TW: 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.
A Little About Me
Welcome to Speaking Bipolar. If this is the first post you have read, my name is Scott, and I live with Bipolar Disorder and Familial Mediterranean Fever.
This is part 3 of the story of my life with Bipolar Disorder. You can read the story from the beginning by clicking here.
You might be thinking that repressed memories have nothing to do with Bipolar Disorder, and you are probably right. However, in my Bipolar life, repressed memories played a part. Today, I am going to share that part.
A Dream That Doesn’t Go Away
Have you ever woke up in the morning after having a vivid dream that you just 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.
Maybe it wasn’t a bad dream. Still, as you go throughout your day, something sticks with you, the knowledge that you had experienced some sort of realistic dream, though the substance has now escaped you.
Sometimes, things 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 that you know are from your dream. Yet, the whole picture itself never becomes clear again.
Hopefully, you can relate to this dream illustration. It can be a feeling that gnaws at you, but yet doesn’t totally disrupt your day. That’s a lot how my experience with repressed memories played out.
Glimpses of Mental Illness
I was a happy teenager. There were many times that I felt I didn’t fit in, and far too often I felt like I was pretending to be someone and no one knew the real me. Yet, all in all, I was happy.
I didn’t have a large group of friends, but the friends I did have, I was very close to. I spent a lot of time with my friends, and when we weren’t together, I was usually on the phone with one of them.
Thinking back now, I wonder how my parents ever used the phone during my teenage years. If I was home, I was on the phone.
Just to clarify, my teenage years were in the 1980s, so there were no cell phones, at least not for most people, and the majority of families only had one phone line in their home. If someone was on it, the phone was out of commission.
Fascinated By Sybil
I had no idea I had Bipolar Disorder then. I’m not sure 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, and I imagined that I had personalities I didn’t know about.
It made sense to me. I could be a very different person from day to day. Some days, I was the life of the party, a stand-up comic who loved being the center of attention. Those days were rare, though, as most days I wanted nothing more than to be invisible. I didn’t seem to have any control over which days were which.
Then there were my moods. I was a teenager, so moodiness was normal. After all, hormones were coursing through my veins. Yet, it bothered me that my behavior could change so drastically.
One minute, I could be loud and telling jokes and the next being irate 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.
Repressed Memories Begin to Surface
If there weren’t other warning signs, in my late teens I also started losing time. I would find myself with friends with no idea of how I got there. Sometimes I would be driving with no idea 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 mental hospital, though, so I never talked about my fears with anyone.
Nightmares had always plagued me, but in my late teens, they started to grow more intense. I became obsessed with the idea that I had done something terrible, that I was a person different than the one everyone knew, and 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. More often than not, I would jump out of bed and turn on the overhead light. If that weren’t enough, I would flip on my lamp as well.
I became fixated on my closet and couldn’t sleep if the doors were closed. No matter how many times I tried, sleep would not come until I could verify that 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 found myself thinking about it all the time. I read the pieces over and over again.
It seemed impossible to me that anyone could live through something terrible and then not remember it. I remembered every horrible thing that had happened in my life, and there had been more than a few.
Or so I thought.
I don’t remember precisely how the memories first returned. I’m pretty sure that I was dreaming, or thought that I was dreaming when the first of them finally broke the surface.
There were visions of me in the dark, much younger than I was at the time, but I was not alone. Someone else had been there. That someone had done unspeakable things to me.
Trying to Close Pandora’s Box
The memories were overwhelming. They filled my mind day and night. I struggled to force them from my mind, but they snuck back in through any crack they could find.
I knew I was crazy. I had imagined this horrible scenario because I had read books like Sybil and read articles about repressed memories. It wasn’t true. I knew it wasn’t real.
In one of the memories, there was someone else, another family member, young like me. It terrified me, but in time I found my way to talk to that other person.
The conversation was terrible. Much more was said in the words we didn’t say than the ones we actually did. At one point, I found the bravery to ask the words, “Did someone touch us?”
My relative turned white and looked at the floor.
“You know he did,” he answered. “And more than once.”
You Have to Run
The most logical way to handle things when something terrible happens is to run away. That is true, right? Well, at least, that is what I thought at the time. I needed to run, to run far away, and that would make everything right again.
Somewhere in there, I turned twenty. The memories and dreams only go worse, and I found myself seldom sleeping more than two or three hours a night. I was adamant that the memories were false, and did everything I could to drown them out, including more than a small amount of underage drinking.
Not able to deal with the turmoil inside, I became fixated on my parents. I was enraged that they did not tell me what had happened. It made my blood boil that they were living their lives as usual when such unspeakable things had happened. I hated them for having ever allowed me to be put in a situation where bad things were done to me, and then to be put there time and again.
My parents had no idea what I was going through. I was cold, sullen, and angry all the time. I didn’t speak to them other than to bark replies to their questions. I found reasons to never be home, whether it was taking on more work shifts or just staying with friends until late into the night.
Using Words as Weapons
Finally, one day I exploded. I berated my parents and ripped them limb from limb. I was cold and mean and made sure every word cut them.
That was more than twenty-five years ago, but I can still clearly see the tears running down their faces as they tried to understand what was happening to them.
Then I ran. For weeks, I was homeless, though I had a home I could have gone home to at any time. I stayed with friends or family or slept in my car. I couldn’t face seeing my parents. It was their fault, whatever had happened.
Then I ran even more. I picked up everything and moved 900 miles. I had little money, no job, and only knew one person, but at the time it was the only course to take.
Happily, things worked out in time, and I was able to repair my relationship with my parents. I would hurt them a whole lot more before then, though.
Next time, I’ll share the final days before I ran and how well-meaning friends tried to point out that something was seriously wrong.