asked my husband where she was and he jumped up and ran to her room and looked all over our bed and then he looked at me and said, ” she is in your arms!” Sleep deprived, I guess.
    Those are two memories which she has shared with me as she struggles to make sense of the world which is hers. She has a generalized anxiety and anticipatory anxiety which was very strong right from the get go. I have so many examples but it will be suffice to say that it was stron before her 1st birthday.
    Last year she met her birth mother and she told her that on the day she left her she held her in her arms for hours crying and telling her she was sorry and how much she loved her. I can’t imagine what anyone could ever do to fill or replace a bond so raw and entwined that leaves you before connector connect. She has asked and wondered about her her whole 18 yrs. Now that she has met her she really hasn’t wanted her much. I continue to try and be a good enough mother to two of the most incredible human beings. I hope with her intelligence she will find emotional health too.

    1. That’s quite a story. There is now evidence that infants know their mother’s smell and the sound of her voice right after birth. It must mean that they bond, in some primitive way, and that even at that early age, separation is traumatic.

  20. I have several vague early memories of being alone and being scared as a child. However when I first began therapy I could not remember a lot of my child hood, especially birthdays and Christmas time. After 3 years in therapy I can remember so much and in a lot of detail. I suppose it’s the brains way of storing things away until it feels safe.

    1. Sounds right. It has been so long, I can’t remember if therapy helped me remember a lot of what I now believe that I can recall.

  21. I have very clear memories of visiting my grandmother when I was about three. We went to the pool one day and I slammed my finger in a bathroom stall door. I was so upset that the lifeguard wouldn’t let me go in the pool because my finger was bleeding. It’s interesting to me that my mother was there, but it was the lifeguard who comforted me. He wrapped me in a towel and held me on his lap until I stopped crying. Another day on that same visit, the adults were all talking in the living room. I was bored, bored, bored and wandered off to explore the apartment. I found a doll on the floor of my grandmother’s closet and I remember bringing it out to show the grownups. I was so excited and happy to have found something I could play with. My grandmother jumped up, grabbed it from me, and yelled at me that I’d ruined my birthday surprise. She took the doll back and put it on a high shelf. When she did finally give it to me, I didn’t want to play with it.

    I have another memory of my family living in Texas. I can describe where they lived, down to the building the dentist’s office was in. The thing is, they lived there before I was born. I firmed those “memories” from the stories I’d heard. It seems as real to me as the things that actually happened (as confirmed by my older siblings who were there). If I didn’t know it was impossible for me to have experienced any of it, there’s no way I could tell from my mental images. They’re clear as a bell to me.

    1. I think I’ve heard a similar memory from one of my clients — about a curious child who found her birthday present and was shamed for having “ruined” the surprise.

  22. Hi all,
    Facinating reading – the blog itself, and the memories and later comments. Thank you to one and all.
    I am aware I am scanning my memory for a ‘certain sort of memory’, perhaps to validate the sense of being alone. In reality, my first memory is of seeing a certain part of the town I was born in from the vantage point of my pram. I feel like I must have been around 1, but know that is very young to recall an event. Another early memory is my mother changing my nappy in my grandparent’s kitchen, and my sense of shame at my ‘shit’ being visible. Certainly seems to capture my psychological journey as an adult!
    I am also wondering whether using the query “What is your earliest memory?” as part of the initial psychotherapy assessment would be a good idea? Any thoughts Joseph?

    1. I think that would be an excellent idea. So many people who have commented here seem to have memories that say so much about the rest of their childhood, even if they’re not absolutely “true.”

  23. This was a hard memory to tell in therapy and still is. My first memory is around age 3 1/2. I remember, and can still feel my mothers hand squeezing my arm and throwing me into my bedroom. I vividly remember being absolutely terrified. I crawled under the desk and pushed my body as far into the back as I could. I am crying so hard I can barely breathe. I remember thinking I want to be just like the dried up dead frogs I saw on the sidewalks. Iguess that is my first memory of me wanting to be dead. I can hear my grandmother saying to my mother, “BarbarLee leave the girl alone she did not do anything that deserves that punishment!” I do not remember what I did wrong.
    I reached up onto the top of the desk and got paper and a purple crayon and just drew lines over and over and over. I guess it was a way of self soothing. I can still feel how alone,terrified and scared I was. She came back into the room and saw I had paper and a crayon. She ripped them away from me yelling that I could not have them. Comfort and nurturing never came for me. Purple is my favorite color and I constantly doodle abstract lines or one thing over and over when I am stressed.

