Soul Self Help - Remembering Sexual Abuse

The following is taken from the book: "The Sexual Healing Journey" by Wendy Maltz

About half of all survivors experience some memory difficulty. Survivors may have absolutely no memories of sexual abuse or only incomplete memories. We may blank out details of events but can recall feelings such as anger or fear. "I don't know where I was who I was with, but I remember feeling terrified that my genitals were going to be hurt and then feeling ashamed," a survivor said. 0thers may forget emotions and recall only the events that transpired. A client once told me about her incest so unemotionally that she sounded like a reporter on the evening news. It wasn't until she could recall emotions that she really felt she had been victimized and could acknowledge the abuse.

If you sense you were sexually abused and have no memories of it, it is likely that you were. Suspicions about sexual abuse do not arise out of the blue, for no reason. Suspicions can be agonizing and painful. No one likes the idea that he or she might have been harmed in the past, perhaps by a loved one. When people have suspicions of sexual abuse, it's usually because something did happen to them.

Memory loss has a reason

Memory loss occurs for many reasons. We may have been so young when abused that we were unable to form thoughts or put our feelings into words. If we could talk, we may have lacked a vocabulary for the adult types of sexual activities that went on. It's harder to remember an event when we have no words available to describe it. Similarily abuse can be hard to recall if it occurred when we were unconscious, asleep, or under the influence of alcohol or other drugs.

Memory loss can be an important way of coping with abuse. If dad is doing something we feel strange about, something that might change the way we think of him, we may unconsciously decide it's better to forget the abuse. Victims of extremely violent and bizarre abuse may suffer traumatic amnesia, in which the shocking, violent nature of the abuse causes absolute memory loss of the event.

Memory loss protects us from overwhelming or continuous psychological strain after the experience. Sexual abuse is often confususing, painful, upsetting, shame inducing, and humiliating. We may have no one with whom we can talk openly about it and no opportunity to resolve our emotional feelings. Some people we talk with may discount our experience or blame us for it. We may convince ourselves that if we forget about it, we can get on with life.

Memory loss also protects us from painful feelings that are in- directly related to the abuse. A survivor might fear that remembering would bring up other issues. Why didn't my mother protect me from what my father was doing? She must have known. Didn't she care?

Most of the survivors I talk with who suspect they were abused but have little recollection wish they could remember more about what happened to them. "Not remembering my past is like being dead and not being able to remember my life," a woman told me. Another survivor commented, "It's hard for me to accept there may parts of me I've forgotten things which happened to me that I don't know about." As we pursue healing we may want access to locked-in memories.

Memories can't be forced

Recalling the specifics of sexual abuse is not essential for sexual healing. But if memories do return, that can help the healing process. Remembering sexual abuse may enable us to acknowledge abuse more fully and to direct our healing efforts more efficiently.

Survivors often remember abuse when they are ready to and no sooner. Robin, an incest survivor, began to recall her abuse when she stronger, more assertive, and secure in her life. Her memories emerged gradually. "I didn't let myself know more than I could handle. I feel grateful to the part of myself that kept this repressed until now," she said later.

Remembering takes time and energy. As one survivor said, "If I could put as much time into remembering the abuse as I did into forgetting it, I believe I could remember a lot more."

You're likely to find that memories will surface simply by your proceeding on this sexual healing journey. Sexual healing encourages thinking about sex and sexual abuse, which in turn can stimulate recollection.

When we pay close attention to our sexual reactions and thoughts, we can often discover a link to past sexual abuse. One survivor's fear of getting anything gooey on her body led her to remember her grandfather ejaculating on her when she was a little girl. A male survivor traced his fear of men touching him on the shoulders to an early experience of being forced to orally copulate his uncle. As upsetting as these discoveries are, they do help to solve the mystery of why a strange reaction or thought existed in the first place and to bring the memory of the abuse to the surface.

Trusting our memories

When memories of events and feelings do start to surface, trust them. They may not make sense initially, but when many are added together you can get a better picture of what happened to you. As one survivor explained:

The process was like finding pieces of a jigsaw puzzle, each in a separate drawer, and fitting them together to see a picture I had never seen before.


Although memories of abuse often surface naturally when suvivors are ready to handle them, some survivors feel stuck. They may want to make a more active effort to facilitate remembering.

Survivors can attend ongoing therapy sessions to create a consistent setting where memories can unfold. Having professional and personal support can help survivors feel safe and understood, which is so important to remembering. Survivors can use a variety of methods to help them remember, such as hypnosis, investigating their past by talking with relatives, or looking at old picture albums, floor plans of old homes, memorabilia, and so on.

If you feel ready to investigate your memories of sexual abuse, the following exercises may help you. These exercises consider sexual clues and activities directly. What you recall may cause you to feel unsettled, uncomfortable, perhaps even temporarily terrified. Go slowly, seek support. Give yourself a safe opportunity for your memories to return. Don't try to force recall; memories will emerge when you are ready to handle them. Recording what you learn in a journal may help you.

1. Think about your earliest sexual experiences. Who did what, when, and how? Were these experiences, in reality, sexual abuse?

2. Pay attention to the feelings, images, and thoughts that come up for you during sex. Take seriously any strange or irrational reations you may have. Are you strongly drawn to or extremely afraid of certain sexual activities? How long have you had these feelings, and where do they come from? How might these activities relate to sexual abuse?

3. Pay attention to your sexual dreams and fantasies. Are there repeated themes that pertain to power, control, humiliation violence? Do you have recurrent dreams or nightmares involve sexual abuse?

4. Spend time imagining that you were sexually abused, without worrying about accuracy, proving anything, or having your ideas make sense. As you give rein to your imagination, let your intuition guide your thoughts. Go at a pace that feels comfortable. Ask yourself or have a support person or therapist ask you questions:

  • What time of day is it?
  • Where are you? Indoors or outdoors?
  • What kinds of things are happening?
  • What types of touch are you experiencing?
  • What parts of your body are involved?
  • What do you see, feel, or hear?
  • How do you feel emotionally? Angry, scared, excited, confused?
  • How does it stop?
  • How do you feel when it's over?
  • Stop and reflect on, discuss, or write about this much of the exercise. When you feel ready, proceed with the next questions.
  • Who would have been likely perpetrators?
  • When were you most vulnerable to sexual abuse in your life?
  • When were you most vulnerable to sexual abuse in your life?

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