Triggered Memories

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Content Warning

  • Non-graphic sexual abuse

One thing I come across in talking to survivors of abuse, whatever that type of abuse has been, is the pattern of memory recall about an incident.  An event, a word, a smell will bring up a memory from seemingly nowhere.  It will set off all sorts of emotions and often feelings of helplessness.  There’s the remembered helplessness of the incident and often a fresh helplessness in still having to deal with it many years later.

I’ll see third parties questioning that an incident ever happened or trying to be ‘helpful’ by suggesting that the person just needs a good kick up the backside to put it behind them.

I should hold my hand up to say that I’ve been guilty in the past of being in the latter camp when someone appears to be attention seeking and wallowing in victim status.  I am, perhaps, more sensitive these days since I know people, some very close, actively fighting to overcome some very debilitating experiences.  My personal sympathies are with those proactively fighting to reclaim their lives.

This is rather hard to write from this point since I’ve only ever alluded to this once to a single person.  There’s an incident from what must be 45 years ago now where I was sexually assaulted by a stranger.  That memory has never left me.  It would go dormant for a long time and then resurface at some unknown trigger.

What I find odd, though is probably not unusual, is that as I’ve got older it resurfaces more frequently.  For long parts of my life I would, I suppose you would say, repress it.

I’ve never been too disturbed when it’s been triggered.  For a moment there’s been that remembered feeling of helpless fear and the closing of the memory box on getting away to safety.

But there’s one feeling that comes back every time.  That nagging voice that says it was my fault.  That I’m angry the 9 or 10 year old me should have done something different and not ‘invited’ the attention.  It’s not an excessive feeling, but if I dwell on the memory it can make me feel unclean – when it didn’t at the time.

I can see various readers nodding at this point.  It’s all fairly classic.

How much has this affected the decisions of my life ?  I couldn’t say.  Up until ten years ago I would probably have answered “not at all”.  The fact that parts of it can still come back vividly make me re-evaluate that without any clear answer.  It’s not given me anxiety or depression, though I can see how easily it might have since my impression over the last few years is that it had begun to fester.

There’s a danger in writing about such things to fall in to the trap of competitive victim hood, seeking sympathy.  There’s no intent to do that for something that in the great scheme of things is comparatively trivial.  All I wanted to convey was that if I’m listening to you and sounding like Sybil Fawlty on the phone to her friend – “Oh, I know … Yes, I know” – that there’s some substance behind it.  I won’t understand the full extent of the horrors you experienced, but that triggered memory experience and what it feels like – yeah, I entirely get that.

One thing I have found is that in talking to people dealing with infinitely worse situations, I have come to better understand my own mechanics of triggered memories and the feelings associated with them.


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