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Repressed Memories of Child Abuse: What I Wish I'd Known

August 12, 2010 Holly Gray

The possibility of repressed memories of child abuse can make you deny a diagnosis of dissociative identity disorder. You don't have to do that -- here's why.

One of the obstacles I encountered in coming to terms with my dissociative identity disorder (DID) diagnosis was the idea that DID is by and large caused by horrendous abuse. Because DID and unimaginable trauma were intrinsically linked in my mind, I thought accepting my diagnosis required believing that I had suffered inconceivable horrors, repressed memories of child abuse that were lurking somewhere in the recesses of my dissociative mind. I didn't want to believe that, so I rejected the diagnosis altogether. I wish I'd known that tolerating ambiguity is part of dissociative living, and that it's possible to reconcile yourself to having DID without making assumptions about your history.

“My heart is afraid that it will have to suffer,” the boy told the alchemist one night as they looked up at the moonless sky. “Tell your heart that the fear of suffering is worse than the suffering itself."

Paolo Coelho, The Alchemist

Repressed Memories of Abuse from Childhood

DID is a trauma disorder caused in part by repeated, overwhelming stress in early childhood (Causes of Dissociative Identity Disorder). Often that stress comes in the form of child abuse. Dissociative amnesia allows the sufferer to continue to function, and often even thrive, by moving intolerable information and experiences out of conscious awareness. Repressed memories are therefore a very real possibility for those with dissociative identity disorder. But there is a difference between acknowledging that possibility and terrifying yourself with it.

My fear of retrieving lost memories -- devastatingly painful things about my past -- incapacitated me. I wish I'd noticed that I was already contending with devastatingly painful things about my past, and it hadn't killed me yet. I wish I'd had more faith in my resiliency.

'It's still hard for me to have a clear mind thinking on it. But it's the truth even if it didn't happen." -Ken Kesey, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest

I may never know the entire truth about what really happened. Memory is malleable and traumatic memory, in particular, can be nebulous. Waiting around for a complete and undisputed account of my traumatic history before getting on with the business of recovery meant waiting for a very long time, perhaps my whole life. But I couldn't simply rewrite my history to fit my limited understanding of DID either. So I sat on the proverbial fence for a long time. I believed I had two choices:

  • accept that I have DID and therefore must have a vast storehouse of repressed memories of child abuse, or
  • reject DID and relieve myself of the burden of unremembered trauma.

I wish I'd known that there is a third choice:

  • accept that I have DID and learn to tolerate ambiguity.

Had I not eventually shed the conviction that whole-hearted belief in the veracity of repressed memories of child abuse is a necessary prerequisite to accepting my dissociative identity disorder diagnosis, I would still be churning in the mess of doubt and resistance. By giving myself permission to question the validity of those memories, should they come up, I was able to stop questioning the validity of my disorder.

APA Reference
Gray, H. (2010, August 12). Repressed Memories of Child Abuse: What I Wish I'd Known, HealthyPlace. Retrieved on 2019, September 17 from https://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/dissociativeliving/2010/08/repressed-memories-of-child-abuse-what-i-wish-id-known



