Sunday, October 19, 2014

Trusting your memory; The List (trigger warning)

So while we now know that having a false memory is highly improbable and almost always associated with intentional outside influences, how do we trust the memories we do have or what if we don't have any specific memories at all?

     One of the first things we often read as a survivor beginning the healing process is  The Courage to Heal, so lets start there. In the chapter titled the Healing Process their is a section titled The Essential Truth of Memory, its on page Eighty four. This section deals with how we remember things and suggests that memories are often not a perfect tool to understanding what happened. Distortion occurs "a common example is in the description of size. A small child may remember the abuser as being huge or the abuser's genitals as filling her whole field of vision. One survivor who was abused by a teacher remembered that the school was enormous, with extremely high ceilings and wide corridors. When she went back as an adult, she was shocked at how small it really was"(Bass & Davis, 2008, p. 84). Often these distortions are simply a protective mechanism blocking more traumatic memories.

     Despite inaccuracies in what we remember, those memories are not any less important "although inaccuracies may exist in your memory, you can still work with what you remember as an indication of what you felt (...) she assumed that he penetrated her vagina-perhaps with a finger or his penis-and the feeling was so painful, so cutting, that she, in her child's mind, had no concept for it other than a knife"(Bass & Davis, 2008, p. 84).

     To me most important is understanding that this indication of what you felt is a guide, it is a marker that says something happened to you. You don't have to remember perfectly to know that something happened, or that you strongly believe it was sexual abuse. Those memories do not come out of nowhere, they are not the product of a twisted imagination. They are your mind trying to deal with and make sense of what happened and it's way of communicating that to you. We don't have a reference for sexual abuse at a young age or know how to process it, so our brilliant minds store it away and protect us from remembering, or scatter the pieces of memory about in a hide and seek sort of fashion but the clues are changed to fit what we can handle.
     Another major indicator about how we felt is our body and its memories.  Our body is a permeable sponge with thoughts and feelings of its own "memories are stored in our bodies- in sensations, feelings, and physical responses. Even if you don't know what took place, memory fragments of what you suffered can endure. You may be assailed by unexplained physical pain or sexual arousal, fear, confusion or any other sensory aspect of the abuse"(Bass & Davis, 2008, p. 76-77). Body memory has been one of my indicators of abuse, as well as my overall health during childhood and the years leading up to my decision to heal. My body had always been screaming loudly in its own fashion that something was terribly wrong and that something had happened. This along with how I felt in my home environment and the memories I have of the abuse has helped to create a really solid map that says, "yes this happened, and it happened to me".

     What if there are no memories? If there are no memories but you are suspicious that something happened, that feeling is a red flag to pay attention to. I would then begin to look for those other indicators, such as discussed above. "You may not recall particular incidents such as the one this survivor describes, but you may discover that you know more than you think you do about the environment in which you grew up"(Bass & Davis, 2008, p. 86). So if you feel de-railed by doubt or because their is pressure and doubt from others, or your abuser is trying to discredit you, take heart. Not having memories does not make you crazy or in anyway say you have an imagination that has run wild.
     This is the point in time to take care of yourself and start paying attention to what other indicators there might be. If you are unsure and have not told anyone yet, seeing a therapist can be really helpful. I would recommend taking your time and take all things into consideration. With something as serious as sexual abuse preparing ourselves and standing solidly in what we know is of great benefit when we come forward and voice what has happened to us, and if we choose to confront our abuser(s).

Kali Munro M.Ed psychotherapist wrote a lovely blog post (2001) titled Trusting Your Memories of Child Abuse. You can read her post here:

      Abusers and their defenders often cite that the child never told anyone about the abuse, and us it as  evidence to say the abuse never occurred and them only doing so now means they made it up. This Psychology Today article; Why don't child sex abuse victims tell, discusses false memory. "Of course memories fade and become less reliable over time. Of course memories of specific details of events can be wrong. Of course memories of events that are witnessed for the very first time are subject to observerbiases, missed aspects of the events, and sensory information that is misinterpreted. However, the big picture is unlikely to be misremembered" (Allen, David, M.d, 2012).

Further resource reading:

Is the Child Victim of Sexual Abuse Telling the Truth

Myths/Facts Regarding Child Sexual Assault

Sunday, October 12, 2014

If you are a survivor you might need this someday; the list

There comes a day when all the careful considerations you have made as to why you know that you were really and truly sexually abused get assaulted.

