Photocredit: Natasha C Dunn

Memories of childhood sexual assault – why are they different? how can we trust them?

Photocredit: Natasha C Dunn
Photocredit: Natasha C Dunn

One of the most difficult things about suviving childhood sexual assault is coping with the fragmented and taboo nature of our memories.

This breaks down into four main issues:

  • Memories of trauma are different from regular memories.
  • Memories of childhood trauma are different from regular trauma memories.
  • Memories of childhood sexual assault are different from regular memories of childhood trauma.
  • How do you trust your memories, particularly when people go on about ‘false memories’.

Memories of trauma are different from regular memories.

Traumatic events overwhelm the normal systems in the brain that store memories. A traumatic event isn’t just a very unpleasant or very stressful event. People experience trauma when they experience or witness something that’s going to kill or seriously harm you or someone else. During a true traumatic event the person feels strong feelings of fear, helplessness or horror.

Because trauma is so overwhelming, the brain gets flooded with the information and can’t store it in the usual way. I think some information just flows over the edge of the cup and is lost, while other information comes in but isn’t properly catalogued. It’s stored in little boxes, separate from one another, some linked together and some not. The touch, taste, smell, sight and thought memories get put in completely different boxes.

Normal memories work like this:

You eat an ice cream cone and you taste the chocolate and it reminds you that you had chocolate ice cream with your friend Sally on her birthday and it was a sunny day and you were down by the ocean, and it was nice. You haven’t seen Sally in a while, maybe you’ll give her a call. Who was that guy she was dating again? You can’t remember his name. You have the taste, visual, emotional and context memories of the event with Sally all in one block, and they are being triggered by something relevant, the taste of ice cream. You may not have all the details, but the important ones are there, and they make sense in connection with one another.

A traumatic memory is like this.

You turn a corner and smell where some beer has been spilled and there is a stale beer smell. You feel panic. You don’t know why, and you don’t even necessarily know the panic is connected to the beer smell. You try and calm yourself down.  Here, you’re getting the smell and emotional part of the memory linked together, but the sight, sound and context information is stored in a different box. You can’t get there from here, so the panic doesn’t make sense to you.

This can work a different way, where you have information without the body or emotional memory. You can have the information, such as: ‘I was raped in my dorm bedroom’, divorced from the information about who raped you, what they looked like and a large part of how it felt while it was happening. You also have almost no feeling in your vagina, and a crushing feeling on your chest sometimes. You know he was a short, dark-haired man, because short dark-haired men now freak you out. You can’t see his face in your mind though. You feel numb about the rape, and are dreading remembering the pain and fear, which you can intellectually imagine is in there somewhere, but which you can’t reach. You don’t put this together with your sudden panicky distaste for stale beer.

Non-survivors often don’t get why people who have experienced trauma don’t remember the events in the connected way, like Sally and the ice cream cone. Their distrust is what fuels myths like the ‘false memory syndrome’.  Traumatic memory is different, but a lot of information is in there.  It just takes quite a bit of sleuthing to sort out.

Memories of childhood trauma are different from regular traumatic memories

On top of all that, traumatic memories stored in childhood have some key differences. First of all, children’s brains are still developing, and this affects how we store information. There have been studies that show that children aren’t able to tell the difference between television violence and violence occurring in real life until they reach age 7. This does not mean that children are going around ‘fantasizing’ being sexually abused. How could they? Even non-survivor adults have a hard time even imagining the kind of crap that happens to kids, why would a kid?  Children are normally so uninformed about sexuality, that “inappropriate interest in or knowledge of sexual acts” is a key sign that a child has been sexually abused.

Children young enough won’t have the self-talk we have that makes sense of what is going on such as labels for sensations or experiences:  “chocolate”, “warm”, “that’s daddy”. They will instead only have the sensations, which means that the context for the abuse “I was in my crib and someone who was angry picked me up and hurt me.” is missing, making it hard to classify in your mind later.

Children don’t yet have a mature self-identity, so that severe, conflicting traumatic demands upon them at a young enough age can force them to develop multiple identities to cope. As far as I know, instead of splitting myself, I instead split my father into two people, one who was my father, a mean, controlling drunk but who I could love and deal with, and ‘the monster’ who was the person who came out at night and raped and terrified me. I told people about ‘the monster’ I was terrified of , but since everyone knows that monsters aren’t real, especially when children talk about them, nothing came of it. It wasn’t until I was an adult that the information that my father was the monster was safe to remember. That’s not to say it wasn’t hard, overwhelming, terrifying and confusing to remember, just that it became possible to do so.

When we don’t have separation and experience to give us context to analyse information, and if we are abused by a caregiver, we likely accept the abusers explanation for what happened. For example, I literally did not know that my father wasn’t entitled to rape me (or kill me for that matter), until I was 14 years old.

Memories of childhood sexual assault are different from regular memories of childhood trauma.

