Processing trauma can feel like an ongoing battle; at times a bloody war. I’ve always known that I must process all of it. If I leave any stone unturned I will trip up and fall, most likely landing flat on my face, with a broken rib or two. It’s best to clear the ground now. To prevent the inevitable.
Trigger warning: The following post contains themes relating to CSA that some may find upsetting.
The majority of my abuse was always clear to me. I didn’t need help to remember but I needed specialist support to be able to articulate it as I didn’t have the words or ability. I had trained myself to push away all thoughts of the abuse; I visualised a ‘Big Black Door’ in my mind. This door had locks and bolts and I pushed all memories behind it. This was effective but up to a point, but it was exhausting to be bombarded with these memories, and unsustainable to keep deflecting them. In the end, it was impossible. When I looked at my face in the mirror, or at my young daughter, I saw my child self. The ‘door’ opened and I was unable to hide from the memories anymore. I became quickly overwhelmed, ‘breaking’ at the age of thirty. With hindsight, this mental crisis was a breakthrough, as opposed to a breakdown, because disclosure followed and my slow journey to recovery began.
Memory, in my case was clear-cut. Speaking the words was too hard at first but I discovered I was able to write them down and then read them aloud to my therapist. In doing so, the memories lost the hold they had on me. Writing was the key to my recovery and it gave me a voice.
I have always been aware of a different set of ‘memories’ that I assumed would stay behind the Big Black Door because they are different to the others. They’re not ‘proper’ memories at all. They are intrusive flashes of information. Broken pieces of reality that may not even be that. I left out these fragmented parts of my story when writing my memoir because it felt dishonest to include them. It was always paramount that I document only what I knew for sure was accurate recall. This stems from my early fear of not being believed; if I included anything that could cast doubt on my story then I’d risk the disbelief of others. Many survivors are not believed by their families. Some will stand up in court and tell their story only to be accused of being a fantasist and a liar. That didn’t happen to me, but I know I was one of the luckier ones. I wanted to keep these fragments to myself because I knew I’d find it hard to cope with not being believed.
Recently someone close to me validated a vital aspect of one of these ‘memories’, and this changed everything. I had remembered being taken to a room – a ‘basement’ but because this room hadn’t connected to my life in any other way, I hadn’t been sure I remembered it correctly. Because my ‘memories’ were so disjointed I wondered if I’d imagined it. To be told that this room did exist, and it was where I thought it was, was a huge relief. Despite the fragmented nature of it, I could trust what I did remember.
But then I was informed that it wasn’t a basement and that I may have thought it was because it was windowless.
It was a recording studio.
The feeling of relief that the room existed, was quickly followed by feelings of dismay and horror. The knowledge that it was a recording studio blindsided me as it was an aspect of my story that was unexpected. My adult mind tried to make sense of this. Was this just a room- somewhere private, away from prying eyes and probably soundproofed, or was my abuse in fact recorded? Is this recording on a dusty VHS tape hidden in an attic somewhere, or is my image one of millions of others played on loop for eternity on the dark web? My child self stuck in never-ending hell, unable to be identified, forever silent, abused and secret.
I tied my brain up in knots; my thoughts spiralled out of control. Why was this event recalled so differently? Why did I not remember what happened, when I remembered clearly so much else? I’m older in this ‘memory’ so shouldn’t I recall more? And if not, why not?
I think I know the answer to that already but it’s hard to say out loud to my therapist because it’s hard to admit to myself. It is because this one is worse. This one fills me with panic. It is a memory I connect with pain, fear, being trapped, unable to get a breath, and death. Nothing is more terrifying to a child than death. This was the age I feared he would kill me. It became around this time, a matter of when I would be killed, not if. It was a fear that was very real. I knew he had the means and capability. At the age of 14 I would find myself in a situation I perceived as life or death. It was an attempted abduction- and I fought not to get in his car, knowing instinctively that if I did, I would never come back again. Coincidentally this attempted abduction occurred not far from this ‘basement’. These fragments were too much to think about so I pushed them away; behind my Big Black Door, so carefully constructed in my mind. I wanted them to stay there, because, I convinced myself – it probably wasn’t real anyway. This place. This room . This basement.
But the existence of this room was validated. It became real, like all the others and I knew the time had come to process this one too. I was strong enough to do so, which was important. Processing takes a lot of work and it exerts an emotional toll, so the survivor must feel adequately supported to be able to deal with triggers and body memories that arise. My job, with my therapist’s help, is to gather these fragments and place them into some sort of order. I picture it as pieces of a 1000 piece puzzle that’s been upended on the floor. Some pieces have slipped between the dusty gaps in the floorboards It’s hard work and continuously frustrating because some are lost forever. Others have been damaged. Some are blanks. They’re the most unsettling. They scare me.
I need to put it all together and to know all of it because only when I am able to voice it, can I release the trauma and move forward. If I don’t, I fear falling backwards again; sucked into the abyss of depression and despair. I need to let it go. So, when the time is right, we begin.
I remember the huge ring of keys that he held. Jailer’s keys. And wondering how he’d find the right one to unlock the door to this ‘basement’. But he did. And we went in and he closed the door behind. I think.
I remember the room was through a room; a shop, and the face of the man who waved us through. I remember the equipment and the colours of brown and beige and knobs and dials and a glass screen. I remember how cold it was.
I remember how sounds were sucked into a void. The silence that rang in my ears and the startling ‘Don’t touch’ as I reached for the dials.
And then the other man who’s suddenly there too. Or was he? Do I trust this memory? No one can validate this one for me so I push that memory back behind the Big Black Door. I’m not going to trust a memory that can’t be corroborated but I don’t forget it either.
I remember that there was no daylight. How close we were to a busy high street yet how far away it felt and how alone I was.
What I recall next is hard to put into words. The only way to describe it is as splitting. In response to violent assault and fear, I split in body and mind. That’s the only way I can explain it. These fragments that I have left, come from a time I was out of my body and looking on at my rag doll self. Then I split again but this time I went deep within my body and resided there for a while, in the calm. I was tiny, but alive. Just. I felt like a bit of me died in that room. It feels like that dead part may be still there, absorbed by bricks and mortar like panicked sweat is retained in fibres of clothing.
My body remembers white heat, pain, panic and fear. It was all too much. I remember how it felt all too much so I responded in the only way I could. I escaped. (see Body Memories post)
Recalling these memories serve little purpose. They’re just for me. These won’t be heard in a courtroom. Fragments and feelings and accounts of splitting are easily discredited and laughed out of court. Any survivor who has tried to report abuse based on fragmented memory and dissociation will understand this, that there’s little point. I’m not prepared to go through that so they won’t be reported.
I publish them on here because I think it will help other survivors who may have incomplete memories too. The ones who are too afraid of telling their stories in case they’re disbelieved, or labelled with a disorder, or thought of as crazy. Mad. I’m not frightened of that now because I know I’m not mad and that I never was. I challenge any sane professional to be put in a windowless ‘basement’ with a monster like mine, to be abused in all possible ways and tell me that these responses are anything but normal. (Habits)
My normal responses to an abnormal situation kept me alive. I could do nothing for my body but I protected my mind instinctively and brilliantly.
I continue to process for peace of mind. My therapist questions this dogged determination of mine to remember; after all, she reminds me, we know what he was capable of. Is it not time to accept what I can’t recall because we already know that he is capable of the worst crime?
But for me it’s not enough. I need more because it was my body. Knowing every detail has become my obsession because when I know, I claim my body back from the clutches of these memories. I take back control and obtain the peace of mind that comes with closure.