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Aspects of Remembering

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Posted: 10 November 2017
Aspects of Remembering
This week marks the anniversary of the ending of the First World War on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month. We remember. How is remembering for you – not just in association with Remembrance Day, but remembering your life events, people, places?

Remembrance Sunday has been a large part of my life for many years.  With a grandfather who was in the Royal Navy in WW1, a father serving in the army in WW2, a husband who was in the RAF and sent down to the Falkland Islands, (when the actual conflict had ceased, to defend the islands from the air); a time of great stress.Many letters but only one phone call - from Sir Rex Hunt's (the then Governor of the Islands ) on Christmas Day. Add to this the many Remembrance Day parades attended supporting him and two sons who were cubs, scouts then air cadets and I reckon I have done a lot of remembering.

For me, as I am sure for many, it is not only personal losses that are recalled – friends and family killed in the two world wars, as well as more recent and on-going conflicts, wars, call them what you will. It is also a remembering of what a huge waste of human life there has been and still is in the name of war. Men and women killed. Many others left with life changing physical and mental scars and having to spend years re-building their lives. A lot of remembering for them to get over.

So how are we affected by remembering in general?

For many of us, sitting recalling events, people, places from recent or distant past times can be a wonderful way to pass a pleasant few minutes, or more. We almost feel as if we are back there and re-living what happened. For me, all of my senses come into play. I can hear my dad singing as we drive through the narrow Cornish lanes – every year, always the same song – ‘Give me the road, the open road’! I can see the allotment in Cyprus from which I would buy freshly picked fruit and vegetables. I can feel the frost on the inside of the windows as I scrape if off first thing in the morning to see what is happening in the street outside. I can smell the mint sauce on my Mum’s regular serving of lamb chops, peas and potatoes.  

For me, it is the little things such as this that come back. A kaleidoscope of remembered events.
One wonderful remembering is of my son’s wedding for which I had spent hours and hours arranging flowers to fill the church. I can see their colours and smell their perfume as the backdrop to my memory, as well as the nail polish hastily plastered over scrubbed, but still green nails as a result of the flower arranging. I was also doing a reading and my cameo moment was during this. The reading was from Corinthians 13 – the one about love, hope and charity. As I began, I smiled at my most un-mother of the groom nails! It was an emotionally charged moment for me, as the same reading had been used at my wedding. I remember reading without rushing, savouring the language from the St James’ version of the Bible. My daughter-in-law’s young nephew chose the moment of my reading ‘So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.’ to quietly walk from his seat to give Sally a kiss. Impeccable timing.

For many, however, remembering is not easy. For some, it is the physical difficulty of trying to recall things.  The frustration of losing the names of people, of things, as a natural part of getting older or the beginnings of dementia or Alzheimer’s. How well I remember (but wish I didn’t) going to see my father when he was struggling with Alzheimer’s. He was getting very agitated and had sent me a very official letter demanding the return of his possessions – within fourteen days or matters would be taken further via his solicitor. He was back to writing using a style he had used in business for many years.  We went round in circles several times with me trying to gently assure my father that I had nothing of his apart from a portable typewriter he had insisted I take. I had brought this with me, as I had only taken it for him – it had not have been used in place of my computer!

We did another couple of circuits with me trying to assure him that I had returned the typewriter and that there was nothing else of his that I had. Then, he suddenly had a moment of remembering with clarity, but oh, how I wish he hadn’t. He burst into tears, and my Dad didn’t cry, well not in front of me.  He looked at me and said – ‘It’s all in my mind isn’t it?’ Oh how I wished that he still believed I was in the wrong rather than have the realisation that it was his mind struggling with remembering that was the crux of the problem.

Once this point has passed, the situation appears to be less tortuous for the sufferer as they slip into a world where remembering becomes more and more intermittent. It then becomes harder for the nearest and dearest, the carers, who not only remember the person that used to be, but at the same time are only remembered by their loved one as a stranger. Far from easy.

Then there are those for whom remembering is emotionally difficult, risky, maybe too risky. OK, we all have times that are hard to think back on – the death of a close family member, the breakdown of a long term relationship/marriage when you didn’t choose for this to happen, losses of all types can be hard to remember.  For some, the areas they would prefer not to remember means blanking out, hiding away, pushing down into the depths of their memory huge chunks of what should have been a happy hunting ground for remembering – their childhood and adolescent years. Childhood abuse – be it sexual, emotional, physical, by a family member, a trusted person or a total stranger – something that can steal those precious years, then lie buried and seemingly forgotten until they materialise, remembered, many years later.

