[Book study – Sunday, July 12, 2009]
The Courage to Heal: A Guide for Women Survivors of Child Sexual Abuse
(Third Edition, 1994)
by Ellen Bass and Laura Davis
Part Two: The Healing Process
A Stage of Healing: Remembering
Green text: Quotes/Summaries from the book
Gray text: My words
This transformative work (the entire series of blog posts relating to this book) constitutes a ‘fair use’ of any copyrighted material as provided for in Section 107 of the US Copyright law.
The experience of remembering abuse varies greatly from survivor to survivor. Many women have always remembered their abuse. They may have minimized its importance, denied its impact on their lives, or been numb to their feelings, but they have never forgotten the events themselves.
Other survivors have selective or partial memory. They remember some occurrences but not others. Survivors sometimes remember physical or emotional abuse but not the sexual assaults. Or they may remember the context in which the abuse took place but not the specific physical events. There are also survivors who don’t remember anything about their abuse until the memories come crashing – or seeping in.
There is no right or wrong when it comes to remembering. You may have numerous memories. Or you may have just one. When you begin to remember, you might have new images every day for weeks. Or you may experience your memories in clumps – several in a matter of days, then none for months. Sometimes survivors remember one abuser or a specific kind of abuse, only to remember, years later, another abuser or a different form of abuse.
If memories come to you in fragments, you may find it hard to place them in any kind of chronological order. You may not know exactly when the abuse began, how old you were, or when it stopped. The process of understanding the fragments can be like putting together a jigsaw puzzle or being a detective.
All memories may not be literal representations of what happened. Some may be symbolic or may represent an aspect of the trauma, but not be wholly accurate. Yet there is an essential emotional truth to our memories, which can tell us a lot about how the experience has affected us.
Flashbacks are memories that are so vivid that you feel as though the original experience is happening again now, rather than just being remembered. Flashbacks may be accompanied by the feelings you felt at the time, or they may be stark and detached, like watching a movie about somebody else’s life.
Flashbacks are often visual, but that can involve any of the senses. What you heard, saw, smelled, tasted, felt, or thought can return with such immediacy that you actually relive the original experience.
Sense memory: Often it is a particular touch, smell, or sound that triggers a memory. You might remember when you return to the town, the house, or the room where the abuse took place – or when you smell a certain aftershave the abuser wore.
The body remembers what the mind chooses to forget. Memories can remain stored in our bodies – in sensations, feelings, and physical responses. Even if we do not know what took place, fragments of what we suffered endure. You may be assailed by unexplained physical pain or arousal, fear, confusion or any other sensory aspect of the abuse. You may physically re-experience the terror, your body may clutch tight, or you may feel that you are suffocating and cannot breathe.
Times When Survivors Remember
Memories come up under many different circumstances, often with some event or situation setting off the process. Sometimes women remember abuse when there is sufficient safety for the memories and feelings to emerge.
On the other hand, difficult or painful times may precede remembering. You may experience a loss, such as divorce or the death of a loved one, and feel as though everything in your life is unraveling. A contemporary event that resembles the original abuse can also trigger memories. Some women, for instance, have recalled childhood abuse when they were raped or attacked in adult life.
But memories don’t always surface in such dramatic ways. While talking with a friend, one woman suddenly heard herself talking about being abused as a child for the first time. “It’s as though I always knew it,” she explained, “It’s just that I hadn’t thought about it in twenty or thirty years. Up until that moment, I’d forgotten.”
Many survivors remember their abuse once they get sober, quit drugs, or stop eating compulsively. These and other addictions can effectively numb your feelings and block any recollection of the abuse, but once you stop, the memories often surface.
Other survivors remember at key milestones such as when they become a mother or after a significant death. Also, media coverage of someone else’s sexual assault or abuse can trigger the remembering.