Photo from Cepolina
Traumatic Amnesia and Recovering Memories are Real Processes:
This is a good article from Adults Surviving Child Abuse about Recovered Memories and Traumatic Amnesia. And here's some more information about how it works.
There are many documented cases of people who've experienced traumatic events, yet don't remember them, or only remember them some time afterward. In these cases the events were witnessed or recorded in evidence like photographs and confessions from perpetrators. There's no doubt they occurred, yet the people involved don't remember them.
Being unable to remember doesn't stop people reacting as if traumatized. For example, someone who's experienced war-time bombing might react with fear when they hear a siren, without having any memory of being in an air-raid.
It's very hard to gather solid data on these experiences, but it seems that at least 10% of people sexually abused in childhood will have periods of complete amnesia for the abuse, followed by experiences of delayed recall. Traumatic events in adulthood can be forgotten and recalled in exactly the same way.
Forget-me-not flowers from Copyright-free Photos
Traumatic memories are stored differently from normal memories and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) can have biological, not just psychological, effects. These articles talk about the effects PTSD can have on memory:
The Invisible Epidemic: Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, Memory and the Brain
PTSD and Memory
Traumatic Memories are often fragmented and can be brought to the surface by cues or triggers (explained in Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder for Dummies by Sam Kedem, Mark Goulston and Nikki Moustaki). You might remember just a smell, or a feeling, or a detail like the pattern of the curtains in a room and not remember the whole experience clearly. But small details can produce reactions such as:
Flashbacks - re-experiencing the traumatic event
Body Memories - re-experiencing physical sensations associated with a traumatic event
Dissociation - is a defense against traumatic events where the mind walls off traumatic experiences to try to contain them, like the body walls off infection (see The Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder Sourcebook by Glenn.R.Shiraldi, p. 20) Depersonalization is a kind of dissocation where the person splits their sense of self to separate themselves from the trauma e.g. "it felt like it was happening to someone else". De-realization is another kind of dissociation e.g. "it felt like a dream, like it wasn't real". Dissociation can happen during traumatic events or when remembering them. Sometimes when I've been having a dissociative flashback, I've calmly and in detail described what my 6 year old self was thinking and seeing, as if I was a 6 year old now, but not that 6 year old.
Regression - for me to act like a 6 yr old is regression. I believe I'm the age when a traumatic event occurred and I act, think and talk in a way appropriate to that age. It can be any age. I've giggled and called my husband "cute" when I thought I was a teenager too!
Memory is subjective and, like normal memories, recovered memories mightn't be accurate in every detail. But they're as likely to be accurate as normal memories are. You can trust yourself.
You may be worried about trusting your memories because of stories about False Memory Syndrome. False Memory Syndrome is not scientifically recognised and is largely discredited. This information about the False Memory Syndrome Association really helped me. There's also more information on these pages:
Memory and Sexual Assault
Can Recovered Memories Be Trusted?
For me, the process of recovering memories involves a suspension of disbelief while the details come out. Often I try to write them down because it seems to help them find some order and also gives me a safe distance from them. I write without judging or censoring what I write, which can be very hard when I'm writing about terrible things. I feel like I'm making awful accusations - but the writing is private and can't hurt anyone.
Sometimes I talk instead of write - my husband encourages me to explain what I'm feeling and tell him what I think is happening when I'm flash-backing. This maintains a connection between us, even when I'm not sure who he is, and that helps a lot. It's taken us time to build the ability to communicate when I'm flash-backing. You might find this page on Building Communication During Flashbacks useful.
It can take time for a memory to come out, to settle into a picture of the events and to fit in with other details and things I know about my life. There's some reality checking involved along the way - asking myself if this is possible, if someone else remembers being at that place at that time etc.
If you're recovering memories be very gentle with yourself - it's a traumatic process and one that produces a lot of self-doubt as you revise your own memories of your history. Just remember that the process is real and that you're not alone in going through it. You're not crazy, you're not "making this up", and you have no intention of harming anyone. You're healing from trauma you didn't cause. Try to remember you're not (and couldn't be) to blame for any of this.