Author: Holly Gray

Jennifer Ryan
says:
November, 30 2018 at 10:03 pm
Thank you Holly for your article on DID. I am 52 years old. I was diagnosed with This mental illness when I was 32. For years I was in out of a psychiatric unit that specializes in trauma and dissociation. I never actually believed my diagnosis. I was fearful of remembering trauma because I had one part that would constantly tell me I could not handle it. This went on for twenty years. I constantly was changing jobs because I would have to leave after several months when the dissociation and switching got bad. I work as a Physical Therapist, am married and have a 14 year old son.
Things got really out of hand in February of this year and I had a suicide attempt. I just wanted the flashbacks to end and I still did not fully accept the diagnosis. This changed my life. I went through a alcohol and drug rehab and was taken off a benzodiazepine that I had been taking for 15 years. The stay at the rehab was horrid and traumatic. I was having severe flashbacks, depersonalization and anxiety and the staff was not educated in treating the disorder. I was flooded with memories. I finally believed I had the diagnosis and when I returned home I started working on containment, safe places and processing memories with the therapist I had been seeing for several years.
Now, eight months later, I am still experiencing time loss, switching and flashbacks but with the help of my therapist who specializes in DID I have been able to return to work and take care of my family. I am finally hopeful about the future.
Thank you again.
Caroline Sherouse
says:
September, 20 2018 at 7:17 am
I recently volunteered at a new facility (I use the term loosely) that is run by at best, people who want to help ex prison inmates, at worse people who themselves may have DID and are recently recovering addicts.
The chaos, drama and ingenuity of the place triggered in me a couple of DID episodes of losing time, dissociative amnesia. Needless to say I have decided that this unhealthy environment is no longer a part of my life because I have learned to look after myself over the years.
I have been referred to a neurologist because of these incidences and will make sure nothing else is going on in my brain. But I want to say how glad I am that I found all the helpful articles from Holly Gray and others diagnosed with DID. I want to pursue the subject of DID for my next book!
SURAJ.S
says:
August, 16 2018 at 1:02 pm
Nice to see people open up with their issues. I too had to go through a lot , my parents being a NPD and a typical co dependent. My younger sibling a golden child (GC) , as for me I was the bottom feeder the scapegoat ( SG) . I have no memory of most of the events back then , I guess what I can access is void hollow space in my memory.
I have recollection of past events good or bad , just some emotional triggers that pop up leaving me to wonder what had happened and why.
Caroline Sherouse
says:
September, 20 2018 at 7:22 am
Great to see your 2018 post, it is so important for us all to feel not alone with our issues. Keep posting!
Caroline Von Canon
says:
July, 28 2017 at 8:16 am
Darci, unfortunately I can not tell you how to fix your problem about losing the ability to write, but I can tell you that I have experienced something similar. I used to be really good in math and could do large problems in my head. When I was diagnosed with DID, one of the first things that I realized was that I had "lost" that ability. I chose to believe that I had several fractured personalities working together when I went to school (I even got my Master's degree) and while I was working in order to have everything I needed to do well. I believe that one or more of these parts are taking a break from being always on call because they had to work constantly previously because I was such a high achiever. Since being diagnosed at 58 years of age my life has totally changed. I don't know why just finding out that you have DID should make such a total change in the way you function, but it has for me. Since I do not have access to any of my parts and only have some indication of a couple of them because they have allowed me to "ride along" with them (basically seeing and hearing what is going on but not feeling things that are done or being able to move, talk, etc), I do not know where my different abilities are much less how to reach them.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Caroline Sherouse
says:
September, 20 2018 at 7:40 am
Caroline, I know you wrote this over a year ago and wonder how you are progressing in your struggles. Catatonic responses are the ultimate defence mechanism when we are ovetwhelmed.
I was given a ‘golden’ opportunity to live (free of charge due to the NHS in the UK) for 2 years in a psychotherapeutic community and it changed my life.
Integration is the cure for fragmented personalities and I am so blessed that I was led to this form of treatment.
I used to talk about myself in the third person, I now fully accept the I AM, the whole person.
Writing my book was so healing! Blow Me Over With A Feather.
I hope you read this blog. And write about your experiences too.
With love and respect
Caroline Sherouse
Bobby Stevenson
says:
July, 20 2017 at 8:29 am
Wow its how the pieces of my life puzzle are comming together. I am 61 now but I believe the trama different types started at when I was 9months old. Because I was told that I spoke sentences the completely stopped. Ended up haveing to go to a speech therapist Lately I have had memories surfacing that happened way back in childhood, I took on a lot of resonsibilty in protecting others. I am back to seeing a counselor because I too have been a writer throughout my life.I just recently came across my test results and it showed me that I was above average but recommended that I get my GED because of I was low in math and phonics It also recommended that in order for me to be successful in work would be if I was slowly introduced and basicly worked alone and not around people. Though my previcious jobs I started at the top getting company cars and having a crew I didn't last more than a month due to protecting my crew from unfair treatment.Lately it seems like every week a new memory pops in my mind I tear up which to me is a strenghth because my mom inforced that I was weak if I was caught crying That changed because when my dad would pick me and my sibbling up our visitations his tears flowed freely. Its partly upsetting to me that these memories are popping up but there is a positive that I can see. All these years I always saw life as a dark night sky without stars or the moon Now I see the beautiful stars glitter which are the angels that were protected me when the trama was going on. Thank you I will be bringing up DID to my counselor on my next appointment
Darci
says:
December, 21 2016 at 4:47 pm
