There are memories in the lost and found. Memories of childhood sexual abuse may come and go throughout our lives. Some survivors wish for memories to emerge so that they can put together the broken pieces of their lives. Other survivors wish for memories to go away so that they can heal the broken pieces of their lives. But, we all have to learn to accept what memories we currently have (or do not have). The absence of memory doesn’t have to be an obstacle to healing even if it does influence how we heal. Disturbing memories, on the other hand, present an opportunity to heal the pain that you have denied.
MacIntosh, Fletcher & Collin-Vézina (2016) studied recovered memories of childhood sexual abuse using seven males and 20 females as participants. The survivors ranged in age from 31 to 69. Only one of the participants reported that their violator was unknown to them. All of them had experience in professional counseling. Interviews were used to gather information. Twenty-one of the participants reported a lack of memory although the memory lap varied greatly among them. Previous research has shown that 15 – 78% of survivors report that there was a time when they did not remember the abuse. Research also suggests that when memories are recovered they are as accurate as memories that were known all along.
The researchers in this study found that six (22%) out of the 27 survivors reported no memory loss. They remembered the entire experience of childhood sexual abuse according to their responses. The remaining 21 (78%) survivors showed different patterns of forgetting. Seven of those survivors did not have any memory of the abuse until they were adults. Forgetting and remembering throughout their life occurred for 14 of the survivors. The researchers focused on how the memories came about for these 21 survivors.
Of the seven survivors that did not remember until adulthood, all had experiences of flashbacks. Five of the seven reported that the flashbacks were severe enough to interfere with their daily routine and made them less competent. They were suddenly stricken with fear or even physical weakness by the mental intrusion. There seemed to be a triggering event that opened the floodgate for the flashbacks. It was sometimes something in the media or a life event. The trigger was not always related to the physical aspect of the abuse. Sometimes it could be the presence of a smell or the setup of a location. Five out of the seven survivors did not believe the recovered memories. They would rather choose to believe they were crazy or they thought that no one else would believe them.
The group that experienced forgetting on and off tended to recover memories from nightmares. The nightmares lead to recovered memories. Many of the survivors in this group said they remembered a previous abuse only after experiencing a later one. Some participants admitted to actively forgetting. They forgot on purpose. Their intent was to never remember or think about the abuse. In general, however, the group that had partial memory loss was more accepting of additional memories than the group that had complete memory loss until adulthood.
This article confirms that memory loss is common in survivors of childhood sexual abuse and that it occurs on a continuum of multiplicity. All or some of the details of sexual abuse may be forgotten. What is forgotten may be permanently forgotten or forgotten and recovered. Participants may spontaneously experience forgetting or may actively choose to forget as part of their survival defense. When memories are recovered, however, we can accept that they are coming up to be healed.
Neurological changes in brain structure and functions among individuals with a history of childhood sexual abuse: A review
Blanco, L; Nydegger, L; Carmarillo G; Trinidad, D; Schramm, E; Ames, S
This article of interest discusses the evidence of brain interference caused by childhood sexual abuse. The authors review a plethora of research that looks at the brain activity of survivors using several imaging techniques, including PET scans, FMRI, and MRIs. Various procedures were used to study the blood flow and neuronal activity and compare responses of survivors to nonsurvivors. Differences between the two groups were found consistently. In some cases, the differences were quantitative, such as survivors having a smaller corpus callosum. In other research, the differences were qualitative, such as the survivors having a heightened perception of their environment.
The cumulative research gives us a definitive understanding that childhood sexual abuse is bad for the brain into adulthood. However, we should use extreme caution not to confuse correlation with causation. We cannot make the statement that childhood sexual abuse “causes” the brain to work less satisfactory. Every survivor would be expected to have compromised brain activity if sexual abuse caused unhealthy brains. As it is, we cannot predict the brain activity in any individual survivor. Results from this research only discuss group differences.
The greatest limitation is that the research does not tell us anything about the overall quality of life for survivors. What brains do, in terms of activity, does not tell the whole story about how survivors live. Total life satisfaction may have more to do with resources, support and intentional efforts to heal. The best use of this research is to offer insight into our patterns where patterns exist to hopefully replace judgments with understanding.
The quality and quantity of sleep are vital to our overall health. Sleep deprivation or interruption can negatively affect focus and concentration, appetite, mood and emotional response to the environment. A recent research article suggests that survivors of childhood sexual abuse have a poorer quality of sleep than people that have not experienced sexual abuse (Lind, Aggen, Kendler, York & Amstadter, 2016).
Many adults have difficulty sleeping at times. However, sleep disturbance is considered serious when a person experiences difficulty at least three nights a week for at least three months. Disturbance may include an extended period of wakefulness once sleep is attempted, waking up frequently during the full period of sleep, waking up much earlier than desired, or not feeling rested in the morning. According to the research article, being a survivor of childhood sexual abuse significantly increases the chance of having at least one of these symptoms. Interestingly, the level of physical contact imposed by the violator did not determine the significance of sleep disturbance, but the threat or actual use of force placed upon the victim did. That means that a survivor who experienced genital contact was no more likely to experience insomnia than a survivor who did not experience genital contact. But, if the survivor who did not experience genital contact was threatened or physically forced into contact, they were more likely to experience insomnia than the survivor who was groomed into genital contact. Having more than one violator was also a greater predictor of insomnia.
