Many adult survivors of child sexual abuse ask themselves, “why can’t I heal?”
Answer: Because the subconscious mind -where most of our trauma, guilt and fear are stored as repressed emotions and memories- does not recognize time or space. So it feels as if the sexual abuse is still happening.
“People like us, who believe in physics, know that the distinction between past, present, and future is only a stubbornly persistent illusion.”
In a study done in West Germany on concentration camp survivors, it was found that each of the subjects, in a sense, still live in the concentration camp. 1
The same is true for survivors of child sexual abuse, who have not yet dealt with their subconscious mind.
Any stress, or feelings of being threatened or unsafe, can cause trauma survivors to return to earlier patterns of behavior that were utilized during the abuse. During this state of “high arousal,” the survivor will do what they know, which is rooted in the instinct used while they were still a child. They will demonstrate defensive strategies –even if it didn’t work the first time. 2
This is why adult survivors of trauma are commonly hyper-vigilant and why they handle their feelings of being out of control by acquiring obsessions or phobias. This allows them to remain continuously ready for real or imagined, but no longer present, dangers. 3
This behavior is observed in the form of obsessive compulsive behavior and PTSD symptoms. It can also be found in survivors who regress to a child-like state when memories first begin to come back to them. 4
Before the actual abuse memories return, the person will have no idea that childhood damage is dictating the way they are handling stress. They usually have no conscious understanding of why they are excessively fearful.
The memories have been pushed into the subconscious mind, but the memory is still present in daily life. The memories are coming out in unhealthy or obsessive behaviors, unwarranted fears, emotions, and physical problems.
Powerful experiences, like child sexual abuse, which are omitted from consciousness, are preserved as “unconscious fixed ideas” and will not be blended into the victim’s normal consciousness until the abuse is remembered, comprehended, and overpowered at the subconscious level.
When abuse is not dealt with, the emotions and the original traumatic incident—still repressed—will affect one’s life with obsessive preoccupations, anxiety inflictions, and frightening concepts. 5
When an event or experience takes place in the adult life of a person who was traumatized as a child, the brain matches it against events which are already stored in the unconscious mind. If it is connected to a recorded danger from the past, an “alarm response” is triggered. This is the exact mechanism that kicks in when a person suddenly experiences over-reactive fear, an anxiety attack, a flashback, or when somatic (physical) symptoms arise. 6
This reaction of alarm explains why certain people trigger anger, fear, or anxiety in a survivor but other people do not.
As long as a previous victim of child sexual abuse does not allow the past to come forward with helpful psychoanalysis, they will continue to subconsciously seek out people who bring up their unresolved guilt, pain, or fear.
The subconscious mind wants to be healed. Until it is, misdirected anger and fear will be aimed at spouses, children, the teller at the bank, and even strangers. Anyone can become the enemy. It is often safe for the survivor to become aggressive towards, or verbally attack, people who did not abuse them as a child. It’s not okay to do, and unhealthy, but the survivor often feels safer releasing their emotions onto those who did not abuse them as children.
During the abuse, it wasn’t safe for the child to defend his or herself, or to confront their perpetrator, so when the victim becomes an adult, they subconsciously attack innocent people. The rage is often taken out on spouses, co-workers, or neighbors.
Nevertheless, even if an abuse survivor leaves their marriage, walks away from a friendship, or leaves their job in an attempt to run away from someone who triggers them, they will invariably wind up in a new marriage or get a new employer, only to find that they have established a relationship with a person who again triggers what has been left unresolved in the subconscious mind.
The Return of Traumatic Memory
If a child is repeatedly sexually abused over a period of months or years, the abuse would become an automatic part of the child’s life. The reaction to the abuse would then become second-nature. This would include submission to the sexual acts, not telling anyone, and dissociating from the event –all of which can aid the child in staying alive. It also provides assurance of maintaining a relationship with the abuser (if necessary for survival) and retaining the ability to function. The continued sexual abuse, which has become routine to the child, might imbed itself into the implicit memory.
Implicit memory is the part of the mind where actions that are “second nature” or “automatic” can be found
The manner in which victims push aside their trauma cannot be understood without understanding that there are two different forms of memory; implicit and explicit. Implicit memory works in the subconscious. This is linked to repetitious behaviors, like being able to tie our shoes without thought, basic driving skills, and other actions that come naturally. 7
Powerful, traumatic, and emotional memory is connected to implicit memory because human beings are constantly pushing aside their true feelings in order to get along with the people who have harmed them –usually family members.
The conscious mind will accept this false interaction and the person is able to withhold from expressing true feelings; but the subconscious mind does not let true emotions to be ignored.
So if the true feelings of a person are being watered down, denied, or suppressed in order to avoid confrontation, the subconscious mind will find a way to express itself –usually by taking the pain out on someone else, or with physical symptoms.
Explicit memory is information that is available to the conscious mind. The word explicit literally means “fully expressed,” with no question as to the meaning. Implicit means, “involved in the nature or essence of something, though not revealed, expressed, or developed.” 8
If child sexual abuse is not fully understood and not being expressed in any healthy way by the child, and instead, shoved aside, denied, or totally repressed by the adult who endured it… then it makes sense that the experience would settle into non-declarative memory because it has not been outwardly/consciously “declared.”
Charles Whitfield M.D. explains that normal memory is more elastic, conscious, and chosen…. but that traumatic memory is associated with things that are involuntary, rigid, and subconscious. He says that traumatic memory is most often “frozen outside of time” in the unconscious.
Whitfield says that when trauma is consciously erected for the first time since childhood, the memory can feel as if the abuse is happening for the first time. 9 Survivors might experience sounds, voices, or odors that were present when the traumatic moment happened and can re-live the same bodily positions or movements that the abuser engaged in or that the child felt at the time, and these sensations will continue until the subconscious mind is satisfied through deep hypno-analysis therapy which allows the subconscious to re-process the memories, take power over them and transform the child into a warrior, shedding the victim identity. 10
Repressed memories usually only consist of pieces of what actually occurred. However, they often hold the most important parts of how exactly the event affected the child. 11 Research suggests that when traumatic memories first emerge, they might embody an event that took place immediately before a profoundly disturbing experience.
When the deeply distressing, or emotionally traumatic memory finally returns, it is often much later in the psychotherapy process, at a time when the patient can handle the memories without wanting to outwardly react to them, without having a nervous breakdown, and when the patient has established firm trust with their therapist.
State dependant memory is a theory that experts use to describe the condition in which an abuse survivor finds themselves prior to the more traumatic memories returning. It is described as an altered state of consciousness comparable to the moments in which severe abuse originally took place. People have even subconsciously created a threat or experience similar to the primary trauma in order to re-create the state dependent memory.
Research shows that memories often return in this state-dependent way. The recall has to be cued by the same kind of stimuli that initially took place. 12
“The memories were encoded in trauma-related states of helpless terror and wordless rage and are accessible only when the patient reenters those affective states.” 13
—Treating the Adult Survivor of Childhood Sexual Abuse
In the movie, Little Girl Fly Away, which is based on a true story, Mare Winningham’s character needed to re-create the fear of what happened to her as a child by sending herself threatening letters. She wrote them and sent them to herself, but she totally dissociated from the fact that she did this. When the letters arrived in the mail, the woman became terrified. She truly believed the letters were sent to her by a threatening stalker, but she had completely blocked out that she was the person who wrote and mailed them.