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Memory & Trauma: Why Don't Victims Remember Right Away?

Updated: Mar 14, 2022

I have pondered on whether or not I should write this post for quite some time. If I am honest, it is triggering for me. I have dedicated myself to talking about the uncomfortable truths of life & for me this topic is no different. So, I will dedicate this post to my littles who have had their truths doubted because they didn't remember or even want to tell what was happening until we found safety. I dedicate this post to all of the survivors of trauma who had their truth questioned because they didn't remember what happened until much later. I see you, I hear you, you matter.

The Brain and Mind on Trauma

Trauma, especially in childhood and early adolescence, can cause the brain to be overdeveloped in certain parts such as the amygdala. This causes us to be in a constant state of fight, flight, freeze, or fawn in order to survive (fawn is still being researched, but I believe it is closely related to Stockholm syndrome). The amygdala (reactive/survival focused part of the brain) becomes enlarged while the prefrontal cortex (the logic and reasoning brain) is smaller and oftentimes blocked from sending signals by the amygdala. The amygdala’s main concern is to keep you safe and simply thinking about running instead of physically running won’t allow you to survive for very long.

This blocking limits higher level functioning such as attaching words and understanding to memory. What ends up happening is chunks of events are stored in the mind without you being conscious of it. The brain represses the experience to protect you. This also happens to adults who are traumatized. They don't remember because they literally do not have access to that part of their brain or mind.

So why do we recover those memories later you may ask? It could be because we are in a safer space in our lives and the brain gives us access to it. The memory has always been there but the ability to access it wasn't. After years of memories being cut off, the brain eventually says ok, you can handle this now so I'll let you remember. That does not negate the validity of our memories, it's just the nature of the traumatized brain.

Why is this Triggering for Me & Others?

Well if you have not had the truth of what happened to you questioned and spent years of your life trying to recover from the devastating effects of someone lying about what they did, you won't understand. Before we speak our truths we have spent hours running over the events in our heads. We often blame ourselves for the actions of others...even as kids. So when we muster the courage to speak out and are met with, "Why didn't you say something sooner?" "Did that really happen?" "He/She has never treated me that way." It makes you not want to come forward at all and believe me, we think about all of that before we say one word.

There are examples all in the news where people come forward about abuse and they are ran through the ringer by the public and justice system. The church has protected predators for decades and ostracized those whom they abused. So I ask you a better question...Why should we come forward? We are treated as if we did something wrong and that is re-traumatizing. Who wants to experience that all over again?

It takes tremendous bravery for survivors to step forward and relive the nightmare of their trauma. I agree with due process of law and innocence until proven guilty but do we have to crucify victims in the process? Do we have to treat them like they are lying because we think we know the person better than the one(s) who experienced the violence? Let's start supporting those who come forward and also holding those accountable for the harm they cause.

Why Do People Side with Abusers?

There are myriad reasons why people choose the route of siding with an abuser. I will outline some I've found not only from my own experiences but from those I've read/heard about in my efforts to understand the nature of this:

  1. The person is being abused themselves (even if they don't know it).

  2. The person is a codependent enabler.

  3. The person believes that there is nothing wrong with what the abuser is doing.

  4. The system that a victim finds themselves in promotes this type of abuse.

  5. The person has been threatened.

  6. The person is a dope and doesn't have all of the information so they jump to conclusions.

Of course these are not all the reasons but these are the ones I have run across. Either way, there is a reason and we don't necessarily need to know it in order to heal. It can alleviate some of the mental torture as to why people do what they do. It typically has nothing to do with you but I understand that it impacts you and that is significant enough to discuss it here.

What Can You Take Away From This?

As survivors, even if no one believes you, your story matters. I honestly don't know where this victim blaming culture has come from. I have some ideas but that is for another blog post. Regardless you have to do what is best for yourself no matter what. Don't let anyone make you doubt your memories, no matter how late in the game they show up. Take the time to dig into them with a therapist if you can. If not talk to someone safe who can hold space for you to let it out without fixing or discounting your experience.

For anyone who doesn't know it, children typically do not lie about these things unless they are groomed to by an adult. Listen to our little ones because far too many of them are dismissed simply because they are children. Those children grow up to be adults who doubt there memories and then we wonder why they didn't surface at the beginning...think about it. For everyone else, what harm would it do to truly investigate these matters and not have a harmful opinion about them until we know the truth. It costs absolutely nothing to be quiet. Have some compassion for someone who has finally developed the courage to speak out. You don't have to treat them badly. Ask them for their truth if they are comfortable sharing it. If not and it doesn't effect you guess what, you really don't have a valid opinion on it.

Well, that is all for this post. I hope this helps people understand the process of traumatic memory on a basic level. I hope it gives survivors some peace as they do the work to heal from horrible things. I also hope it opens up discussion about this in empathetic ways.

In Support of Your Journey

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