A lot of the afternoon talk shows are featuring "therapists" who say that it's not possible to completely repress memories of abuse. Well, I know from my dealings with thousands of abuse survivors that repression is an extremely common coping mechanism. However, many women do not remember the abuse they experienced until a dramatic life event occurs.
My client Tracy had completely pushed the memory of incest out of her conscious awareness. If you'd asked her, she would have sworn that she'd had an ideal home life, with perfect parents. As I stated before, though, people who insist that everything was "perfect" while growing up are often abuse survivors who are overcompensating in order to keep a tight lid on an unexamined and painful childhood. It's a "No, I won't look at it! I can't bear to look!" syndrome.
Tracy's memories of being molested and being the victim of forced oral sex didn't surface until she'd given birth to a little girl of her own -- a phenomenon that is very common. A woman often does not recall her own girlhood trauma until she has a baby girl. She tends to "see" herself in this little girl, and then usually remembers the traumatic incident.
False Memories of Abuse?
It is true that an inexperienced or overly zealous therapist can convince someone she was abused, even if she wasn't. I've seen this happen, and the results can rip families apart. But even in these "false memory" cases, something's going on there with the patient who claims to have remembered the abuse. She must have experienced some sort of emotional distress or parental neglect, or a therapist wouldn't be able to wield such power over her in the first place. Somewhere in the past, she learned to relinquish control.
Now, why would people want to identify themselves as abuse survivors unless something had actually happened? Well, if they need an "identity" that much, then something is sorely missing from their lives.
Post-traumatic Stress Disorder
It's a little like the case of some men I saw in psychotherapy many years ago who were posing as Vietnam vets suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder. These men had never served in Vietnam, yet they had recounted graphically detailed war stories for me and the rest of the psychiatric hospital staff. One man burst into tears as he described his buddy's body being blown up in front of him. Later, when the staff discovered that these men were posing as vets, we were all understandably upset and confused.
However, we were all certain of one fact: Even if these men didn't suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder from the war, they were definitely sick and in need of help. Why else would they embrace such a dramatic identity? Why did they need so much attention? Psychiatric attention at that.
Well, I believe "false memory incest survivors" are in similar straits. They may not have actually experienced incest, but there is definitely something wrong -- some pain somewhere is triggering their cry for help. I think that instead of criticizing and dismissing them, we need to focus on helping them.
Abuse Survivors: Minimizing What Happened
Most abuse survivors don't repress or forget their painful pasts. Instead, they minimize what happened. In essence, they shrug their shoulders and say, "Yes, this happened, but so what? It's over, and there's nothing I can do to change that now."
True. The past is the past. But, if you're chronically overeating, that's a clear signal that the past is haunting you now. So, now is the time to take care of it. You could wait for a better, less hectic time in your life to confront your "ghosts", but that time will never arrive, will it? There will never be complete tranquility in your life -- not until you address these issues, anyway.
Many abuse survivors minimize their painful pasts by downplaying how bad it was. "Yes, my brother molested me, but I'm strong so it didn't bother me as much as it could have" or "It's true that he forced me to have sex, but I can deal with it" or "It wasn't that bad; I don't want to dwell on it."
This type of minimization is just one more defense mechanism shielding the survivor from pain. If you decide "it's not that bad", then you won't feel as if you'll explode from the rage. You won't "go crazy" wondering, Why me? Why me?
Also, if you've lived with this memory for 10, 20, 30 years or more, it becomes old news in your mind. You've lived with the pain so long, it seems to be a part of you. But just because you're used to it, that doesn't mean it hasn't affected you. Those are two separate issues.
Re-experiencing The Pain
I'm asking you now to briefly re-experience the pain you endured as a child. I know that if you do that you'll walk through a "wall" within yourself. And beyond that wall lies greater peace of mind, the ability to love and relax, and a reduction in your appetite for food. Please trust that my years of working with abuse survivors has taught me that if you allow yourself to face this pain, you will lift the veil that is darkening your spirits.
You see, your natural, normal state is a being that experiences happiness and joy. God created you so you could enjoy life and feel pleasure. He wants you to feel free and happy as you go through your daily activities, not bogged down with guilt and frustration.
Your true self is light in body and spirit. Why not release it by summoning up the courage to slay the dragon of your past. What have you got to lose but the misery and the pounds?
Losing Your Pounds of Pain: Breaking the Link between Abuse, Stress, and Overeating
by Doreen Virtue, Ph.D.
About The Author
Doreen Virtue, Ph. D. is a psychotherapist specializing in eating disorders. Dr. Virtue's has written several books, among them: I?d Change My Life if I Had More Time; Losing Your Pounds of Pain; and The Yo-Yo Diet Syndrome. Dr. Virtue is a frequent guest on such talk shows such as Oprah, Geraldo, and Sally Jessy Raphael. Her articles have appeared in dozens of popular magazines and she is a contributing editor for Complete Woman. Her website is www.angeltherapy.com.