“I had difficulty remembering the details about the assault in the beginning. The information I gave the nurse wasn’t all of what happened, but I didn’t know it at the time, or I felt glazed-over or something. Then, when I was interviewed by the police I gave more details, but it was several weeks later before I remembered some specifics about what happened that night.”
It is normal to have blocks in memory? Let’s take a look at how the human mind reacts to trauma.
A door opens, and you are suddenly staring at a gun pointing right at you. In a split second, your brain is hyper- focused on that gun. It is very unlikely that you will recall the details that are irrelevant to your immediate survival. What was the shooter wearing? What color was his hair? You probably would have no memory of such details, and your reaction would be considered normal because your brain is reacting to a life-threatening situation, just the way it is supposed to. This is the same way the brain of a rape victim reacts to an assault.
In the aftermath of the situation above, you may be unable to recall many important details. You may not only be uncertain about some things, but confused about others, and you may even recall some details inaccurately. There may be certain details that you don’t recall at all. The things you may remember are the things your brain focused on and those things you may recall with extraordinary accuracy. These details you may never forget. This is how the human brain is designed to work.
The parts of our brain that help us process information (prefrontal cortex) may become impaired or even shut down in times of high stress, fear, or terror like during combat and sexual assault. This occurs through a surge of stress chemicals. When this executive thinking part of our brain goes on pause, we are less able to willfully control what we pay attention to, less able to make sense of what we are experiencing, and therefore less able to recall our experience in an orderly way.
Inevitably, at some point during a traumatic experience, fear kicks in, and when it does, part of the brain (called the prefrontal cortex) is no longer functioning. Instead the brain’s fear circuitry takes over. Once this happens, fear controls where your attention instinctively goes. It could be the cold facial expression of a rapist, or the fear circuitry can direct attention away from the horrible sensations of the sexual assault by focusing attention on otherwise meaningless details, like a dog barking. Either way, what gets attention tends to be fragmented sensations, not the elements of the unfolding assault. Additionally, what does get attention is most likely what is etched into memory.
The brain’s fear circuitry also alters the functioning of another brain area (hippocampus) which encodes experiences into short-term memory and can store them as long-term memories. Fear impairs the ability (of the hippocampus) to code and store information like the layout of the room where the rape happened and sequencing such as whether they grabbed the shirt before or after calling her a name.
You may remember in great detail what happened just before or after the attack, however, you are likely to have incomplete and fragmented memories outside of what happened during the traumatic experience. That’s normal.
Be patient with yourself. It may take years, even decades, for your brain to piece information together. I have suddenly remembered specifics about my assaults at the oddest of times, and it stuns me, sometimes holding me hostage for a moment as I regain my thoughts. My attacks happened over 30 years ago! Trauma, especially repeated trauma as in trafficking or repeated rape, blocks memories, sometimes forever. This is the way God created us. This is how we survived the attacks. This is why you are called a “Survivor” – because you survived! So, don’t condemn yourself or hide out of fear. YOU, precious one, are a warrior – a survivor.
Also, be prepared for things like night terrors, ‘triggers’ or PTSD. These are all normal reactions to trauma. At PATH we recommend putting a “Safety Plan” in place so you will not be caught off guard when something happens. If you need help doing this, give us a call.
Regardless of what stage of healing from the assault you’re in, we’re here to help. We will walk beside you every step of the way from sitting with you in the ER right after the assault, providing trauma therapy, or getting you into one of the many classes intended to foster healing, life skills, or just fun.
You’re not alone.
Note: If you are a ‘survivor’ of sexual assault, it can be very difficult to navigate through this time without help. Call 501-301-HELP (4357) or 501-993-1641. If you don’t call PATH, call someone. Get the help you deserve. Be sure to seek help from those who specializes in trauma. We are praying with you!
Dear Friends and Family,
If you are reading this because you know someone that has been assaulted, you can help by being a good listener and having no expectations on what, how, or when s/he remembers, of if they ever do.
Keep in mind that what they do remember may be in jumbled and confused fragments. This is normal.
It is also normal to respond to common situations differently after the assault, such as ducking from a shadow. Again, be patient. Healing takes time.
This is PART FOUR of an educational series on healing from sexual assault called “Dear Survivor” by Louise Allison, Founder of PATH; Nurse; Speaker, Writer, Survivor