I wrote a blog post last week about my experiences of yearning for a mummy cuddle, as part of the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse, and how it’s been something that I felt unable to expand on any further with anyone because of a personality disorder diagnosis. I decided that I didn’t want that diagnosis to hold any more power over me, which led to me sharing my experiences. I was so surprised by how many people reached out to me to tell me that they really related to what I had written. It helped me to feel less alone, and it was nice to know that my experiences helped others feel less alone too.
With this in mind, I’ve decided to write further about my attempts at navigating through the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse. This blog post will focus on my struggles with memories of the abuse, and how, if I’m completely honest with myself and anyone who reads this, I don’t actually have all that many memories of the abuse itself, and what I *do* remember, is by no means chronological. It’s taken me a hell of a long time to come to terms with this, because rightly or wrongly, I was always so frightened that people wouldn’t believe me? Society tends to have this idea of how memory recall works, and anything that strays from that feels almost alien to them. An example from my own experiences, are the people who simply cannot accept that I could endure one of the most horrific crimes as a child, and not really remember it properly? It is expected that if something so horrendous happens, you would remember every detail, and anything that deviates away from that societal norm means that you must be mistaken, exaggerating, or maybe even lying. This is something that I also felt myself – how could I *not* remember so much? How could there be so many gaps in my memory? For such a long time, I genuinely thought that I must have been lying about the abuse and that my attempts at speaking out about it were just sick attempts at gaining attention from others. This fear stayed hidden deep down inside of me, and it made me feel so ashamed. It was so hard feeling these things alongside the times where I would remember how the abuse actually *felt* and therefore definitely feel that I *was* actually abused. Was I? Wasn’t I? To this day, I still have times where I doubt myself, but I can accept that I *was* sexually abused as a child, and that my memories of this trauma do not follow a chronological “pattern” that Society can get on board with.
There have been times when I have remembered things that happened to me so vividly, that it almost felt as if I was actually back there again. However, for some of these memories, if you were to ask me about them now, I wouldn’t really be able to give you an answer. A memory that was once considered vivid, can so easily hide somewhere out of my reach, meaning that I would either doubt its existence to start with, or just completely forget that I even had this so-called “vivid memory”. This makes it so incredibly hard to “keep up” with myself and my ever changing level of recall over the years. I definitely wouldn’t be a credible witness for the prosecution, that’s for sure. Society expects (and so do I myself at times?) our memory to be in a chronological order that can easily be followed by those who are being disclosed to. When you finally manage to trust someone enough to speak about the abuse, you can often find that some members of society start asking, what they feel to be “straight forward” questions, such as, “how old were you when it happened?” or “where did it happen, and how come nobody heard you?”. When this type of questioning has been thrown my way in the past, I have either felt certain that it started when I was, say seven-ish, and so have responded with that age. But then there have been times when the age of “seven” didn’t feel right. That niggling feeling in my stomach would be screaming at my head saying something like, “yeah Donna, but something happened at such and such a place, which must mean it started when you were four..?” and so I would hesitate, and say that I wasn’t really sure. This would leave a puzzled look on the person’s face, but not as funny as the look I would get if I were to say outright that I didn’t actually know at all. All of this comes straight back again to the problems with Society that I touched upon earlier, and what is deemed to be normal or “a bit dodgy” with regards to traumatic memory recall.
I have spent lots of time over the years trying to make sense of all of the disjointed memories that I have of the abuse, and all of the “gaps” in between. I remember the times, as a teenager and young adult, when I would go off in search of the places I knew that I was abused in. I would desperately try and find a specific house for example, knowing which estate it was in, but having to use my own memories to try and find the correct house on the correct street. I spent lots of winter nights out walking trying to find these places, in the hopes that it might help me to remember properly what happened to me. Of course, it never did. There was one time where I was pretty convinced that I’d found one of the houses, and I sat down on the other side of the street just staring up at it. It was pissing it down with rain, and it was too dark to really see much of anything, but I just desperately wanted it to jog my memory. I felt like it was really important for me to remember everything. I couldn’t handle knowing that it happened, at the same time as not knowing fully what “it” actually was. I also really felt as though my inability to remember would mean that people would simply not believe me. It terrified me. Why couldn’t I just remember it all? I couldn’t understand it.
