Moving forward from past traumatic experiences can be tough, especially if you have repressed many of the memories associated with the event. In episode 269, I received a courageous question from an individual who is in therapy but is struggling to find peace with the unanswered questions her repressed memories of childhood trauma have left her with. In this post, I dive into this in much more detail and talk about the best course of action to help with moving on.
I was sexually abused as a child for years, and have been raped multiple times during my pre-teen and teenage years while experiencing physical and mental abuse from my mother, I have started talking about it more finally at 21 yo, I have been going to therapy since I was 15 but never brought any of that up since last year but my biggest hurdle is the repression of almost all of my childhood and some of my teenage years.
Do you have any advice on how to be at peace with all of my unanswered questions of memories? It is so hard hearing my siblings talk about good memories with me involved and I can’t recall them. And to not be able to explain the trauma when I don’t remember 90% of it, feeling like people will always think I’m lying since I can’t think of details.
First off, I’m so sorry for what happened to you. It’s not fair and you didn’t deserve it. I’m glad that you are still here. It’s also super common to have a situation like yours where you are in therapy or receiving help in some form for a long time, but never talk about the real underlying issue. It’s f**king hard to talk about! Sometimes we trick ourselves into thinking that it’s not the most important thing going on. Sometimes it can be a bit like when you use productivity as a way to procrastinate on the real, more important thing, that you are avoiding. It’s like well I’m getting help and I’m not ignoring my problems, but in reality, there is a specter looming over you and waiting for you to address it. So, I’m super proud of you for bringing it up in the past year. It’s SO hard to crack that open because you can doubt yourself and feel foolish about the whole thing. That was brave of you to do.
The science behind trauma
You asked what you can do to be at peace with the memories that you don’t have. First, let me talk a little bit about why that might be happening. Trauma is interesting because it impacts your actual biology as well as your psychology. Studies seem to show that there are parts of your limbic system that actually structurally change when you endure trauma, especially if it’s over time. The amygdala is the part of your brain that essentially serves as the push-button for anxiety. It’s your alarm bell that tells you something is wrong and it kicks off the fight or flight response. That part of your brain gets bigger and more sensitized. This is part of the reason that you become more hypervigilant and sensitive to signs of danger. Wrapped around the whole emotional center of your brain that holds the amygdala is a structure called your hippocampus. This is the part of your brain that serves as your memory index. When you have damage to this part of your brain, you have trouble creating new memories. This part of your brain shrinks.
So, what does this mean? It means that your body is sensitized to watching out for danger and keeping you safe and it’s not super interested in remembering other things around that period of time. So you can store your traumatic memories in a very vivid and scary way while simultaneously having little to no recollection of other events that happened around the same time.
There is also the psychological side of things. Memory repression is a touchy subject because it’s really hard to research. How do you reach into someone’s brain and verify if a private event from their own personal history is correct when it emerges later in life. It’s generally understood that repression of memories can occur due to trauma, but it’s also clear that our memories are very fallible and susceptible to influence. At the very least, we know that people that endure trauma often have a variety of defense mechanisms that emerge to essentially keep their psyche safe. Dissociation is one of these. The feeling of not being attached to your body or the events happening around you. It’s a pretty straightforward link in this case. Your mind can’t handle what’s being done to you so it checks out. Memory can be similar. The two can also interact. It’s hard to remember events that you lived through while also dissociated. It’s sort of like attention. You can’t remember a lecture if you aren’t paying attention to it.
Reclaiming your story…and your power
I think that at a certain level, the most important part of the whole equation is your own narrative. The story that you tell yourself about your life. Nobody’s narrative is rooted in absolute objective verifiable truth. Our memories are very fluid and change every time we recall them. That’s okay. It’s actually a good thing. Because you can come to an understanding about your life that serves the person you want to be. Just because other people didn’t have the same experience as you does not mean that you are lying. You see the impact that your life has had on you and you are trying to move forward. That’s important. It is important what you are doing for yourself right now. You are reclaiming your story and your power.
My advice to you is simply to continue. Think about the amount of time you spent being abused or living a life where your abuse was a secret. Compare that to the amount of time you have spent in a world where someone actually knows what happened to you. You are so early in your recovery. Keep going. Keep working. Keep processing. New things will come out, new realizations will happen, some pain will emerge, but so will hope. You will grow and you will take your life back. It takes time to unravel all of this. I know it’s easy to become impatient because you just want everything to be better.
You ARE doing the work. You can do the work while you live your life. Your entire life doesn’t have to pause while you do the work. But you do have to do it. I’m sorry that you were put in a situation that caused you to have to work for stability at this point in your life. But here you are. You’re doing it. Keep going.
You can listen to this on Episode 269 of the podcast!
Thank you for the great question!
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