After being diagnosed about 4 years ago, only this evening did I think of putting "DID Blog'" in to the Google Search box! I was happy to find a blog written by someone who sounds so "together". I was a freelance writer before I became disabled from a combination of physical problems caused by early abuse (trigeminal and occipital neuralgia and dislocated jaw joints, all of which resulted in an unsuccessful brain surgery 6 years ago, to try to correct the TN condition have led to physical disability.) I had another occupation as well, but what I truly loved was writing. However, once I became unable to physically work at my other career, I thought I would have time to write, despite the headaches, etc. I definitely have the time, but no longer seem to have the ability. Once I realized I had DID, and was "fragmented", my ability to write coherently seems to have left me. It is one of the most frustrating things I deal with, as I do journal my memories, and well as revelations, dreams, things that have helped me in this journey. But to try to put them in to even an article, much less a book, seems impossible. My question is, during the first few years of accepting that you have DID, did you ever suddenly become ADD and lose your writing skills? I don't feel that the part of me who was a writer has left. It just feels like others interfere with our thinking process, whether we are trying to speak to a doctor, or trying to write something as simple as a thank you note! Nothing ever feels to me like it is being expressed correctly. Because you mentioned in your article the fear of finding out traumatic memories that might be incapacitating, and I identified with this (although I no longer consciously fear this, after uncovering some horrific memories and living through it), I wonder if part or parts of me fear that writing things down for others to read will either make the experience more real, or perhaps even let the secret out of the box? Our therapist has always stressed the importance of using a pen name, and being "careful" and not doing "detective work". Our abusers are now around 80 years old, the few that we know are still alive. But I feel that part of me has become terrified by the therapist telling us about how survivors of ritual abuse can be in danger if a abuser knows they have remembered. Well, this post is about as ADD as any writing can be! If you have any thoughts about why a DID person, who was a published writer (I have been published in over a dozen magazines related to my earlier career), would suddenly lose the ability to know how to write properly, can you let me know? Most of all, I would love to know how to "fix it"! Thank you for using your wonderful writing style to help those of us who are trying to hang on, trying not to give up despite various difficulties. May God bless you for your work. Darci
Naomi
says:
September, 18 2016 at 9:19 am
Hi Cheryl,
Hang in there. Life won't always be this hard. Like someone else said, perhaps your therapy needs to take a more gentle approach. When I am feeling like life is more than I can handle it helps to "go back to basics." By this, I mean eat, sleep, exercise, spend time with supportive people. Sometimes this is enough.
Naomi
Lynn
says:
August, 28 2016 at 11:36 pm
Hi Cheryl - I pray this comment finds you feeling better...and in a safe place. I'm a 53-year-old woman & completely relate to your story - as well as your frustration. In fact, our histories closely parallel each other, with the exception of being beaten (by my uncle or anyone else that I am aware of...thus far). I know how it feels to go to a therapist begrudgingly...in my case, it's all a matter of finding one who is not insistent with pulling out the repressed memories as quickly or as thoroughly as possible...but, rather, empathetic to my need for a slower pace of progress. I truly reached a point of being unwilling to look for a new therapist because of the turmoil of telling my story again...from the very beginning...in detail. I absolutely LOATHED the idea and decided I needed a break from putting my own self through the pain & tears. Long story short: I finally found a therapist "just right" for me...because I DID try one more time, as a last-ditch effort to find relief from myself & the memories I THOUGHT I had packed neatly away. So, I encourage you to keep looking for YOUR "just right" therapist, if you can. I was fortunate to have found one that worked with me financially by offering a reduced rate for cash patients (I had lost my job due to my health/memory issues which, in turn, caused me to lose my medical insurance). Please don't give up...I'm certain there is a knowledgeable, caring therapist just waiting for your call - one who is in their field because of their desire to heal those of us needing specialized help. Besides, you may be able to help someone else down the road who has walked in your shoes along a similar, painful path. Your life is valuable - ALL of it - especially the unbearable moments that will eventually be used for the good of helping someone who needs to hear your background and how you survived through all of the adversities. I am, myself, but one who was once in your position and persevered. I hope I've comforted you in some small way - even if it were to simply point out that you were created for a specific purpose but you must take the steps to discover what, exactly, that purpose is. Let me know how you're doing.
Cheryl
says:
August, 19 2016 at 10:50 am
I'm a 55yr old women who was physically mentally and emotionally and sexually abused from the age of 5 to 13. My uncle beat me so bad that the state finally took me out of their care. I have tried numerous times to seek professional help over all the trauma but every time i do, i start having horrible nightmares that im dieing if i keep going to the therapist. So i stop. At midnight lastnight more memories that i have pushed so far to the back of my mind came flooding out. The pain was so enormous i wanted to scream. I dont know what to do. Please some one out there please help me. I have been crying most of the day. I dont know how much more i can handle.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Crystalie Matulewicz
says:
August, 25 2016 at 10:09 am
Cheryl, I am sorry you are experiencing this. Therapy can be difficult for trauma survivors. You have to be "ready" to process it, otherwise it can do more harm than good. I wouldn't take it as a sign to give up on therapy, but sometimes therapy needs to take a different direction, aside from trauma, before you can start to heal.
Appreciative
says:
July, 19 2013 at 10:55 pm
I've been up all night researching recovered and false memories trying to figure how I should think and feel about my partner's suspicion of abuse. I stumbled across your criticism of The Courage To Heal which in turn led me to this article. My partner nor I have DID but these words really hit me:

