Friday, November 22, 2013

Surprised by ... Memory

Me and our dog Herman on our front lawn in Salem, Illinois about 1963/4. St. Theresa's
Catholic School is visible across the street. My older siblings went there, and I attended there 2nd and 3rd grade.

This post starts out on somewhat of a bit of a down note, but it gets better.

One of the saddest legacies of child abuse can be the loss of memory of one's childhood. I never thought much about the fact that, as I aged and became an adult, I couldn't remember much of my childhood - until, that is, I started meeting people whose memory was much clearer. My former wife, for example, seemed to have volumes of crystal clear memories of her childhood. 

This fact became increasingly distressing to me until, in the mid-90's, I had a sort of a breakdown and, for the first time, started dealing with my childhood abuse. I made numerous phone calls to my older siblings, trying to pump them for memories, recollections and "evidence" for the case I was building against both my parents, but particularly my mother. 

Me and my best childhood friend, Chuckie, who lived two doors down

I recall meeting with my doctor/counselor at that time and telling him about my investigation, about how I would examine my body for scars after having been told something by a sibling of which I had no memory, e.g., looking for evidence of the time Mom hit me with a hairbrush. As I counseled with Dr. Mate, he told me I couldn’t approach this as a lawyer looking for evidence in order to validate what happened. It happened. My body knew it happened and my psyche knew it happened.

Over the years, through reading and counseling, I learned some important psychological principles that bore directly upon my lack of childhood memories. A couple of these were succinctly summarized in the book by psychotherapist David Richo to which I have been referring in the last few posts (Catholic Means Universal). First of all, the psyche knows best when it comes to memory:
“It is important to respect our own timing in the process of remembering abuses. We let in only what we can handle as we can handle it. Temporary denial of some of the facts is useful in grief work because our psyche knows how much we can deal with at one time and lets the information in, little by little, as we become able to stand it. When we are ready to know, we will know. We may never know it all. Only then can we allow a full venting of feelings like sadness, anger and fear."
Secondly, a survival mechanism employed in childhood distorted and drew a veil over memory:
“Part of the abuse cycle is learning to dissociate. Dissociation can be described in this way: while we are being abused, physically, sexually or emotionally, we become numb to the hurt and pain that is happening to us. Unconsciously and automatically, we ‘turn off’ the stimulus and take flight into fantasy or distracting behavior. This dissociation has a wisdom in it because it helps us bear the pain without being overwhelmed by it. Such dissociation accounts for the fact that later in life we forget the abuses that happened to us. Part of the work of mourning is re-associating with the occluded vision of our pain. What was necessary and wise in the past is no longer so in the present. We now allow ourselves to know our hurts and others’ abuses of us in order to clear our path to healing."

Because my psyche, through dissociation and because of its role as guardian, couldn't handle a lot of my childhood, it simply closed most of the doors. When I first started the recovery process almost 20 years ago, I relied chiefly on the memories of others ... but in many cases, they might as well have been describing someone else because I couldn't remember what they were describing - and this was the case for memories when I was as old as eleven.

I mention all of this because a week or so ago, I had an experience where images popped into my head while reading an author's reminiscences of his childhood. It was a simple story about his journeys to and from his elementary school when a boy. In autumn, he recalled riding his bike down a bumpy dirt path "through a meadow fully of crunchy brown leaves, desiccated grasses and dried milkweed plants ..."


The simple image of a milkweed plant took me right back to my childhood. I couldn't recall where I had encountered these, but knew that I had.

The author continued, describing his winter journey over "an open landscape of white snow that rose wetly over the tops of my black galoshes."


Suddenly, I could remember the black galoshes I wore as a boy. The kind that fastened with several buckles, sort of like ski boots. I recalled the cold. My freezing fingers after I came in, trying to undo those stupid buckles that were caked in snow. I recalled the clinging sound the buckles made as they loosened and snapped back.

The author next described an incident that happened one spring. "My schoolbooks, heavy in the bike's metal basket swung violently to the side ..."


As soon as I read these words, I envisioned the old red tank of a bike I had (after I had outgrown the one in the above picture, which I don't remember). I recalled the huge tires and the big basket in front, how it could easily upset my balance, just as the author had described. I recalled using that basket to deliver newspapers when I was about 11 or 12.

These are such simple memories. One might wonder why I even bother writing about them. Well, I write about them because of the joy that I felt at recollecting such simple things from my childhood. It was as if a fragrant summer breeze had wafted from distant corners of my psyche, bringing - unexpectedly - feelings of contentment and happiness. And the sheer unexpectedness ... I had chased memories like a butterfly earlier in my adult life; these simply came and "sat on my shoulder."

I am also writing about them because I saw these images through my eyes. When I was going through counseling immediately after my mid-1990's experience, my counselor asked me whether, when I remembered scenes from my childhood (particularly those of abuse), I saw the scene through my eyes or through the eyes of an observer (who would also see me). This, of course, is precisely what dissociation is. The child sees himself in the memory through the eyes of another - the child who chose to detach himself from himself in order to survive - not through his own eyes.

That is a large part of the reason why these seemingly silly little memories brought such happiness to me - because I realized that my psyche was allowing me to see my childhood, and that it was allowing me to see it through my own eyes, through my own memories. It was an indication of healing and a promise of more to come.

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