May 24, 2006

Misty Water-Colored Memories

This is the first in a series about trauma and memory.

Before we start, let's get something out of the way.

Repressed memories do exist, and can be rediscovered later.

This used to be an incredibly controversial statement, back in the dawn of time, when abusers roamed the earth and survivors often drowned in the tar pits to be found and argued over by researchers years later. (Take, for instance, the unreasonably controversial debate over Virginia Woolf's incest history. For extra credit, ecologists may compare and contrast the industrial-era River Ouse to a tar pit.) It has, after all, been only a few decades since any widespread personal discussion of abuse made its way into the U. S. media, and the backlash was severe.

But by now, many psychologists have thoroughly explained the workings of memory repression. Dr. Jennifer Freyd, for example, (whose parents started the whole hullabaloo over "false memory syndrome" when she came out about having been sexually abused), has written a great deal about how and why we repress trauma. While we tend to recall natural disasters or car crashes in terrifying detail through normal ("recall") memory, we often repress traumas around which we feel shame or fear... especially when we have to live with our abusers and rely on them to meet our physical needs.

Nevertheless, our memories cannot be erased - only ignored. Eventually, the energy it takes to deny them runs out, or it becomes safer to acknowledge them. But after repressing memories, we rarely get them back as everyday recall memories. In this series, we will look at other ways that memory is encoded, and what it looks like when it comes back. But first, what does it look like when it's gone?

I feel like one of the lucky ones: I always knew that my memory loss and dissociation were not normal. When I came home from elementary or junior high school and was asked what I did that day, I had trouble remembering. Eventually I developed tricks like focusing intently on one class until I could remember it, and expanding from there. But it always bothered me that when I switched from school to home, or the inside of a store to the street, all I could remember easily was where I was right then.

This problem became more noticeable as I went from high school to college. I could recall facts about my high school days, images of what I did, but I immediately lost all sense of what it was like. This change disturbed me tremendously, but I didn't know what to do about it. I began taking gingko for memory support - to no avail, since that is not the kind of memory it helps restore.

I was doubly disturbed beacuse I was beginning to acknowledge that it was not normal to remember virtually nothing before the age of five (and not much after it). As I examined my life, it seemed as though my memories of any given year rapidly and immediately faded away, and continued to fade as time passed. I was terrified by the idea of repeatedly losing my sense of who I was and what had happened to me.

I had known about repressed memories for years. And I figured that in order to be an ally to abuse surviviors, I needed to accept that even I could have repressed memories. That I wouldn't even know if I did. But it was just a little mind game to me, an intellectual exercise. When I first started to consider the possibility that I had been sexually abused and didn't remember, it terrified me. I spent a day or so obsessing and having intense anxiety around it before I decided that I wasn't ready to think about it and returned to nice comfy denial.

I was lucky for a second reason. I met someone who was multiple - what used to be called having multiple personalities or dissociative identity disorder. I began educating myself about what that was like by reading personal accounts on a listserv for multiples... and noticing how familiar it all sounded.

Realizing that I was multiple helped, as it became clear that some of these losses were the result of different people being out for school versus home or high school versus college. But there was still a big difference between knowing what happened but not how it felt, and not knowing what happened at all. It could explain why memories of a specific time and place would seem unreal and inaccessible, if the person who truly experienced them was not around. But it still did not explain why there were so few memories overall.

In short, I felt disconnected from my feelings and experiences, often as if they had disappeared entirely. And then I discovered body memories....

comment on this piece. (c) 2005 catherine h.