"But there is a difference between acknowledging that possibility and terrifying yourself with it. My fear of discovering devastatingly painful things about my past incapacitated me. I wish I’d noticed that I was already contending with devastatingly painful things about my past, and it hadn’t killed me yet. I wish I’d had more faith in my resiliency."

My partner has been in an incapacitated state for years now. These words provided some wisdom and comfort for this midnight seeker and I suspect they will for my partner as well. Thank you for this gift.
Denies
says:
December, 17 2010 at 2:24 am
I too am chiming in with the *thank you's* for such a wonderful blog. I stumpled upon it last night--I havent' gotten the chance to go through its entirety, but have started, and already feel the urge to comment.

I was diagnosed 5 years ago, and I am still just lulling along. I, like you, want straight forward answers. What happened, when it happened what started the situration, how did it end. I struggle with the *not knowing*. I would rather know than be confronted by alters with these outrageous stories that don't find in my mind.

I don't want to be a liar, yet continously feel like one.

My abuse was Clergy abuse. My one goal is to report it. How do I do that, if I can't speak about it in coherent sentences.

lothough life is good, (alot better than it was before diagnosis), yet I still long to be able to stand on my own two feet and trust what i say.

Thanks--for giving hope.

i always said if I could help one person this mess would be worth it. I am sure you feel the same. I just wanted to let you know that you succeeded.

Thanks

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
December, 21 2010 at 1:18 pm
Hi Denies,

"I don’t want to be a liar, yet continously feel like one."

For what it's worth, I hear that a lot from people with dissociative disorders. It's a common fear for a lot of reasons, I think. Not the least of which is dissociation itself, which blurs reality. But I've come to believe that part of learning to live with Dissociative Identity Disorder is making friends with ambiguity. I've found that dealing with traumatic material is much easier (though no less painful) now that I've learned to take such material seriously, but not necessarily literally, depending on my level of awareness. By doing that, I've created a safe zone in which I can talk about it. And, over time, forming coherent sentences, understanding the nature of my own history, gets easier.

I've also learned that using art to communicate with my system and also about disjointed, dissociated memory is incredibly helpful. I don't know if you've tried that but it has really helped me to find clarity.

