Traumatic Memory Loss

Traumatic Memory Loss

A couple of days ago, I had the opportunity to share my domestic violence story. As I talked about the history of my abusive relationship, the escalation of the violence and the devastating fire, I had no problem describing specific details that I remembered so well. But, as always, once I talked about the horror of watching my abuser run past me engulfed in flames and the guilt of failing to rescue my dog, my recollections became sketchy.

I can only remember fragmented conversations with the police, medical personnel, and even my family. There are also huge chunks of time that are devoid of any memories at all. People have told me that I said this or did that, but I can’t fit the patchy bits of memory together to form a complete timeline of events. It’s frustrating and sometimes scary. But most of all, it hurts knowing people choose to believe it’s nothing more than a convenient excuse for why I wasn’t acting like myself anymore. I’ve apologized for anything I may have said or done to offend, but always with the caveat that I don’t remember because that is the truth.

To judge someone in the midst of a traumatic crisis because you don’t like their behavior causes secondary victimization and says a lot more about you than it does about them. I can’t change how people reacted after the violence and I’ve accepted that and moved on.

Nevertheless, I was encouraged by one of my listeners when she made a comment validating my memory loss. When I stated that I felt foolish because I had amnesia, she said “It’s proven neuroscience.” She explained that traumatic events rewire our brains in order to help us cope. I’ve read a lot about the subject and I know it’s true, but I was relieved to know that she believed me. I needed that approval to feel safe and secure.

Memory loss is nature’s way of providing a built-in survival skill and defense mechanism so we can protect ourselves from psychological damage. Emotionally traumatic events can lead to dissociative amnesia and I have no doubt that it happened to me. When posttraumatic me was met with disapproval, I lost what little security I had left. That undermined my view of myself and increased my self-doubt.

Now I feel prepared to treat myself with greater empathy. I understand the damage that trauma causes the brain because I’ve experienced it firsthand. I am grateful to those who believe in and support me and I am ready to pay it forward by supporting other domestic violence and sexual assault survivors. Victim-blaming is never acceptable. I choose to believe and support survivors and I hope that by telling my story I am empowering others to speak out.

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