When Memories Come Flooding Back
If you have been sexually abused you have had to deal with memories creeping up on you. As I have shared in both my books about flashbacks of my abuse most anyone who has been sexually abused has dealt with flashbacks. I have had people share with me they are in their forties or fifties and suddenly they are remembering sexual abuse for the first time as it comes flooding back. It can be terrifying especially when you feel so alone and trapped in these memories.
These memories used to consume me with fear, panic, anxiety, and a loss of control. When I was thirteen and fourteen and in a group at the Children’s Advocacy Center the other girls and I were taught about Grounding ourselves when we are having flashbacks.
1) Taking deep breaths. Try counting each time you breathe out.
2) Tap the ground with your feet and if your in a chair hold onto the arms or seat of the chair or hold on to something safe.
3) Look around at your surroundings. Remind yourself of where you are and even try mentioning what day it is.
4) Tell yourself, “I am safe now. This is a memory of the past and not now.”
I know the terror of what it is like to be caught in one of these flashbacks. It can paralyze you with fear. The best thing to NOT do is go down an unhealthy path to cope with this. Believe me I’ve done it and while it might of been helpful it was not healthy. A therapist once taught me in high school that what I was doing was helpful but unhealthy and that I needed to get to the 2 H’s (healthy and helpful). I had turned to self-injury as a way to escape these flashbacks.
Once the flashback ends a helpful activity might be able to write it down. Something else that might work is trying narrative therapy. Narrative therapy allows you to go back when these flashbacks are happening and recreate a different outcome of what happened more empowering, satisfying, and hopeful. An example I can give of this is when you are working through a flashback of an event of sexual abuse from your childhood try going back and recreating the outcome of the events that are empowering to you. Whether that is confronting the person in the flashback who hurt you, being rescued, beating the person up, etc. Empower yourself to not relive what you endured but create a different way the story goes. Maybe the mother that did not believe you when you went to her when you were abused actually comes to your rescue in your own narrative. If a sense of losing control is something you now struggle with going back and creating that memory to how you gain control back as a child so you can feel a sense of control in your life now. Maybe your narrative needs you to go back and rescue that child you once were from the evil you endured.
How do you cope with the memories of sexual abuse?
Are you being flooded with memories and thinking about it too much; feeling overwhelmed or are you freezing by trying not to think about it; numbing yourself from it. Maybe you go back and forth between both flooding and freezing. I know I have. When I carried so much shame and couldn’t bring myself to talk about it I would numb myself of the memories. Other times I would feel overwhelmed with memories.
The best way to control remembering the abuse you endured is by paying attention to how you are coping with these memories as it is key to healing yourself. One of the first steps is to let go of any shame you are holding on to because of it. At the same time don’t flood yourself with these memories and set boundaries with yourself so it is not interfering with your daily life. Example: You will only deal with these memories with your therapist, for 30 minutes in the morning by journaling. I suggest not journaling about sexual abuse at night it can stir up nightmares.
You also have to remember to take a vacation from thinking about or working through your sexual abuse. It is apart of healing. Sometimes things can become overwhelming and you just need to step away and spend a week not thinking about it at all. Kind of like if you go to work everyday and you take a week vacation. The rule usually is no mentioning work while on vacation. Well if you take a vacation from healing that means sticking to the plan and don’t talk about your abuse and have some fun. It is how I got a place of Living For Today. I fly the country speaking on a topic I was once too ashamed to talk to my own parents and therapists about. I stand in front of stages all the time speaking to hundreds about the pain and the memories of the flashbacks that were once too painful the easiest way was to numb myself of them.
I set boundaries with myself there will be days where I will say “no talking about sexual abuse today” even if I get an email from a survivor I won’t respond to it until the next day.
So why did I decide to write this post today. Well even I realize there are things I repressed that surfaced. I had this memory flood my mind this morning. The entire event was playing out in my mind and that day was so crystal clear yet I had not thought about it since that day until today.
