Whenever we're faced with a frightening or dangerous situation our basic instinct is to strike out or run away. This is called the Fight or Flight Response.
When you were a child your abuser was bigger, faster, stronger than you. While it may be questionable as to whether s/he was more intelligent than you, s/he certainly had more power and so could easily outsmart you.
Since you could neither fight off your abuser(s), nor get away (although you may have tried), you likely had to create other ways to endure what happened. You had no choice.
It takes considerable skill to survive childhood abuse. You may not be fully aware yet of the ways in which you did survive. Nor that you have used many of the same skills to cope with life ever since. It is important, once you have identified your coping skills, to honour them.
Many of us get stuck with labels – medical terms like syndromes and disorders – that suggest there is something wrong with us.
Nothing is wrong with you. You had a crime committed against you and you did what you could to get through.
REMINDER: Have you had fun today? Fun is the mandatory ingredient in healing. Watching animals or birds - even on television - always cheers me up. Or playing with my cats.
There is much to be gained by those in power who would silence or discredit those of us who have had crimes committed against us. There is nothing for survivors to gain by making up memories of abuse. In fact, it is more likely that a survivor will retract or deny disclosures of being abused (especially sexually abuse) in childhood than dredge up 'false memories.'
Not only is it scary to face our truth, it's downright frightening to tell our story. If we reveal what happened to our abuser, s/he will do everything to avoid fessing up. Sometimes s/he will threaten us. That's why sometimes it's the lesser of two evils to deny our truth and pretend we just made up a story.
Healing childhood sexual abuse is profoundly painful emotional work that sometimes takes years to complete, as I mentioned before. Part of the necessary work is remembering what happened to you. You have the right to remember, to piece together your truth, so you can understand how the abuse affected your life.
If hearing about such things as so-called False Memory Syndrome upsets and discourages you, don't become helpless and give up. FMS and the foundation named after it came about as part of a backlash that encourages society to deny, or at least minimize, the damage childhood abuse causes. FMS serves only to protect offenders and blame victims.
Being a survivor of sexual abuse is not an illness. You had a crime committed against you. Anyone accused of incest or the sexual abuse of a child has every reason to try and avoid jail. He (or sometimes she) is considered by prison inmates to be the lowest of the low and treated accordingly.
It takes enormous courage to look at our pasts and heal abuse. Think of yourself as not only healing yourself but helping heal those not yet able to. You are breaking a cycle, a beacon shedding light into shadowy corners.
REMINDER: Be part of the solution not the backlash.
'False Memory Syndrome' (FMS) is nowhere to be found in the Diagnostic Standards Manual (DSM). This is the book recognized by psychiatrists and psychologists for diagnosing a whole host of psychological disorders and mental illnesses. Yet, FMS has been accepted in some courts as a defense for persons accused of child molestation and rape.
The word 'syndrome' is one applied as a medical term to a cluster of signs and symptoms occurring together to describe a specific abnormality. Good science is always backed up by a large body of properly researched evidence gathered over many years. That's why the DSM is not an annual publication.
So what is FMS exactly?
The False Memory Syndrome Foundation describes FMS as “unfounded allegations of childhood sexual abuse based on recollections of previously repressed memories.” To put it more plainly, they say memories that a survivor has cut off from conscious awareness or dissociated (pushed into the 'deep freezer' part of the mind) in order to survive, and then remembered (when safe to do so) are in reality inventions implanted in their minds by over-zealous counsellors, books and survivor stories.
REMINDER: Memories only come back when you feel safe enough to remember, and your psyche is strong enough to withstand the process.
SUGGESTION: If at some point you decide to take your abuser to court, and he uses the FMS defense, try and get a top-notch trauma specialist with impeccable credentials as expert witness.
Anxiety and its ugly sister, Depression, are the main symptoms of PTSD – or Post Traumatic Stress. (I don't use the word disorder since what's there to be disordered about when you've spent years enduring and surviving, in whatever way you could? Saying we survivors are “disordered” is very rude. When I traveled a lot talking to psychiatrists and psychologists I didn't hesitate to say so either. There are lots of relaxation techniques that, over time (sorry, it all takes time) will decrease anxiety. Here is my personal favourite for a quick power nap. You can do it with or without music—it's up to you.
- Put on music
- Make yourself as comfortable as possible lying down or sitting up
- Support your elbows, knees and head with pillows or cushions
- Cover yourself with a blanket. Keep warm
- Hold a stuffed toy or teddy bear if you want
- Shut your eyes if this feels safe. If not, focus on a spot on the floor, wall or ceiling
- Be aware of all the places your body touches the surface you're sitting or lying on
- Breathe in through your nose
- Blow the breath out through your mouth
- Do this several times. Feel your abdomen rise with each inhalation, with each exhalation
- Imagine with every in breath you're breathing in fresh new energy
- Imagine with every out breath you're breathing out stale old used-up energy
- Keep doing this for 10 to 20 minutes for maximum benefit
- When you're ready wiggle your fingers and toes, yawn, stretch, open your eyes
- Get up slowly, very slowly. Important so you don't feel dizzy when you stand up
- Once on your feet yawn and stretch again
- Feel yourself energized and refreshed.
Ten minutes of deep relaxation equals approximately one hour of sleep.
REMINDER: Learn this technique by heart and you can take it in your “toolbox”
to use whenever you like.
This is the last post on flashbacks and memories. By now you will have a good idea of what to expect, or the information on what's been happening to you.
Your everyday life is full of clues about your childhood. Any of the following may trigger flashbacks or memories:
- looking at childhood photos and videos
- visiting sites of childhood experiences
- celebrating holidays, special occasions and anniversaries
- dreaming recurring dreams and nightmares
- constructing a family tree
- having sex, massage, bodywork (Reiki, Acupressure, Touch Therapy)
As each memory arises and you explore it—hopefully with a counselor—you will begin to recover more memories, with even more coming over time as you feel safer. For a time, it may feel like flashbacks and memories are ruling your life. You are not going mad. You are healing. If you're flooded with memories, use the PACE 'EM exercise to cope.
Since the word 'memory' comes from a root word meaning 'to grieve' it is not surprising that memories are accompanied by strong feelings of anger, denial, sadness, and/or depression. Then, all of a sudden you'll feel lighter. You're getting free.
A word of caution: It is not advisable to force memories to come. Some therapists think 'memory blitzes' a great idea. Uncovering any traumatic memory too fast is potentially dangerous and can cause a psychotic break (break with reality). It is important to have resources available to help you cope with with whatever comes to light. Otherwise, you may become re-traumatized.
Reminder: Do something nice for yourself today: Pick a flower. Treat yourself to something special.
Blocking out memories may have been a survival skill for you. (This is called 'dissociation'.) Now that you want to know what happened, it may be frustrating that this strategy works against you. Be patient. The most easily handled memories usually come first. You'll have to incorporate these into your life's story before the more difficult memories can come.
In a previous blog we explored some of the senses that trigger flashbacks or bring memories forward. There are particular times that cause survivors to start remembering, or confirm vague feelings about what may have happened to cause present behavior.
Some typical times to remember:
- after quitting an addiction
- following the birth of a baby your child, grandchild, or child you know well, is
the same age as when your abuse began
- after the death of a parent, your abuser, or other significant person
- during serious illness
- in a relationship that feels safe and supportive
REMINDER: Although it's difficult when the first memories come up and your daily life feels like nothing but triggers, flashbacks, and memories. Hang in there - it is worth healing. If you question suicide -- keep it a question. Suicide is not the answer. Nor is killing your abuser. You are getting free. FREE, at last.