Saturday, February 23, 2013

Repressed Memory: If I Don't Go Looking, Why Does it Find Me?

By Pat I. Richards, LCSW, CHT
William B. Tollefson, Ph.D., CHT, CRT, NCP

Trauma memory has gotten a bad rap. First people don't want it, so they hide it on themselves; then when they can't repressed it anymore, they don't believe it; then they don't want it; then they want more of it; then other people don't believe it; then they don't know what to do with it.

Generally, people can understand why you wouldn't want to remember horrific trauma, but if they didn't have the need or the skill to develop repression, they don't understand how you could. So let's start with how it develops.

When you're in trauma and can't get out, if you're not going to die or go crazy, you need to deal with it somehow. You wouldn't be able to function if the trauma information were in your conscious mind. It would be too painful, too threatening and/or too intrusive. If the information was in the subconscious, it would seep through in dreams, flashbacks, etc., then it's in your conscious mind-so you can't keep it there either. Besides, the abuser's values are in your unconscious mind and those values would try to destroy the information. So in order to survive, if you are innately able to and your mind finds it necessary, your imagination takes on new functions.

First, your imagination gathers all the information about the trauma-everything you heard, saw, smelled, physical pain, emotional pain and anything related that might trigger remembering. In other words, your imagination encapsulates the trauma information and information surrounding it, maybe even whole years. Then the mind stores those "time capsules" in your imagination. So now you have a storehouse in your imagination full of information. (Yes, alters can each have her/his own storehouse.) Next, the mind guards the information so you can't get to it and it can't get to you. Then the imagination teaches you dissociation, so when the trauma is going on, although you can't get your body out of there, at least you can get your mind out of there. (Of course, then you have a conflict between the body, which feels abandoned by the mind, and the mind that blames the body for staying. But the internal conflict distracts you and thereby protects you from being in more conflict with the abuser, conflict with the abuser being perceived as far more dangerous.

This is a great system for someone in trauma an it works extremely well to help survivors survive for many years, even after the trauma is over. So what happens?

Life events tend to happen between the ages of 28 and 42 (although the age can vary), which make this system of repression no longer effective for survival. This may be the imminent or actual death of an abuser, birth of a child, especially a same-sex child, a child nears or becomes the same age you were when you were first abused, or you experience another trauma. Suddenly you begin to get pieces of information. At first it may be a little piece, then another, then your mind may decide that since you didn't die or go crazy from that information, the guardleaves and you may get flooded with information. But why? Why now?

It takes a lot of pressure and energy to keep all that information repressed. You may not be able to access parts of your imagination because the mind is afraid you'll find the storehouse. If the abuser is gone, the mind may decide it's finally safe for you to have the information and that you deserve that energy and your imagination back.

If you experience another trauma, your mind may decide you need to know you've survived worse. If you remember that you have survived worse it's easier to believe you can survive this too; and you remember how you did it so you can do it again. Or maybe you've developed enough skills so that your mind decides you are now capable and need to deal with things as an adult, more as a whole, rather than letting go of your resources and reverting to those of a child. Your mind may decide it is no longer safest for you to move aside and let a child part of yourself or a fragmented alter with inadequate functioning skills deal with things as if it were still the past. Your mind may decided your chances of survival would be better now if you remain in the present and have access to all your resources to deal with what is actually happening in the present.

And finally, your mind may decide that you need the information from the past in order to protect a child in the present. Perhaps you need to know who the abuser was so you won't expose the child to the same or a similar person and possibly risk the same abuse. Before you get the memories, you may have a dread or fear that you cannot identify, not know why you avoid someone, have urges or fear that you may hurt a child, but not know why. That repression, that defense that worked so well to help you survive the past, might now actually be threatening your own or someone else's survival in the present.

So no, we don't go looking for repressed memories and rip away your defenses when your mind still believes you need them. We don't advocate that you expose yourself to the risk of more abuse by confronting your abusers or those who protected them. They often still have the same defenses of denial, projection and aggression that allowed them to do what they did in the first place. But if your mind decides it's time to give you flashbacks, nightmares and body memories, you may say, "Please slow down and let me deal with the information at a pace I can handle." But resist the temptation to say, "I must be imagining this. I must be bad/evil. I must be crazy. Stop. I don't want to know." Remember that everything you and your system do is for the survival of the whole, even when it doesn't feel like it.

Spontaneously retrieved memory is un-repressed for a survival reason. Consider identifying the reason you are getting the information now, learn to "revisit" rather than "relive" the events, and use the information to "live/recover" rather than just "survive". And remember to tell your mind, "Thanks. I appreciate that."


  1. That is an excellent description of trauma and dissociation!!! One of the very best I've ever seen. Thanks for sharing this

    LaurieAnn and lots of extremely angry, hurt/sad, rejected, abandoned and lost littles