The chilling revelations of my early twenties.
Trigger Warning: Repressed memories, childhood sexual abuse
Repressed memories make for good storytelling in movies, books, and TV shows, but are they real? Is it possible to remember something, then not remember it, then later remember it again?
You’re not alone.
There’s been much debate on the subject, and proponents on each side have solid opinions and their own versions of “evidence.”
I’m not here to definitively tell you whether repressed memories are real or not. All I can give you is my personal story and what it was like to remember something that I didn’t want to.
You might be thinking repressed memories have nothing to do with bipolar disorder, and you are probably right.
However, in my life with bipolar, repressed memories played a part. A painful, terrible part.
Today, I am going to share that story.
A Dream That Doesn’t Go Away
Have you ever woke up in the morning after a vivid dream you can’t remember?
You know the feeling. Maybe you woke up sweating or with your heart pounding, yet once you opened your eyes, the dream vanished. It was so real you could touch it, but in a flash, it’s gone like a steamy exhale on a frozen day.
“Maybe it wasn’t a bad dream,” you tell yourself.
You try to forget it, but as you go through your day, a feeling sticks with you. Part of your mind won’t let you forget you had an intense dream, and you can’t help but think of all the possibilities.
Sometimes, events during the day may bring back remnants of the dream.
The smell of perfume or the sound of a song on the radio may bring images to your mind you know are from your dream. Yet, the whole picture itself never becomes clear again.
The forgotten dream haunts you like Jacob Marley’s ghost. The missing piece gnaws at you, but doesn’t disrupt your day.
That’s how my experience with repressed memories played out.
Glimpses of Mental Illness
I was a happy teenager.
I often felt like an outsider and pretended to be someone other than me, but I was still mostly pleased with life.
I had a small circle of friends, and we were close as family. My friends were my world, and when we weren’t together, I was usually on the phone with one of them.
Thinking back, I wonder how my parents ever used the phone during my teenage years. If I was home, I was on the phone.
For context, my teenage years were in the 1980s, long before everyone had a phone in their pocket. Most families had one phone line. If someone was on the line, the phone was out of commission.
Fascinated By Sybil
Bipolar disorder was nowhere on my radar. I doubt I even knew what it was.
However, I was fascinated by mental illness and thoroughly enthralled with Sybil by Flora Rheta Schreiber. Sally Field did a fantastic job in the 1976 TV mini-series adaptation.
If you don’t know, Sybil is the story of a woman with sixteen distinct personalities.
Multiple Personality Disorder, as it was then known (now called Dissociate Identity Disorder or DID), fascinated me. I imagined I had several personalities I knew nothing about.
I knew if I had DID, more of my life would make sense. From day to day, I was often a very different person.
Some days, I was the life of the party, a stand-up comic who loved being center stage. I would dance or sing or entertain you with hours of jokes.
Those days were rare. Most days, I wished to be invisible. I liked quiet or to be around only one or two friends at a time. It felt like I had no control over how I felt.
Then there were my moods.
I was a teenager, so moodiness was normal. After all, hormones were coursing through my young veins. Yet, it bothered me how my behavior could change so drastically.
One minute, I would be giggling like a toddler, and the next, angry and hateful. Sometimes I watched myself interact with my friends like I was a spectator in a movie theater unable to affect anything that was happening on the screen.
Too often, I felt like my life was happening to me and I had no choices.
Repressed Memories Begin to Surface
The first warning signs of something more came in my late teens.
I started losing time. First minutes, then hours, and then entire days would disappear.
I would find myself with friends and be clueless as to how I got there. Sometimes I would be driving with no idea as to why I was in that part of town.
It was all fodder to feed my belief that I had DID. I feared being committed to a psychiatric hospital, though, so I never talked about my fears to anyone.
Nightmares were a plague I always lived with, but in my late teens, they grew more intense. I became obsessed with the belief I had done something terrible, that I was someone other than the person everyone knew.
And I knew that person was evil and awful.
At times, I would wake up during the night feeling like someone had touched me.
The feeling was so real that I always expected someone to be there. Frequently, I would jump out of bed and turn on the overhead light. If I still felt scared, I would flip on my bedside lamp as well.
I fixated on my closet and couldn’t sleep if the doors were closed.