“The taboo against talking about incest is stronger than the taboo against doing it.” – Maria Sauzier, M.D.

There are taboos about talking to children about sex, even in age-appropriate ways. Children are supposed to be innocent and non-sexual, and are shut down from talking about even normal or healthy sexuality or more importantly, the things they unfortunately need to know to label and report abuse.

A friend of mine ran away from home at age 14 and then was recruited by a pimp. When the pimp (who she thought was her boyfriend) groomed her with protection and drugs and then started having intercourse with her, she didn’t know what they were doing was sex. She’d heard of sex, of course, she just didn’t connect it to what they were doing.

I didn’t know that what my father was doing was sex or rape either. When I first had consensual intercourse with a guy in university, I believed I was losing my virginity. I knew what sex was too, my mom had given me a book and I understood the basics. I knew very little more than that it was something that happened in bed and that the thing that guys pee with went into a hole in the woman’s body and could result in pregnancy. I, however, did not know exactly where my own vagina was, or that I had a clitoris until the guy I slept with identified it for me. He, luckily, was European and had heard of the clitoris.

Children are not told what the real names of the parts of their body are and not given safe situations where they can talk about them. Adult women can ask about a lesion on their vulva or pain in their anus in the doctors office, for example (if they get up the nerve) but a child will not usually have a person other than their mother (if that) who they can talk to about problems with the private parts of their body. If mother is an abuser or enabler, that’s not going to be any help.

Children are not routinely told that no-one, not even your parents, should touch the private parts of your body or make you touch the private parts of another person’s body. This is not the case in Sweden, where sex education has been mandatory in schools since 1956 starting at age 7, something that has run afoul of Muslim fundamentalist immigrants wishing to ‘protect’ their daughters from the information. The desire and determination to disempower girls and to keep children in the dark about the private and sexual parts of their body is something a variety of religions and ideologies share, unfortunately.

Children aren’t told how to tell the difference between safe genital touching, like an adult putting diaper cream on a baby, or gently washing with a washcloth, from abuse. Familial abusers take advantage of this by passing off abuse as normal care-giving  Children as a rule don’t know that if someone does inappropriate touch, it is important to tell a safe adult, even if (especially if) the person who did these things warns them not to. The don’t know that if they tell someone they think is a safe adult, and that person doesn’t help them, that they need to keep telling until someone does.

This means that information stored about sexual abuse will not have the context that an adult’s memory would have. If an adult woman is fondled by some creep in an elevator, she knows he’s not allowed to do it, and that it’s a crime, and she is within her rights to knee him in the balls and report him to the police. If a child is fondled in an elevator, she knows it’s icky and scary and that’s it.

Telling about sexual abuse means breaking several taboos and norms of behaviour. Children are supposed to be good and do what adults tell them to do, they are supposed to be innocent and not speak or know about sex or sexual assault.

So all this means that, if you were raped as a child, you don’t have the language to discuss it, and it is associated with shame. If you were in a traumatic car accident as a child, you could talk about it with your relatives and teachers without anyone freaking out too much, and no-one thought you were a bad girl or boy for bringing the topic up. When sexual abuse is perpetrated by a family member, the child is cut off from their natural source of that support and help. Discussing the information and getting social support soon after an event are protective against developing post traumatic stress disorder. When the trauma is sexual, it is unlikely a child will get the information, social support and opportunities to talk about it that they would get for a non-sexual trauma.  You probably won’t get to talk about it for decades, until you are an adult. Since you can’t process it at the time, the mind and body file the disjointed information away, until it gets triggered later.

False Memory Syndrome has no scientific validity and was made up by an accused incest perpetrator

At this point, a discussion of the abuser and enabler propaganda tool that is ‘false memory syndrome’ comes into play. Let me be very clear, false memory syndrome is a completely bogus construction. It was literally made up by someone credibly accused of sexually abusing his daughter, and is promoted by this abuser and his wife in order to discredit his daughters allegations of abuse. Survivors know that most child predators deny having abused children; this is just a more elaborate version of the usual.

The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM) used by medical professionals to classify what is wrong with people, has no entry called ‘false memory syndrome’. No mainstream professional association of doctors, psychologists or social workers has endorsed this fiction. It is completely and utterly a made up thing by abusers and their apologists.

Its power to convince comes from non-survivor’s discomfort with the topic of child sexual abuse by family members, and desire to make it go away.

Delayed memories of abuse are the norm rather than the exception for child sexual assault. The majority of survivors have some amnesia. There is an online database of hundreds of corroborated cases called the “Recovered Memory Project” connected to  Brown University where a person has remembered in adulthood a traumatic thing that happened, and then had the remembered facts externally validated.