I used to try and write memories down as and when they came back to me, but for some reason that would only last for a day or two before I would abandon the activity completely. Same goes for writing my memories down in chronological order (as has been suggested to me by therapists in the past). I would try my best, but then I would gradually stop trying. As technology was advancing, so were my obsessive searches for some more memories to come back to the surface. For example, Google StreetView has been both a blessing and a curse for me. I’ve spent hours and hours searching for the house I grew up in during my early years, in the hopes that I would remember the abuse that I know happened there.
The “type” of memories I have has also regularly made me doubt myself in the past. For example, I have a lot of memories of how scared I felt at the time of the abuse, but not of the actual abuse itself. I can remember how afraid I was, as if I was that little girl right now, feeling that fear in the present and feeling all alone. To be honest, most of my memories are emotions, and I think that’s quite difficult for those who haven’t experienced this type of abuse to understand. I remember the paralysing fear, and that sinking feeling in my gut and stomach when I knew something terrible was either already happening to me, or was about to happen to me, and I couldn’t do anything about it because I was frozen. How can it be that the memories I can recall the most, are the ones where I am actually frozen in time? It’s incredibly surreal when you take a little time to pause and reflect on it all. I can occasionally remember how things smelt at the time of the abuse. I can also remember the times where I had attempted to dissociate from what was happening to me at that time. Like the times when I would close my eyes really tight until I could see little speckles of light moving around, and then I would just focus on those moving spots and shapes whilst whatever was happening to me was happening. It sounds strange when I read this back to myself, but I can remember it as if it was yesterday. It was actually quite effective. Possibly *too* effective.
I can occasionally remember different smells dependent on where I was at the time, and so random (or what others perceive to be random) smells can trigger some quite vivid memories from the time of the abuse, but in most situations, not of the actual abuse itself. I just know that the abuse was happening. I could remember what it felt like and occasionally what it smelt like, but not what it actually was, other than what it was, was very real and very wrong. To this day, I still cannot sit here and confidently say to you that I wasn’t partly to blame for these “very wrong” incidents. I’m trying my hardest to deal with this.
As I’ve got older and more time has passed by, I’ve realised that my inability to remember some things has been my brain’s way of protecting me. Irrespective of whether or not it’s considered to be a “healthy” coping mechanism, my ability to dissociate so far away from the painful truth of what happened to me, is what is probably keeping me alive in the present. My brain just simply *is not ready yet* for me to delve that deeply in to my trauma memories. It’s something I have needed to learn to accept, however difficult. Something else I have learnt to accept, is that it is actually completely normal to have such “unreliable” memories of the abuse – and by “unreliable”, I mean memories that come and go – memories that at one time can feel incredibly vivid and at other times, can completely slip from your memory altogether. And that this does not mean that I am lying or mistaken. If this happens to you, it doesn’t mean that you are lying or mistaken either. It just means that our brains can find such traumatic and powerful memories to be overwhelming, and so sometimes it can be safe to feel that much emotion, and other times our brains can deem it to be unsafe. I have also had to accept that I have to trust that my brain knows what it’s doing. I have to accept that if I push myself too much to remember everything all at once, then all I’ll achieve is myself breaking down because of it all becoming too much to cope with. Gaps in our memory is also a lot more common than I once realised for abuse survivors, especially if the abuse started at an early age. I try not to beat myself up too much about it all these days, and focus on those people in my life who are able to recognise that my memory recall won’t be quite what society expects *because* of how traumatic the events were.
I just thought it might help others to share this part of the aftermath of childhood sexual abuse – the remembering (or not remembering) part. My recall is not consistent, it’s not chronological and it also has plenty of gaps in it – but that does not mean that the abuse didn’t happen. When you have that feeling in your gut, when you know it happened – you just *know*, and that’s OK. Sometimes the memories will always be there. Sometimes they will come and go. Sometimes they’ll never come back to you. But it happened to you. I believe you, just like I know you believe me and that we all believe each other. Because irrespective of what Society deems to be normal, we just know because we were the ones who endured it. And that has to be enough. Hold on to that knowledge. Trust your gut. Thanks for reading if you did.