One PTSD symptom of survivors of incest is to forget or repress memories of their abuse. Up until about 5 years ago, I have to admit I never understood this. How can those awful, terrible images just disappear from the mind? I feel differently now though, as I have come to realize two separate memory issues in myself.
I have always thought I remembered all the details of my abuse and I do remember much of it. But as I have gotten older and have started writing about it, I have realized that parts of the abuse memories aren’t there. Like I remember how a particular incident started, but not how it ended. Like my brain has turned off certain memories mid-way through. Is it just aging and normal memory loss (I’m only 43!)? The thing is, what I do remember, terrible things, is vividly clear and then – nothing. Certain instances are full memories, but others are not. With as bad as my memories are, it’s what I don’t remember that scares me! Why can’t I remember? Was it so bad that my mind did repress it? I spent my whole life wondering if the whole repressed memory thing was just fake only to now be questioning that belief. Obviously I never completed repressed the abuse, but clearly something is amiss. It’s like I mentioned before, I remember telling on my father and sitting with the police but I don’t remember their questions or what happened just after. I don’t remember at all what my mom said to me about it or how it was handled.
My other memory issues are even more odd, at least to me they are. Other than the sexual abuse, I have NO memories of my family/home life, from the ages of about 5 till about 16. I can count what I can remember on one hand. I can remember everything at church, at school and at my friend’s houses, but nothing from my own home, at least not that which includes my family. I can see me playing alone but that’s its. I can’t see them there in my mind, in the house with me, and what tiny bits I can extract, their faces are gone. I shared a room for most of my childhood with one of my sisters and I have no memory of her being in the room or even playing with me. The memories I do have came from photographs and not my actual memory. It’s as if they simply just do not exist in my memory.
I do not remember whether we ate dinner at the kitchen table or in front of the TV. I don’t remember a single holiday: not where the Christmas tree was, not where we ate Thanksgiving dinner, not Easters or anything. Again, the little foggy things I can kind of pull out are only me in the memory, never my family. I don’t remember how I got to and from school. I don’t remember watching TV with my family. I don’t remember what we did on the weekends or what I did after school. We went camping for 2 weeks every summer and I don’t remember hardly any of those. It’s like everything during those 15 years with my home life and family is gone – I don’t understand!
I have lay awake many nights trying to remember, driving myself crazy trying to remember. I finally had to stop and just accept it. I should say that I never realized these memories were gone till after the big family blow out a few years back. So I don’t know if they were gone before or if I just finally realized they were gone.
Why can I remember the terrible stuff and not remember the normal, everyday, happy stuff? Someone told me a few months ago that maybe it’s because I was living in fear when I was home and that fear kept my memory from taking anything else in. I guess that makes some sense but I don’t know. It doesn’t explain the loss of memory from the many years after the abuse stopped. Honestly, I have wondered if I had PTSD from the incest and then hit a new and separate PTSD after the family blowout that tossed me aside. So now we have a compounded PTSD situation – maybe all that put together made my memory shut down. I know my emotions shut down – I wouldn’t let myself cry when my father died. If even one tear made it out, I knew I wouldn’t be able to stop. But that’s a story for another post.
One more thought – I do remember an incident with my oldest sister, Sharon, when I was about 5 years old. It is so very vivid and clear in my mind, always has been. It was a bad incident, where she came home and my parents thought it would be funny to try to take her clothes off and I jumped in to help. I remember her struggling on the floor while her outer clothes came off. I remember once she was down to bra and panties, my mom wrapped a jacket around her and Sharon walked to her bedroom upset. I remember everything, every detail of the living room, where my parents and I were, I remember my laughing, I remember the color and design on the jacket, right down to what the buttons looked like. I asked my sister and my mother years ago if they remembered it happening, because it had bugged me my whole life. Both told me it never happened, but here’s the thing: I think it did! My mom’s memory is compromised these days due to aging and health issues and I don’t think my sister would ever admit it happened, perhaps she has even repressed it. But considering all the abuse of my childhood and the detail with which I remember this incident, I think it DID happen. Sharon told me I must have dreamed it as a child and now just remember it as real. But would a 5-year-old who didn’t even understand the implications of that incident hold onto that “dream” forever and in such extreme detail? I actually don’t think so.