    Even though you have read books, made your therapist explain over and over why you are not imagining things, there will be a day when you stand shakily on not so solid ground. So when you get there, because I have been there, I want you to have this methodical list to read over and over to yourself. Make it your mantra. I am going to help you systematically defend against every manipulative, destructive thing used against you to try and discredit you and make you doubt yourself.

Let's start with a favorite shall we. The first line of defense by abusers and those who support them; False Memory Syndrome.

Here is the wikipeidia definition:

 I would not recommend going to the FMS foundation site, there is plenty of resources concerning them without you having to suffer the "ick" factor of using their site.

Truths about False Memories:

- It has been found that in a scenario such as a bank robbery individuals may not accurately remember details of the incident or the perpetrators. They may even wrongly describe what the perpetrators look like. However no one was ever confused as to whether or not the robbery occurred.

- Researchers have successfully implanted false memories of minor anxiety/trauma into individuals as well as non anxiety/ trauma memories. However what you need to understand is that none of these were childhood abuse or childhood sexual abuse memories. It is not ethical to subject subjects to such a test.
One study got adults to remember details of being lost in a mall as a child even though they had not. But even this is not black and white, because it relies on memories that are common occurrences. What child has not at one point been lost or thought they lost their parents for even just a moment in a crowd? And we know that we do not accurately remember things so the researches suggesting details that feel real to that scenario makes it easy to understand why the subjects would have thought it a real memory. It felt like a real memory and it even relied on a very real memory/feeling. In other words it took root because the subject probably did have a moment in childhood were they got lost or lost site of their parents in the crowd.
As I understand it, this means that the researches are not able to implant a false memory that does not have connection to a true memory. And just like with the bank robbery, abused individuals may have fuzzy details but are not confused as to whether or not something happened.
It has also not been proven that they could truly implant a false memory of something so traumatizing as abuse.

- In a therapy setting due to the consideration of suggestion affecting what the survivor remembers therapists in most cases don't use guided questions/ suggestions about abuse or go digging to see if they can find any memory of such trauma.

- External factors and influences would need to be present for a false memory to exist.

- Getting subjects to use their imagination was also needed for some studies conclusions.


"The "False Memory Syndrome" is a controversial theoretical construct based entirely on the reports of parents who claim to be falsely accused of incestuous abuse. In 1993, the FMSF noted that "False Memory Syndrome" is "a condition that needs to be considered and then confirmed or rejected when further information emerges" ("Our Critics," April 1993, p. 3). The current
*page 30*
empirical evidence suggests that the existence of such a syndrome must be rejected. False memory advocates have failed to adequately define or document the existence of a specific syndrome, and a review of the relevant literature demonstrates that the construct is based on a series of faulty assumptions, many of which have been disproven. Likewise, there no credible data showing that the vague symptoms they ascribe to this purported syndrome are widespread or constitute a crisis or epidemic.
This does not imply, however, that memory is infallible or that all people who are accused of sexual abuse are guilty. Both continuous and delayed memories are subject to distortion, and there are valid reasons to be suspicious of memories that are recalled only after the extensive use of suggestive techniques. Nevertheless, common sense and professional practice dictates that claims about a new diagnostic category reaching epidemic proportions require scientific substantiation. The public policy issues impacted by the false memory controversy are so important, that they deserve the most careful and intellectually honest scholarship that the academic and professional community has to offer. In the absence of any substantive scientific documentation, "False Memory Syndrome" must be recognized as a pseudoscientific syndrome that was developed by an advocacy group formed by people seeking to defend against claims of child abuse."

"We found this "imagination inflation" effect in each of the eight events that participants were asked to imagine. A number of possible explanations come to mind. An obvious one is that an act of imagination simply makes the event seem more familiar and that familiarity is mistakenly related to childhood memories rather than to the act of imagination. Such source confusion when a person does not remember the source of information can be especially acute for the distant experiences of childhood."

How often are Reports of Abuse False

"Research with children whose sexual abuse has been proven has shown that children tend to minimize and deny abuse, not exaggerate or over-report such incidents."

