Why Resurfaced Memories Feel Traumatizing
If you’ve experienced sexual abuse or assault, the following post could be potentially triggering. You can contact The National Sexual Assault Telephone Hotline at 1-800-656-4673.
I awoke this morning torn to pieces in my soul.
For over 30 minutes, I wailed. I grieved. A memory had surfaced just before awakening which I hadn’t recalled since the “incident” had occurred.
It was a Saturday morning back in the 80’s and I was on my way to an art class at the college I had been attending. I still don’t recall the details of that morning and I can’t force them to surface. What I do recall is arriving at the class with my portfolio in hand, and whispering to the instructor that I needed to speak with him. He had a very strict attendance requirement which was necessary to fulfill in order to receive the credits for that class. As I stood there with only one shoe on, I begged him to allow me to miss this one class on this particular day.
At first, he wasn’t about to make any exceptions. But then, as he looked down and saw that I was missing a shoe, he granted his approval. Somehow, I had managed to drive to the college and walk the long distance from the parking lot to the class, portfolio in hand, with only one shoe on. I felt confused, desperate, humiliated and battered in more ways than one. The memory remains painful.
I often say that my lifetime of abuse began at age 4 when my half-brother, who was six years my elder, began a period of three years of molestation. Actually, it began before age 4. I had been sharing a bedroom with my sister, who was the half-brother’s twin. My dad, my sister’s step-dad, would come into our room late at night and molest my sister. I learned at such an early age, perhaps 2 or 3, how to disassociate. On such nights, I would barricade myself with abundant stuffed animals and escape into a fantasy land where I was loved. It was a little girl’s way of coping.
Such coping mechanisms break down over time, especially when repressed memories surface, and new coping mechanisms must be found if one is going to continue to move forward. The surfacing of repressed memories can be traumatic because all of those “feelings” are being felt for the very first time. A couple of women in a battered women’s support group which I began attending in the 80’s told me something that may have very well saved my life, my sanity. They emphatically told me repeatedly: “Remember, it’s not happening now.”
Memories can be traumatizing; grief is traumatizing.
I didn’t have time to cry when such tragedies occurred in my life. Survival instincts kicked into overdrive and I had other pressing demands and responsibilities to attend to, like the care of my other children. I also did not have a “safe place” in which I could simply allow myself to “fall apart.” So, I kept silent, repressed and disassociated. But nothing ever goes away. Eventually, all truth surfaces. Eventually, the sun comes out again and the light is shone into the darkness. At such times, we choose what direction to follow. Do we remain in the darkness with the pain and suffering, or do we head toward the light for healing and to be cleansed?
I had written some time ago about a speech I was to give on the topic: “Feelings Are Not Always Facts.” I chose to begin my little speech with some levity to help break the ice. I honestly told this room full of people that I was scared, so scared that I had convinced myself that they were all about to reach into their bags and grab tomatoes to throw at me. They all chuckled, but quickly understood the point of the message I was about to relay.
Though I overwhelmingly felt one way, the facts did not support my feelings.
When we bury a child, we feel utterly hopeless. Often, to combat these uncontrollable feelings, we search for concrete explanations. We will even choose to blame ourselves to give us the illusion, the feeling, that we could have done something to prevent this tragedy. Instead, what is needed is a “safe place” to fall apart in that “helplessness.”
Make time to cry.
Jude’s book, “Gifts from the Ashes,” is available here.
Follow this journey on Jude’s website.
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