Thank you so much for your comment. It really means a lot to me.
Darla M
says:
August, 30 2010 at 3:20 pm
Hello Holly. It's very encouraging to read your blog and know that I am not alone. I have no other connections to others with DID. It is particulary helpful to see that emotional neglect is recognized as a cause for this disorder, because I too, have struggled with reconciling the extent of my trauma history with that of others who have more severe forms of DID. Sometimes I am still torn between trivializing my own experience because it does not "measure" up to the trauma of others and seeking external sources of validation for what is often a lonely, painful, and exasperating "thing" to live with.

It's a burden to carry the secret of DID. Reading your blog makes the disorder seem a little less bizarre and more human. Thanks.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
August, 30 2010 at 6:04 pm
Hi Darla,

"Reading your blog makes the disorder seem a little less bizarre and more human."

That is a huge compliment, thank you. Because the focus of my work is humanizing and demystifying DID, feedback like that is extremely encouraging. Thank you.

For what it's worth, in talking with others with DID I've discovered that this drive towards minimizing one's own trauma is very common. I think it stems at least in part from The Denial Factor - the total denial that anything at all is amiss in the environments so many with DID grew up in. My point is that I'm not convinced this knee jerk urge to trivialize one's own experience has anything at all to do with the experiences themselves, and instead has more to do with the attitudes encountered around those experiences.

Thanks again for reading and commenting, Darla. I'm so glad to know my blog has been helpful.
Thomas C
says:
August, 19 2010 at 11:31 am
You should also consider the fact that mental illness might not have psychological roots. The psychological fraternity are very good at putting a psychological spin on everything, but no people are increasingly challenging that. I found out that my anxiety was not emotional or psychological, but was more chemical and due to physical factors. Psychology has us in a grip and it can be hard to think outside of their box. You should read Killing Anxiety from the Roots which is all about the physical causes of mental illness.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
August, 19 2010 at 2:46 pm
Hi Thomas,

Thanks for reading and for taking the time to share your comment. I do agree that physiology can play a role in the development of Dissociative Identity Disorder for some folks (see From Trauma to DID: The Sensitivity Factor - http://www.healthyplace.com/blogs/dissociativeliving/2010/08/from-trauma-to-did-the-sensitivity-factor/.) But at its core, DID is a trauma disorder. In other words, people aren't born with DID. They may be born with a particularly strong capacity to dissociate, but the disorder itself, like Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, is a response to trauma, not a physical illness.

You mentioned anxiety too, though. One of the most helpful things I've ever been told about my anxiety is that it's organic. In other words, it exists and then attaches itself to things in my environment. Knowing that my anxiety is chemical really helps me cope with it better because I no longer feel compelled to try and reason out the hidden meaning behind some of my anxiety driven behaviors.

I looked for the book you recommended but couldn't find it. Is it perhaps out of print?
Jennifer
says:
August, 19 2010 at 10:28 am
Holly,
This is the first time I've read about DID with other people.
It is a hard thing to go through being diagnosed DID. I've been diagnosed PTSD with DID for over a year now. Two years ago I had a severe head injury that caused memory loss. The treatment with a counselor has brought back alot of memories that even before my head injury I had repressed. Since my treatment I feel like a weight has been lifted, because now I understand my issues of anxiety and irrational fears. DID treatment has been essential to my life, even though I still have memory issues of everyday living I know now that I don't have to live with being afraid. Medicine is helpful and working with my husband about my issues he never understood has given my life back too.
It is scary to think that there could be more memories, that there is more abuse hidden. But I know now I can wake up everyday and actually have a purpose. I am also Bipolar and have been diagnosed since I was 15. My daughter is a life saver, being surrounded with purpose and knowing that my memory issues were only a way to keep myself going.
We have to tell ourselves to propel forward, being DID I know now saved myself. I have little contact with my family and still have difficulty with even being near them, but I am here. I am here and I appreciate the blessings given to me. I wish you the best, it is your courage that speaks out to me. It is strength that keeps us going forward.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
August, 19 2010 at 2:27 pm
Jennifer - Welcome and thanks for your comment.

"It is scary to think that there could be more memories, that there is more abuse hidden. But I know now I can wake up everyday and actually have a purpose."

