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5 Ways My Memory Has Protected Me From the Trauma of Sexual Abuse

Editor's Note

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.

Like many survivors of sexual abuse, I’ve done many things to push away my traumatic memories. Although I was 13 years old when I was abused, it wasn’t until I turned 45 that I uttered the words “sexual abuse” in relation to myself. It was only after that moment that I felt compelled to investigate what happened to me so many years ago, and who I was as a person back then. As I reflected on my memory, I realized how much it served to protect me from the trauma of what happened. To get to the bottom of the complexity of my memory, denial and the overall, complicated nature of sexual abuse, I decided to write and direct a film, “The Tale,” which is based on the true story of my former relationship with my 40-year-old coach in 1973 — when I was 13.

I understand each person’s account of sexual abuse (and trauma, for that matter) is different, but our memory-making from them often has some common denominators. We register the experiences that emotionally impact us the most.

My hope, as a woman and a survivor, is to help others realize how memory functions for survivors to endure the trauma from abuse, especially at yet another moment in history where women are constantly questioned about their own memories of sexual abuse. Here are five ways my memory ultimately helped me to survive the trauma of child sexual abuse:

1. The bigger the trauma, the bigger the impact it has on us.

The brain is a camera that captures the things that impacts it strongest. This means that often the mundane things in our lives are forgotten over time, but the trauma withstands it. Equally, the most traumatizing aspects of the events are remembered, but the “mundane” parts of those events are lost. I always remembered whole scenes and even dialogues in graphic detail from my relationship with my coach, but less important aspects that would be of interest to a court of law have been forgotten. For example, I can describe the afternoon light as I was being led to my coach’s bedroom to escape the cold in the living room with great specificity. I remember my body freezing at his touch and my confusion about what was going on. But I’ve forgotten what time of year it was, or how I arrived at my coach’s house in the first place. Was it my first visit or third? Did my female coach bring me to his house? Did we walk from the barn across the field or did we drive? I could go on.

2. Memory is not just recollecting events, but emotions.

We usually think of memory in terms of the physical events that have taken place, but emotions are also a form of memory by themselves. We can repress either or both. In my case, I’ve always vividly remembered the external events that occurred, but (now, in retrospect) realize that what I had selectively repressed or split off from was the very emotions attached to those events. While I knew I felt empowered, special and even loved by my coach, I selectively repressed the feelings of fear, horror, pain and revulsion at the things he did to me or made me do. In fact, I vomited after each encounter.

But how I felt about that fact was lost to me for decades. At the time, my coach blamed my nausea on the idea “that I must be getting the flu,” and even though I knew that wasn’t the case, I never spoke up or put an emotion to my vomiting.

3. Memory is complex and contradictory.

To make things even more complex, an event can have multiple emotions associated with it that completely contradict each other, for example: beautiful and sad, loving and painful, revolting and enticing simultaneously. For me, while I hated the sexual encounters, I loved the conversation between touches. While I felt ticklish and had to hold my breath with his every touch, I was pleased he was interested in me at all as an object of desire, since I was so undeveloped that few boys my age would even look my way. Everything was so full of multiple meanings, that if my memory had to be tested in a multiple choice exam, I wouldn’t be able to fill in just one circle.

4. Memories mirror the narratives we tell ourselves.

There is a lot of discussion about “repressed memory,” especially with sexual abuse survivors. In my case, since I always remembered what happened, I’ve reflected on which memories I’ve preferred over others. I could have told you the sex I had with my coach was painful and that I vomited after each session. But despite this, somehow, I chose to preference the positive things I took away from the sexual exchanges: the feelings of being special, love, and importance, rather than the suffering I endured throughout. Because I told myself I “won,” the narrative I created about what happened to me was tolerable for so many years. Inversely, had I admitted I had been hurt and damaged, I would have ended up the “loser” in my story. Regardless of the fact I was abused is true or “truer” than what I’ve told myself over the years, my memories and emotions mirror the woman I am today.

5. Memories can only be faced when you’re ready.

It’s a common belief that people need to face “the truth” about an event immediately. But this is often oversimplified and not what I have come to understand. Each survivor of trauma has to follow their inner clockwork to make sense of their suffering. That may take one year, or 40, or never. It’s absolutely personal and in their own time.

I have spoken to Tarana Burke, the founder of the #MeToo movement (and a survivor herself). She adamantly agrees with me on this. No one should force a survivor to face their memories and come out about their abuse unless they are ready. For what good is it if speaking out and identifying your perpetrator further destroys the very person you were trying to help?

It is no accident that many people are like me and only face their abuse in middle age. I realize now that I needed to tell myself a story to survive. My story was that the abuse was consensual and that it made me a better person. This story carried me all the way from 13 to 45, when I heard another person’s narrative about their childhood sexual abuse that sounded just like mine. Suddenly, there was a seismic shift in me. It was at that moment I realized I’d been sexually abused. I realized the concept of agency kept me going, whereas seeing myself as a “victim” would have perpetuated my distress and made it impossible to go on with my life without a major intervention (something I was very afraid of.).

We prescribe our own lens through which we see the world. Some of us see it colorless, in neutral tones, or through “rose-tinted glasses.” The truth is, neither is objectively right. The colors project what we perceive. As we grow up and mature, hopefully, we can accept the complexity of the rainbow of reality – the bad, the good and the “in-between.”

My memory saved me. I spun a story to myself — a story of a little girl who was a hero, who broke up with a man three times her age and went on to do heroic things. Now, in middle age, I am finally strong enough to go back and face the hurt parts of me I left behind.

Photo by Lucian Andrei on Unsplash

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