The Mutable Nature Of Human Mechanisms

That title is really just a fancy way of saying our memories are not to be trusted. Your perfectly normal memory is not to be trusted, but mine, with all of its blows and bruises, is definitely less trustworthy than yours. I’ve gotten used to my fail brain, but its peccadilloes do make it difficult to function at times.

You think you know yourself pretty well, better than anyone else anyway, but when you’ve had a traumatic brain injury and so much of your life is just gone, it makes you wonder if you really know yourself at all. I can’t trust my own brain.

About ten years ago, my brain randomly decided to build a new neural pathway to an old memory that had been lost. It was a traumatic memory involving attempted sexual assault with a gun. I wrote about it here. I didn’t remember that at all. It happened when I was about eighteen years old, before I was hit on the head with a stage light and lost a lot of long-term memories. When the stage light hit, the connection to that incident was lost.

One night, I was talking to a friend and something sparked the memory. It hit me like a freight train. The memory was so vivid that I could even remember the temperature and what the air smelled like. I remembered every tiny detail as if it was happening at that moment. I basically relived it. I started crying, unconsciously and uncontrollably, and didn’t stop for about twelve hours. It was just as real all those years later as it was when it happened.

A lot of my memories of child sexual abuse are buried. I only have flashes of memory. I can’t remember the whole thing. I remember smells and what my room looked like at night. I remember scratches at the window screen and absolute terror. I remember the terror best of all, but I don’t really recall details other than unimportant ones. I can’t see the whole; I see minutia. I’m not sure if I remembered the details before I was hit on the head or if I had just suppressed the whole thing even before the traumatic brain injury.

I am pretty sure that I chose to bury at least part of the childhood sexual abuse before the traumatic brain injury since I spent the bulk of my life in denial. I went through drug addiction, prostitution, cutting, promiscuity, passive suicide, depression, anorexia and sexual assault as an adult without knowing why. I either chose not to make the connection or my brain wouldn’t let me in a misguided effort to try to protect me from the childhood trauma.

I’m not even sure that I believe in the concept of repressed memory anyway. I recover memories all the time, but it’s because of a traumatic brain injury, not because my brain consciously repressed them.

It’s interesting to me that in the sexual assault I experienced as an adult, I was so numb about it. From the post I linked above: “She saw the gun, she heard the threat, she felt his hand on her arm. When he dragged her to the alley between the buildings and began pawing at her clothes, she felt nothing except annoyance and disgust.”

I totally disconnected myself from the situation when it was happening. I only panicked after the fact. I panicked years later when I finally recovered the memory. I felt all the fear I should have felt then. At the time though, I felt nothing. I cried for twelve hours years later. I held those tears in for all that time. Even now, I guess I’m still disconnected since I could only write about it in the third person.

Had I not been talking to that friend on that particular night and experienced that particular trigger, that memory wouldn’t have come back. It would still be buried in my brain and I wouldn’t remember that it happened at all. It makes me wonder what else is buried in there.

What other traumas are just lurking in my brain waiting for a trigger? The scariest thing about traumatic brain injury to your long-term memory is that your brain is sometimes capable of creating new pathways to old memories. It happens instantaneously and you can’t control it. Most of the time, the memories are benign, but sometimes, especially when you’ve lived a life as hellish as mine, they are anything but innocent. They send me into grief and panic. They stop me in my tracks and make me confront them. I never know when it will happen. I never know what will surface. It’s a pretty awful thing to live with.

But, each memory I recover is one more small victory, even if it means half a day crying because of it. They are my memories. They are trapped in my brain. I would rather know and be able to process it. If you don’t know the cause, you can’t treat the problem. I would rather know, still I’m scared of what other horrors lurk in my past.