I love that you shared this. For me, feeling purposeless was even more crippling than the fear of discovering intolerable material. Perhaps the two are linked somehow - fear of that magnitude resulting in profound purposelessness or something - because I notice that as the fear abated my sense of purpose returned. Regardless, feeling like I have purpose and meaning in my life gives me the strength I need to move through the fear.

"We have to tell ourselves to propel forward, being DID I know now saved myself."

You seem to have a very hopeful attitude and the brief part of your story you've offered here is inspiring. Thank you so much for sharing it.
Dawn
says:
August, 18 2010 at 4:39 am
Holly,

Wonderful job with writing out your feelings. I too struggle with DID and PTSD. I went through all my repressed memories and felt I was crazy. Now I no longer fear that. I went through so many emotional states one of them being fearful of men. I have a stable life, adopted 6 children and have 9 total, a marriage of 21 years to a supportive husband. This trauma and reliving my repressed memories I thought would break me. With the Lord and support I made it through. My alters are less controling and only return during major stressful life events. Do not be afraid, work with the memories, the truth will set you free!

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
August, 18 2010 at 9:42 am
Dawn - Thank you for this hopeful message. It's so comforting to know that people with DID can and often do live stable, productive lives, even if it takes some time to get there. Thanks for reading and I hope to hear from you again!
Christine
says:
August, 14 2010 at 5:27 pm
Dear Holly,
We have been diagnosed with DID for maybe seven years now. There are a laundry list of co-morbidities of course, have yet to meet another fellow DID where that is not the case. Over the past ten years, we have been overcoming our addictions: marijuana, cocaine, alchohol, painkillers, food and of course cigarettes. Now that the body is back to it's natural state, more memories are coming through...none of them pretty, but they aren't as horrible as once we had feared they would be. We too have come to grips with the nebulous nature of this particular beast.

Thank you for your work in helping others. We are now a pre-nursing student, we hope to become a psychiatric nurse and help others as well.


Chrisitne

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
August, 16 2010 at 8:40 am
Hi Christine. The link you allude to between substance abuse and traumatic memory is an interesting one. I am not educated enough about addiction to speak knowledgeably on the subject, but I'm struck - not for the first time - by how my inclination towards intellectualism is a sort of dependency. The desire to shield oneself from painful material can be an overpowering one. But like you, I've found that much of that material isn't as crushing as I'd feared.

Thank you for reading and commenting. Good luck with your schooling. I'm not sure there can ever be too many competent, empathetic psychiatric nurses!
Janet
says:
August, 13 2010 at 11:43 am
I would like to comment on the article about Repressed Memories of Child Abuse. DID is part of my world, personally and professionally, as I work with men and women who are DID. I learned much of what I know from working through my own issues of DID and doing research into it in the last 25 years.
I would like to add a fourth choice for Holly and others to consider who are still working through issues of DID--this disorder can also result from emotional neglect--not just extreme traumatic events.
I would not have believed this based on the research I had done in the past, but then I meet a Psychiatrist who told me that he had worked with several patients who were DID and they did not have extreme trauma in their childhood, but they did have emotional neglect.
Since hearing this from the psychiatrist I have come across this in my own private practice with those who suffer from DID. It is not as common but it is definitely one of the contributing factors which can result in DID.

In reply to by Anonymous (not verified)

Holly Gray
says:
August, 13 2010 at 1:13 pm
Thanks for your comment, Janet.

To be clear, my struggle was never about whether or not I experienced trauma. That was never a question. What terrified me was the idea that DID was the result of trauma so severe as to be inconceivable. And as I said in my post, "My fear of discovering devastatingly painful things about my past incapacitated me. I wish I’d noticed that I was already contending with devastatingly painful things about my past, and it hadn’t killed me yet."

I remembered trauma. But it didn't sink to the level of horror and nightmare that I was under the erroneous impression DID was the result of. The trauma I knew I'd suffered was painful enough. I was terrified that having DID meant I had repressed memories of still more painful trauma. Illogically I concluded that by rejecting the diagnosis, I could protect myself from discovering things I could not tolerate.

I appreciate your comment because it draws attention to the fact that emotional abuse and neglect is traumatic too. And like you pointed out, can be the very trauma that helps to create DID.

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