No matter how many times I tried, sleep was impossible until I could verify my closet was empty.
Something was wrong, but I wasn’t courageous enough to tell anyone.
A Magazine Opens the Door
About that time, I read a magazine with a series of articles about repressed memories. The subject engulfed me, and I thought about it all the time. I read the articles repeatedly.
It seemed impossible that anyone could live through a terrible experience and then not remember it. I remembered every horrible event from my past, and there were many.
Or so I thought.
A friend later explained it to me this way:
As children, we lack the coping skills to process the worst things. To protect us, our mind sticks the memory in a box on a shelf. Later, when we’re older and stronger, our brain decides it’s time to clear away that box. The box pops open and many nasty things spill out.
My memory is fuzzy on how the memories first returned. I think was dreaming, or thought I was dreaming, when the first memory finally broke the surface.
It was a vision of me in the dark, much younger and not alone. Another shadow moved in the darkness near me and made my blood run cold. In a flash, I knew that monster had done unspeakable things to me.
Trying to Close Pandora’s Box
The memories filled my mind day and night. I fought to force them from my mind, but they snuck back in through any crack they could find.
“That’s it, I finally cracked,” I wrote in my journal. “I’m completely crazy.”
I was sure I imagined the horrible scenario because I read books like Sybil and magazine articles about repressed memories. It wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t real.
In one memory, there was someone else, another family member, young like me. Terrified, I decided to confront the other person.
The conversation was one of the worst in my life. We both said more in our silence than in the words we spoke aloud. The longer we were together, I summoned the courage to ask, “Did someone touch us?”
My relative turned white and looked at the floor.
“You know he did,” he answered, his voice barely a whisper. “You know he did.”
You Have to Run
With bipolar disorder, your mind will often tell you the most logical way to handle a terrible situation is to run away.
Right or wrong, I needed to run. Every urge in my body pushed me to take off for a place far away. I knew if I could get far enough away, then everything would be okay again.
Somewhere in the chaos, I turned 20. The memories reappeared in every dream, and most nights I was lucky to get 2-3 hours of sleep.
I refused to believe the memories were true, even after another person confirmed them. Blocking those images in my mind became my only priority, and I tried to drown them with lots of underage drinking.
The monster inside was intangible. There was no one to fight or hit, and it made the pain even worse.
I needed a target, and my poor parents were the closest ones in sight.
First, I raged because terrible things happened to me and no one told me. Then, I discovered my parents never knew. You would think that would decrease the fire inside, but it only made it worse.
My blood boiled when I thought about how my parents were living their normal lives when I was the victim of unspeakable acts. I hated them for letting me stay in a place with an abuser. It was a place I stayed overnight frequently, and memories of all those nights added fuel to the fire, making my rage boil even hotter.
My abrupt change in personality blindsided my parents. I was cold, sullen, and angry all the time. Silence became the norm except for the occasional times I barked replies to their questions. I filled my schedule with every invite or chance to hang out. I also picked up additional work shifts. After a while, I was only home a few hours per week.
Using Words as Weapons
Finally, one day I exploded. I berated my parents and ripped them apart like I was a rabid grizzly bear. I cursed them with sharp words, carefully aiming each blow to be sure it would cut them deep.
That was over 30 years ago, but I can still see the tears running down their faces as they tried to understand.
Perhaps the worst thing was it was the first time they learned of the abuse. While I had months of chewing on the news, I hit them with both the angry grizzly and the horrific news all at once.
My parents were speechless and inconsolable, but my heart was ice. After an hour-long tirade, I left them in tatters and walked away.
Then I ran.
For weeks, I lived like I was homeless. I sofa surfed with friends and family or slept in my car. I refused to have any contact with my parents. With all the chaos in my head, my anger was clear on only one thing: whatever had happened was my parent’s fault.
Then I ran even more. I quit my jobs and severed ties with most of my friends, jumped in my car, and moved 900 miles away. I had little money, no job, and only knew one person in my new town, but it felt like the only choice.
Things worked out in time, but it was a long road from tearing everything down to rebuilding relationships. My parents and I are close now, but I put them through a lot more in the months after I ran. I’ll share more in the next part.
Until next time, keep fighting.