While other people might not have as extreme a reaction to memory retrieval that I do, I want to try to explain to you what my experience is like in case my description can be of assistance to any of my readers who might have histories of severe trauma and who question their relationship to their own memories of these experiences.
Just the fact alone that we have to assess the danger of accessing our own memories is itself a tragic consequence of child abuse. We were in the past robbed of a safe and secure environment during the experience of the traumas themselves, and we are equally robbed of a safe and secure environment if we ever choose to remember these parts of our own lives.
Many might suggest that we can create enough safety and security in our present lives that we can go back into our trauma memories safely. I don’t think so. This is especially true for anyone who experienced severe traumas in their attachment relationships during the brain developmental stages prior to the age of two. We were not able to build safety and security into our brains from the start.
This means that we do not have these structures built into the foundation of our brain. Anything that we have later learned about safety and security is not connected, I believe, into the neural foundations of our being. The process of going back ‘for’ trauma memories that are the experiences of our lives is different for those of us without a safe and secure brain foundation. We are basically forced to borrow what we know about safety and security from other people’s expeiences who had them from their own beginnings.
Those who benefitted from safe and secure attachments as their early brains formed have within themselves the ability to self-regulate in effective ways. Those of us who had trauma built into our brains instead, do not have the ability to self-regulate. The only ways we do have to regulate ourselves are inadequate for the job of ever being able to easily, comfortably or safely access the traumatic memories that lie too close to the core of who we are.
Whatever abilities we developed that allowed us to survive and endure unimaginable early traumas are what keep us afloat in our everyday lives in the present moment. Any time we are forced either by trauma triggers to touch one of our trauma memories, or any time we choose to access one of our trauma memories, the result is the same. The trauma experiences are directly connected inside of us to dysregulation.
Accessing trauma memories disorients our ongoing present day experience and disorganizes our ‘insides’. This is because any orientation and organization that we have regarding ourselves in the world has to exclude our own full reality in order for us to sustain any reasonable sense of ourselves in our ongoing experience of our lives.
I cannot emphasize enough how fragile our existence really is. We cannot even afford to let ourselves know the profound truth of this fact. While we might be strong, capable and confident in many ways, if we suffered trauma and abuse particularly before the age of two, WE ARE NOT!
We have to, therefore, think about memory access and retrieval in the same way we would think about entering a raging inferno to retrieve anything — cherished or not. We need to think about our memories as if they were in the center of an erupting volcano. They lie at the center of a bomb blast explosion that never ends. If we experienced severe trauma before the age of 2 we can never return for any traumatic memory with immunity or impunity, no matter where along the timeline of our lives the trauma memory we are ‘dealing with’ lies.
The number one most helpful book I recommend is unfortunately expensive. It is, however, worth every cent of its cost. It contains more accurate and helpful information than any of us could obtain should we spend ten million dollars on ‘usual’ therapy. It is the best tool you can ever find to help you toward claiming (and I do not say reclaiming) yourself from your experiences of severe trauma during your attachment experiences as your brain-body-mind was built from your beginnings.
It is probably possible to have your local public or university library find this book for you if you cannot afford to buy it.
Traumatic Relationships and Serious Mental Disorders (Paperback)
by Jon G. Allen (Author)
- Paperback: 484 pages
- Publisher: Wiley; 1 edition (June 1, 2001)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0471485543
- ISBN-13: 978-0471485544
Because my own early traumas were so severe I am disallowed from retrieving any single memory without putting myself at risk for upsetting whatever inner state of marginal well being I might have in my present life. There is a cost and I have to pay a price for remembering anything about myself prior to the age of 18. In addition, any time I look back on my life AT ALL I have to try to unplug or disconnect my own experience of my own life AT ANY GIVEN POINT from the underlying reality of how my brain was built in the first place.
Because my own early traumas were so severe they could never be connected to one another in a single ‘string’. I was able to endure my traumas because of this fact that the individual experiences were not connected to one another. It is as if my own life force and my own inner, sacred self existed then, and still exists today, IN BETWEEN the actual experiences of my life.
I can think about this in terms of my individual experiences of myself in my life being powerful individual magnets that do nothing but exert opposing force against each other. It is only through my application of conscious will that they can be turned to exert a force of attraction that would stick them together instead of forcing them apart. This is my act of ‘re-membering’. As soon as I release the power of my act of will the memories release themselves from me and fly off again to assume some pattern of their own that seems to have nothing to do with me.
This is an example of what unresolved trauma does. It has a life of its own separate from any individual who may have actually endured the experience of the trauma. Unresolved trauma IS unresolved because it cannot be integrated. The traumas become like separate individual entities that share our existence within our bodies in our life times. But they remain separate from us because to integrate these kinds of traumas into ourselves would overwhelm and destroy us.
