How Admitting the Truth of My Childhood Abuse Is Setting Me Free
I frequently wake up in the middle of the night, terrified that someone is standing over me as I lie in bed. Or convinced that someone is lurking in my doorway. Or leering from the darkened closet. I often freeze in those moments, held by some long-ago rule that tells me if I do not move, I will be safer. I lie still, playing dead like an animal avoiding a predator.
Eventually I talk myself back to sleep, sometimes urgently in an effort to avoid being awake and afraid. Other times, although I can talk myself down, I fight closing my eyes again, because although no one is in the room, I still don’t quite feel safe.
Lately I have taken to leaping out of bed and flipping the light on. Occasionally, I jump out of bed and spastically wave my arms at the shadows to ensure that nothing is hiding in them. In the morning, I am able to laugh at my midnight antics — but in the moment, I am terror-stricken. And to be honest, I really only laugh in a poor effort to normalize what, in the daylight, is still scary and abnormal. Another step on a long road spent minimizing difficult situations.
There are memories and half-memories from my early childhood that I have spent over 20 years telling myself were simply not real. Or that I said just did not add up to mean the things my body and mind kept suggesting they added up to mean.
I told myself I was “crazy” for years. For decades, I called myself a liar and urged myself to stop feeling, stop thinking, stop remembering the things that did not make sense. The things that did not add up to a full picture, but pointed at some pretty disturbing events. I told myself, over and over, to “shut up, you crazy girl.” And I did a damn good job at convincing myself to stay quiet, to stop remembering and to believe that I was, indeed, a little “crazy.”
I have done a lot of reading over the years about how memory works. I have read countless books, articles and blog posts about the relationship between trauma and memory, particularly in children. I have read enough to acknowledge that it is possible, likely even, that our brains can block out trauma in order to survive.
However, I am far more comfortable with this knowledge in theory — when it does not directly relate to me. It is intellectually intriguing to look at events of suppressed memory in other people. Here is a simple explanation of how traumatic memory works, from the book I recently picked up called “Healing the Wounded Heart:” “Abuse and trauma seem to create a brain divide, or split, between disruptive effect (amygdala) and narrative process (hippocampus). Abuse victims will often have little or no narrative memory, but instead have strong feelings, reactions and triggers that have little or no context or plot, let alone details. Others will have discursive memory, rich in context, detail, and plot, but emotion is absent or minimal compared to what occurred.”
It is one thing to abstractly believe in the power of our own brains to protect us by dulling certain traumatic events. Or even less abstractly when you are in the position of hearing someone else’s experience firsthand. But it is a different beast entirely when it comes to giving this same allowance to yourself. To myself.
Particularly when I have spent so much energy pointedly discrediting myself. I am wary of false memories and misguided accusations. So I prefer to keep mum. It has seemed easier to simply disbelieve myself than to wrestle with a truth that I don’t have a complete understanding of.
It’s surreal and frustrating to see myself hide things from my own self. It’s impressive in a way, powerful that I am capable of hiding my own memories. But the fact that they are so well locked away, and I can’t recall them even when I try, is infuriating. It is maddening and, unfortunately, seems dubious.
It was only this past May that I tentatively laid out the fragments of my memories for a close friend, to see if someone else felt they were as suspicious as I did. I was exhausted from over 20 years of fighting with my own memory. I was tired of continually pushing away thoughts that just kept coming back, no matter how desperately I tried to appease them. I was jumping off the awful merry-go-round I was trapped on: I was equally terrified of being told that my memories seemed harmless as I was of having my long-held suspicions confirmed.
It has taken the last 10 months, since first giving voice to my past hurts, to slowly become more comfortable with outright claiming the truth as my lived experience. And I still feel more comfortable couching my experience in caveats. So I was “maybe,” “probably,” “likely” a victim of sexual abuse as a kid. Perhaps. Seemingly. Possibly. In all likelihood.
I’m leaving room for error. In case the fragments of memory are something else in context and the nightmares and night terrors are unrelated; and I’m afraid to fall asleep still for no real reason; and the “games” I started playing as a 5-year-old weren’t really abnormal or inappropriate or a reenactment of abuse; and those memories of telling myself to forget the events that made me feel shameful could have been about anything, right? Because even though everything adds up, I still want full and concrete memories in order to believe myself.
Without all of my memories, I feel voiceless and story-less. I am a victim without the story of the crime to “back me up.” I have the story of the aftermath, of how I have carried the wounds with me for over two decades. I have my story of shame and confusion and hurt. But I don’t have the original story. There is no identity to the antagonist in my story. There are no whole memories of the events.
I feel naked without the memories. I read articles by other victims of sexual abuse and I can identify. But I don’t feel like I can be a part of the stepping forward and telling, of the “survivors network,” of the community using their stories to raise awareness and connect people.
