Posts Tagged ‘memory’

As I have said over and over, I struggle with the whole issue of memory. After reading all of the responses to my post on emotional flashbacks and thinking about what Mama Bear and I had talked about in our last session, there was a lot moving around in my mind about the whole topic. I spent a couple of hours last night thinking and writing to Mama Bear and in the end, I realized something that once again is probably completely obvious from the outside, but from where I was standing inside, I just hadn’t seen it.

When I start to drive myself crazy over whether something in particular happened or not, Mama Bear has taken to stopping me, asking me, “Do you believe that you were sexually abused? Do you believe that you were terrorized?” “Yes.” “Those are the essential truths here.” She has seen that if she doesn’t stop me, I will go around and around in a circle about whether something happened, never coming to any resolution and making myself more and more agitated. I only end up perseverating on that question and it does me no good.

So last night, I took a step back and said, “OK, there are certain events that I am confused about whether I really have memories of or not. But I am certain that I was sexually abused and terrorized. So what else am I certain of?”

As I thought about it, I could see that there are pieces that I really am positive happened, if I can let myself be OK with knowing a piece in isolation and not trying to force it into place in the bigger picture. I know that I experienced certain sensations. That I felt certain types of contact. That I heard certain sounds. That I couldn’t breathe. That I was physically hurt in certain places. That I was terrified beyond words. That I was convinced at some point that I was going to die. That I was humiliated and shamed. And there is more. These are all little memory fragments, which looked at in isolation don’t seem to say much. However, when looked at together, I realized that there is a lot that I am certain that I remember, even if it is scattered and fragmented. I am missing most of the context and I don’t know which bits go together, but I still have an all too clear idea of some of the things that happened.

It’s when I try to force my mind to puzzle out what goes around the fragments that I get in trouble. And that is where I need to learn patience and to accept that either my mind will decide that it is safe enough for me to remember more of the detail of a particular incident, or it won’t. But I can still accept and support myself around the truth that each fragment holds.

One of the things that Mama Bear has said to me over and over is, “You have already proven that the abuse happened; you don’t have to keep on proving it.” Last night this made more sense to me than it has in the past: The “proof” is all there. It’s all right in front of me in these fragments and in the effects that the abuse has had on me. And forcing my mind to keep on going near to the traumatic memories just keeps me in a state where I have trouble tolerating knowing that the abuse really happened. I will be best off if I can accept the “proof” that I already have as being valid, stop putting all of this extra pressure on myself, and just move on.

My hope is that if I keep in mind that there are a lot of scattered, but important, pieces that I am sure about, then I will be more comfortable just sitting with what comes, rather than pushing all of the time. There is an overall picture there. I know what sorts of things create those sensations, what those types of contact mean, and what sort of things would hurt me in those places. I may not have a story where I know that this happened and then this and then this, but I if allow myself to accept the bits and pieces as being sufficient, I realize that I do know why that child is crying so hard.

Deep, calming breaths… I really do know a lot of what happened, even if I don’t remember it happening. And frankly, I don’t want to remember it happening. I caught just the fastest glimpse of the edge of a particular memory while writing this post, and I can tell that I need to respect what my mind is telling me. Remembering more is too much, at least for now.

This is a very different way for me to look at accepting what I do remember. I can accept the bits and pieces and allow myself to understand what they indicate happened. I don’t have to force a story from those fragments. A story isn’t any more valid than the fragments and the fragments actually tell a lot more about what the experience was like for me than I was allowing myself to see. I can use those fragments to heal; I don’t have to look for the stories. Pushing away the fragments as being not legitimate was getting in the way of healing, because I was not accepting what I was being told my experience was. And I think that might be where the instinct comes in that I “need to be able to say what happened.” Eventually, I will need to be able to own those little bits and pieces of experience that I remember. Maybe more of the experience will come up as I am able to own it, maybe it won’t.

But most of all, I simply need to accept what my mind tells me is too much. If it hurts your hand to touch a hot stove, you don’t touch it, right? Well, starting to go too near to really remembering what happened gives me a sensation of my mind either being burnt or touching a live wire and being shocked. I guess that I need to wise up and work on turning the heat down or reducing the flow of electricity before I go near fully remembering, don’t I?

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Memory is a funny thing.  Under the best of circumstances, it is far less reliable than we would like for it to be.  Sometimes that is because we remember things through the lens of the meaning that we have constructed about an event.  For instance, I did not have a happy roommate experience my first year of college and what do I remember?  All of the negative interactions and how uncomfortable it was.  But, if I really think about it, logically, we had to have had some good times together, especially at the beginning, when we were both trying.  After all, neither of us were bad people, we just had different value systems and styles that were incompatible.  But in my mind, it will always be The Bad Roommate Experience. On the other hand, my experience my second year was just the opposite.  My roommate and I had been good friends during most of our first year of college, so I think of this as The Good Roommate Experience.  I have many fun memories of our time together and a real sense of camaraderie.  Realistically, though, I was not the easiest person to live with (terrible house keeping habits) and we were two strong willed 19 year olds, so there had to have been friction some times.  But any such trouble just isn’t a part of my memories of that time with my friend.

