Traumatic memories in recovery

It used to surprise me how many of the trauma survivors I serve enjoy horror movies. It took me a long time to get it. Unlike the imagery in your head, you can make the movie stop anytime you want.

Freddie and the Little Girl

She talks about Nightmare On Elm Street and tells me she’s like the girl who has already been up for days, eating ground coffee because she’s afraid to fall asleep and see Freddie. In her case, Freddie is her past abusers. “I watch the same movies every night in my sleep. If I don’t stay super busy during the day, I see them playing sometimes when I’m awake.”

She shakes her head vigorously, trying to dislodge the memories that just surfaced. We talk about forgetting and why it doesn’t work. Acceptance is slow when the truth hurts this much.

When the thoughts and memories are triggered, she has no sense of being an adult. She is a little girl who is exposed, defenceless, and terrified. She sees that child clearly, sees what she was forced to do, and hates herself anew. Grooming ingrains lies upon the soul of a child.

I hasten to remind her, “You’re an adult today. You don’t need to run or hide.” She sees herself as crazy and repeatedly says, “I don’t know what’s wrong with me!” She’s been diagnosed with everything from Bi-Polar disorder to Borderline Personality disorder. She’s none of these things. She’s a survivor.

She’s both relieved and angry when we talk about Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. Understanding flashbacks, intrusive thoughts, nightmares, and night terrors help her to feel less “crazy” but she’s outraged to look back on decades of misdiagnosis and countless medications. “Why didn’t anyone ever ask me about what happened?”

“Because you’re a recovering addict and too many doctors and clinicians understand very little about addiction and the symptoms people present both when active and when in recovery.”

Too many of us suffer silently and alone, all the while unaware that many of our friends and family are struggling in very similar ways.

“How do I slow down my brain so that I can sleep?”

My favorite question in therapy is, “How do I…?” It’s important to get down to concrete steps and strategies that promote change. I talk to survivors every day who pay a very high price for being chronically sleep-deprived. I explain the impact that this has on emotion and memory.

The question remains: “How do I slow down my brain so that I can sleep?”

  • Develop bedtime routines that include a set time to unwind and a regular sleep schedule. Shut off the screens. Stretch, read, meditate, listen to soothing music.
  • Journal – take everything on the hamster wheel of your brain and write it down. Keep a list of intrusive thoughts, flashbacks, and nightmares. You don’t need to write out the whole story – just a list. Bring these to a coach or to therapy and sort through them one at a time.

If we are mindful, we catch ourselves pushing away thoughts and memories because we find them intolerable. They act as boomerangs and return, only to be pushed away again. This is a constant battle with self. It doesn’t require conscious thought but it’s very draining, promotes anxiety, and undermines any sense of safety we might have.

The more we make conscious choices the healthier we become.