Some great things to read on this subject:

Woody Allen and the History of False Memory Syndrome

A Child Abuse Investigators View

In consideration of adding a lot of links/resources I am going to break the list into a series of connected posts.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

October; The beginning of the Holiday blues

     Last year I was in the storage closet searching for the bin I had put the Fall/Halloween decor. I had to move quite a few things around, and then mistakenly opened up the Christmas bin thinking it was the one I wanted. Bang! the smell of the cinnamon pine cones stuffed between paper wrapped ornaments hit me. It was like someone punched me, the powerful smell followed by the sight of Christmas things, totems for memories. I think I cried.      

     This year seems to be no different. I care a lot about my home, it's like my temple. Similar to the Goddess Hestia; it is core to my being to maintain the hearth fire and be a center place for others to gather and be warm. It could be seen as something more traditional, but for me this is spiritual. I deeply value my temple (home) as a quiet place that I take care of and feed my own soul as well as being a place where others can gather. So decorating, cooking and planning holiday events for friends and family is something that pulls me in, and with the loss of family it pulls on my heartstrings; I feel a lot of grief.    

      Not only is there grief about not being able to fulfill these inner values in the ways I have before, there is a lot of stress related to the holidays. Giving and being that hearth place is  one of my greatest values, and primary love languages. The family I come from had large gatherings especially around the holiday's. I miss that hustle and bustle, feeding everybody and sitting down to play card games that were a well rooted pastime. And without those things I feel the loss, it stings.      I know I look at the past with rose colored glasses. The stress that plagues me now was just alive back then, and not all those holiday events were warm and fuzzy, even though I desperately needed them to be. I really worked hard to get all those needs met and create the warm and fuzzy feelings that I wanted. I ran myself into the ground. I wanted my family to love me, to show me that all that work and effort was worth it because my gifts and efforts made them happy. But emotional response was not always their strong suit, especially Varsuvius.   

         I have this switch that flicks on inside me each year at the start of the holidays and it is the start of three months of tension, anxiety and running around burning myself out. Now even though I don't have my family I find myself  still trying to distract myself from the negative things just like when I was a kid. And now instead of trying to get Varsuvius to love me, to show appreciation when I give them a gift I do that with my husband. Though I must state that while not a super bubbly person about getting gifts, he is worlds away from being anything like Varsuvius and tells me he loves me all the time. It's really my program and fear that comes up on repeat and not that I have found someone else to fulfill the role of Varsuvius in my life.   

     This program didn't use to hit until December, at the earliest it was after Thanksgiving when I would normally put a tree up with my family. But now it starts out in the beginning of October and peaks out at Christmas eve which is filled with a lot of anxiety. What makes this year and the last different is the accompanying grief and dread of the start of the Holiday cycle. It begins in October leading to Halloween and rolling into Thanksgiving and Christmas. This is the first year in which I dread having to make it through the next few months of Holiday chaos.Normally all the running around and throwing myself into the holiday spirit would keep me from despairing.       

      I have come to loathe Thanksgiving due to tainted memories and epic family drama, and now I partially loathe the idea of Christmas. Something that I have always held onto so tightly and made such a huge effort to make sure it was perfect, and now I honestly don't even want to put up a tree. I thought about the people society labels as humbugs because the holidays are too painful for them, and I feel a respecting sympathy. I also feel a kinship in rejecting the favored trite advice that seems to get dolled out during the holiday's, and understand the seemingly "harden hearts" of these individuals due to their wish to not feel pain. I don't want to feel pain either! And I now quite honestly have to say with new perspective that the advice to “open up your heart”, “feel the joy and love of the season” is not always the answer.       

     I can't ask myself to ignore how I feel and shove it under the rug, I have to honor my grief and respect that the next three months are painful and sad. I feel I need to find a balance. I may not want to do some Holiday activities this year, but feel okay doing others. I think it is most important to find out what it is you need during the holidays. While I do love the Fairy tale, holiday stories of Debbie Macomber "Mrs. Miracle",
 I know that holiday broken hearts don't fit into a one size fits all cure. Yet our culture expects such an angel to make us change without taking into account our very real situations and feelings. People get very sensitive about quote “Holiday haters”, and they feel offended “if only we would open our hearts”. But here's the thing, grief is very individual, so is the timing and the cure. Yes sometimes we need family and friends to prod us a little, but not beyond respecting our boundaries and acknowledging the validity of our feelings and that we have our own timing for these things.     Also as an abuse survivor what is really important to me is others respecting the validity of my boundaries with my family. Holiday Fairy Tales of forgiveness are swell, unless they undermine the validity of the victims feelings and boundaries. Forgiveness is not a sedative you take so you can forget all the violations that occurred, it does not mean that everything is okay, and it is not about the people who hurt you. It is a tool to empower you to move forward, and does not even have to involve those who hurt you. Choosing to re-connect is also a very personal decision and is really on a case by case basis. Abuse survivors do not need to be goaded during the holidays with “if only you would forgive, and reconnect”.   

