Posts Tagged ‘repressed memories’

This week, I have been talking about the need to remember enough of the trauma to “let go.” I have also been sharing some personal examples of how this process has worked for me. You can catch up here and here.

I don’t want anyone to think that there is something “wrong” with them if they don’t experience the same results that I did in “letting go” of my most traumatizing memory in about three weeks’ time. Healing is not a race or a competition.

I don’t think it is possible to “let go” of trauma in three weeks without a significant amount of practice and experience in working through trauma. When I first started on my healing journey, I recovered memories of the mother-daughter sexual abuse. My “breakthrough crisis” lasted for six weeks – every single minute of six weeks. I then got a four-hour reprieve where I realized there was actually life after this horrifying experience. When the four hours ended, I was right back where I was before – drowning in emotional pain – but this time I had the **hope** of a future that was not consumed by pain.

My therapist assured me that the healing process would move me toward shorter difficult periods (from six weeks to hours or days) and that the easier periods would grow longer (from four hours to weeks or even months!). Of course, I had a hard time believing this in the moment, but it gave me hope.

Healing from child abuse is a process of remembering what happened and finding a way to accept it as part of who you are. The way you get from A to B is going to vary from person to person. For me, yoga and meditation were a huge part of this process. For Michael, yoga is just about the last thing he would do, but art has been very helpful. Art is not my thing (unless you classify writing as “art”), so many of the tools he shares are not tools that I have used. However, we are both moving from A to B one trauma at a time.

The more experience I have in healing from trauma, the better prepared I am to navigate through new memories. My new memories seem to be surfacing about once every six months now, and I am growing more confident in my ability to work through them. If I could just “let it go” without having to remember, I would. That hasn’t been my experience. I need remember enough to heal, and I cannot “let go” until I remember and process.

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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In my last blog entry, I answered the question of how a person can “let go” of a traumatic memory that he or she does not remember. I said that you can’t. “Letting go” of a traumatizing memory before processing it is simply denial. The trauma will continue to plague you until you process it. I then shared me experience with healing from mother-daughter sexual abuse – I didn’t have to remember every abusive experience to heal.

Now I would like to focus on healing from the ritual abuse. I recovered my first inkling of there being any ritual abuse with a flash of my soul/spirit being high in the treetops looking down at a bonfire (out-of-body-type memory). Since that first flash, I have recovered quite a few horrific trauma memories of the ritual abuse.

I believe I have needed to process more specific ritual abuse memories than I did of mother-daughter sexual abuse because the ritual abuse memories had significant differences that I needed to heal. With the mother-daughter sexual abuse, it was mostly the same thing over and over again, so I only needed to remember a handful of memories to heal. However, the ritual abuse varied, traumatizing me in different ways. I have had to process specific traumas that are different from one another, at least different enough that I need to work through them one at a time versus in a blanket way.

I started working through the healing process (having flashbacks, seeing a therapist, reading self-help books, etc.) in 2003, and I started working through the ritual abuse traumas in 2005. Even though I did a lot of trauma work and experienced a significant amount of healing, I was still extremely triggered by Christmas because of the memories I just worked through this past Christmas, which I blogged about here:

I could not “piggy-back” that trauma with the other ritual abuse memories despite the fact that I have done an enormous amount of work processing traumas from ritual abuse. I had to remember what happened before I could “let it go.”

I haven’t yet shared what an amazing transformation has taken place inside of me from letting go. For the first time ever, I decided not to “do” anything with those memories. Other that writing about them on the blog, I did not analyze them. I did not sit around thinking about them. I didn’t do exercises to work through my emotions. Instead, I chose to “be” with whatever I felt without judgment or action.

For about three weeks, I was probably clinically depressed. I withdrew from everyone in my life to the extent I could. I didn’t return phone calls or get together with friends. I just went about my day feeling sad. I tried to visualize allowing the pain to pour out of me with nothing to interfere with the process – no distractions, no advice, no trying to make it better, etc.

After about three weeks, I miraculously felt better – I mean really, really better. I found myself sometimes singing Christmas carols and appreciating the beauty of Christmas lights at night. I stopped feeling the urge to wear my “Bah Humbug” shirts. By remembering what happened and “letting go” of the emotions, I found freedom from the emotional bondage.

More tomorrow…

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled What Does “Letting Go” Mean?, a reader posted the following comment:

How do you let go of abuse you can’t remember? I try to tell people who don’t understand PTSD, “you can’t forget what you can’t remember.” ~PW

The short answer is that you can’t. Trying to “let go” of memories you have not yet processed is simply denial. Well-meaning people sometimes advice child abuse survivors to “let it go,” but what they really mean is to shove it back down inside so nobody has to deal with it. What these people don’t realize is that until you process the trauma, it continues to affect every single area of your life. You cannot “let it go” until you process the trauma.