There has been, and continues to be, much written and researched around recovered memory and also false memory, especially with reference to childhood abuse. I have worked with survivors of abuse for twenty years and the way they remember what happened I have found to be very variable and personal to them depending on the circumstances of the abuse. Some have always had the memories but ‘got on with things’ with varying degrees of success. Others, appear to have no particular memory but then they begin to have memories, flashbacks, rememberings. They dealt with the trauma in different ways, with some not seeing what happened as traumatic at the time to others having struggled with poor attachment, self-esteem, confidence since the abuse began and through their childhood and often into adult years.

Teasing out these differences - in some instances, the abuser(s) were able to instill in the child a feeling that what was happening was normal, was because they were special, loved.  These feelings became predominant as usually repeated loud and long as the abuse gradually evolved. The usual accompanying entreaties not to tell anyone, as it was a secret just between them, would again, in the mind of the child, add to the feelings of being special. Because of the positive spin, the child could seemingly ‘forget’ what had happened as one of the many activities in their developmental years. 

Some practitioners consider that dissociation takes place, with the memory, rather than being lost, being not available for remembering/retrieval as a way of coping with unpleasant, painful, sometimes terrifying happenings.  They become buried out of an innate sense of self-preservation.

Others do not agree that there is such a thing as dissociation. Possible reasons for later remembering include articles in the press, a certain level of understanding with maturity and accompanying knowledge that what happened actually wasn’t right, a problem with having a fulfilling adult (sexual) relationship, having a child reach the age at which their abuse had begun.

It is difficult to know if the later remembered abuse is really factually correct. Some clients explain that they only have vague memories with no specific details. If so, we work with this. Others appear to have very clear recall of a couple of incidents, but remain convinced that there were others.  If so, we work with this. Yet others want to know if specific events happened, or if it is a figment of their imagination. If so, we work with this. There is no right or wrong, simply accepting what the client brings, though inconsistencies are pointed out and worked with. The vagaries of how our memory works and can present us with an image combining more than one (especially if traumatic) event, or possible distortions of events being explained.

One client remembered a rose that could be described in great detail. It eventually turned out that she always focused on this same rose on the wallpaper when being raped, using it as an escape route to a better place. Her memory initially only gave her the rose, though she consistently associated bad feelings with it. Through talking about the rose, she came to a realisation of just what it was, how she had been using it and what had been happening. These rememberings can be worked through to the point where the client feels content with where they are at present and are happy to continue with their life and living. The depth that clients wish to delve into things is very much a personal choice. In some cases, they may return at a later date to peel off more layers of the onion of their memories. When they choose to do so.

Some clients will present with mental health problems including anger issues, an inability to trust, sexual issues, depression. Whilst the therapist may have possible childhood abuse at the back of their mind, if not brought up by the client, it will probably not be spoken of, especially if the therapist is not experienced in working with survivors of abuse. Instead, the presenting problems will be worked on with no reference to the root cause. NB this is NOT to assume that the above mentioned issues are always a result of childhood abuse.

Other clients most definitely felt very negatively affected by their abuse – from the time of it happening, always remembering, especially it would seem if they told an adult and were not believed, rather receiving punishment for having told lies. For most, this has led to problems through the rest of their childhood – school avoidance, relationship issues as well as a deep seated reluctance to tell anyone else what happened. Where more than one abuser is involved and the abuse included physical, emotional, sexual, financial (as in adequate clothing, food not being provided) the memories can become difficult to hide away or hide from, resulting in on-going mental health issues. If there are constant triggers, these can lead to anger, deterioration of mental ill health, breakdowns in relationships. One ex-client had been raped, at the age of 4, in a car at a garage. For him, this trigger was the smell of petrol. It sent him back there, with a vivid flashback of his, long dead, abuser, the hurt of the rape and the added hurt of being beaten by his mother for telling lies. He did not want to tell his partner what had happened, so used many excuses not to be the one to put petrol into the car.

I hope that you have happy memories that you can reflect on and remember with a smile.​ If you have any that cause you discomfort, do get in touch via the web site if I can help.  If not local to me, I do offer therapy via Skype.
Written by: Dee Chadwick
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