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 of it.
“But why do I have to talk about that?” I asked. “What does that have to do with my disliking touch?”
“Images come forward to help you heal,” Dr. Erickson said.
I thought about that, about how many times that image had surfaced in my mind, and how many times I’d pushed it away. I didn’t want to remember something I couldn’t change, something I was powerless to do anything about.
“I want to forget that,” I told him.
“The mind forgets nothing,” he said. “We like to think it does, but it doesn’t.”
“Well, that has nothing to do with what I want now.”
“Doesn’t it?” He looked expectantly at me. “Part of you has remembered everything and keeps on living it every day. That part of you is trapped in the past and interferes in your present. You want to date and be with men, but that little girl who was molested is still hurting. She still thinks touch is bad.”
Part of me?
I turned his words over in my mind. Could it be that simple? Did this image surface from the darkness of my mind to help me get free? Was I the one keeping me prisoner all this time?
“What do you want?” he asked suddenly.
“To be able to be with a man, to touch … and for the image to go away.”
“Then you have to work that image. Once you get what you need from it, it won’t have power over you anymore. It will just be a thing that happened to you. No more fear. No more nightmares.”
I wanted that.
“Okay,” I said reluctantly. “I’ll work the image.”
It wasn’t one session or two, but many hours of work getting through the images. One seem to open to the next until I had a fuller understanding of why I didn’t like touch and what was holding me in place. I came to understand that I had learned a powerful lesson as a child: That hands take, that once the hands come near I was powerless to stop them. I had to change that belief, grow that little girl up and make her feel safe. Only then could I have the life I wanted.
In the beginning, the truth had surfaced with a single image I had conjured from my past. I had spent my life running from that truth, the meaning of that image and all the ones that followed. Years of pain I had never understood.
It took me months of therapy, but eventually I changed those entrenched beliefs … and the images went away.
They no longer interfere in my life or haunt me. I no longer have to work at pushing them away or keeping them contained. I can touch a man and not have nightmares. I can remember, without experiencing suffering anxiety and fear.
I am finally free.