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One topic I don’t see discussed a lot is preverbal abuse. Preverbal abuse is any abuse that a child experiences before he or she has developed language. Because the child has not developed language, he has to store the memories in ways that do not attach language. This can present quite a challenge to the adult who is experiencing body memories with no “explanation” behind them.

I read about this phenomenon in great detail in the book When You’re Ready by Kathy Evert. While this is a book about mother-daughter sexual abuse, it covers healing from preverbal abuse in powerful ways.

From what I understand from reading multiple books on the subject, our brains are like filing systems. When you experience something today, your brain looks for a similar experience in your memory bank for a place to “file” away the memory. When a baby is the one being harmed, the baby does not have enough experiences yet to file away something as mind-blowing as abuse, so the memory gets stored in a different away.

On top of this, a baby does not have the ability to describe what has happened without language, so what is stored is the reaction to the abuse. So, someone who suffered from preverbal abuse might experience flashbacks by reenacting the abuse as it occurred. If you don’t know the history, it might not make any sense. However, the flashback, experienced physically, makes perfect sense when you understand the cause.

The closest experience I have had was recovering a memory of my mother sexually abusing me while changing a diaper when I was a toddler. As I had the flashback, I had an overwhelming urge to suck my thumb even though I was in my mid-thirties when I experienced the flashback. I guess because I was crossing over to being verbal, I recovered enough in the memory to understand it. However, if I had been nine months old when this happened, this urge would not have made sense.

In the book When You’re Ready, the author talks about needing to be held and comforted in the ways that she wasn’t as a baby. An online friend told me about her strong need to be rocked, even though she was now an adult. This woman had the great idea of buying herself a hammock so she could meet this need in herself.

If you are struggling with flashbacks that are mostly bodily and don’t seem to make much sense, consider the possibility that you are dealing with a preverbal memory. If you are, then you will need to comfort yourself in ways similar to how you would have comforted that traumatized baby.

The myth that babies do not remember trauma is a bunch of hogwash. Too many people have reported similar experiences with releasing preverbal body memories to debunk that myth.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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