Memory is a delicate thing. You might pass a woman on the sidewalk and her perfume brings a flood of memories of your mother. You might see an object and experience a full and complete recall of a memory, and say “I had completely forgotten about that!”As a Chinese proverb states, the palest ink is better than the best memory.
For people who have experienced a trauma, this issue of memory—and trusting memory—is particularly difficult, and carries an incredible weight and importance. When a traumatic event happens, the experience can be dissociated. In psychology and psychiatry, dissociation refers to a perceived detachment of the mind from the emotional state, or even from the body. Dissociation is characterized by a sense of the world as a dreamlike or unreal place and may be accompanied by poor memory of the specific events. The traumatized individual literally dis-associates himself or herself from the traumatizing event as it occurs, in an extraordinary feat of taking care of him- or herself.
When traumas occur repeatedly, as in chronic physical or sexual abuse, the experiences may be gathered together in the child’s mind and present a single memory that stands in for all the experiences. The recalled memory may not be “true” in terms of representing the very specific event it recalls, but it is true in terms of representing the full range of horrific experiences, many of which might not be recalled in their specificity.
Owning these memories is very difficult, and painful. When the events were happening in the past, people may have told you that they were not happening. If you told someone what was happening, they may not have believed you – perhaps because they could not tolerate knowing this truth themselves, or perhaps because they had their own reason to discount your story. Because the very nature of dissociation makes the memories feel unreal to you, it may be easy for you to doubt yourself, and wonder if you made them up. And finally, the memories may feel unreal because you cannot bear to acknowledge that they are real. You may even doubt your sanity at times.
Therapy is sometimes described as peeling the onion. Early work removes the outer layers – you uncover what you can, you work with what is bearable, and then there is another layer. Another therapist I know describes therapy like a slinky spread out on the table; you go around the coil, and even though you find yourself back at the same place on the coil, you are farther along. Working with dissociated memories takes compassion, patience, and courage. The goal seems terrible – you know what happened to you and you believe it – but integrating the memories can relieve them of their ghostly, haunting nature, and heal the fractures.