My own life is an example of a memory of abuse being suppressed in childhood, remembered as an adult, and then finding physical corroboration much later. I remembered, when I was about 21, being raped at the age of approximately 5 by my father. I remembered intense pain, a lot of blood and an aftermath of pain while it healed.  When I was about 40, during the time I was writing this blog, I asked my medical practitioner if there were any scars, and she showed me scars and vascular damage corroborating my memory of rape, extensive tearing and a lot of blood.

Until I saw the scars, there was always a tiny doubting voice. That voice asked why didn’t I remember more detail and why were the memories so fragmented, with almost none of them having all the pieces in one box. I now know that’s the way it usually works, but it still made me doubt. Then I would have to remember all the corroborating information I had, the intensity of the memories, the effects on my life, and remind myself that with an effect there must be a cause. It helped, of course that my memory of the first time I was raped was the clearest and most detailed. It is the one memory I’ve been most sure of.  I know other stuff happened from the fragments I have, but I am much more certain about that one time. The most compelling part of the memory for me was that I remembered how it felt to be so young and to be so emotionally open, to love and trust my daddy, and how shocked I was with the pain and his brutality. It was nothing I could make up, and I knew it immediately.

You may never remember all of it. It’s frustrating but true. The more extreme, extensive or prolonged the abuse was, the more likely you are to have a hard time piecing it together. You may remember things, and then go back into denial about them while you process their impact on your life and relationships. You may be sure about what happened one day, fresh from a vivid flashback, and doubtful the next because important details are missing or vague.

What people don’t always know, is that this is completely normal, even typical, for survivors of childhood sexual assault.

Update: Good news, this post has been sponsored (several years after it was written, so not influencing the content) by a company that reviews internet safety software that helps parents keep kids safe from harmful online content. This link is to a site that reviews this kind of software to help you make a good choice. Sponsorships help with the costs of operating this site.

34 thoughts on “Memories of childhood sexual assault – why are they different? how can we trust them?”

  1. You think it would be considered a flashback if ( sometimes) I drunk too much alcohol, everything seems fine … I go to bed and basically start a slow hyperventilating- hide under the covers – get into a fetal position and “ turn into “ a little child , I’m scared , I’m sad and whimpering . My husband tries to help me out of it but it’s as though I’m “ not there … not my adult self “ . I’m talking as if I’m a child and it could last an hour or longer ! The next morning I’m emotionally exhausted, somewhat embarrassed and just drained . I grew up in a dysfunctional alcoholic ( father ) household with very little memories. There are bits and pieces of a puzzle of being molested . It was brought up once by me and my 2 sisters … basically saying they wouldn’t doubt it but now nobody talks about it . I feel like I’m losing my mind wondering … I don’t trust my instincts at all . Some days I feel 100% positive I was , then other days I feel awful for thinking my dad could have done that . I’d appreciate anything you have to offer . Thank you .

    1. sworddancewarrior

      I’m sorry you are having flashbacks. Yes, they are flashbacks – in this case pieces of memory that contain only the emotion and some physical pieces. That doesn’t make them not memories. It’s totally normally to believe one day and doubt the next.

      Your husband can help by telling you are safe now and that you are an adult. You might also identify some things that are comforting to you specifically, like turning the lights on, giving you a favourite blanket or a cup of tea.

      The effect of alcohol is to make people depressed, so I strongly suggest you avoid it while your PTSD symptoms are still pretty unhealed. Also, with alchoholism in your family (like mine) you’re at risk for alcoholism too, particularly if you use it to numb your trauma.

      A good therapist who gets family trauma will be helpful. You want to see someone who has professional training, and the feminist ones tend to be better at understanding it’s not your fault. Ask them if they’ve had specific training in treating PTSD and family abuse. If not, walk away. Also check your gut. If you leave a session feeling ashamed, judged or confused, it’s likely not a good fit. You’ll need to go for about 5 years, regularly. I recommend avoiding alchohol, drugs, and much contact with your family during that time to give you space to connect with yourself.

      Don’t expect your family to support or validate your feelings or experiences. It’s just not the way this works. People have their own way of dealing with abuse in families, and most of the folks not directly abused (and some who are) go with denial, minimization and blame, which is really not helpful. You don’t have to tell them what you’re dealing with now or ever.

      When I wrote to my mother about the abuse as an adult, she said ‘he would do that’ but didn’t actually leave the marriage for about 15 years after that, which is an example of minimization (it happened but it’s not important or serious) that people do.

      Good luck!!! It does get a lot better, I promise.

  2. SDW,

    Thank you so much for your feedback. I’m grateful for your input and invaluable advice. Going forward I’m going to trust myself. I did have several sessions of hypnosis, about 7 at 2 hours each. What you said makes so much sense. The reaction in my body, the extreme emotion, shaking, and shock when the first flash came through really does tell me everything I need to know. I also saw very specific things in the flashes, so there’s no way the hypnotist could have known of those items to implant them in my memory.

    I like what you said: “It’s not my circus.”

    I will definitely buy your book when it comes out. Thanks again for your input and all the tools you offer. Thank cheeze for special powerhouse people like you.