I was 12 years old and had arrived at another relatives in-laws house for a party. My parents parked on the street. It was a beautiful day. Pulling up right behind us at the same time with more relatives including the relative who was sexually abusing me and silencing me at that time. When I saw him get out the car as we were getting out of the car panic filled me. He locked eyes with me and anytime he locked eyes with me I became terrified. I knew I had to fight to protect myself and scenarios were playing out in my head as I walked with my parents and sisters towards the house knowing my abuser was behind me. How am I going to protect myself from him trapping me somewhere was running through my mind that day. Stay by my parents side was one way at the same time I feared them thinking I was being clingy not leaving their side. When we arrived inside I remember going to the back yard where many other relatives were. I did not like knowing we were in the same house at the same time. It just gave him an opportunity to try hurting me. There was a big grass field across the street from this house and a park off in the distance. A bunch of my cousins were going over to the park to play. I knew I would be safe there so I left with my sisters and cousins. I could feel the gaze of his eyes follow me out the front door. We were a good distance from the house and walking across this grass to get to the park when looking back I saw him coming towards us. He was with other cousins of mine and they had a football. I knew I was safe in public but just looking back and seeing him in the distance walking towards the park filled with me so much fear. I was not touched that day because I stayed out of the house and at the park in the public eye giving him no opportunity to get me behind closed doors. As I was reliving this moment today it brought up another memory this time once again at a relatives house. They backed up to woods and a stream of water coming from somewhere. There were tons of trees and one could easily get lost. It seemed like endless amounts of woods. My cousins, sisters, and some uncles took us on an adventure out into the woods that Fall day when I was 12. Out in the woods with us was the relative who was abusing me. His eyes followed my every move through the woods as we hiked around. It was like I could read his mind that he was just looking for an opportunity as everyone was breaking off into small groups and going off in their own direction to take me away in the woods and abuse me. I knew I had to get back to the house as quick as possible so it did not result in him hurting me. I got lucky and while he watched me trek back towards the house realizing he lost his chance to steal another moment of my innocence and the distance between us was too much for him to catch up to me.
This happened on another occasion when he chased me through a house once again another family gathering. The house had a bathroom on the main floor that lead to the pantry to where it lead downstairs to the basement or into the kitchen. It also had a bedroom right outside the kitchen with a bathroom attached. This relative began following me through the house as I tried to hide from him. He tried cornering me in the bathroom but I got the door closed. When I finally opened to see if I was safe to leave he was standing there and our eyes locked. Looking into the eyes of the men that abused me is what scared me most. It was the crazy look in their eyes that scared me so much not knowing what they were capable of. I was able to get the door closed as he tried to push it open. Eventually he tricked me into thinking he left when he was really hiding in the pantry and my only escape was not back into the kitchen where all the adults were but to the basement stairs that were right next to the walk-in pantry where all my cousins and sister were. He chased me down the stairs and I ran down the basement where many other relatives were watching television. I went to the way back of the basement and went into hiding behind a washer and dryer. He didn’t see me and I watched him walk into a dark bathroom thinking I was in there praying as my heart raced that he wouldn’t turn around and see me. For sure I thought he would see me curled up in a ball against the washer when he turned around. I got lucky he did not look down and walked right past me. I stayed curled up in a ball for awhile not knowing if he was still in the basement going to come after me. Little did I when I finally did get up and make my way for the upstairs and he was sitting on a couch watching me he did not follow me but instead when I went to stay by my fathers side upstairs he would stay in the basement and take my younger sister behind the furnace and molest her. That thought never crossed my mind. Here I finally thought I outsmarted him by escaping him after being hunted down in the house and had no idea he was hurting my little sister.
Running through these moments in my mind I realize while I might not been strong enough to speak up I was strong enough to fight back and on several occasions I saved myself even more horror. I am proud I at least tried protecting myself and did not just give up due to his control and power.
Giving up is not an option and sometimes you have to live through the memories in order to continue to move forward.
I never in a million years thought I would stand in front of thousands talking about the memories that once terrorized me that I felt I could not escape and now I speak freely on them. Putting light on the darkness and a voice to the once voiceless child I was.