    1. I had such a visceral response to reading your memory. It made me feel very hostile toward your mother.

  24. I also have hardly any memories from when I was young. I think one of my earliest memories was my mum shouting at me at my birthday party infront of all of my friends. (I was either 4 or 5 years old) I think it was because I didn’t want to play one of the party games my mum had planned. I remember been screamed at and told how selfish I was. I was filled with absolute shame. This seems to have been a running pattern growing up as it was said to me so many times. While all my needs where met physically and I have no doubt my mum loves me, I have come to appreciate how emotionally she just wasn’t able to give me what I needed. I grew up surrounded by her rage, anger, dissappointment and sadness in the world. When I tried to state what I wanted, needed or believed in my life I was labelled “selfish to the core”. A huge part of my therapy is now learning to set boundaries and speak up for what I want reguardless of the fear of a backlash that I always have. Learning to put your needs first is not easy…but I’m getting there slowly.

    Jo thanks for your wonderful, honest writing. I stumbled on your blog last year just after I started my therapy and it has been such a great support for me. I have never had the courage to actually write something…but I’m sure you have hundreds of followers just like me!
    Keep up the awesome work!!
    Ps I live in South Africa, your message travels well!!!

    1. Greetings to you in South Africa! That early dream seems to sum up (predict?) the rest of your childhood. I have a couple of similar memories of the face-slap, followed by “Selfish!” Ugh. I’m glad you found the courage to write!

  25. Your post about earliest childhood memories was interesting. There are vague sinister and unpleasant memories which I think I have repressed about my father, but I have 3 very distinct memories of being very small. First I remember trying to reach the kitchen door handle. I was stretching my arm right up but could only touch it with my finger tips. I felt proud that I would soon be able to walk out the door. (when I was older I couldn’t wait to leave home!) Second I was sitting at a table watching my mum do the laundry. She had a twin-tub machine and I don’t know why but she was crying. I was surprised and a bit alarmed by this and felt alone. Thirdly I was on the pavement and Mum and a friend were chatting. I thought “I will show Mummy I am a big girl” and tried to cross the road. I stepped out into oncoming traffic and remember watching cars screeching to a halt, hearing horns and my mum screaming. I was shocked as I didnt realise it was dangerous. I think I was about 2-3 in these memories. I have others but these are really clear and I can relive the feelings.

    1. Those first two dreams are very telling, aren’t they? Mummy in such pain, so self-absorbed she makes you feel alone, so that you can’t wait to get away from home and be independent.

      1. Thanks for your comments. They were not in my view dreams. They were real memories. I have very harsh self-imposed conditions for what is real and factual and what can’t be proved, but in these memories I know that noone else knows I felt and saw these things. Also I have had to try to understand as an adult, my childish interpretation of these memories. I am sure they are genuine and not dreams. Other stories such as from my cousin about me falling in the pond aged 2, and travelling home on the bus with my parents, wrapped up in a blanket – I do not remember at all.

  26. My earliest memory is from when I was 4, in the hospital for a tonsillectomy. Back then, well 0ver 40 years ago, parents didn’t stay with you. I remember a man beside my bed taking a jar of reddish-brown paste, the consistency of poop and the color of bloodstained poop, and pushing some into my rectum. It hurt and I thought it was a punishment for crying. I believe this must be a false memory in some way, because although anesthesia WAS administered rectally at the time (I researched this) it was in a slim clear tube. I have no idea whether my mind has conflated the hospital procedure with something else, but the memory is vivid for me, and it has been a very troubling memory over the years because I don’t understand it. But I do know that the hospital stay was traumatic, and thank goodness policies have changed. When my own daughter went into the hospital at age 3, I stayed with her and was even allowed to carry her into the OR.

    1. That’s an interesting memory and I’m sure it means something important. I wonder if it’s about feeling as if all the pain/bad experience (the poop) was being pushed back into you, leaving you alone to cope with it.

    1. I know what you mean, but I think that even if we imagine them, we imagine them for a reason, which lends them a certain kind of truth.

  27. This is such a clear, clear memory: I remember standing in my crib, holding the side rails and crying my eyes out as I had a wet, cold cloth diaper. I don’t remember anyone coming. The experience of that cold, wet, bulky diaper is not only in “picture form” in my memory, it’s also a “felt” memory-if that makes sense?
    I was later dxd. with what would now be called, “Failure to Thrive.” My “mother” was an RN, BS (quite well educated for her time, actually) and I had an older sister, so it’s not as if she didn’t have OJT AND “OJT” with my older sister.
    My childhood was a mess of abuse and neglect secondary to a Walking Cluster B “mother.” No wonder I view growing up with a combination of Fear/Terror and Powerlessness even as an Senior Citizen. That memory pretty well summarizes the experience of growing up and before Learned Helplessness set in….
    Thanks for giving these early memories an opportunity to be “heard.” Sometimes I’m left with the impression people don’t believe one can have creditable memories going back to a very early age.