Sometimes things go by so quickly that we just don’t take in the details that we think that we do and so form faulty memories.  I remember an experiment that I heard about where there was a staged mugging in front of a group of people.  When those people were questioned about the physical characteristics of the mugger, they were often drastically wrong.

And sometimes we just make mistakes.  I read about a boy who was in an accident, where his arm was broken.  All of his memory about the accident was correct, except that he remembered his mom being in the emergency room with him, when it was actually his father.  This was just a mistake in his memory.

And then there are dissociated memories, which are hugely complicated.  For right now, I am going to avoid a scientific discussion of how these memories are laid down, and simply leave it at the terribly over simplified statement that dissociated memories are formed via a completely different neural mechanism in the brain than most memories.  Experientially, these are memories that are of experiences that were way too overwhelming for a person to process normally, and as a result they are stored in a way that is not accessible in the same way that normal memories are.  There has been a lot of controversy about dissociated memories, but in fact, it has been documented that some of the time, some people will not have any narrative memory of a traumatic event that is known to have occurred.  I have seen reports of this being documented with Holocaust survivors, war veterans, victims of natural disasters, and child abuse survivors.  

On the other hand, it is possible to create memories that are partially or entirely incorrect, under certain circumstances.  This is one of the reasons why knowledgeable therapists will actively discourage their clients from “going digging” for memories.  As I have said before, these traumatic memories just aren’t experienced the same way as normal, narrative memories.  They tend to be evoked by triggers and are experienced in fragments, through the senses.  Too often, they defy words, when you try to describe is going on, and they are terribly confusing, because you have some of the information about what happened, but not a complete picture.  In my experience, when I would have this sort of overwhelming memory blasting at me, but I didn’t really understand what was happening in it, I would simultaneously want to get as far away from it as possible and feel the urgent need to figure out what the missing pieces were and fill in the picture so at least I had some understanding.  So the question comes up then, “Is this a ‘real’ memory, or did my mind fill in the blanks with something that isn’t entirely accurate?”  And the fact of the matter is that unless there was a witness to the trauma, you will never entirely know.  It is horribly frustrating and it has caused me no end of self doubt.  I hate the fact that I will always be left with questions about what “really” happened.

The best way that I have found to approach this is to say, “I am reasonably certain about the broad types of abuse that happened with my grandfather.  I don’t know which details are accurate and which aren’t.  But parts of me inside know full well what they believe happened, and the only way that I can heal all of myself is to work with those parts where they are at.  Questioning the memories unceasingly doesn’t help me, it just drives me crazy.”  Sometimes I am better at holding to that way of thinking than others, but that is what I am trying for these days, and as a result, I have found that I no longer have this feeling of always fighting against myself.  I am also far, far more able to comfort parts of myself when they start to get overwhelmed.  Recently, I have even found an increased ability to ground myself, and I wonder if it isn’t related to this over all sense of all of me trying to work together.

But sometimes things still come up that I find myself wanting to reject with every fiber in my being.  These are the sorts of things that seem to promise to shake my world to its foundation and I am overwhelmed with trying to even begin to figure out where to put them.  They are so threatening that they feel like they threaten the essence of who I am.  Today, while struggling with one of these memories and talking with Mama Bear, something occurred to me: To some extent, it doesn’t really matter whether it actually happened or not, because whether it happened or not cannot change who I am now.  These are memories of the past and I am who I am in the now.  However they were going to affect the person that I was going to become, they have already had that effect.  They can hurt like hell to deal with in the now and bring up terribly unpleasant feelings, but they cannot make me lose who I am.  The essence of me will not be changed by them, and the core of me will remain stable, no matter what I remember.

That realization has taken a lot of the power out of these memories, and helps me to back off and realize that I don’t have to deal with them at this moment.  Whether I deal with them today or next week or next month, it won’t change who I am.  Essentially, I am safe to be me.  This gives me breathing room and lets me understand that the memories aren’t in control.

And the process of taking the power out of those memories today helps me to be more confident in my strength.  Even though I needed help to get past the overwhelm and confusion of dealing with something so threatening, in the end, I am the one who got through it.  And “I” cannot be taken away from me, no matter what happened.


Post script: Anyone who knows much of anything about memory will know that what I have explained is a terribly oversimplified description of how memory works.  However,  I didn’t want to turn this post into a novel.  For a better understanding, I highly recommend the very well written “Eight Keys to Safe Trauma Recovery” by Babette Rothschild.  (In fact, I highly recommend this book, period, to trauma survivors of all types.)  For a much more technical, but still readable take on memory, I recommend “The Body Remembers” which is also by Babette Rothschild. (I know that I sound like a Babette Rothschild infomercial, but really, she simply is an author with an amazing ability to break down terribly complex material in a clear and understandable manner.)

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