   I have done some research to try and help myself get through the next few months, and have looked for practical advice that actually takes into account the real feelings of going through the holidays as a survivor and the many obstacles with family estranged and otherwise we might face. I wanted to include a few resources that I have found to be especially helpful.

I am re-gifting Christmas; By Christina Enevoldsen

"I developed many more ideas about what Christmas was supposed to be. Christmas was supposed to be white with snowmen and glistening trees, though seventy degree Arizona winters made that unlikely. Christmas was supposed to be extended family gathering from the corners of the globe, though through feuds and disinterest, that never happened."

Pain Surrounding the Holiday; By Christina Enevoldsen

"In the past few years of healing from childhood sexual abuse and separating from my abusive parents, I’ve approached each holiday feeling a little anxious. Holidays used to be times for gathering with family and now they are reminders of the loss. Even though I’ve worked through most of my grief, I never know when another layer might surface. It’s especially hard to be grieving when it seems that everyone else is celebrating."

I do not yet have permission to link a couple other sources yet, but I want to encourage you to read Faith Allen's blog and her discussions of being a survivor around the holiday's. 

Sunday, October 5, 2014

The Tribal mind

This is an interesting section from Women's Bodies, Women's wisdom by Christine Northrup. It is really helpful in understanding the dynamics of families when abuse is involved. 

     Though it is important to note that Northrup's use of the word "tribe" is very specific and focuses only on a family unit. It is not meant to refer to tribes in a cultural sense, it is a reference to the sociological structure and function of individual families. These individual families could be said to have a tribal structure and pattern to their functions, and cultural influences will certainly help to inform what those patterns and functions are. However a true tribal (cultural) structure cannot be pinned down to but a few consistent elements, as cultures are so varied. But from a sociological and even archetypal viewpoint, the individual family structure does have consistent elements to the structure, and is the reason Northrup can apply the term "Tribal mind" here.

     “The tribal mind is not an individual mindThe tribal mind is primarily a collective brain that seeks to hold onto its own and fight for its own survival in the world. The tribal mind is concerned with loyalty, not love, kindness, or tenderness. What the tribe refers to as “love” is really obligation to the tribe. An example of this is a family member who says to another, “If you really loved me, you'd come to visit your family and me more often.” Tribal consciousness, then, is not a high-level, highly evolved consciousness. Yet we all share it to some degree, and many women admit that as they get older, they can hear that tribal mind within themselves. “I sometimes hear my mother's words coming right out of my mouth, and I can't believe it,” patients often tell me. Above all, the tribal mind seeks stability by keeping everythingthe same, e.g., family holidays and birthdays become “obligations,” not joyful times of sharing.I sometimes refer to the tribal mind as “crabs in the bucket.” If you have a bunch of crabs in a bucket and one crab tries to escape overthe edge, the other crabs will always pull the escapee back down with the rest of them. The same sort of thing often happens to women and their families as the women decide to break free from limiting patterns. Almost invariably, family members try to sabotage her efforts- at least initially.     Countless women have had the experience of confronting their parents about abuse or incest soon after remembering these events only to find that their parents deny these allegations outright. The unconscious motive to preserve the tribe is the reason so many parents deny having ever violated a tribe member. At some level, their tribal memory bank has absorbed the memory very differently form the waythe individual member records the same event. The person who is waking up from the tribal trance is almost invariably seen as a “traitor” to the family.(…) Most tribes or families do not deliberately try to poison their members-they are merely handing down what they recognize as tribalwisdom, even in the form of limiting and painful ideas. It is useful to think of yesterday's tribe as today's dysfunctional family.”Christiane Northrup M.D.