  28. My earliest memory involves my friend chasing me from his house to mine (playing tig I think) and he ran after me and I accidentally slammed the door on his finger and really hurt his hand. I remember my parents were angry at me and I was crying and felt so ashamed, like it wasn’t my fault.

  29. Hmm….the first things I can remember are related to my first trip to the seaside (I was 5 years old). I went with my aunt and I remember a man – a friend of hers I guess – picking me up, spinning me round and kissing me on my cheek. I still feel the sand on his body, his unshaven beard and me being shy. I guess it is not such a bad memory. Too bad I have so many others, from later on, that made me suffer a lot…they still hurt.
    I bought your book and I am currently reading it….amazing how you can understand pain, shame….you help me a lot.
    Thank you!
    Greetings from Germany

  30. I remember reading at a very early age (my mother taught me to read before I even went to primary school). I can remember being so immersed in a book that I would not hear my name being called and someone would have to go look for me! Books became a passion. I found recently a very old snapshot of me, very young, probably 7, sitting under a tree, head in the book, my uncle’s terrier beside me.
    Otherwise I was usually getting into mischief. Good childhood memories.

  31. Last year in therapy I struggled to come up with “the first thing that I could remember” to answer my therapist’s inquiry…the best I could recall was some vague recollections of a few benign events in kindergarten. But then she gave me a homework assignment of writing letters to myself at certain ages (sort of an “in hindsight” letter of advice and encouragement) and that allowed me to very vividly remember this: I must have been 2 or 3, sitting at the kitchen table having breakfast. My father came home after working a midnight shift and tripped or stumbled over a toy ride-on train that someone (I assume it was me…I don’t have any other recollection of having or playing with the toy before then) had left on the floor of our very tiny kitchen. He became very angry, screamed at me, and kicked the train in my direction. It didn’t hit me but it hit the wall beside me and knocked out a chunk of plaster the size of a tennis ball. I never saw the train after that…and my father refused to fix the wall so that I’d have a reminder to pick up my toys. I also remember very clearly seeing the rage in his eyes…because I see that plenty more times growing up.

  32. Very interesting post. I’ve often wondered about the accuracy certain memories I have from time spent with a day sitter my parents were sending my brother and I to when I was only 3. I’m aware of having revisited the memories many times, even then, and find it hard to say exactly what happened. I don’t doubt certain memories being genuine, it just that there’s a lack of detail outside the physical or emotional feeling underlying it.

    It struck me just now for the first time while reading this, in one particularly upsetting memory I may have been actually seeing myself outside of my body in the moment. It seems to make sense. I was so upset that I probably couldn’t see very well with all the tears in my eyes, and with the level of panic, I remember that I was unable to focus to find a way to respond to the situation. I’ve often tried to remember details of that moment, unsuccessfully. I think I was embarrassed at just how helpless I was acting, even at the time. I also kept revisiting the memory, wondering even why I was obsessing over it so much. Besides, if I was the only child there who broke down like this, then what the hell was wrong with me. Granted, I was 3, and my brother was 5. Part of the distress of course was asking not to be sent back there, and my fears not being taken seriously -.- I was only sent somewhere else after I started developing persistent UT infections, and my mother decided it would be better if I was being looked after by someone who would pay me more attention, had less children to watch, and was willing to listen to at least provide unscented toilet paper like my doctor was recommending..

    To this day I think about it. I wonder what impact it had on me, and what I was like after, and would have been like if not put in that environment. I haven’t been able to call it abuse per se, and so instead I feel ashamed at my reaction. It’s confusing how to deal with such an early memory, and surprising to realize the connection it likely had to a health problem that followed me some years after. Not to mention, a certain disconnection, and two seeming flashbacks which brought me suddenly back into a similar feeling of helplessness. One, not surprisingly, when I was still a child; but the other being many years later in early adulthood, probably made worse being I was already in an environment in which I felt trapped, so that a hand on my arm was all it took. When I’ve brought it up, either to my parents, or other who were there, or even in therapy, I feel a bit self conscious about making such a big deal over something so little.