Considering how much trauma I suffered as a child, I feared I might not live long enough to process every single memory of every traumatizing incident in my life. My therapist assured me that there is no need to recover every memory of the abuse (thank goodness!) You need to process just enough to reach a place of working through accepting that one area of trauma.

For example, I know that my mother sexually abused me from when I was a toddler through around age six. I can pinpoint the length because I recovered a memory of her sexually abusing me as a toddler and then another memory of myself at around age six when my father walked in on my mother hurting me. That’s when her sexual abuse stopped (although it started up again briefly after my father’s death when I was 16).

My mother was a stay-at-home mom and had 24/7 access to my sister and me except when we were in school, so I know there were more incidents than the two. However, I have only recovered a handful of specific memories of being sexually abused by her. One was when I was two years old, and she performed a “new” sexual act on me. Another was the memory of my mother sexually abusing my baby sister in front of me for the first time (when I was four). Within these flashbacks are the thoughts I was having, which confirm that these four incidents were not the only times she sexually abused me.

I have been able to process the trauma of being sexually abused by my mother by working through this handful of specific memories, even though I was likely sexually abused by her hundreds of times. As my therapist said, I don’t have to put myself through reliving all of those incidents. I need to remember enough of what happened to process it and heal.

This blog entry is getting too long, so I will continue with this topic tomorrow…

Photo credit: Hekatekris

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On my blog entry entitled Stuffing the Memories Back Inside after Child Abuse, a reader posted the following question:

Faith, on the subject of repressing memories, how do you know that something is actually a memory, and not some weird dramatization your mind is making up? This is possibly triggering, and I even feel a little sick to recall it, but recently, I had another “memory”, a very short one, of my abuser trying to kiss me. My reaction in this memory, was different to my usual reaction in other memories I’ve had before. I would usually just let her, but in this memory, I jerked away, and I even physically jerked away from nothing as I was remembering it. This was just so strange to me, because it was very different from the way I remembered all those other times. I don’t want to sound like I’m in denial here (maybe I am), but I can’t help but think that maybe I made that one up. Maybe I was mixing a memory with something I read or saw, maybe how I wished I had reacted? How do you know if it’s an actual memory, or just something you’re imagining? ~ Janet

Not knowing what is real and what is not is a very frustrating part of healing from child abuse. I had to choose to believe myself. Nobody that I know who was not traumatized would have “flashes” or “memories” of events that never took place. I was able to verify some of my memories, which helped me to believe myself with those that I could not validate.

I tend to believe myself when I physically react to the memory, as Janet mentions in her comment. Like Janet, I will sometimes jerk away, feel the need to suck my thumb, or have some other sort of physical reaction to the memory. To me, my physical reaction is validating.

The other piece is whether the memory (or collection of memories) makes sense. Before recovering the memories of abuse, nothing in my life made sense. Through the lens of the childhood trauma, my entire life makes sense. The memories filled in the missing puzzle pieces that brought the full picture into focus.

One final thought is to ask why you would lie to yourself about something like this. Why would you make up a memory that brings you nothing but pain and shame?

To a certain extent, I had to take a leap of faith to trust myself and what my subconscious wanted me to know. I have not been sorry. As painful as my past is, I am much happier knowing it consciously and dealing with it.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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A reader sent me an email asking why so many people do not believe in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID). I replied to her email, but I thought this would also make a good blog topic.

I think that many people resist the existence of DID for the same reasons they resisted accepting that the earth is round or that the earth revolves around the sun. People form their beliefs based on their own experiences and the experiences of others, and they tend to resist ideas that don’t fit neatly into the little box they have created to explain the world around them.

The same thing happened with the diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). In her book Trauma and Recovery, Judith Herman explains the history of PTSD. She says that PTSD is the same “woman’s disease” that you read about in the 1800’s, only it was called “hysteria.” Everyone believed that hysteria was something only experienced by women until a bunch of soldier’s came home from WWI exhibiting the same symptoms found with this “woman’s disease.” Today, few people question that the trauma of watching your buddy’s head get blown off in battle can result in flashbacks and other PTSD symptoms.

Society has finally accepted that PTSD is a real disorder, but people tend to apply it only to people who have endured documented trauma, such as the battlefield or perhaps a serious accident in which a loved one died. Many still resist applying PTSD to survivors of child abuse. Also, there is no question that the Iraq war happened, but we only have the “he said, she said” to go on when it comes to child abuse. So, a PTSD diagnosis for child abuse has not fully been embraced by society at large.

If society cannot wrap their brains around PTSD resulting from child abuse, then DID is going to be even harder for them to accept. This moves us into the realm of repressed memories from abuse that happened when the survivor was very young (typically under age 6). As you might remember from the 1990’s, the media did its darndest to allege that repressed memories were unreliable. This is a convenient myth for child abusers to perpetuate because then they are free to harm young children all they want without any fear of repercussions. After all, who is going to believe the grown woman (or man) who just starting having flashbacks 30 years later?

