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Recovered Memories
Universe: LB (nonfiction essay)
Word Count: 1000
Summary: How our recovered memory process works.
Notes: This essay was prompted and sponsored by dreamer_marie!  I'm trying to cover material that hasn't already been discussed in our All In the Family comics or our Repressed Memory Guide. Perhaps you would find those interesting too.


Biff and I are at our men's group for survivors of sexual violence. The group is just starting, doing breathing exercises, when I feel sudden crippling dread.

There is nothing to be afraid of. The group is calm. I've had stressful news recently but nothing panic-inducing. But the terror is there, and getting worse; I am losing track of my surroundings, what people are saying. My leg starts jumping up and down—I know it stands out in the calm surroundings, but stereotyped movement (rocking, hand rubbing) help bind me down to earth.

But not entirely. Tears are coursing down my cheeks. Part of me wants to ask permission to leave until I calm down, but that would require speaking, drawing attention to myself.

Next to me, Biff is noticing my behavior. “Hey. You okay?”

I ignore him. It's not that I don't hear him, don't know he's alarmed. I just can't respond. Compressed in my chest and throat is a scream, and there's no room for words. He touches my back, and that helps a little, giving me more to focus on than the cresting emotional tsunami. It hits; the emotions are so intense I can't register specifics. Terror, grief, rage? Uncertain. In my mind, there is only screaming.

In a few minutes, it passes. I am calm, though physically and mentally drained. I become aware of my surroundings and the group again. The group coordinators are watching me.

“LB? Would you like to share?”

“I'm sorry,” I said. “It seems a new memory is coming up; I got sandbagged.”

“I'm glad you're still here,” one of the group members says.

So am I.

Before I understood these episodes, they baffled me. I would start shaking or silently screaming in a grocery store, on the subway, at a craft fair. There seemed no rhyme or reason as to what would trigger them: a TV show, a doll, a stuffed dog, sometimes nothing at all. The storms are internally generated, so can't be compensated for by keeping a calm environment. In fact, a calm external environment will make them more likely to occur; when I was younger, I avoided these episodes by keeping myself constantly busy, overworked, and stressed. Even then, eventually the episodes spill out.

Now that they've started, I will continue having these mental tidal waves roughly once a week for a month or two, until all the pain and agony of the memory is unpacked. This is something I think my comics fail at showing, how long it takes. The episodes themselves are short, but they come again and again.

This is the second stage of memories coming up, for me.

The first stage is sleep disturbance. Nightmares, fatigue, sleeping for eleven or twelve hours a night, only to feel utterly exhausted on waking. Since my medication makes nightmares less frightening, sometimes I won't notice the first stage at all, mistaking it for overwork or being under the weather. The episode stage, however, is impossible to ignore. It's also the most intrusive.

These episodes can only barely be controlled; my crying and twitching in group is when I'm successful. Other times, I can not resist the urge to curl in on myself, to rock, to cry hysterically. Trying to suppress these episodes are not in our best interest; it only insures that they will last longer. (Mori once had an episode last for two solid hours because she really, really wanted to see how Avatar: The Last Airbender ended.)

As far as I can tell, these episodes are chunks of a memory: emotions, physical sensations. They come up in multiples doses to be bearable; to take all the pain at once would be too much. Spaced out over time, they're endurable, and if we don't resist them, they pass within half an hour. There is little context, during this stage; it's only feelings and sensations, not information in the way we're used to thinking of it.

Apparently this is unusual. When we were at a panel at IGDID, a therapist discussed information coming up first, then emotions and sensations. However, that therapist also discussed the idea of bringing up memories in therapy, which is something we can't do. The episodes come involuntarily, and anyway, we'd rather not have our therapist involved so directly. By having them come up naturally, we feel less afraid our shrink influences what we remember.

In a way, I prefer the order we get them in. If I got the information first, I'd feel tempted to skip the pain and agony of the emotions and sensations. As it is, we don't get a choice; we get the feelings, then the info.

The info comes up in one or more big episodes, which will often feel like any of the others. It will start with emotions and pain, and then flickers of details will come through—a sensation of being dragged, a certain room, a time. As one detail comes through, others will, until we have a basic idea what happened.

In fiction, this is depicted as a magical light bulb moment when everything becomes clear. But that's not how it works for us. Even when a memory has given us all the info it has to offer, it's often fragmented and confusing—a lot of basic details uncertain or outright missing. Our mind mercifully fades to black for the worst parts—we'll remember how a rape started, but not how it ended. Sometimes, we'll remember more details later, other times not.

It's not surprising that things are so murky. Many of these memories are very old—I have a hard time remembering anything clearly from twenty years ago! Combined with the heavy dissociation of our childhood, I doubt we'll ever remember everything that happened. Contrary to what some people believe, memory is not perfect. Repressed memories are not perfectly preserved flies in amber; they're like fossilized bone fragments, requiring reassembly, educated guesses. And I'm all right with that. As long as I know enough, a general idea, I can live with the knowledge that I am probably wrong about many of the details.

After the men's group, I go home and look at my calendar. I take out my red Sharpie, and I mark “EP” on today's date, for “episode.” I note that I've had nightmares three times in the past week, and plan for another episode sometime next week—likely Tuesday again. I thank Biff for helping ground me. I take my antidepressant and my nightmare pills, and I go to bed, ready to deal with the next day. There is a pattern, understandable, predictable.

Endurable.
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