When You Can't Remember the Details of Your Childhood Sexual Abuse
In the aftermath of #MeToo, I’d like to share a very specific story. It’s a story I’ve never heard anyone else tell, yet I know there are people out there who can relate to it.
I know I was sexually abused, but I can’t talk about it.
I can’t talk about it because I can’t remember it, and I never felt like my story was worth sharing if I couldn’t remember the details. But then one day I thought, what if there are other people out there who repressed traumatic memories and are wondering what’s wrong with them? What if there are other people out there like me?
This all started in high school, when I started to become interested in boys (I know, I was a late bloomer). A boy I had a crush on has asked me to the winter dance. I was ecstatic, I was elated, I was… totally freaking out. But not in the normal “oh my God, what if he doesn’t like me?” kind of way. It was more of an “oh my God, I’m afraid he might touch me and I won’t be able to do anything about it” kind of way. I kept picturing his hands all over me, in a dirty, non consensual way. Every time I saw him, or was even in the same room with him, I started sweating and thought of any excuse in the book to avoid him. Was this the way all girls felt? I was pretty sure most girls were not planning their escape route while applying their makeup for the dance. I kept all this to myself.
My first “real” date: different boy, different year. He called me on the phone the night before, asking where I wanted to go. I told him I wanted to go to a nearby restaurant because, in hind sight, it was familiar to me and I knew people who worked there if I ever needed an escape route. This boy also had a car, so he was going to pick me up. I had no escape route because he was literally controlling the wheel. (Cue my inevitable anxiety.)
That night, I couldn’t sleep. I cried (which I hardly ever do) and cried and cried. It got to a point where I just needed my mom. “What’s wrong?” She asked, as I crawled into her bed like a child and sobbed uncontrollably into her t-shirt. And also like a child, I had absolutely no idea what was wrong. “I don’t know, I don’t know,” I kept crying, “there’s something wrong with me, Mom,” and eventually, “please don’t make me go.”
She had no idea how to help me. She just kept saying, “It will be OK, it’s just a date, there’s nothing to be afraid of.” But in my mind, I was afraid of all of it. I began to see a pattern. I had a very real, very present fear of men.
For a long time, I questioned my sexuality. In my mind, the only answer to why I was afraid of men must be that I was in love with women, right? If only it were that easy. I tried to picture myself with women. Really picture it. Tried desperately to picture it, actually. But while I loved the women in my life, I simply wasn’t attracted to women romantically.
So what the hell was wrong with me?
Frustration ensued. I felt damaged. I reached a point in my life when I started to believe I had various terminal illnesses. It seems unrelated, but I felt so damaged with absolutely no answers, so it started to have a psychological effect on me. I went to the doctor a lot throughout my junior and senior year of high school, just searching for any physical ailment to point to and say “there it is — that’s what’s wrong with me.” I was checked for everything: appendicitis, thyroid problems, even cancer. But, despite all the doctor’s visits, they never found anything wrong with me. I should have been relieved, but I felt so out of control.
One thing I did have control over: food. My senior year, I started restricting food. It felt good because I finally had control over my body, but it also felt good because it was a distraction. I could point to the hunger, and my rib cage, and my spine that now showed through my shirt and say, “Here it is world, now do you believe me? This is what’s wrong with me.” I got away with it until college, when a teacher called the health center on me. Annoying as that process was, it turned out to be the biggest blessing.
They forced me to start seeing a school psychologist. While we began by talking about my food issues, eventually I told her about my fear of men. I won’t bore you with the details, but I will say that, through talking with her, I started to remember bits and pieces of a certain man in my life who did some questionable things throughout my childhood. This was getting real, but it felt right. It also came out that I was a virgin. Like, a complete and total virgin. She urged me to “explore myself” to put it lightly, and I took her advice. For a while, this was honestly quite nice. But every once in a while, something would happen. I would get a glimpse of that horrible night in the form of a flashback, and suddenly feel ill. It was never more than a millisecond, but in order for me to believe that something happened, that millisecond was enough. It was the most honest millisecond of my entire life. It was like my brain was showing me a puzzle piece to my life that has been missing for so many years.
Since then, those flashbacks have only happened four more times. I still struggle with food, and I still struggle with anxiety, but at least I know where it comes from now and have healthy techniques to help me deal with it.
Something else I struggled with: Whether or not to share this story.
I was afraid my story was not “worthy” of being told, and “I should be so lucky as to not remember.” But I have come to the realization that I should share my story, because I know somewhere out there, someone is feeling isolated by their own unexplainable fears.
For those of you who are like me and can’t remember the whole of it, and maybe feel like your story is not “worthy of sharing,” just know that there is no memory cap on trauma. You believe you, and I believe you.
If you or a loved one is affected by sexual abuse or assault and need help, call the National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673 to be connected with a trained staff member from a sexual assault service provider in your area.
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Getty image via emeliemaria