I feel without. Isolated.
I am comforted by the assurance that it is common to suppress these memories, that many people don’t regain memories until years later, or never. There are many stories like mine. The fragments, the body memories, the loose and elusive feelings. But so many people eventually regained those memories — were able to put many of the pieces of the puzzle together. I feel like I am missing most of my puzzle pieces. And the ones I do have are broken.
But I know that fighting with myself and trying to will myself to remember is counterproductive. And it is not fair to me, or to that little girl in me that has been distrusted for too long. It may be a long time before I get concrete answers to fill in the blanks I am missing. That may never happen entirely. I am scared to death of moving forward without a nicely processed and packaged story to tell.
But to refuse to do so will only keep me trapped. Already the simple/not so simple act of acknowledging the likelihood of abuse has made everything in my life make more sense. I feel a certain wholeness in looking at myself that I have not felt before. It is naming the vibrant thread that runs through my entire life,and allowing the different pieces to fit together as one narrative. All the pieces seem far less disjointed and dissimilar with this information in the light. It just all makes more sense.
Which in itself has been a relief. In the fight to hide my own experiences from myself, I feel like I have been holding my breath for years. Saying it out loud and having others validate my feelings has been like breathing for the first time. I have been allowed clear moments where I don’t feel strangled and still. Which is amazing. Almost impossible to put into words. It is radical and majestic — to breathe a full breath when you didn’t even realize you hadn’t been breathing all this time. It’s euphoric, uncanny, transcendent — if there was a word that meant all those things at once.
And then, somehow at the same time, the other word that describes this experience is whatever word you can come up with that encapsulates that terrified, stomach-lurching feeling of having the rug pulled out from under you and then you’re falling in slow motion down a well. Yeah, that word. Which is the reason I often still don’t breathe freely and regularly find myself shoving all the different parts of me back into a dark closet.
Again, from the book I am reading currently, this paragraph on the effects of broken memory, which I found extremely validating: “The effect of broken memory on present-day relationships is profound. The inner world of traumatic emotion and thought and the external world of relationships need to be kept distant and unaddressed at all costs. Otherwise, the fear, anger and shame will overwhelm and drown rather than merely seep through the crevices. Further, the double life must be hidden or someone might discover the secret — and then another kind of hell will ensue. Any effort to eradicate the memories only creates a deeper bondage. The signatures of this internal war are elusive gaps, disrupted integration, unaddressed implications and an antagonistic bias against oneself.”
Every word of that resonates with me. And I can clearly see the damage this internal war has caused, and still causes. I love that line that “any effort to eradicate the memories only creates a deeper bondage.” Yes. Like tangling yourself in barbed wire — you are cut deeper and deeper the more you wrestle. Until all you are is blood, and it covers everything. I unintentionally wreak havoc on myself and my relationships. Smearing blood on everyone in my efforts at subterfuge. I hide everything. Over the years I have steadily added bricks to the walls around myself. It started as a fortress, but it turns out I was building a prison.
I know that part of me still needs to be granted permission to truly own the events of the past. Because although I have come to be able to subtly reference “abuse” here and there, and even to rather clearly insinuate it publicly or mention it as a statement of fact to those close to me, on some far-reaching level, even with myself and certainly with the rest of the world, I still have not fully allowed myself to believe it. I have not let myself integrate the truth into the fabric of that which makes me who I am.
I am on the edges of my own story, waiting for clear evidence to corroborate what I already know to be true. But it will not work that way. I know it. I will never loosen my grip on my past and my memories while I am still waiting for “proof.”
I will always be waiting for “more.” I continue to pay heed to the voice that tells me, “You are a liar. Nothing is wrong with you.” And the voice that throws doubts at my head like angry rocks: “What if nothing happened? What if you are crazy for no reason? What if all of this is not at all what you are making it to be? What if you really are just messed up?”
I am terrified to admit the past to myself. But I am capable enough to know that I both need and have people in my life that can be voices of reason when I cannot. I need other people to repeat back to me what is true. To believe me when I won’t or can’t believe myself. To respond with kindness and love to the hurt and fragile little girl in me that I am so practiced at kicking away.
This post is another step in practice of owning a truth I am terrified of. One I don’t entirely understand and am certainly not very comfortable with. I am both desperate to — and terrified of — making this so very public. It feels brazen and crude. But for me, writing is often the first necessary step in being able to be brave with myself and the things I need to say.
And I know I need to be able to say this.
My voice was stripped from me as a little girl by the sometimes cruel tides of life and the ways I learned to keep my head above water. As an adult, I am learning how to swim differently.
Slowly, roughly, sometimes imprudently maybe, misguided at times and probably indelicately at others, I am making my peace. I am giving myself a voice again.
Follow this journey here.
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.
Lead image via contributor