Denial is an interesting experience. I used to think that denial was deliberate. A sort of Scarlet O’Hara worldview–“I’ll think about it tomorrow.” What I have discovered is that oftentimes denial is inevitable. Our brains have inherent mechanisms designed to protect us. We often do not remember painful events in their entirety until we are able–if we are ever able. While the psychotherapeutic community has at times abused the reality of repressed memories, repressed memories are indeed a real thing.
When I finally came to terms with my childhood sexual abuse, I could not believe it. I tried, but I could not get my brain to accept the events that I remembered. I felt like I was literally going crazy. I remember waking up one morning, the events clear in my mind’s eye as if I were watching a film play before me. I saw it, and I thought to myself, “What a relief. I remember now. That explains a lot.” And, I got on with my day. In truth, what I remembered remained a very distant memory. I did not know what to do with it. Lots of people are abused, I thought. Life must go on. How I began to live my life changed quickly. I avoided stillness and quiet. I hated being alone. I abandoned any sort of introspection, and I never sat still. I worked until I was exhausted and fell into bed, falling asleep quickly. One day, my husband suggested that I go have some “alone time”. I used to be the sort of person that craved stillness and peace. I would frequently seek out time to sit alone. No longer.
I decided to go to a trendy hot spot for lunch. I liked having lunch alone. It was restorative to me. I ordered my soup and salad and settled in for a round of people watching. As I looked around, I suddenly felt distanced from the world around me. I wasn’t necessarily having an out-of-body experience, but I did not feel grounded either. The din of the chatter and activity increased while the movement of the people ordering, visiting, and looking around slowed. My stomach seemed to sink, and my brain felt like it would explode. I felt like I was falling, but I was seated. Suddenly, I realized that I was weeping over my soup. And, the memory of my abuse replayed in my head over and over again. I realized that I had spent months running away from the memories of my abuse and all that those events entailed. I went home and told my husband that I needed to get help; I was sinking…quickly.
I found a therapist soon thereafter. We went right to work, and I remember still feeling unable to reconcile what I intellectually knew to be true with my emotions regarding the abuse. My therapist called it “crazymaking”. Love and abuse do not go together. Mother and jealousy do not go together. Brother and sex do not go together. In our close family relationships, certain things go together. Parents=safety. Mother=love. Father=protection. You get the idea. Parents, however, do not equal abuse, sex, rage, jealousy, neglect, confusion, loneliness, etc.. Our brains try to grasp the truth, but, in order that we are protected, our brains often deny. In certain cases, denial helps us navigate the dangers of our circumstances until we reach safety. Once we are safe, once we are experiencing stability, denial does not always serve a purpose. Often, we are left with coping strategies that no longer help us. At some point, it becomes necessary to dismantle the coping mechanisms so that we are able to grow and heal. The coping strategies, while important to our survival during trauma, impede the healing process because they root us in a survival paradigm. If we are looking to develop new strategies which will ultimately enable us to thrive, then we must discard the coping strategies that are only useful to survival.
Practically, what does this look like? One coping mechanism that I utilized a lot during my survival period (and during my healing period) is dissociation. Dissociation is quite useful. We are able to essentially compartmentalize the pain while superficially functioning reasonably well. I could do the dishes, fold laundry, drive around town, and do myriad tasks while I lived a different life in my head. When the pain associated with past events became unbearable, I would simply leave in my mind. Dissociation is one way the brain protects itself. There are many stories where a victim of rape explains that she/he simply left their bodies during the event; they watched the rape from somewhere else in the room. I actually developed a rich inner life full of pleasant places and people. I was able to be everything that I hoped…in my mind. This coping strategy is very effective during times of intense suffering. If an environment is abusive in any way, dissociation comes to the rescue, and we make it another day. Simply put, we survive.
Dissociation, however, does not enable us to thrive. It keeps us distant from our own lives and experiences. We become so hyper-vigilant. “When is the other shoe going to drop?”, “Things are going so well right now. It can’t stay that way.” Or perhaps we sabotage our own security and success because we just *know* that something bad is around the corner. The insecurity is so great that we must create a crisis in order to feel like we are in familiar circumstances. The pain may be nearly intolerable, but, at least, it’s familiar. We know how to survive that.
If telling the truth is the first step in learning to thrive, then how can we employ truth as a means to move past dissociation? In my experience, we must find a truth that is more powerful than our pain, our denial, and our coping strategies. In all honesty, I think identifying our coping strategies is important. So, here is the question? How are you coping with your trauma, your pain, your memories, and your present circumstances? Are you able to stay present in your life? What triggers your need to rely on coping strategies?
We must not condemn ourselves or our strategies. They helped us to survive. We are alive today because our minds found a way to live through whatever suffering we were forced to endure. Can we gently look within and find one strategy that may not be truly useful to us now? And, can we find one trustworthy person, a therapist or a good friend invested in our success and healing, who will listen to us tell the truth? Start a journal. Start a list. Write down one coping strategy that you needed in the past. Then ask yourself, “Do you still need it today?”