There are some limitations of this study that require caution in interpreting these results. All of the information gathered was based on self-reports of the past month. There were no scientific observations of sleep. Questionnaires about the severity of the abuse were also limited to participant’s current perception of experience rather than therapeutically explored information. Nevertheless, this research substantiates what has been previously considered, that CSA has a negative influence on the quality and quantity of sleep.
Healing is a journey that is wholistic. All areas of our lives are affected by childhood sexual abuse. So, we must address all areas of our lives, even sleep. There are many techniques that help survivors sleep better, from meditation and relaxation, cardio exercise, herbs and essential oils, and proper nutrition. We can add these to our lives without a therapist, without spending thousands of dollars on products, and without risking emotional triggers. Getting a better night sleep may strengthen us in the long-run and make us better mentally prepared to tackle the triggers of trauma in therapy or on our own.
Writing is a well-accepted practice for emotional relief. Therapists use a variety of writing techniques to address issues with clients. Some survivors use writing on their own as a cathartic practice. However, not all writing has the same benefit. Some survivors identify the writing process as “telling their story”, modeled after AA recovery from addiction. The story has a beginning, middle, and end with a focus on details of the person’s behavior. “I” statements are important and encouraged in order for the person to take responsibility for their actions. This is contrary to what researchers identify as helpful for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse. Survivors who frequently write “I” statements and use words like “should” and “could”, which distances them from reality, experience far fewer therapeutic benefits.
Therapeutic writing focuses on how the past influences the present rather than writing about the details of the past. Writing about the details of the past increases the use of “I” sentences and keep survivors more distant from the present. You might imagine that if a survivor writes out the details of the abuse from beginning to end and hold that close to their heart as “their story” then their past is always speaking for them. A survivor may feel a sense of relief early on by simply finding acceptance. However, once they have shared their “story” and have absorbed the acceptance from their listeners there is no direction for them to take and depression is likely to return.
Writing for therapy requires the survivor to make connections within, so, self-exploration is required. A therapist is sometimes necessary because self-exploration is an interpersonal skill that many survivors lack early in the healing process. It requires a person to ignore what is happening in front of them and feel what is happening within them. For example, I could write “the feeling of abandonment is triggered when my friends go out without telling me.” I can focus on that feeling of abandonment in my writing by looking at my present relationships and how I deal with that feeling. I already know that the feeling comes from my past. So, I do not have to keep going back to write about the past. Instead, I focus on the present, where I am with the feeling now. Otherwise, I could write about the detail of abuse for ten years and never mention a fear of abandonment if I do not look within.
Therapeutic writing is not necessarily the same as speaking to live openly. The details that you offer should depend on the context of the disclosure. Disclosing the detail about the abuse may take place all at once to one or more people, or it may occur gradually to people you meet along the healing path. There is no template for disclosure. But, if you practice telling a rehearsed story, you lose the opportunity of using authenticity to engage people.
Nevertheless, always remember and never forget that the healing path is individual. It works by trial and error and by trusting the process. Still, Talking Trees, Inc. will continue to share how research informs the practice of healing for adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse.
Safe Space Day, April 15, is a day to recognize and celebrate the resilience of adult survivors of childhood sexual abuse and incest. It was created in Ankeny, Iowa as a Talking Trees, Inc initiative in 2010. Every April 15, survivors around the world are encouraged to hold or attend a public event which recognizes and addresses healing issues and celebrate how far they have come on the healing path.
Having a day for adult survivors is a statement about our willingness to live openly. We know the freedom that comes when we let go of the fear of our experience and honor the capacity of our strength. We celebrate our choice to stop hiding, running away and avoiding. We stand with other survivors who are walking in their truth when we celebrate face-to-face.
Talking Trees, Inc. has sponsored a Safe Space Day every year since 2010. The types of events have varied each year, but have included workshops, full-day conference, a theatrical production, musical performance and survivors’ only talk sessions. Except for the survivors’ talk session, all events are open to the public in order to raise awareness of adult survivors. Having public events also works as an important outreach for survivors who are still struggling in isolation and have not yet identified as a survivor.
Some Talking Trees, Inc. members make arrangements to fellowship before and after the main event, especially since many of them only see each other during this time because they come from all over the United States. Members may also volunteer to help out at the event. There is no required identification of survivors at Safe Space Day. Since professionals, supporters, and community members are invited to celebrate with us, attending an event does not identify anyone as a survivor. If survivors choose to identify themselves, they can do so in their own way.
We would love to see you at the 2018 Safe Space Day in Colorado Springs, CO. Check this website for updates.