Photo from Image After
When Recovered Memories Are About Pregnancy or Pregnancy Loss:
You might be asking yourself:
I hope the information above helps you understand that you're not crazy. It's a normal, recognised response to trauma to forget traumatic events and recall them later. Why would you be making this up? Does it feel like anything else you've ever imagined? Are your reactions similar to if you were reading a book or seeing a movie? In my own case, my answers were that I didn't want this to have happened and I could see no reason why I'd be making it up. My responses were much deeper and more extreme than they'd ever been to things I'd read or seen and they involved a physical component I'd never experienced before. I'll share the story of how I began to remember one of these incidents in case it helps you understand.
Please be aware that this section may be upsetting and contain graphic details.
I had just come out of the toilet in my flat when I felt I needed to lie down. I lay down on the floor and curled up in fetal position, puzzled as to why I was doing what I was. I felt a little scared but not much and I wasn't remembering anything in particular. Then I started screaming. There was a pattern to it - I'd scream and then stop and catch my breath, then I'd feel I had to scream again. When I was screaming my whole body was tensed. I was confused and scared about what was going on. I managed to crawl over to the phone ... slowly and with breaks where I was curled up screaming again. It was a scream unlike I'd really heard before ... filled with muscular effort as well as pain. I called my boyfriend in a gap - the gaps were becoming smaller - and asked him to come over. By the time he arrived I was feeling internal physical sensations related to labour. I could see the contractions over my stomach. I was very scared. My boyfriend said he guessed almost as soon as he arrived in the car-park ... he could hear my screams from there and they were very periodic. I was really embarrassed. Over the course of the evening I remembered the whole incident ... pieces came together and I knew I'd lost a little one when I was 16. It was an awful experience, though I look back on it now with some gratitude, because it was all the time with that little one I had. On another occasion it started with the feeling of forceps inside me delivering a baby's head. It was very physical right from the start and the memory grew outwards from there.
End graphic section.
Each memory has come back to me in a different way, often starting with a different sense - what I saw, what I heard, what I smelt, what I did, what I felt emotionally and physically etc.
I felt so very bad for not having remembered this before and I asked myself, how could I forget something so important? But it was a very traumatic event and my amnesia wasn't voluntary. If there was any element of voluntary repression it was so I could cope and still keep hidden something I thought would endanger my family (my grandfather had told me he'd kill anyone who found out). Remembering then could do nothing for my little one and would only have endangered me further.
I am glad that I have remembered now. I didn't know that I was pregnant before I miscarried. I couldn't remember being raped. I felt like the world and causality was all turned upside down because how could I be pregnant when I'd never had sex? But now I can remember how it felt to be pregnant. I can remember the little bit of time we had together and that is important to me.
No one noticed because I tried very hard to hide it. By that age I was so practiced at forgetting that I soon didn't know myself what had happened. Everyone (me included) thought I had the flu. I had had the flu and post-viral syndrome was like many of the early pregnancy symptoms. When I started to show and my friends at school teased me about my new "pot belly", I thought I'd just been eating too much (I had been eating a bit more - cravings perhaps?). No one suspected that I could be pregnant because I'd never had sex, I didn't have a boyfriend, and no one knew I was being abused.
I struggled with the question of whether I was a terrible mother for forgetting all my little ones. I loved them, but I had no choice in forgetting. It was a way to survive myself and that was all I could do. All I could do for them too - to survive till it was safe to remember and I could honour them properly. I felt responsible for not remembering and a huge sense of loss for losing that time with them - for not knowing I was pregnant until they were already gone. Little bits of memory come back to me now that I can interpret and remember. I think I remember movement now. But it will never be the same as if I'd been able to bond with them when they were still there. I don't know if they were alive ... some feel more alive than others. It's possible that some never made it to what I could call life. But they were all important.
If you can't remember clearly what happened, or if you've forgotten and later recovered memories of rape-related pregnancy or pregnancy loss, you're not alone and you're not a bad mother. You've responded as many people do to traumatic events. You had no choice about that and, even if you had, forgetting might have been the best choice you could make then. The fault for any lost time, or guilt, or pain you feel about this lies solely with the person who caused that trauma by raping and hurting you.
I hope this section helps you understand some of the processes that lead to recovering memories of rape-related pregnancy and pregnancy loss. I also hope it helps you feel less alone. Try to remember that YOU ARE NOT TO BLAME. Now you do remember you can honour yourself and your little ones and grieve your losses.
For more personal stories, feelings and thoughts see the Feelings and Thoughts page here.