- Janyne McConnaughey, PhD
Therapy: The Unknowing Knowing of Trauma
For many abuse victims, there is a sense of knowing without knowing. Sometimes a memory floats around the edges of consciousness, but our defense mechanisms are quick to relinquish the flashes of trauma to the recesses of our subconscious. There they lurk until triggered again, but always filling our being with unidentifiable emotional turmoil. This was my story. It was the unknowing knowing.
When I studied child development in college, it was clear to me that my life had been lived as two parallel people—the one that most knew and one that was always hiding underneath. I had memories of myself as a child that I told one way, but understood and yet didn’t understand them another way.
There were also stories I told that I learned weren’t true. I wasn’t sure if they were dreams or false memories. I was a fanciful child so it really didn’t surprise me that I may have made some things up. Because of this, I had a very carefully constructed story of my childhood the day I entered therapy. I was very sure nothing had happened to me as a child—too sure.
Why was it so important to be so sure? Probably it was because my life depended on being absolutely normal. Normal meant that I lived a life completely free of any sign that the abuse I sometimes suspected was true. I studied all the statistics and made sure my life didn’t fulfill them. I knew that as a teen and young adult, there were indicators, but I carefully hid them away as a warning to myself.
I had heard all the stories about false memories of child abuse. I had listened to all the warnings about psychiatrists who would plant thoughts about abuse that didn’t happen. I had watched the TV shows in which the victims were destroyed on the witness stand. I had seen those who talked about childhood abuse shunned both inside and outside the church. It was very evident that even if something had occurred, it was in my best interest to never remember or tell.
Then I began to remember. I wasn’t led to it. I didn’t remember it in ways that fit my storytelling nature. The memories came in pieces that attached to those things I did remember. Standing at a gate holding my doll, being in a darkened room with linoleum tiles on the floor, sitting on the floor playing with blocks, being in a green room with windows that looked into a hallway, lying on a crinkly bed hugging my small white stuffed puppy. All of these memories seemed inconsequential and emotionless—until the abuse exploded out of their midst during therapy.
All my fears had materialized. I had gone to therapy and been led to remember something that wasn’t true. Not just one memory but almost a dozen separate memories. I was clearly the greatest, most imaginative storyteller! The only problem was that it was all part of my unknowing knowing. In the very deepest part of me, I knew it was completely true. I didn’t want it to be true, but it was. Yet, I still questioned myself. It is what every victim does.
Did the abuse actually occur? This is a question victims of childhood sexual abuse ask themselves—and others ask of them. How do we trust our own memories? How do we trust ourselves when many of us were not believed or were told that our night terrors in which we relived the trauma were just dreams? How do we accept that in order to survive, our subconscious defense mechanisms completely blocked the memories?
In order to heal (and tell my story), I had to believe repression was possible. It really is the only explanation for the depth of mental anguish I experienced over the past three years. In the midst of the healing, I continually found it necessary to believe myself. I had to learn to believe the truth of the memories, which exploded from deep within me. I had to move beyond the unknowing and truly know.
The following is a list of the reasons why I know every part of my story is true. (A memory may not be exactly like it happened since that is inherent in memories, but that the abuse took place, is without question.)
My earliest memories were all flashes of circumstances surrounding the abuse. What I did remember before therapy never conflicted with the full memory of the trauma—in fact, it explained it.
My recurring dreams/nightmares all held symbolic representations of what happened during the abuse and the dissociative system I built to survive.
As I grew older, every repressed memory of abuse was a hidden part of a story I knew and told about my life. I was in danger but escaped. The story was always correct; the ending was not. The actual trauma in the story was repressed.
The memories surfaced in graphically physical ways that left no doubt as to what occurred. I also had a host of somatic symptoms that began to dissipate as I healed.
The triggers that had plagued me (bathtubs, handshakes, Brussels sprouts, graveled mountain roads, etc.) made complete sense once the trauma was understood.
The trigger held no power over me once the trauma healed. I understood it, I would pause when it occurred, but it was no longer emotionally charged.
Once the trauma began to heal, I was able to create the timeline of my life in logical ways that explained many behavioral or life issues I had never understood.
I began to access a sense of Self, embrace the person I was truly comfortable being, integrate all of the pieces of my personality, and shed the many layers of who I believed I needed to be. In other words, I found ‘me.’
Probably the most fascinating part of the journey was how this ‘unknowing’ had guided my life choices. An example of this was my refusal to even dabble in any type of drug use. I believed that my brain was my ticket to survival and I never wanted to do anything that might harm it. I also was terrified to have surgery of any kind because I thought I would reveal my ‘secrets.’ (You know, the ones I didn’t know.) It goes on and on. Though the conscious mind can repress the memory, the subconscious is still very much aware.
Sometimes I am asked, “Do you mean something could have happened to me and I wouldn’t even know it?” I always wonder if the question is a giveaway or simply curiosity—both are possible. I can only say, “In my case, I always unknowingly knew. Nothing was a surprise to me when it surfaced. I always instantly understood it was true. It had always been a part of the unknowing knowing.”
When my book is published and I share the story of what happened to me, it may be unimaginable, but it wasn’t imagined. At one point, writing this blog would have been an attempt to convince others of what I was having difficulty believing. That is no longer the case. I believe myself and that is really all that matters.