Repressed memories can’t be seen, but they can still do damage.
Repressed memories are memories that have been unconsciously blocked, due to those memories being associated with a very high level of trauma or stress. Although the person repressing the memories cannot remember the events, they still have the power to impact them significantly.
The hypothesis of repressed memories is a controversial topic in the field of psychology and studies show differing results as to whether this can occur in survivors of trauma. Some psychologists believe that the memories can be recovered using processes such as hypnosis or other therapies, but there are others who state this is simply creating false memories.
So can a memory be forgotten and then remembered? And can someone be told that something happened and then remember that as true?
These questions lay at the heart of childhood trauma and abuse studies. Clinicians who work with survivors of trauma and memory researchers agree that both of the above can be true. It is an area that is very difficult to study directly, outside of a lab, as it would mean subjecting participants to some kind of trauma and then studying their memories of it. However, there are clinicians who agree that trauma experienced in childhood may lead to problems in memory storage and retrieval, and that dissociation is a likely explanation for a memory that was once forgotten and later recalled.
When an individual dissociates, the memory isn’t actually lost, but can be unavailable for retrieval for some time. Many believe that individuals dissociate in order to shelter themselves from the pain of reliving those memories. It is a difficult topic, as many researchers argue that there is very little empirical evidence to support these theories.
So instead I will share some of my experiences working in the field with survivors of unimaginable childhood abuse and trauma, as a mental health clinician. I’ve never done any research into repressed memories, but I have seen the dissociation symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder up close and personal with those I’ve worked with. When that individual stops mid-conversation, eyes suddenly glazed over, with a petrified look on their face because they are reliving a trauma with no apparent trigger for the memory.
These are individuals who for years, dealt with their pain through abusing their bodies with drugs and alcohol because the pain of what they had experienced was too much for them to bear. Some memories they could remember, and others only seemed to come out when they were in a dissociative state. I can’t quite put into words the sadness that gripped me when one young lady looked at me as though I was the abuser, because she was so “in” the memory that she was reliving it all over again. I’ve never seen pain and fear like that before or since, and that memory will stay with me personally for ever. Not long after I found myself having to hold onto in the back of a car so that she wouldn’t escape the car while my co-worker was driving.
I don’t have any of the answers, and it seems nor does anybody else. But the topic of memory, false memories, repressed memories, is an interesting one, as well as one that makes it a challenge to secure evidence in the eyes of the Court. I know I am sick of watching abusers walk the streets freely while their survivors live their lives with a life sentence, re-traumatised daily by their memories and dissociations, and tormented by the fear that other memories may be remembered later. (CE)
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