I’m a Survivor, But I Don’t Remember My Trauma
What it’s like to process an event that you couldn’t comprehend at the time
When I tell people I’m a survivor, they sometimes want to know more.
Their first response is usually, “What happened? You can trust me, I promise.”
Well, first there’s that whole deal of me not wanting to share my trauma with everyone — when I tell someone I’ve been through a traumatic experience, they shouldn’t expect me to share the full story with them. But even if I wanted to share the full story with everyone I met, I simply couldn’t. And here’s why.
I don’t remember my trauma.
I know a few key things about it, like the fact that it was sexual trauma. I know that it happened to me at a very young age. But aside of the very bare facts, I have very minimal knowledge of what actually went down. I don’t like to think too hard about it, because, obviously, it’s emotionally difficult and triggering. But sometimes it’s bothersome how little I actually understand about it. Sometimes I wish I had more information so that I knew how to help myself heal better.
A lot of people ask me, “Well, then how do you even know it happened?”
Let me first start by saying that it should never be a survivor’s job to verify or legitimize their experiences to anyone. Curiosity is one thing, but curiosity about sexual trauma or assault is a touchy topic, and not everyone is willing to take a deep dive into what happened them and explain it in detail to people, nor do they want to have to provide any sort of proof of their trauma. So, needless to say, this question bothers me a lot.
But I could also see why it would make people wonder. I mean, to someone who has never experienced sexual trauma, or even to someone who has experienced it, but only with a recollection of it, how do I actually know what happened? How can I say for sure that it was real and not just some distant memory or blurry nightmare from my childhood?
And here’s the answer: sometimes, you just know. Let me explain.
I know I’m not the only person who has experienced trauma that they can’t remember fully. In fact, there’s a whole psychological breadth that studies the concept of repressed memories and trauma erasure. And I can’t speak for all survivors, but what I can do is talk through my experiences and articulate, the best that I can, how I uncovered my trauma without formally being aware of it at the time.
1. There have always been signs. Always.
I’ve always known there was something a little off about me. The way that I demanded privacy and cried when people would violate it. The way that rashes would suddenly break out on my body in the most intimate places, with no explanation or apparent cause. The way that I would have panic attacks every time someone had to get close to me or into my space — like the doctor’s office. The way that I often shied away from conversations about the body and privacy, but yet somehow had this insatiable internal curiosity about it. I knew that there was a part of me that did not add up, and for years, I had no idea what it was, but I kept digging.
2. I have some very distinct triggers.
One of the things about my triggers is that, because of my lack of memory of the experience, I am always triggered unexpectedly. I can never predict when I’ll see or hear or smell or feel or taste something that will completely send me into panic and anxiety. But I know that these triggers exist because I have experienced them, and once it happens, it’s very clear that the source is trauma.
One time, while using the bathroom in a McDonald’s on a road trip, I stopped to wash my hands after flushing the toilet and immediately cried upon smelling the soap. It sounds like something so trivial, right? But when you really think about it, it’s not. Upon further inspection, I’ve realized that the triggering feeling was caused by the fact that the same soap was used at the site where I was molested as a kid. And from the flashbacks that I do have and the things that I can remember about the experience, the incident (or at least part of it) took place in a bathroom, which makes all the more sense. It’s times like these when I start to gain a little more insight into the situation, though it remains painfully vague.
I’ve spoken to my therapist about my triggers, too, and she is very direct with me in saying that I will probably continue to find unexpected triggers until I have some more clarity — if I ever do at all. She also tells me that sometimes, as difficult as it can be to face them, they can be helpful in exploring the experience and decompressing my emotions in regards to it. She’s told me that if I am ever ready or interested, we can take a therapy session just for pinpointing these triggers. She is willing to bring in scents, textures, sounds, photos, anything to squeeze a little bit more memory from what my mind has buried.
3. I’ve been having nightmares and flashbacks for some time now.
I’ve been having nightmares about this since I was a kid. I am always in a dark bathroom, with someone hissing orders to me and making me feel small and uncomfortable and icky. I am alone, afraid.
Sometimes the flashbacks get more vivid the more times I get them. Other times, they are numb, unreliable, regretfully identical to one another.
But these flashbacks mean something. They were here before I even was able to pinpoint that there was something truly wrong. When I put all the pieces together, they make a lot of sense.
The daycare I went to when from ages two to three had a bathroom like the ones in my flashbacks and nightmares. And coincidentally, there was a staff member at the daycare that I was completely afraid of. I wouldn’t want to go near them or spend time with them or have them touch me. Sometimes I’d cry to my parents in the doorway before daycare because I noticed the staff member was there. And now, in retrospect, I think I know why.
4. I had a remarkable moment of clarity.
Not everyone with repressed trauma has moments of clarity, but I feel lucky to say that I did. It happened while I was reading the book The Perks of Being a Wallflower the summer before ninth grade. I was instructed to read it as a required material before beginning high school that fall. The book was fantastic — articulate, beautiful, vivid. I enjoyed it, for the most part. But the ending was inexplicably tough for me to get through.
At the end of the book the main character gets a flashback about his aunt molesting him as a child. His aunt, for most of the novel, had been a person that the protagonist looked up to, admired, and loved deeply, which is why it was incredibly disheartening for him to uncover this information. It also completed the puzzle of what was missing from him, what was not clicking in his life, what was keeping him from being a successful and happy member of society.
When this event happened in the book, I absolutely wept. Like, hiccuping sobs, in-a-whole-other-world wept. And for a minute, I had no idea why.
But then I began to consider it a little more. And I started to realize the signs. I started to understand why it was such a hard moment for me. I started to wonder if there was a puzzle piece missing from me, too. If there was something left for me to discover.
And that was my moment of clarity. That was the moment when my puzzle felt complete. When all of the signs, all of the pain, the memories, the flashbacks, the weird triggers, everything — it all came together and wove itself into this. To what I am certain, today, was my moment of trauma.
How do I help myself heal?
The answer is complicated. And, surely, I am not the only survivor with foggy, fractured memories of their traumatic incident. There’s no foolproof method for healing from trauma, especially repressed or unclear trauma. There is no tried-and-true technique for finding strength amidst this process.
But what I can say is that I take my life one day at a time. When I am concerned, I talk to my therapist. I take her recommendations. When I get flashbacks, I try to pay attention to them. I listen to my body, to mind, to what it is trying to tell me. I write — a lot. I reflect. I find things that give me peace, and on the bad days, I rely on those things to keep me grounded.
I share my story today not to elicit sympathy from others, or to make people pity me. Rather, I share it because it is so much more common than most of us realize. And it is so common for survivors to be invalidated on the basis of memory and legitimacy. If people can’t remember one little detail — lest the whole string of events — their story is often discredited. And I’m here today to speak to all of the survivors who know, in their hearts, that something happened. To the survivors who feel their trauma without being able to articulate it perfectly. To the survivors who are the constant targets of questions and challenges and criticisms.
I hear you, I see you, and I am with you.
And we’ll get through this together. We will work together to make sure that the world does better for all of the future survivors out there.