We are left not only with these ‘floating’ entities of traumas within us, but are also left with all the brain, mind and body changes that we had to experience in order to survive our experiences in the first place. These changes have become who we are in our bodies, and they dictate how we experience every ongoing factor of our lives.
If we are lucky, we can go on with our lives in spite of the experience of trauma and in spite of the impossible-to-integrate fact of their existence within our reality. If we are not lucky, like my mother was not lucky, trauma will so completely take over the operation of our brain-mind-body that no self can ever be found aside from trauma’s existence.
Perhaps, on a most graphic level, I am actually saying that either trauma eats us, as it did with my mother, or we eat the trauma, like what happened to me. No matter what adjustments we were forced to make during our early development, trauma still rules the show of our lifetime. There is nothing more we can do to escape this fact that what we did before we were 2 – 5 years old.
We can learn about the damage. We can apply conscious effort to try to change how these patterns are affecting us in the present. But we can never make the trauma go away completely.The only possible way to not be under some influence from trauma is for it to have never occurred for us in the first place.
In my particular case the power my brain developed to dissociate and disconnect the ongoing traumas from one another so that I would not become completely overwhelmed is reflected in every ongoing mental operation I pursue. I can never escape this fact. When my self had to develop outside of rather than within my own experience of my childhood life, it became able to exist in spite of those experiences. As a result it is not tied directly into experience in the same way that I think a ‘normally developing self’ might be.
When I choose to write about a memory I can mostly control how close I get to the actual memory itself. My one daughter can tell clearly in my writing how close or how far from a memory I am when I write. She calls it ‘hovering’ when I am keeping my safe distance. I have to have as many safety features in place as I can possibly construct within my present immediate world before I get any closer to a memory than I do when I hover.
Approaching most of my actual memories terrifies me, as well it should. I respect that sense, as I encourage you to respect your own similar sense if you feel it. The memories of my childhood experiences formed as I endured extremely dangerous circumstances, and they thus contain the danger within them. Re-membering these kinds of traumatic experiences requires an external reason to do so. This external reason is a protection factor against the insanity and lack of reason that formed the experiences the memories contain.
This external reason can help combat the disorientation and disorganization contained not only within the memories themselves, but within my body in the present as it experiences the process of re-membering. I have no guarantee, however, that the ‘me’ that exists prior to the re-membering of a traumatic abuse incident will be the same one that I experience when I am ‘done re-membering’ the memory. This act of re-membering changes me in the present.
Some might call this healing. I am not convinced that is the case. I believe that we can experience traumas that are of a nature and kind that they cannot be healed. When I tell you that the minimum sentence my mother needed to receive for her actions toward me would take 14,500 years of her lifetime away from her, I am talking about this kind and level of trauma.
I see the horrific image in my mind of photographs taken after the bombs were dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki that showed indelible shadows of bodies left behind after the blast. Some traumas leave those kinds of shadows etched within us that can never be either altered or erased. To put it most simply, any contact with these traumas within us will upset us all over again.
We never formed brains that were regulated to handle upset in the first place. That creates double damage if we blithely trample around within our own experience of traumatic childhoods. Re-membering the memories of childhood traumas traumatizes us anew each time we go through this process.
We have had parts of our life stolen from us and we can never get these parts back once the theft has happened. Returning to the memories of early developmental trauma will not, I believe, ever heal them. We cannot exchange the trauma memories for good ones. We cannot replace them. We cannot redeem them. They were formed into the structure of who we are.
Yet as the traumas formed us, we also found a way to build within us a structure that allowed us to survive them, and this structure is very, very wise. When I choose to attempt to access my early memories of traumas I am going against all the wisdom of that survival structure within me, and doing so creates a whole new level of the experience of pain. The memories are of pain, and re-membering them creates pain.
My own ongoing experience of my life is intertwined with the ‘old’ pain because it was impossible to entirely leave the pain behind. The abuse began too early, was too severe, and lasted too long for that to ever happen. The best that I can probably ever do is to increase the ‘pockets’ of my own self having life experiences that are further, rather than more closely, connected to the pain that is at the center of my self’s connection to this body.
I realize that I paint a grim picture, but it can be no other way. I am living the legacy of consequence of severe abuse and trauma that happened while my brain, body and mind were forming and developing. When I write about our need to recognize, prevent and stop trauma and abuse from happening to infants and to very young children, this is the kind and level of damage we understand. Survivors of these early traumas have the truest meaning of being alive stolen from them and there is no way to ever heal that kind of damage.