If you’re reading this and you don’t know what it is like to recount traumatic memories with a therapist, I’m here to tell you that it is super stressful. It’s stressful for so many reasons. In particular, talking to someone about your memories of childhood sexual abuse is stressful because it feels like you are reliving it as you talk about it. It’s also unbelievably embarrassing. I am not, in any way, shape, or form, a prude. I love the movies Ted, 40 Year Old Virgin, and American Pie – just to name a few. Profanity is the norm for me and I don’t even really mind talking about sex. My family plays Cards Against Humanity at every holiday gathering and the raunchier, the better. “Prude” just is not a word many people would use to describe me.
However, there is something so humiliating about divulging your childhood sexual experiences with someone. Maybe that’s because as an adult, I know that it’s gross…the things that happened to me were gross. Maybe it’s humiliating because no matter how many times we go through it, there is always this fear of judgment. The guilt that I carry regarding my abuse is something that I still really struggle with. While my therapist has never made me feel guilty for what happened to me (pretty sure that would classify her as “the worst therapist ever”), I have this fear that one day she will tell me that it was indeed all my fault – that all of my “irrational” thoughts and fears are not irrational after all, in fact they are actually very, very accurate. I get that I probably sound crazy – don’t worry, I’m not crazy at this very moment, my mind just likes to mess with me and think of all of the “what ifs.”
So this week we went through a new memory in therapy. Actually, I don’t know if it’s really new or not – I can’t remember if we’ve gone through this one before. All of my sessions do start to blur together after a while. It felt new though. Opening up my journal to read about the experience felt new. You see: I struggle to verbalize what happened to me most of the time. I shut down or leave things out. The solution to that, for me, is to write it down and then read it aloud to my shrink. In general, this works really well for me.
Ok. So what does it feel like to go through a “new” memory with someone? Well, let’s define “new.” This term does not mean the memory itself is new for me. I came into therapy with a lot of memories of abuse already. There are some though, a small handful, that I would probably classify as really awful, and those ones I definitely blocked out. And then, as they come up due to my trauma work, I remember them. I know there are more that I intentionally block out. I know if I really wanted to, I could probably remember more. But I don’t want to. I don’t want to see it. I don’t want more painful memories. So instead, when those ones come up, I find distractions and force them away. When I work through a “new” memory, it usually means it’s a memory that I’ve had for a while now (or forever) but haven’t discussed it with my shrink yet.
When I work through a new memory, it feels like the ground underneath me is crumbling and the room is changing. It feels like I am little again. I see my 6 year old, 8 year old, or 10 year old self, sitting on the floor staring at my journal in my shrink’s office. It feels like any minute he’s going to come through the door and hurt me. And sometimes, I swear he does because it hurts just like it did when I was little. Going through a memory for the first time, reading it out loud, makes it so very real. My anxiety escalates so fast that I think the only way to stop myself from spontaneously combusting is to hurt myself. It’s a combination of fear and sadness and shame that is so unbearably strong. Going through this “new” memory was no different. I didn’t really plan on going through it this week. I like to have a plan in therapy so I know what to expect. However, sometimes when I know what to expect and it’s something I don’t want to do, I will intentionally bring up irrelevant topics to prevent going through it. It’s a catch 22.
It takes a massive amount of courage to open my mouth and read aloud the words that are written in my journal. Reading it out loud makes it real and for so many reasons, I don’t want it to be real. I can remember after one very difficult memory, telling my therapist, “I don’t want it to be real because it makes me sad.” She’s usually not super compassionate, but her response that day was, “It makes me sad too.” For whatever reason, that validation, the fact that she felt sad like I felt sad in that moment, made me realize that how I feel about my trauma memories is normal! It is normal to feel sad about them sometimes. It’s ok. Feeling sad about the bad things that happened to us is ok.
Going through a new memory is sad. It’s sad every single time. It’s scary; it’s scary every single. It’s dysregulating; it’s dysregulating every single time. But, I am courageous. I am courageous because even when I don’t think I can read the words on the page – when I don’t think I can relive the experience – I somehow find the strength to do it anyway. Today, that strength came from my therapist telling me why it is important that we talk about it. Sometimes that strength comes from her telling me that I am going to be ok. But sometimes that strength comes from remembering where I’ve been and where I want to go. And other times, that strength comes from the little tastes of freedom that I’ve gotten from these stupid PTSD symptoms; freedom from the constant flashbacks, nightmares, and anxiety. Being anxious all the time SUCKS. It is seriously the worst feeling ever. And when I’m anxious over trauma memories and flashbacks, and we talk about them in therapy, that anxiousness begins to dissolve. And I know that the memory we discussed this week will gradually become less stressful. The key is reminding myself of that during the process. It’s working extra hard to stay present by running through my five senses, squeezing my play-doh, and telling myself it’s just words on a page. It’s remembering that in reality, the worst is already over.
If you’re doing trauma work right now, I want you to know that if I could, I would be there to hold your hand while you relive it. Because it’s hard. I know it’s hard. And every once in a while, that compassion makes it easier.
Be courageous. Show compassion to yourself and others. And know that nothing is permanent. You are stronger than you think.