This page is for people with personal questions and concerns about their own memories, including fragmentary or missing memories. It is part of a much larger section of my website on Recovered Memories of Sexual Abuse.
Here I provide some cautionary information and advice for those of you who suspect or know that you were abused but can’t remember what happened, and for those of you who are hoping or seeking to recall memories that are not (currently) available to you.
Most importantly, I want to reassure you that whatever you are experiencing and struggling is experienced by many others too, and can be understood – including by you, with some help.
You may have come here seeking better understanding of memories you already have. Maybe you are experiencing what might be memories, but you’re not sure and really don’t want to get it wrong. Or maybe you lack any memories of childhood sexual or physical abuse that you strongly suspect happened, or even know and have proof happened (e.g., reliable witnesses, videos, journal entries). Or maybe you have questions about whether remembering (more) child abuse experiences can help you to heal and improve your life.
Whatever brings you here, please take the time to read this entire page, not just part of it. And if you haven’t already, before reading this page read my main Recovered Memories page, especially the section Introduction to Traumatic Memories. There I provide some essential information on the complexity of human memory, including different types of memory involved in the brain’s encoding, storage and recall of traumatic experiences and other life events. For example, the distinction between explicit and implicit memories, explained there, is very important and sheds a great deal of light on many people’s experiences. Without that basic knowledge of memory functioning you are likely to be confused – and worse, vulnerable to being misled by limited or bad information in the media or on the internet.
At the end of this page, I suggest some books with effective tools for managing difficult and confusing memories, and empowering information about safe and competent therapy and therapists for complex trauma associated with such memories. I also link to more information about the stages of recovery and how to find qualified professional help.
Caution: Recovering Your Memories?
People who visit my website sometimes have questions like these:
- “How can I recover (more) memories?”
- “Should I get hypnotized to remember?”
- “Can psychedelics help me remember?”
- “How can I know for sure whether I was abused?”
It is natural that people ask these questions, particularly given how the popular media present these issues.
It is more helpful, however, to step back and look at the bigger picture and consider these questions too:
- “Why do I want to recover (more) memories?”
- “Why do I want to recover (more) memories now?”
- “What do I hope that recovering memories will do for me?”
- “Why do I wish I could know for sure whether and how I was abused?”
- “What problems and suffering in my life now do I believe will be changed by remembering abuse?”
These are extremely important questions. They go to the heart of who you are, your deepest hopes, and your current struggles. There are no right or wrong answers.
However, first it will be helpful to better understand your current problems – including whether they could be rooted in abuse experiences that you are unable to recall as explicit memories. Also, it will be important to clarify what you want to achieve for yourself and your life. Such understanding and clarity will provide a critical foundation for determining for yourself whether and how recovering memories might be helpful.
Not remembering abuse that has deeply shaped you, and recovering memories without sufficient preparation – both can be harmful.
Maybe recovering memories could help you. But it’s not the key to healing the effects of child abuse and having a better life. What you hope to gain by recovering memories you are more likely to achieve, first, by laying a solid foundation for exploring memories (when you’re ready), and second, by cultivating skills and capacities that will bring healing and happiness in other ways too.
For example, finding ways to better manage difficult memories and emotions you are already experiencing will increase the healing and happiness in your life. The same is true for reducing old unhelpful patterns of relating/reacting to others when you get “triggered,” and for finding ways to escape abusive and exploitive relationships (which can be quite challenging when the abuser(s) have power over you, your children, etc.). Even before you understand exactly where those reactions to triggers and that vulnerability to abusive relationships come from in your past, you can do a lot of healing that will serve you well during and after any new memories may be recovered (and if they never are). All of this is understood by the experts on these issues, and by any therapist qualified to help people heal from painful and traumatic childhoods.
Stages of Recovery, Competent and Safe Therapy
Healing from the effects of abuse is a process that generally takes place in stages, and the focus of the first stage is not about recovering memories, or even focusing on the contents of the memories you already have.
The first stage of healing and recovery, and any helpful therapy or counseling, is usually and mostly about:
- Getting a ‘road map’ of the healing process, including the possible stages and the most helpful approaches to memories at each stage.
- Establishing safety and stability in your body, your relationships, and the rest of your life.
- Tapping into and developing your own inner strengths and all the resources potentially available to you.
- Learning how to regulate your emotions and manage symptoms that make you feel unsafe or cause suffering.
- Developing and strengthening skills for managing painful memories and other experiences, and minimizing unhelpful responses.
Of course, everything is not always so perfectly ordered and sequential. During the first stage of recovery, it may be necessary to discuss the contents of memories that are disrupting your life.
Also, in that first stage it may be necessary to understand how not remembering significant (including abusive) experiences in your past may be causing vulnerabilities, problems and suffering now – including in unhealthy relationships with family members and other important people in your life.
Such explorations may be required, for example, to help you manage (previously unrecognized) symptoms of trauma, or to understand why you find it hard to care for yourself (because the person or people who abused you gave you the message that you were unworthy of care, etc.). However, in this case addressing memories is not the main focus of first stage of therapy, but a means to achieving safety, stability and greater ability to take care of yourself.
