Memory comprises all the ins and outs of our lives. We go looking into it for everything from survival to simply making a joke. We use memory every day and sometimes it’s hard to separate the things we’ve done or experienced from our very identity.
For survivors of child abuse, memory isn’t your best friend. Memories may be intrusive. You might flashback suddenly and relive the trauma all over again. You can be well on the road to recovery, and these images and all the feelings they evoke may return.
For some, the abuse began so early in life that it’s unlikely they will remember those incidents. For others, those memories may be repressed. A question that has come up frequently in my trauma group is, “How do I retrieve the repressed memories?”
Some might ask, “Why would you want to remember?”
Of course the answer is, “Because I need to know for sure what happened.” It’s difficult to label abuse, whether it’s physical, sexual, or emotional. When young, we can’t easily distinguish when a line has been crossed. We don’t know what sex is or what it means to be sexual.
Sometimes to deal with the hurt we experienced, we categorized it as “our fault.” We did something wrong, we deserved it. We think, “If only I hadn’t done this”; “If only I hadn’t moved that way”; “If only I had said something different.” It’s easier to imagine we have some modicum of control over what happens to us than it is to accept the fact that we are powerless in a dire situation. It’s easier not to trust ourselves than it is to accept the fact that someone older, who we trusted, is unsafe and wrong.
You may have grown up with a ball of bad feelings that you just couldn’t untangle (i.e., “Why was I always afraid when other girls would sleep over at my house?” or “Why was I afraid to wear a swimsuit around men?”)
A friend once confided in me that she felt her father had molested her when she was a child. “I don’t know what happened,” she said, “but I’ve always known that something did.” There is a feeling that something terribly wrong occurred, but we may have little to no memory of what it was. We may remember regarding our abuser with fear and avoidance.
My memories are patchy and that made it difficult to face the truth and bring up my feelings in therapy. I remembered the fear and feelings of having my personal space violated. I recall relating to TV movies about child sexual abuse, like “Child of Rage” and “Fatal Memories.” I compared my situation to the films and decided that since it wasn’t the exactly the same I mustn’t be a victim.
The more I discussed my feelings with my therapist the more I realized I did have some memories of the abuse, although I didn’t know that’s what it was. I also learned that there could be more sexual contact that occurred than I can remember.
Years of trying to “substantiate” my feelings were fruitless. In the end, the memory itself isn’t important. What’s important is how I felt. These feelings don’t happen in a vacuum and it’s feelings we have to recover from — not the event itself. We’ve survived the event. There is no way to expunge what happened, but there is always hope that we can move forward from the feelings surrounding it.
The following is a treatment recommendation from Noam Shpancer, PhD:
“Understanding the limited prediction value of each specific early trauma is important since many laypersons, as well as some therapists, still assume that they need to know the exact root causes of a condition to fix it. This assumption is incorrect. Perhaps the major contribution of the cognitive-behavioral school of therapy has been to turn the focus of therapy toward the here-and-now and to show empirically how precise knowledge of the historical causes of a problem is not a precondition for overcoming it.”
What I’d like other trauma survivors to know is that not remembering doesn’t mean we’re not doing the work. We are recovering, whether we slowly recall specific traumatic events or never do so. We have permission not to remember. It doesn’t mean our mind is broken or that we’re overreacting.
Memory hasn’t failed us. In fact, it may have been protecting us. We don’t need those memories to identify our feelings or to heal.
We don’t have to build a case to have a feeling. It’s there, whether we understand why or not. Allowing ourselves to embrace them is a way of honoring our emotions and our childhood self. It’s a gift we give the helpless child inside and move forward a strong survivor who never has to be victimized again.
Old memories photo available from Shutterstock