    In solidarity indeed. Brightest Blessings to you,


  3. SDW – I’m really glad I found your blog. Thank you for sharing your experiences, knowledge, and healing suggestions. You have a compelling way of sharing your experiences.

    I had always wondered what was wrong with me over the years until I had hypnosis to work on something unrelated in 2010. Why I dissociated during sex. Why I didn’t lose my “virginity” till my early 20s, because I was very scared of sex. Why I had major intimacy problems and smoked epic amounts of pot to numb myself and on and on. I also abused prescription drugs too. I experienced bulima in my 20s and had major self esteem issues. Why I moved away to another state for my own sanity as soon as I could.

    During the course of the sessions, I had a flashes of my uncle sexually abusing me at a very young age and it threw me into an unexpected state of shock. I confronted my parents to find out what happened. My mom said my brother and I cried hysterically when this uncle babysat us, and they thought he was just being “mean” to us. My dad revealed he was sexually abused by an aunt and this aunt was married to a pedophile. So incest in my family is generational. My brother molested my sisters (I only knew about one and tried to protect her by threatening him and keeping an eye on her at all times. It was like a compulsion for him, as he’d get to her in the middle of night. It was a nightmare). I was so scared to tell my parents, because my dad had a scary temper and thought he’d kill my brother. I felt so much guilt for not speaking up for years, but I was only 12 and doing the best I could. My sister told someone at school and my brother was arrested as a juvenile.

    I didn’t fathom in my 12 year old mind that my other sister was being abused too because she’s close in age to my brother), my cousin his sister and me (he committed suicide in high school), etc. My brother and I were both sexually abused by the uncle and no doubt my was cousin too. Who knows who else? I also suspect my grandfather and possibly my father due to the amount of anger I feel toward him. He pinches my ass (and my other sister) when I visit home (once a year) despite my forcefully repeated requests asking him to stop. She ignores him, but I will not. For years, it didn’t enter my awareness that his behavior isn’t appropriate. After I quit all pharmaceuticals, I visited home and when he pinched me I l felt very mentally fragile and shaky inside. I didn’t have anything in my system to numb me for the first time. I gained 50 pounds over the course of 2 years.

    Two months later my mom and I got into it and she asked: “you’re not over this yet? I thought those sessions healed you?” Then a month later said she and my dad didn’t believe I was sexually abused, because sexual abuse memories recovered during hypnosis are bogus. I was devastated and in an emotionally fragile state. My sister said my mom confronted her when she was younger with her underwear and asked her if anything was going on, but she denied it. On some level, my mom knew. My brother broke the cycle as he bravely told his wife what he did before they married. I’m very proud of him for his courage. He has tried very hard to make up for what happened with my sisters by telling them he was very sorry.

    I’m wondering what do you think of abuse memories recovered during hypnosis? I went through a period of extreme doubt after my mom pulled her support. I questioned myself relentlessly and regretted trying hypnosis at all. I’ve done a lot of inner work and feel extremely strong on the inside now. I’m in my early 40s, so it took a long time to get to this place.

    Thank you again for your courageous and powerful voice.


    1. Hi Janelle,
      You can trust yourself. You can trust your feelings. You can trust your memory fragments. I suggest reading the posts on this site about how traumatic memories work. I also strongly suggest that you not use family members for validation – they have too much personal agenda to be able to be honest with themselves and you. Dysfunctional abusive family systems are minefields of denial, minimization and blame, and you aren’t going to get accurate information there.
      As for the hypnosis – think about it critically – why on earth would a person in a single hypnosis session be able to implant years worth of memories? What would be the benefit to that hypnotist in doing that? Is there money in it for them? How many sessions would it realistically take, even if a person wanted to program you with a ton of false beliefs, body sensations and feelings, to accomplish that to simulate the knowledge you have? I don’t think it’s even possible with a lot of sessions over years, but certainly not in a single session. Your mother is in denial and is making up a very flimsy alternative theory to avoid having to deal with some very painful truths. Understandable but not rational. The more the family system has patterns of covering up abuse, the more complicated and sticky this type of family denial and invalidation of survivors and other craziness will be. It’s not your circus. You don’t have to fix it, but don’t buy it either.

      You even have a lot of external validation that you grew up in a system where abuse was enabled and tolerated – your brother’s abusing your sister and his arrest. Your brother also admits and owns what he did. It is common for young children who have been abused to try and make sense of that experience by doing it to other children. That doesn’t make it right what he did, but it does explain it. I’m glad he is being accountable for his actions. I hope he is getting the help he needs to grieve what happened to him and what he did.

      I’m going to be spending time this year working on my book, so hopefully I’ll have more useful tools for survivors soon.
      All the best. In solidarity,

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  7. It can be hard to think of how to get away when you’re inside. Maybe those of us reading can help you identify some options that will work for you if you let us.
    If you’d like this kind of help, perhaps you can tell us some information to give context to suggestions. How old are you? Do you have a job? What country do you live in?

