I’ve been wanting to write a series of posts about childhood sexual abuse in order to highlight some paths towards healing that might be useful if anyone has been abused, or just because it is interesting how the human psyche works and how we can recover from stuff. Also, I think it would be better if society did talk about these things honestly.
It is a big subject though, and a difficult one, and I don’t want to depress anyone… so I am cautious about writing about it.... Tell me your thoughts. This post is about 'remembering'.
The first step to recovery is to remember the abuse, which seems a bit odd that it is forgotten in the first place, but the problem is twofold. The first is that in some cases the trauma is so scary that a child will engage in ‘splitting’.. ie when the abuse is happening s/he is prevented from running away physically so does so mentally, so that in terms of memory s/he wasn’t there. The second is that the child’s subconscious considers that the memory is too unpleasant and prevents access to it... for years. The child may well need to relate to their abuser in a family context and I guess it is good for survival that the psyche decides to prevent the memory returning until later in life.
These two things do not, however, prevent the child from experiencing extreme psychoses during childhood – depression, suicidal feelings, phobias, compulsive masturbation, insomnia, night terrors, low self-esteem.. the list goes on and on. The child experiences these things and knows they are 'different' but either doesn’t link the psychoses to the abuse or doesn’t remember the abuse. Hence, they think they are bad, or mad, or both.
In my own case there were two bouts of abuse – one earlier (aged 4-6) and another later (aged 7-10). They were quite different. The first was violent and I only remembered it recently. The second was coercive and I think my abuser, like many, was opportunistic – they groom many children and a few children say ‘yes’ – especially if they have been abused before. Re-abuse is incredibly common.
I remembered the later abuse (aged 7-10) first, which is quite usual. In fact it came flooding back to me in a Biology lesson when we were learning about human reproduction. Weirdly, in an instant, I could remember the four encounters and every word the two of us had said verbatim, as well as what happened.
Most of my recovery in subsequent years was based on these memories, but they didn’t answer many questions. The most obvious of which was that I sort of knew I wasn’t a virgin on the first occasion that I could remember, but also my phobias were odd and I couldn’t make sense of them.
Then a couple of years ago shards of earlier memories returned. It just started with a memory of a dread that my bedroom door would open. More and more little fragments of memory returned and explained so many things – the way I couldn't sleep unless someone was between me and the door; the way I would be literally paralysed with fear if I heard footsteps on the landing (even when I knew the footsteps were those of my sweet baby boy padding to go to the loo.. or worse coming to see me in the night).
The reinstated memories were helpful in explaining things. But they didn’t eliminate the phobias. For instance, I have a phobia of mold that causes an instant gag reflex, often followed by vomiting, and whilst I now understand why, that doesn’t stop the phobia. I should probably sort some of my phobias out but it just feels easier to avoid the triggers rather than face the trauma of recovery.
Someone once asked me whether it was better before I remembered. I think I had told her that the earlier memories revealed sadistic cruelty and made my stomach turn whenever I considered them. My reply was that unless we remember we can’t begin to recover.
Time helps too – when the memories first returned they dominated my life (both times) – I couldn’t stop my mind returning to them.. a bit like running your tongue over a sharp piece of tooth… But with time my mind didn’t return so frequently, and now hardly at all.
The other thing that was disturbing with the sadistic abuse is I felt like I had some pieces of a jigsaw, but not all of it, and I endlessly tried to work out what happened, how old I was, who the perpetrator was, and so on. Whilst I still have only shards of memories, I have enough to piece it together well enough to answer these things and I’ve accepted that the rest of the memories are lost – partly because I did so much ‘splitting’.
I hope this is helpful to others in understanding, I'll try to write about the journey from remembering to healing. I would say that if you are alongside someone who is ‘remembering’ then be encouraged that it is the beginning of healing, painful though it is. (And when I say painful I mean some words that are not usually acceptable in decent company!)
PS the song I have posted at the top was my favourite as a teen when I was dealing with some of this - it expressed my regret that I hadn't been 'Wired to the Moon'.