I Don't Know, 'I Don't Remember, I Don't Remember' : On Being Transparent About Sexual Abuse

By Kate McGahan LMSW

Along with the rest of the nation, I have been riveted on the Brett Kavanaugh/Christine Blasey-Ford testimony. Why all the hoopla? Aside from the deeply disturbing values and attitudes that are being consistently revealed in current politics, the story touches everyone who ever abused, was ever abused, ever did things beyond their control under the influence, ever forgot …ever remembered.

Last week Dr. Ford reminded me of what happened to me. She reminds me of what I tried to forget. It’s not like I forgot altogether what happened to me. Oh no. It’s that when it actually happened, I dissociated from myself because, quite simply, I didn’t want to be there. I wanted no part of it. So I “left”! Dissociation is a natural defense mechanism for those experiencing Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) whether it is due to wartime, devastating natural disaster or sexual, physical or emotional trauma. 

When he came looking for me that first night when I was ten, I was hiding from him. I had already learned that I did not like the way he treated me. He was just, well, “yucky.” Every night through my terrifying moments, he would find me, hiding. Behind curtains. Behind chairs. Under beds and tables. He always found me. I don’t know why I didn’t just run away from home altogether but there was something in the experience that paralyzed me like a deer in headlights.

I don’t know how many times over the years he did this, but it was many times. I never told anybody about it. This was the first person who taught me to Not Say No, to Not Tell Anyone, to try to continue loving someone even though they hurt, abuse and betray. He taught me how to deny the Here and Now, how to suppress my feelings until it became natural for me to stuff them away altogether. He taught me to expect that someone you come to love will probably come to hurt you. He taught me that family can betray you.

Once he found me and took me to his bedroom, I couldn’t hide my body anymore, so I hid the rest of me. I vacated. I dissociated. While his hands groped and his aged appendage shook as he spoke dirty words to my virgin ears, I exited the situation. My mind was able to whisk me away. I floated up out of the situation. Around the walls, covered with pink and blue wallpapered flowers. Up the wall to where the white painted molding met the yellowed ceiling. Most of the time I’d be “up there” somewhere but sometimes I would go even further. I would go through the ceiling and out into the freedom that was the rooftop and the sky. Despite what was happening I had already developed a faith in God and the angels and I believed that when I went “up there” I had a measure of safety that I didn’t have below. When we are traumatized, leaving the scene spiritually and psychologically is a safety measure. It’s By Design for one’s survival. It's no surprise that we cannot remember details when we are "not there." The circumstances at hand are too overwhelming to process and so we are designed to have an exit route and that route is called Dissociation.

When someone drinks or does drugs, they can exit too, through blackouts, drug “trips” that take them out of context with their own bodies, straight into an altered state. This is why most of them do it. They can't remember the details either, those that happened during their trip. They too are seeking an escape from something in their lives that they can’t bear. Some people can’t find their way back. They can be stuck in a confusing state of Dissociative Disorder, which is a disorder of identity. When you leave yourself behind this way, the day eventually can come when you find that you don’t know who you are at all. You don’t even know what you are. You have not lived life like a normal “person”.

When children are abused, they can lose sight of who and what they are. Now nearly fifty years later, I still do not know my worth, my value, my best qualities overshadowed and disguised by lifelong shame. This makes no sense to someone who has never experienced abuse, that a child can have such shame and guilt for the torrid acts of someone else, but it is the nature of a child to suffer guilt for such things beyond his or her control. Many suffer this for the rest of their lives. 

When you're young and your parents divorce, you always think it’s your fault. After all you are still somewhat ego-centric, as all young children are, and you think the world revolves around you, so therefore everything must have to do with you, for better or for worse. With various types of abuse, there is deep shame for being submissive, for not saying “no” to something that is deeply wrong. There is guilt for not being brave enough to tell anyone, not reporting the perpetrator. Perhaps even guilt for enjoying the experience despite the circumstance. Horrors! 

One of the specific problems for children who experience abuse of any kind is that as they grow, their brains are developing too. What goes in becomes a part of them. Walking. Talking. Tying Their Shoes. Reading, Writing, Arithmetic. Words of praise become a foundation for how they see themselves as they move forward into adulthood. Physical, Emotional, Sexual Abuse. These too become a foundation for how they see themselves and rate their poor self-worth as they move forward into adulthood. They never know why they don’t trust, they fear betrayal, they avoid intimacy. They throw themselves into dysfunctional relationships – after all, we attract what we feel and we will be like magnets drawing the same kind of people to us who will continue to hurt, harm, betray and abuse. In our ongoing insecurity, we can become addicted to pathways of escape: drugs, alcohol, gambling, pornography or work. We further dull our awareness of who we are because we don’t like who we are and we must find some way to escape from our own lives. It’s just another kind of dissociation. There are so many ways to lose ourselves. Each one of these situations is actually another opportunity to Show Up differently, but still we tend to focus on losing ourselves instead of finding ourselves. 

...Until one day we are reminded and it all comes rushing back. It fills every sense that had forgotten until now. The groping, the gravely voice, the lumpy pillows, the wallpaper flowers, the stale smell of the room. You can’t say when, you don’t remember how often. You only remember the flowers, the ceiling, the man, the hands, the feeling of terror and powerlessness ---- only now there is no escape from it. You have finally admitted to yourself that this has happened and now what are you going to do with it? You can’t heal what you don’t feel and now fifty years later you feel it’s full effect. You feel the fury, knowing how it changed the way you came to live your life. You see it from the eyes of an adult now. You know now that you deserved more in life but look how you always settled for less.

Last night anchor woman Connie Chung came forward. God bless her. She has remembered too: the trusted family doctor who delivered her as a baby who came to assault her as a co-ed. In fifty years she never told anyone but her husband. She now reminds me of one I’d forgotten. Our small town family doctor who fondled my breasts during a procedural exam for college admission.
     “Is someone playing with these?” he asked me.
     “No.” was my shy but robotic answer. 
      How on earth does one answer this?
     “Aww, that’s too bad,” he replied as he gave a last fondle.
     Oh my God I forgot about this until now.

So many of us are caught in the process of unlearning the erroneous things that we’ve been taught, needing to rewind back to our innocence and to remember the love and respect we must inherently have first for ourselves. We must tell our story and once it's told, to learn what we can from it and try to forget the part that only deprives us of creating a better story for ourselves in this new day and age ....knowing that the challenges along the way are what gave us the strengths of empathy, compassion and appreciation for the good things in life. Nothing is ever all good or all bad. The key is in accepting it as part of our development and moving forward with the strength of character that we have developed. We are different people because of these things and when it comes to our own testimony of ourselves, we are innocent.  

God grant me the serenity

to accept the things I cannot change; 

courage to change the things I can; 

and wisdom to know the difference.

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