    I got away by getting a scholarship to a university in another town and taking out student loans to go there. I lived in a student residence and didn’t have my own phone there, so they couldn’t call me. They knew where I was, but I was far enough away that they didn’t visit much. I phoned weekly but kept it short. In the summer, I got a job that involved working in the bush (planting trees), so my location was hard to determine. When I finished working, I took the money I had and used it to get a place to live but didn’t tell them where it was or give them contact information. I had support from an adult children of alcoholics group, to help me learn to listen to myself and what I needed, and make me feel less crazy, as there were others there that felt as I did. 12 step groups such as Codependents Anonymous, AlAnon, Adult children of Alcoholics offer peer support that is free and can help you figure out what you need to do. You don’t have to have someone with alcoholism in your family to ‘qualify’ for these groups. Having an abusive home is enough. Having a support system really helps. These types of systems are support of equals for one another, and that can be empowering. I also had a boyfriend at the time, which really helped. It wasn’t the greatest relationship, but I was so used to being controlled by my parents that transferring that kind of role to him was a bit healthier. This wouldn’t always be the case, but he was essentially a good guy.

    If you are still a child, this is a lot harder to do, which is why some general information about your situation would help. It would help to know why you are living with your parents. For example, are you too young to work? Is it hard to get a good enough job to have your own place? do you have a disability that makes it hard to work? Are you being held captive? are you depressed or agoraphobic? In the country where I live, Canada, there is some free counselling available, that I also used to get strong enough to make the changes I needed to. Perhaps that kind of thing is available to you.

    You deserve to be free and in control of your own life and body. You’ve done nothing wrong. You deserve to be healthy and whole. It may be hard to believe that some times, but I will believe if for you.


    1. I’m 24. I live with my mother because the area that I live it is impossible to afford to move out. Cheapest apartments run about 850 a month minimum, if you want to live in a place that’s infested. I have a job, but only work 19 hours a week because of depression and anxiety and constant muscle aches and fatigue that the doctors haven’t identified yet. My job is the one thing that’s keeping me from going over the edge (I work in a library), and I don’t want to go somewhere where I would lose it because getting it’s the only type of job I can handle. I was trying for my master’s in library science but had to drop out of school because of health reasons and anxiety and I’m not in a place where I can go back right now. I don’t drive, so if I want to keep my job, I have to stay in the area for the sake of public transportation.

      I have money enough for immediate expenses that would happen in getting out – I’ve got an inheritance from my grandfather, so that currently isn’t an issue. I just don’t know what to do. I don’t have anyone who can help me be strong enough to deal with my mother’s manipulation and lack of understanding if I just announce I’m leaving and move to another part of town (if I could even do that.) Moving away in secrecy is far too complicated, and I really can’t handle going somewhere entirely on my own because I don’t know how to deal with life, being on my own. That’s pretty much the biggest reason I feel I can’t get out; I can’t deal with life on my own, and I don’t have anyone who can help me.

      I have a lot of social anxiety and it makes it difficult to seek out people or resources. I need people to help find resources with me because I’m too anxious to do it alone; I won’t find people until I have resources. This is a small, highly conservative Christian city, it’s hard to find anything to help that isn’t a conservative church that preaches forgiveness and reconciliation at all costs, or at least that’s all I know about. I lost my faith awhile ago, and with that nearly every friend I had. I live in the US, in Southern California. To not give specific location, I live in the general vicinity of Six Flags Magic Mountain.

      I just need someone(s) physically with me so that I can figure this out with actual, physical support, and since I don’t have that I don’t know how to do any of it, and all the ways I look at it just leave me too anxious to even try.

      1. I was 16 when I left home to go to school. I had flashbacks constantly, which I literally thought were some sort of supernatural haunting, not knowing what else they could be. I was anxious and afraid all the time. When I finally completely left and didn’t tell them where I was (age 18), I sneaked into the house while my parents were at work, took my stuff and never went back. I’ve never been to their house since.

        Social anxiety is very hard, I get that. I’ve been anxious my whole life. Living life anyways, in the biggest bites you can chew off at the time, is the only way to get over it, ultimately. All survivors struggle with anxiety, trusting their own reality, and feeling helpless and wanting to be rescued.

        Waiting to be rescued is a big trap that all of us fall into for awhile. We wanted to be rescued when we were being abused, and those feelings still haunt us, with all the intensity we felt them then, because it’s often augmented by those memories. Rescue is never going to happen, and the price paid for anything even approaching rescue is far too high (such as having your mom take care of you in return for believing her version of events, or ending up in an abusive relationship with a partner) The unfair but true thing about being is a survivor is that we have to figure out how to rescue ourselves.

