Posted by: Marie | November 10, 2009

(182) There are feelings attached

Post #182
[Book study – Monday, July 13, 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

[Table of Contents]


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.


Feeling the Feelings

Although remembering sometimes feels emotionally detached, when you remember with feeling, the helplessness, terror, and physical pain can be as real as any actual experience. You may feel as if you are being crushed, ripped open or suffocated. Sexual arousal may also accompany your memories, and this may horrify you, but arousal is a natural response to sexual stimulation. You don’t have to be ashamed.

The Tea Garden by Martin Chen

The Tea Garden by Martin Chen

You might remember feeling close and happy, wrapped in a special kind of love. Disgust and horror are not the only way to feel when you have memories. There is no right way to feel, but you must feel, even if it sends you reeling.

Having to experience the feelings is one of the roughest parts of remembering. “It pisses me of that I have to survive it twice, only this time with feelings,” one woman said. “This time it’s worse. I’m not so effective at dissociating anymore.”

Letting Memories In

Few survivors feel they have control over their memories. Most feel the memories have control of them, that they do not choose the time and place a new memory will emerge. You may be able to fight them off for a time, but the price – headaches, nightmares, exhaustion – is not worth staving off the inevitable.

Not everyone will know a memory is starting, but many survivors do get warnings, a certain feeling or series of feelings, that clue them in. Your stomach may get tight. You may sleep poorly, have frightening dreams, etc.

If you think a memory is on its way:
– Find a place where you will be safe
– Call a support person
– Don’t fight it
– Remember, it’s just a memory
– Expect yourself to have a reaction
– Comfort yourself
– Tell at least one other person

Sometimes when you’ve resolved one group of memories, another will make its way to the surface. The impact new memories have will shift over time – they may get harder or easier to handle. However, new memories don’t take anything away from the healing you’ve already done. Paradoxically, you are already healing from the effects of things you have yet to remember.

The Essential Truth of Memory

Memories of child sexual abuse can be exceedingly accurate – research supports this. On the other hand, like other more ordinary memories, they are not totally objective recordings of what took place and are likely to exhibit some degree of distortion.

The sequence of events may be rearranged, or multiple incidents may be telescoped into a single instance. Space, size and distance may be distorted. Sometimes distortions work as a shield against a more disturbing memory. For example, what may have been a “kiss that hurt” may have actually been forced oral sex.

Although inaccuracies may exist in your memory, you can still work with what you remember as an indicator of what you felt and experienced. It’s okay to shift your understanding of your childhood as you incorporate new information and learn more. Discovering, understanding and integrating your past is an ongoing part of the healing process.

But I Don’t Have Any Memories

Usually when women say they feel they were sexually abused but don’t have any memories, they mean that they can’t tell a cohesive story about the abuse. However, when they begin to talk in detail about their childhoods, they frequently relate events that are covertly sexual or even blatantly abusive.

You may not recall particular incidents, but you’re likely to discover that you know more than you think you do about the environment in which you grew up. Specific incidents of sexual abuse don’t usually occur as isolated blotches in an otherwise healthy family. You may clearly remember times when you felt used, humiliated, undermined, manipulated, or smothered. As you explore what you do know about your childhood, you will sometimes remember more.

There are also times when women don’t have memories of sexual abuse because no specific incidents took place. Instead you may have been subjected to an environment of inappropriate boundaries, lewd looks, sexually suggestive behavior, or emotional incest.

Many women never recall all of what happened to them. Yet, they can know that “something significant” happened because all the resulting symptoms exist in the present time – the emotions and pain in every survivor’s story is the same as their own.

If you are in deep pain, there is a reason for your distress. It may not be sexual abuse, but there’s something for you to identify and address. You’re not crazy to be feeling so much pain. Although the desire to know and name your experience may feel urgent, it often takes substantial time to explore and discover your past. Don’t rush. You can move forward in your healing in important ways, even if you can’t pin down exactly what happened.

Quotes 093


  1. I’ve never understood why I can’t recall specific events at the drop of a hat… but when the memories seem ready, they show themselves to me. It’s a horrible feeling. Like, what else is my mind hiding from me?

    I’ve just now started to open up about my experiences… two decades after the abuse happened.

    Thank you for posting this.

    • Hi, Tamra –

      I understand what you are saying about how we have little control of when and how memories show up. It can be disconcerting.

      I have come to believe that our minds (and souls?) know what is best for us and hide memories when we are younger and more fragile, and will only allow memories to appear when we are ready and able to deal with them. Our minds are wonderful instruments.

      My thoughts are with you as you continue down your path of healing.

      – Marie

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