    Anyway, I’m not so worried about flashbacks, and certainly never had any classic PTSD. My safety was never really in danger. Still, it bothers me that I am possibly weaker, or more prone to shutting myself inside my head or spacing out. I suspect that’s how I dealt with that environment then. Was I basically like that already? It has bothered me quite a bit, because the memories are so long ago, how can I make sense of them now.. Besides that I have since dealt with so many other internal problems; low self esteem, anxiety, and 10 years now of an ED. Feeling cut off from the world makes me want to keep revisiting those memories all over again, and wonder what significance they have.

  33. This is something I have been skirting around in therapy. I have very vivid early memories and some that have feelings/sensations attached to them where the picture memory isn’t available to me. I am yet to discuss them with my therapist because I am frightened he will dismiss them or be of the school of thought that repressed memories don’t exist or won’t believe me or something. He isn’t an analyst, he is a psychodynamic therapist who specialises in mindfulness and compassion based cbt. He has adapted his strategies (he says) to fit in with me as I kept resisting his techniques in favour of talking about the past. After many weeks with me he said he had decided to hold off on the ‘fancy techniques’ as he put it because my anxieties increased every week we focused on them and I seem to respond better to sharing my memories.

    I did things in childhood and have feelings and emotions attached to certain acts that would make a lot more sense if I had experienced abuse but have no recollection of any other than having ‘weird’ feelings about a certain time/person. I was younger than 7yrs at the time. I wonder if there would be any benefit exploring this, if I did uncover memories would that be worse? I also don’t feel there is any hope of change, what is the point in exposing these things to him if he can’t help me.
    Confusing times!

    1. There’s only one way to find out if there’s any benefit and that is to move forward. You can’t be sure that he won’t be able to help you unless you actually try.

      1. Thank you for your reply Dr. Burgo, of course you’re right. Hopefully in time I will feel ready to bring it up.

        1. I just wanted to add an update. Since writing this comment I have talked with my therapist at great length about all of my memories/partial memories/feelings/queries/ponderings about childhood – everything. I can honestly say it has been the most terrifyingly liberating experience of my life. I have experienced hour long sessions where I have barely managed to get out three sentences but have worked on so much of my anxiety and shame in that time. I have had sessions where I have grieved for the childhood that I feel like I deserved and know I will never have. I have had my experiences validated and my feelings responded to with compassion and acceptance which has taught me to respond to myself with more love than loathing.

          I want to thank you Dr Burgo – your blog has encouraged me to explore my self and in turn be brave within my own therapy sessions. I have been in therapy 8 months now and I have grown so much through this journey. There are few people who know I’ve been going to see a therapist but many people have made random comments that I seem happier/healthier/more like myself.

          Your ‘direct’ advice – “he won’t be able to help you unless you actually try” was spot on! Thank you! I tried and it was so very worth it.

  34. I have images in my mind of being lifted up onto a shelf or table in a shed, it smelt of coal, as whenever i smell coal i am reminded of the image. i was only very small about 2 and a half maybe 3, the shed itself was dark apart from an orange glowing light coming through the small window, it reminds me of a bonfire burning at night. I have a sense of unease when i have this image and i get uncomfortable sensations in my body. I am in Therapy but i have not told my therapist this because i am not sure if it is real or a bad dream from childhood thats stayed with me.

  35. Well this is an interesting process for me; watching my reactions to my own first memories through reading others.
    My first memories of childhood at about 3 are where I attempted to make coffee for my birth mother after my parents fought. My dad was excessively violent and my birth mother had barricaded herself in her room to protect herself. I had a younger sibling who I had placed near me whilst I set about filling the kettle and boiling the water. Because of my age, limited developmental capacity and smallness, I did not have the strength to carry the boiling kettle; whilst trying to fill this women’s mug, I faltered and instead dropped the kettle on my younger sibling. Whilst she survived she still has the burns to her body especially on her chest. We would both be in our 40’s now.

    I find memory amazing. This and the many other stories that shape my life were for many years completely repressed and forgotten. The next memory and those their after hold similar levels of trauma; in proximity of life and death was always very apparent in all my early memories. How I survived; why I survived and my “wish” not to have survived still plagues me.

    I am fascinated with the directions and knowledge that relate to interpersonal neurobiology. I am also fascinated by alexithmia and how the personality is altered through interpersonal trauma and neglect. Perhaps it makes sense though when my first memory response is framed in such a pragmatic way, in response to another’s experience of domestic torture and abuse.

    1. Boy is that a powerful memory. It says so much about how un-parented you were and the need you felt to take care of your mother instead. I expect it explains a lot about your adult character and relationships.

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