        From what you’ve said of your situation, I’d suggest meds for the anxiety, at least short term, so you can be calm enough to do the research you need to do to help you get out of your toxic situation. Anxiety medications work. Ultimately, you need to deal with the feelings and flashbacks directly for it to go away, and it’s a long haul, but I personally think it’s worth it to get you bandaged up to get away. Don’t expect your family to support or like anything that increases your independence from them. Try to ignore their reactions or interpret them in that light. You also need to find some people who aren’t going to coerce you into pretending to forgive your abusers, and who will let you decide what to do. I had good luck with the 12 step programs, which are everywhere.

        Another thing that might work is a job that is residential, such as looking after an apartment building as an apartment manager, or being a live in nanny or housekeeper for a female headed household. A crappy job will do, or even bartering some work for lodging, provided you get out. I bet there’s a single mom who would gladly barter childcare for a spare room in her home. Failing that, how about finding somewhere to hang out away from your family most of the time. I hung out in a library a lot when I lived at home. If it’s part time and relatively nearby you could keep your library job. However, that’s just what I suggest based on my own experience. Your mileage will vary and you will figure out what you need to do. These are all just suggestions. You have to figure out what will work for you.

        There are also some good self-help things that have been shown scientifically to work to reduce anxiety. They’re not going to work really well while you’re still living at home, but they might help a bit. Here’s a website with the info:

  8. This is how my memories are. I get a flashback and I’m so certain I’ve come across something real. I’ll write it down as fast as I can, I think I finally have something, and then by morning it’s faded and unreal and dream like and none of the details seem right and it all seems preposterous. I get most of my flashbacks at night which make me think I need to be in a sleepy, dream like state, which make me doubt their accuracy as well.

    I also have an entire childhood of rape fantasies, plus a subconscious violent imagination. If I let my mind wander, it will go to rape scenes and murder scenes and bodies being destroyed. When i close my eyes, that’s the first thing I see, no matter what I’m wanting to think about. I don’t know how to piece out my memories from imagination, and when I do, I don’t know if what I consider memory is really just imagination. And then I get frustrated at how unreliable my mind is.

    1. This is really normal, for you to experience your memories in the way you do. This is what long term traumatic memories are like – dissociated, split in to pieces so they seem unreal. Did you read my post about long term trauma memories?

      It is okay. Regular people’s minds don’t have intrusive rape images – why not just stay neutral about whether they are real. They’re real and scary to your inner self, whether they’re objectively real. May I suggest comforting yourself as if they are real when you experience them?

      Hang in there,

      1. The problem I have is that I have no ability to mentally retain visuals. I have a visual processing disorder – “inability to process and make sense of what I see”, which I’m not sure is trauma based or not. It’s possible it’s just your average learning disability, or it’s possible my brain just figured out it was safer if it lost most of its ability to visually understand the world.

        It’s like…I can have visual flashbacks but then be emotionally disconnected from them. But then, like today, I fell asleep in my clothes and they got twisted, so when I woke up I sat up and straightened them out, and something in the act of sitting up in bed and straightening out regular clothes triggered…something and I started feeling panicky and shaky and had to sit with my hands over my face for awhile.

        So I guess it makes sense, it just can be difficult because sometimes it seems as though the flashbacks don’t fit with the things that give me emotional reactions, which don’t fit with what I think about my past and others say it is.

        1. The way you are describing your memories and flashbacks is exactly what they are like for other people. We think they’re supposed to feel like normal memories, but they’re not. Traumatic memories are processed differently and they feel and behave differently. It’s like someone shredded them into a jigsaw puzzle of sorts, hid most of the pieces, and then expected you to make a picture from them. It’s not possible. However, by trusting what you have and labeling it a memory (even if it’s just a fragment of emotional, or somatic/physical, or visual, or auditory or scent memory with no label attached), sometimes more comes, which can be a curse as well as a blessing.

          What you know from the memory you have is that straightening out twisted clothes, or something similar to that in sensation, is attached to something bad that happened, and is also attached to a feeling of panic and shakiness that is also a part of that memory. This is not a full memory (they seldom are) it’s a piece. It’s really okay, normal and typical to have fragmented memories of abuse and trauma. It’s the norm rather than an exception. They’re memories. Wierdly structured memories, but memories all the same. When you have more of the pieces put together, they may even resolve into something that feels more like normal memories.

          You’re normal. This is normal. You’re injured. This is part of recovering.
          Good luck and may you be safe soon.

        2. It’s hard to make it all make sense. I’m fairly certain something was happening to me at three – I have vague memories of spending my days hiding behind a chair while my mother was at work, and being too afraid to go to the bathroom because my parents bedroom was across from it and I didn’t want my father to see me. My mother tells me I regressed at three because she went back to work. But I can’t make it make sense in my head that she didn’t know something – if not outright, then at least strongly suspected. And I rely so much on her interpretation of memories – for some reason I feel that because she was the adult, when I was the child, she should know better; but then her telling of who I was changes depending on the conversation and the argument that she wants to win.

