Another fairly common characteristic of trauma memory and (C)PTSD is amnesia. Forgetting.
I wonder if this sounds like a good thing. Maybe it does? After all, if you forget aspects of abuse, it won’t bother you, right? Wrong.
And here’s why:
- The body keeps the score, regardless of what you remember and what you don’t. There are plenty of survivors who only remember what happened to them as they explore their unhappiness, their suicidal ideation, or why oh why do I see flash images of something I can’t place? Just because you don’t remember something clearly doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened. And hasn’t done damage. For instance, I have a solid idea of the first couple of episodes of actual sexual abuse — I was 11. And I am pretty sure that it went on until I was around 15. Yet even then I can only remember glimpses of moments — an action, a positions, a time of day, a pair of trousers, a sound — out of episodes which will have lasted perhaps 15 – 30 minutes each, and happened dozens of times. This type of remembering is more than fragmentation: the mind forces itself entirely to forget.
- The mind forgets too what might have been positive, or good to remember. The mind forgets times when you might have been powerful, or successful. It might forget the loyalty of your friends, or in my case, even that you had any. The mind is — depressingly, and distressingly — indiscriminate in its forgetting sometimes. There’s probably a neurological reason for this strange thing — forgetting the potentially good as well as the self-evidently bad. All I really know is that my whole childhood has stretches of absolutely nothing at all. Blankness, regardless of what might have happened in that space.
In my memoir Learning to Survive I call these blank passages of time ’empty rooms’. That’s what they feel and look like when I think of them: grey-scale, entirely bare, deserted, with wind blowing through them. They are all over the place. And I can’t help but feel them as losses — examples of yet more helpless loss of what is rightly mine.
This excerpt captures the nature of these blank passages, and one in particular which I still find startling: I told people for nearly 40 years that I did not attend my high school graduation — but then I discover something that refutes that.
I am 17 here, and living with my mother for my final year of high school. It’s a different high school, in a different town, and I am only there for eight months.
Aside from the smoking block, the creative writing magazine, and drama, virtually nothing else in my time at Patrick Henry [High School] sticks. My group of friends is important to me – even if I am aware from the start that soon I am leaving – but I remember nothing about my classes, what I learn, if I learn, what I study. Not even English. I do know, however, that I refuse to undertake Advanced Placement classes, and also refuse to take the exams, even though doing well in them will remove some college credit requirements. I feel certain that the school merely wants the kudos – I have no idea if this is true – and I take heart from there being no one else at Patrick Henry going for AP. So I hold firm, perhaps – the jury is out – cutting off my nose to spite my face.
In June 1982 I graduate second in my class of around 500 students. I remember nothing about the ceremony itself – not the location, the gowns, the announcements, the walk across stage – nothing, and have always assumed (and told everyone) that I did not attend. Except I must have, because three days ago I discover two copies of the graduation programme in the manila folder [my sister] passed to me from [my stepmother] – all my paperwork, such as it is, from my 13 years with them.
The programme shows that I am the top graduating woman in my class, and my sister tells me that the whole family was there: my father, my stepmother, my mother, and my siblings. …….. I wish I could remember being there, remember taking pleasure in it — anything about it at all — but as ever, when the wind blows, it sweeps everything away in its path.
And so the academic year ends. I get the first of many jobs in restaurants, at first as dishwasher, then soon move up to wait staff. My mother is delighted and I love the work; I am earning my own money and am able to save. I am going back to Blacksburg a little more, still uncomfortably, but we all, I think, seem to reach an unspoken truce. And no one is the wiser.
In August it is time for me to go to Oberlin [College]. Inexplicably, it seems to me now, [my stepmother] takes me there. Together we make the eight-hour journey with a full car, after which I will start the rest of my life. We listen to The Beatles, and I cry all the way through ‘The Long and Winding Road’, hiding my tears by looking out the window. I allow myself to feel homeless then, anchorless, all belief fading, going from who knows what to who knows where. I don’t know if I’m going to be okay. I wonder if I am wrong: if my old life, after all, is better than the one I am going to. I wonder if I will ever come back. If I will ever really be happy.