MEMORY BLOCKS OF CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE – WHY CAN’T I REMEMBER?
UNDERSTANDING THE MEMORY BLOCKS OF YOUR CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE
Here is a youtube video which shares information on childhood sexual abuse, and specifically memory. Many survivors can’t remember much or any of the abuse they suffered and they find this very confusing. I hope this video will go a little way to explain why you can’t remember. I hope you find it helpful.
There is also a FREE information sheet to go with this, which is a PDF file to download. You will find this on my shop page – info sheet 3. You will need to enter your email address as the file will be emailed to your inbox. If it doesn’t come through, please check your spam and junk folder.
(I’ve also put the info sheet under the link to the video just as a read only)
Click here for the video Why Can’t I remember my abuse?
INFORMATION SHEET 3
UNDERSTANDING THE MEMORY BLOCKS OF YOUR
CHILDHOOD SEXUAL ABUSE
Memory is often a confusing one. Many people can’t remember the detail of what happened to them when they were abused. It’s either missing, or its foggy. This is okay. This is normal. Let me explain something about short and long term memory, and our ‘memory filing system.’
Something happens, an event, an experience, and our mind creates a response to it. It creates a memory. This event pops into the short term memory. (The short term memory needs to be quite small, so that we can react quickly, remember easily, and not get too overloaded.) The new memory doesn’t stay long in the short term memory. It only last about 15-30 seconds (just enough for us to absorb it), and then it goes through a little tunnel into the long term memory at the back – a huge storage area where all the memories are kept. That tunnel bit is where we process the memory, and we process it by understanding it. This is why it is so hard for us to remember things that we don’t understand – they pop in and pop out again, without going into the long term memory. (This happens to me with algebra and equations! Languages is another. Repetition helps with this, as part of our brain will accept something it has heard or experienced before and create a memory from it to be filed.) Studies show that the deeper the level of processing, the more effective the entry into long term memory and its effective storage and later retrieval, suggesting that the quality of the memory is important and dependant on how it was processed or encoded.
Imagine if we lived to be one hundred years’ old how many memories would be in here – millions and billions! So, how do we find them? How do we find one single memory amongst all the trillions of memories in there? We file them, and this filing system, well, it needs to be a very sophisticated filing system indeed, or we won’t be able to find anything. The brain uses something called ‘priming’ to do this. Priming is a kind of preparation. Let’s imagine we have experienced a colour – say a flower that is pink. Our brain will have a filing cabinet for ‘colour,’ and it will have another filing cabinet for ‘flowers.’ The memory will go into both, and be linked with an association, so that when we think, ‘pink flower’ in future, our brain knows which cabinets to go to in the long term memory, in order to fetch the right memory back for us. Once it has found it, it brings it back through the tunnel, to the front, so that we can ‘remember’ it consciously. With me so far? (My psychology lecturers would have a fit at my description here of memory, but it is enough for our purposes here!) We can’t possibly remember all of our memories consciously or our brain would crash, overload and blank out, so it kind of retrieves them one at a time, or in groups, and brings them back like that.
So, what happens when something happens for a first time, something that has never happened before? Where does the memory go if there is no preceding event that matches it? What happens if there is no filing cabinet for this event – it has never happened before and we have no idea where to file it or what to do with it? And what happens when we don’t even know or understand what the event is? Nothing; nothing happens. The memory can’t get filed. It is lost. It has nowhere to go. For us to file a memory, we need to first understand what it is. This is called ‘processing.’ Once it has been processed (understood), the brain prepares the correct filing cabinet for the memory to fit in. This is where the problem lies for children who have a sexual experience. There is no cabinet. A ‘sexual experience’ filing cabinet has not yet been created. And, there is no understanding of what this event is, no processing. The child does not know what this thing is that has happened to them. This event that just happened, it has no name. There is no understanding. A child of six, or seven, or eight, should have no understanding of sex. They do not know what it is, they do not understand what just happened, and they certainly don’t know where to file it.
Now, let’s imagine this enormous memory room with all of its cabinets, and with stacks of paper piled on top of loads of cabinets. All of these unfiled pages are events that we don’t yet know where to put, memories without a place to go, so they sit there, unfiled. Now, imagine trying to go into this room and find a memory that has no drawer, and no filing system. It will be in that huge stack over there, amongst many others, so we can’t find it, can’t access it. Now, let’s add a bit of denial into the mix. We want to believe that this thing didn’t happen at all; we want to deny it. So, not only does it not get filed, it gets shoved into a box, with a lid, and the box is locked, and the key thrown away – like Pandora’s Box, it stays hidden, out of the way, and it can stay there for decades. One day, out of the blue, some part of your inner self notices the box. The box starts to move forward out of the dark, blackness of the back of the room, and into the front. The box starts to open, and little broken bits of memories start to creep out. They are fragments, like pieces of a jigsaw. They form no picture, no image, nothing tangible, but we know it’s uncomfortable. We know something is there – we just don’t know what! Over time, those broken bits find their way into our subconscious and the subconscious wants us to figure it out, sort it out, deal with it, and then file it away as an event that once happened. So, it starts to give us those broken bits, in our dreams, in our behaviours, in our actions, and it feels awful. So, we avoid, distract, anaesthetise, repress, suppress and push down. We use drink, drugs, spending, relationships, work and chores, children and family, and anything else that we can find to distract our self with. We are experts at avoidance! The trouble is, the more we avoid, the more the subconscious pushes us to sort it out, but only when we are ready.
Our mind is very protective you know! It looks after us, and will only start to bring the box forward once it is sure that we are able to deal with it. When our inner self is convinced that we have developed enough wisdom, awareness, resilience, inner strength, honesty and trust – then it comes forward.
If you would like help with your memories, you will find help on my website or you can book a free consultation to discuss working with me 1 to 1 as a client. All the details are below. There are also many audio downloads on my shop website which can help you. These include:
Recovering from Sexual Abuse; Learning to love yourself; Learning to Love your Body; Relax; Building Confidence; and more in my shop
You can also see my book ‘Moving Past the Past: A Guide for Adult Survivors of Childhood Sexual Abuse’ for more detailed information, help and advice. (This article is taken from Chapter 5 of this book.)
If you would like to know more about working with me 1 to 1 on your healing journey, please do get in touch on the contact me page
Copyright © 2017 Julie Poole