          I had blackout moments as a child. I would wait up for my father to come home from work at midnight, so that I could tell him/show him something, and then the next morning I would ask if I could tell him and my parents would inform me, “oh, you did that last night” and I would have no memory of it.

          I feel like everything has been one massive headgame. My mother has had multiple conversations with me telling me that there are no such things as repressed memories, which I’ve been told is a strange thing for a parent to do. She has told me there is no possible way my father sexually abused me (another strange conversation) and yet her evidence is of really creepy things; that he was so uncomfortable touching me, and wouldn’t change my diaper even as an infant because I was a girl — I’m not sure that sexualizing your infant is a sign of anything good. But, I don’t know.

          But now my family acts normal, and nice, and expects that to be the end of it. My father is dead (thankfully) but my brother is not, and my mother expects that I should forgive him and move on because he wants to move on – expects this so much that I’m no longer allowed in the house when he’s here so that I don’t make him and his family uncomfortable. My mother and brothers act like they’re the most wonderful, stable family now, aside from me, who they act like they can’t understand why I treat them so terribly.

          Sometimes I beat my head into a wall because I feel like I’m insane, or maybe they’re driving me to insanity, I can’t tell. They talk like we had this idyllic past, like my mother was some prime example of parenting, like my father was someone worthy of love, like my brother’s physical abuse of me was sibling rivalry or typical. Sometimes like it didn’t even happen.

          My head hurts from it all. I don’t know if we’re keeping up appearances or if I am truly out of my mind. I don’t know if there’s any truth to my memories or her memories or to anything anymore. And if I find any truth, if I’ll ever be able to trust any of it.

          Sorry for the long comment, I’ve been up all night thinking about this.

          1. Hi Somaticstrength,
            I remember believing what my family told me about my reality, the way I thought and what had happened. None of it was the truth, and now I have proof, but I wasn’t able to connect to my own core to know that till I got away, and even then, it was a gradual process that took years.

            You’ve been conditioned for a long time, from an early age, to accept your mother and family’s version of reality. Think about people who were raised in cults and how hard it is to return for thinking for themselves. It will be very hard, if not impossible for you to figure out what is true if you remain in close contact with them. It wouldn’t have to be forever, but I believe that getting some physical and social distance at least for a year or so will help a lot.

        3. I want to, I’m just not sure how. I don’t really have a support system, and no matter how many ways I try and come with finding a way out, I hit a brick wall.

          I’ve pretty much given up hope of ever getting away from them.

  9. I am feeling amazed at the sense of community, courage and strength blogging can bring to us all. I followed links tonight to other survivor’s websites that you have posted and my heart is filled with a lot of different emotions, above all love and pride at the tenacity and fortitude of all ;SURVIVAL TRULY AWESOME. Thanx Janey

  10. You are a warrior and I am so stoked to have found you, your writing and your website.
    I have always felt weird around so much stuff between early sexual abuse and then losing virginity and you discuss these gaps so clearly I can see I don’t need to be ashamed. I will contact again cheers Janey

    1. I’m really glad you feel like this is a safe place to talk about this. You definitely don’t need to be ashamed. If you have anything you want to ask questions about, I’d be happy to talk with you more about this.

      1. Hi I appreciate your offer and love reading your responses and dialoguing with you. I like you have done alot of processing and writing around my abuse and aspects of it that society is so unable to deal with and give support around. Sometimes the loneliness is unbearable and it is hard to fathom the level of abandonment we endure because we were open and innocent prey for dysfunctional family members. I don’t have family connections now. Anyone who was available re my truth has died. So I think you are a virtual sister for me ha ha hope that is ok. When I write it is releasing but I have grief come up when I am putting my writing on the computer so much so that I have to do it in bits. Perhaps I should just put it straight on but I like journalling. I have hardly made an inroad on your writing which is exciting cos there is so much more. Regarding Publishing I would say go for it you have as has been acknowledged a well rounded approach!!!(2nd Aussi supporting you).
        I love your wise gentle intelligent awareness when responding. I was amnesiacal for over 7 years and responses were uncaring when I was trying to get clear. We get our memories as we can manage them even though I have sometimes felt, “No Not ready”, in truth I was it is just it is challenging. Which brings me to your awesome warrior energy. I have been wielding a sword but feeling like I must have been using a toothpick, and now I know why. One has to see oneself as the awesome warrior one is and ever since I discovered your blog I have felt my warrior self returning.
        Boadicea and amazonian warrioresses come to mind when I see your pic. cheers for now Janey

        1. Yes, I like those images – Boadicea and Amazons (and Xena and Wonder Woman) too. We are all warriors. We survived the worst part. All (!) that remains now is to face it.
          Cheers back at you,

  11. Thank you for being so open and honest about everything. The bit at the end, about remembering. It just really helps to have somebody… type it out loud, y’know? I’ve been really worried ever since I completely shut down at the only gyno appointment I’ve ever been to three and a half years ago, because I was told that something more than molestation had probably happened. And that’s that. That’s all I was told. Just a hint that something completely and really awful had happened, and why don’t you just get over it already and do life like you’re supposed to.