Important questions to ask yourself, usually with the help of a qualified professional
Therefore, here are some important questions that you may need to answer, which will require more research and, in most cases, consultation with a qualified professional:
- “What can I learn, before exploring and ’processing’ abuse memories, that could help me to improve my current life and help me achieve future goals (which may include better remembering and understanding my past)?”
- “What skills and capacities can I develop to manage the memories I already have – so that I’m better able to make sense of them, and better able to work with any new memories that might emerge?”
If you are or will be working with a therapist or counselor on these issues, it is essential that they are qualified to help you with these things. Therapists who do not believe in – or worse, deny – the realities of amnesia and recovered memories are not merely ignorant but also dangerous. They are likely to repeat with you (even inflict on you) the interpersonal dynamics of disconnection and disempowerment at the heart of abusive experiences you may have experienced growing up. Such therapists will, at least to some extent, be obstacles to meeting your needs for understanding and healing.
On the other hand, any therapist or counselor who assumes that you must have experienced a particular type of child abuse that you don’t remember, or must have been abused by a particular person in a way that you don’t remember, and pushes you to recall such things, is also incompetent and dangerous. Such therapists definitely exist, and they too can relate to their clients in very disempowering and harmful ways. They too can repeat abusive relationships dynamics, even while claiming to you (and deluding themselves) that they are good “trauma-informed” therapists who are truly connecting with you and empowering you.
After establishing a solid foundation of understanding, self-regulation skills, and safety and stability in one’s life, people are in a much better position decide – freely, thoughtfully, mindful of the risks – whether (or not) to focus on memories of abuse and carefully explore, in ways that don’t risk distorting memories, whether more memories may emerge. One might choose to focus on memories, for example, to place memories they already have into a larger understanding of their life and identity. Importantly, once such a foundation is in place, some people realize that thinking and talking about abuse memories is not currently required to achieve their current life goals. Some even decide that those memories, and potential additional memories that could emerge, are currently not a primary concern of theirs. (And sometimes people need to educate their therapists about this.)
The second stage of recovery – for those who do need to focus on abuse memories, and who make an informed decision that this could be helpful – is typically when to make sense of what happened and how it fits into one’s life story. That’s why that stage is often referred to as ‘remembrance and mourning.’ (‘Mourning’ refers to working through grief about the remembered abuse and its negative effects, grief about good experiences one did not have and, for some, grief about not even being able to remember important experiences.)
Certainly, focusing on the contents of abuse memories, including (newly) recovered memories, is commonly part of the second stage of the healing process. For those who do choose to explore their memories, which could potentially result in recovering new ones, several important cautions should be kept in mind:
- If memories do not emerge spontaneously, this may be due to healthy and protective psychological ‘defense mechanisms.’
- Trying to force abuse memories to emerge is almost never a helpful approach, and can cause a great deal of harm. It can cause increased distress and confusion, and behaviors that are harmful to oneself and important relationships (including false memories and mistaken accusations).
- Attempting to recover memories using hypnosis or other mind-altering methods associated with states of heightened ‘suggestibility’ (e.g. psychedelics) can be harmful. The risk of creating very distorted or outright false memories is increased by such methods, especially with therapists or ‘guides’ who are not highly competent and knowledgeable – not only about safe use of such methods in general, but about autobiographical memory processes, the treatment of complex trauma, etc.
- Even focusing on abuse memories that one already has, without proper preparation and assistance from a competent professional, carries a high risk of increasing distress, instability, suffering and harm.
- Although new memories may emerge during therapy, and managing and making sense of such memories can be an essential part of the healing process, recovering memories of abuse should never be the main focus of therapy or counseling.
There’s always much more to you than ‘abuse victim’ or ‘abuse survivor’
Finally, here are a few more things to consider:
- No matter how much abuse someone has experienced, or how complete her or his memories are, there is always much more to that person than ‘abuse victim’ or ‘abuse survivor.’
- While understanding oneself as a ‘victim’ or ‘survivor’ can be an essential part of understanding one’s past and current life, there are also dangers of constructing a personal identity or reinforcing a sense of self that is identified too much, for too long, with those aspects of one’s identity.
- Intellectual learning, therapy, and many other activities and relationships can help people heal from harmful effects of child abuse, including help people deal with troubling memories and potentially access previously inaccessible memories. But if improving one’s current life and creating a better future are neglected by an extreme focus on exploring the past, healing will be slowed down and may even be prevented.
If you want to start learning and practicing the self-regulation skills essential to dealing with traumatic memories and the first stage of recovery, I strongly recommend this book: Growing Beyond Survival: A Self-Help Toolkit for Managing Traumatic Stress, by Elizabeth Vermilyea.
If you want to read an excellent book or two by a master trauma therapist, someone who has taught therapists around the world how to work safely with clients suffering from complex trauma, including amnesia and recovered memories, I recommend these: It’s Not You, It’s What Happened to You: Complex Trauma and Treatment (written for clients), and Recollections of Sexual Abuse: Treatment Principles and Guidelines (written for clinicians), both by Dr. Christine Courtois. (For more book recommendations, see Additional Resources.)