When Remembering Trauma is Needed
“You don’t have to remember everything,” Dr. Erickson told me. “That’s old school. You only need to remember what you need to move forward.”
But why did I have to remember at all?
I had entered therapy to learn to like touch, and to be able to have intimate relationships. It never occurred to me that I’d have to remember. I thought my past was in the past, and I wanted it to stay there. Quite frankly, I didn’t think my past was the problem. My being afraid of men and sex was just … well, my own oddity, maybe a by-product of coming from a large family and a crowded house or sharing a bed with too many siblings.
Maybe I was just wired wrong.
I wanted to focus on accepting and enjoying touch, but Dr. Erickson, my psychiatrist, seemed strongly focused on my childhood.
It wasn’t as though I had forgotten my childhood and what had happened then. I knew I had been molested as a child. I could remember a mental image or two of my father, naked beside me. But nothing beyond those vague, opaque memories, and I had long ago determined to brush them aside as meaningless. It was just a few touches, nothing like what happened to Sybil, the multiple personality woman. That was abuse. That was trauma.
It didn’t have anything to do with my current situation when every time a man pulled me near, I drew back in fear. Every time a man touched me, I had nightmares of being chased. I had the desire to be with a man, but I couldn’t seem to get past the reactive fear that surfaced from seemingly nowhere. Eventually, when I was 28 years old, I gave up dating for good.
And now here I was, 38 years old and in a psychiatric hospital because a man had put his hand up my shirt, sending me spiraling into PTSD. Months of nightmares and hypervigilance, of anxiety and racing thoughts, had finally taken their toll. I couldn’t stop crying … and I didn’t know why.
Being confined in the hospital forced me to face that something had to change, that I couldn’t continue to live in fear, in isolation. It had dawned on me: Safety wasn’t keeping the hands away from me; safety was allowing the hands to come near, to touch, without fear.
So, after 30 years of living with crippling fear, I was determined to get help. I made a conscious decision to work toward having the life I wanted. I wanted a healthy relationship. I wanted freedom.
I thought the fear had nothing to do with my past or my rational mind; I just didn’t like being touched, so I avoided it. Simple, a personal quirk. But the psychiatrist knew something that I didn’t. He knew that beliefs were born from experiences and that my fear of touch was just that: a subliminal belief that hands hurt, controlled, captured. That belief had to come from somewhere.
In therapy, I wanted to talk about touch, but Dr. Erickson wanted to talk about what I was seeing in my mind’s eye. So, I told him that I had an image of my father putting my hands on his penis. It was an image that had surfaced after a decade of denial, and now I couldn’t seem to get rid