    Anyway, I really appreciate your posts about memory because they help me understand what I remember.

    1. @kindamaybesorta You’re welcome, that’s why I write – to understand it myself and to connect with others. So you had a gyne visit and the person who examined you basically told you you had vaginal/vulva scarring? That must have been rough. I’m sorry, and I’m sorry you were raped.

      Martha Beck had the same thing happen to her according to her book ( I wrote that post before I knew about my own scars . I took a digital camera and took a photo so I could see the scars for myself. I recommend it. It was helpful to see that they were there, what they looked like and also how faint they’d gotten. I still have ongoing pain, but at least I now understand where it’s coming from for the most part, and the scars show that the wound did heal.

      As for your abuser(s) – may we outlive them all and dance on their graves.

      1. I couldn’t even let them do a breast exam before I shut down do completely my mother complained that I reverted to a two-year-old. I can remember being molested multiple times and that one other thing that I don’t know how to name, yet, but that’s not a good enough reason. I really hope I wasn’t raped, but I’m scared that I was and don’t remember it and am stuck with the aftermath.

        Thanks for the link, I just read through it. I’m glad you have somebody to connect to, though the reason for it just sucks.

        I have no idea what a vulva is supposed to look like, but I’m sure Google can come up with something. That sounds like a god idea, the camera thing. Also, somewhere you wrote about using an ice pack to relieve the itching and pain; I read that at just the right time! Awesome tip.

        1. I’m using an ice pack right now. It does help. Wrap it in cloth or use it over clothing so it’s not too cold.
          Vulvas have great variety in how they look. The labia in particular can be irregularly shaped, be long or compact and all kinds of in between and still be very normal.

          The evidence of scarring in my case is two faint white scar lines leading from the vagina opening toward the front part of the vulva where the clitoris is. It’s not super obvious.

          Most kids whose vaginas are damaged in rapes heal up without scarring, apparently (I’ve got links in my resource links area to some of that info) so the fact that I have scarring reflects that the damage was particularly bad and repeated. I’m saying this so you know that not having scarring isn’t proof you weren’t raped. Did you read my posts about getting a pap test back in 2009? There might be some ideas in there that will be helpful.

          Blessings to you,

        1. Let me know how it works out. Good luck and you’re welcome.

          About not remembering, I know it’s maddening, but really all you have to do is clean up what affects your life now and link together what you have in terms of memory fragments. If you focus on that, you’ll get what you need to heal. You may not remember, and that’s okay.

          1. I feel so fortunate for having found your blog… especially this piece on memory of assault… I denied anything happening for over 40 years… then there was no place to run… I still don’t remember the details of what exactly happened the first time between 5-6 but I know who it was and where something happened… it does get so insane at times but you are so right… all we have to do is clean up what affects our life now and link memory fragments… Thank you so so much for having put this blog up… one of the best I have come across in my hunt.

            1. sworddancewarrior

              You’re very welcome. We need to lift one another up. I’m glad my blog helped. Yes, that’s what we have to do – be brave warriors, witness whatever our child selves/memories need to tell us and link the memory pieces up so they can fade. Thank you.

  12. Pingback: Primer for Partners of Sexual Abuse Survivors | May We Dance Upon Their Graves

  13. In a way, yes. I had severe flashbacks, night terrors and triggers during that time, which are a kind of remembering, but I didn’t have access to the context information that I recall. I’m guessing that there were some times during those years that I remembered, like just after it happened while my wounds were healing, or when I was reabused, but I don’t remember that. However, I knew at some level, because when I read an article about a girl who had run away because her stepfather was raping her, I reacted by being a lot more assertive with my father, which ultimately made him stop. I’d split him into two persons, the monster and my dad, so I was actively protecting myself from knowing it was him while I lived at home. This is not really the same as forgetting, since a part of myself still knew, in a way I split as well. I left home at 16, and began putting things together about a year later. I was about as dissociated as you can get without being separate identities during the time I lived at home. It just wasn’t safe to know that he was the one since he still had access to me. About the age of 18, I was finally safe in another city in a place where he couldn’t get at me. Then it all came to a head, the pieces fell together and it was safe to connect up with the part of myself that knew it was my dad who had abused me. At that point I didn’t know how I knew, I just knew. Specific incidents trickled in after that. Before that they all blurred together.

  14. This is such an excellent post – I am so glad you wrote it. I think memory is one of the most misunderstood things about surviving child sex abuse. May I ask a clarifying question, just so I understand? Did you have no memory of the shithead’s abuse between the ages of 5 and 21?

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