Girl Interrupted, Part I: Of Swiss Cheese Memories

“…I deal with the permanent physical and emotional scars you left me with…I have post trauma stress that gets triggered every time I think about you, think I see you, think I hear your voice; this is not something I can help.  Night terrors, insomnia, hyper-vigilance, startle reactions and panic attacks are all things that are triggered in my body because of you.  I have huge gaps in my memory from my years with you.  I am not crazy; my body remembers that you are not a safe person for me, and tries to protect me from you…”—Letter from a Survivor to her Abuser, 02/23/09

Kathy and Kendra, November of 1990.

The miracle of modern medical technology has begun to reveal to us the mysteries and inner workings of the human brain.  We can now see damage imprinted in our grey matter, increasing our understanding of temporary and permanent alterations of the brain caused by addictions and mental illness.  I once attended a training that emblazoned rainbow-bright images of brains forever arrested developmentally at the ages that their owners began abusing substances.

It gave me pause to think.

The most frustrating effect of my years with an abuser is what I call my “Swiss cheese memory”—numerous chunks of my life’s history that are randomly erased from my mind.  In my frustration, I have been on a years-long journey to understand, in the hopes that I may regain that which I have lost.

Let me be clear.  At best, I have a layperson’s knowledge of trauma; I am not a college-educated psychologist or neurophysicist.  So I can only give you my amateur understanding, and my survivor’s experience.   I have read enough about trauma to know that in times of extreme emotional distress—often in situations where one believes that her or his life is in danger, one’s mind and body may respond by blocking out traumatic events to allow a person to cope, survive and move on.

This makes sense to me.  As a victim of domestic violence, I lived daily with the fear that “today might be the day” that I died, particularly after I married him.

Remember the most terrified you have ever been, the heart-pounding, breath-taking fight-or-flight panic that welled up from within.  Can you remember the feeling of every limb in your body tingling (unpleasantly, I might add) with involuntary spasms to get the hell out, no matter the cost?  Imagine living with that sensation day in, day out, to be triggered by the most mundane events: the phone ringing, car tires in the driveway, the front door slamming shut, footsteps on stair treads, smell of maggot-rancid sweat, or alcohol-soaked breath.  Imagine being hyper-vigilant to every tone, every voice inflection, every muscle movement, every nuanced meaning of every word, because your ability to successfully interpret each and every signal meant the difference between momentary peace and mind-numbing fear.  Imagine living every moment needing to calculate an escape route—one that included securing the safety of your infant child—before the ticking time bomb went off and you could be caught in the fallout.

It’s an over-stimulation that I imagine no one could live with for very long.  It makes sense to me that in such constant, real and present terror, my mind said, “Enough!” and went on hiatus for short periods of time in order to cope.  It makes sense that such over-zealous stimulation would cause long-term damage to my psyche and memory.  It also makes sense that it will take radical, painful, patient labor to undo the damage that has been done, and allow me to remember again.

Don’t call me crazy.  It makes sense.

Therefore, it came as no surprise to me when, while attending a conference on domestic violence recently, the presenter flashed on screen rainbow-bright images of brains forever arrested developmentally at the ages that their owners experienced trauma.  It confirmed what I had suspicioned all along; in some ways, I am very much a 17-year-old stuck in a 40-year-old’s body.  Yes, I have matured and am capable of being in a normal, adult relationship and have adult responsibilities.  But somewhere inside is a young woman, forever altered by violence, who is waiting to remember, and be healed:

“If your purpose in contacting me is for me to change my feelings about you, you need to acknowledge everything you did to me.  If your purpose is to help me find healing, so I can stop being triggered by fear of you, than you will need to accept full responsibility, without denying, blaming me or minimizing what you did.  If your purpose in contacting me is to let me know all of the ways you altered my life’s course, and for what purpose you did so, so my memories can finally be integrated in to my “young self,” I am waiting…”—Letter from a Survivor to her Abuser, 02/23/09

You can take the girl out of the domestic violence, but you can’t take the domestic violence out of the girl.  It forever, inexorably, alters the person who lives it.

If you care to, you can help someone heal from the persistent scars that are left, when the perpetrator is finally gone and the safety crisis is over.  It will take validation, patience, love, understanding—and likely many, many years.  If it is in your power to do so—only when she or he is ready—help her or him to remember.  Answer questions honestly and gently, no matter how painful the answer may seem.  A survivor’s memory has not only been erased by abuse, but what is left is tainted by the perspective of the abuser—often, the only perspective the victim is allowed to have.  Trauma may forever impact not only the memories surrounding the trauma, but all other memories.

For me, it has been a painful process, but a necessary one.  Either way I run risks; either way it hurts.  Sometimes continuing this healing process has meant being met with the anger of people I hurt along the way, the mocking of people who befriended him, or the apathy of people who didn’t care about me to begin with.  If I choose not continue, I will not be my “whole” self.”

I am no longer willing to live with Swiss cheese memory.  It stinks.

©2010 Kathy Jones, DVSur5r