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

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