As Martha Stout pointed out in her book The Myth of Sanity, DID is not something to be “believed” or discounted. It simply is. My experience is my experience, and this experience has been shared by many other child abuse survivors. I believe that, in the next couple of decades, society will learn to accept the reality of DID, just as they learned to accept that the earth is round and not flat.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Periodically, I receive emails or comments from people who do not believe in Dissociative Identity Disorder (DID) or recovering memories. Some of the comments are from well-meaning people who have some sort of need not to believe in them. Perhaps they are fighting their own demons, or perhaps they have seen their own families torn apart when a relative recovered memories of abuse, and they chose not to believe the relative.

Others might have a more disturbing agenda for contacting me about their skepticism of DID and recovering memories. Those who harm young children do not want anyone to believe that a young child can recover memories of trauma. The widespread misconception that it is impossible for a young child to remember trauma and recover that memory as an adult is insulation for those who harm young children. As long society believes that it is not possible for a young child to remember, then the abuser need not fear ever having to face justice for harming young children.

I choose not to publish those comments on my blog for a couple of reasons:

1. This is not a debate blog.

The purpose of this blog is to offer healing and hope to those who have suffered from child abuse. While skeptics might consider me to be “delusional,” this “delusional” blog has provided hope and healing to numerous readers.

I regularly receive emails and comments from readers thanking me for talking about the tough topics and telling me that they have the courage to continue fighting their own internal demons because of the strength they see in my writing. I have even been told several times that a person who was contemplating suicide changed his or her mind because of something that I wrote.

That is the reason that I write this blog. It isn’t that I cannot debate the issue. I have a law degree from a highly respected law school, so I can be a formidable debate opponent. I choose not to do it here.

2. I don’t want to erect stumbling blocks for my readers.

I have been healing for over five years. I have already worked through the “Am I crazy?” feelings. I have already validated my experiences with my sister, who was there for most of the abuse. We recovered the same memories separately, and neither of us have ever been hypnotized or had a therapist tell us what to remember. We also live in two different states, 10 hours apart by car, and worked with therapists who do not know each other.

However, many of my readers are not this far along their healing journeys. A normal part of healing from child abuse is denial. First, you deny that you were ever abused. Then, you acknowledge the abuse, but you deny that the abuse was “that bad.” I will not permit a debate on my blog to undermine the healing process of my readers.

I am not saying that no unscrupulous therapist has ever attempted to implant memories into a patient. I am just saying that it did not happen to me or to my sister.

One way to tell if recovered memories are real is whether they “fit.” Nothing in my life made sense until I started recovering memories. From the outside, I was a successful person who had a life that many people envied. From the inside, I battled numerous, seemingly unrelated issues. My life only made sense after I faced my truths.

Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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Microscopic View (c) Lynda BernhardtI received an e-mail about a woman whose daughter is upset with her because the woman failed to protect her daughter from the grandfather’s abuse. When the mother heard this, it triggered her own flashbacks of being abused by the same man, her father. The daughter, who always remembered her abuses, does not believe that her mother had no memory of being abused.

Back in the 1990’s, repressed memories were all the rage. It seemed like every talk show had someone talking about recovered memories. Then, within a few years, news broke about unscrupulous therapists who “created false memories” in their patients, and the pendulum swung back to not believing that repressed memories exist.

The book The Courage to Heal by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis has taken a lot of heat for including information about repressed memories. Those authors have stood firmly behind their book, offering hope and encouragement to thousands of woman who have suffered from sexual abuse.

I, personally, repressed the memories of the vast majority of the abuses that I suffered. I had to in order to survive my childhood. There is no way that I could have made it through childhood with so much unhealed severe trauma in my conscious awareness. Even as an adult, it took me years to work through all of the trauma I suffered. Each new piece of the puzzle felt like the one that would break me. It was too much – I could not have functioned in my life with all of that unhealed information in my mind at one time. My sister has confirmed about 90% of my memories because she was there for most of them. The memories are too detailed for the two of us to have randomly made them up. Also, we have never seen the same therapist.

From what I have observed, the age of six seems to be the magic age that determines whether you repress your memories. I know hundreds of abuse survivors, and their stories are always the same: Those whose severe and ongoing abuses began before age six either mostly or fully repressed their memories of the abuse, and those whose severe and ongoing abuses began after age six remembered the trauma but dissociated the emotions. Those who have always held the memories but not healed them often recount the abuse in a detached manner with no emotions attached to the events.

I believe that the ability to repress traumatic memories is a gift from God to help young children survive severe trauma. Without this tool, children would not be able to survive it with their sanity intact. By disbelieving any memory that was not always held in conscious awareness, we sacrifice anyone whose abuse began before age six. Those are the people who need healing the most. They need to be believed.

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Photo credit: Lynda Bernhardt

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