Emotional Memory and Childhood Ghosts

Reader’s Question

I have a major problem. My mother and stepfather got married when I was 6 years old. My dad abused me from the age of 6 until I was 15. He also abused my mother physically, and most of the times they were drunk and jolling and sleeping around with other people. I left home at the age of 15 and lived with my cousin until 18. Then I met a man and went with him, got married, and had 2 children. I got divorced and married another man. He is good to me and my children. [Editor’s note: The word ‘jolling’ is a South African colloquialism for very hearty partying.]

We decided to move closer to my parents because I thought that things would have changed, only to discover things are actually not going well. My father still abuses my mother, and now he is more demanding then ever, always complaining about what we do or say even if it sometimes isn’t the truth. He assumes we do and say things and then takes it out on my mother. I have no idea what to do. My mother would not leave him and is always defending him even when it is completely unfair to others. She will phone me and say my father feels upset because of something we did or even didn’t do.

I am at my wit’s end because I want to start living without fear of doing something wrong or upsetting anyone. I want people to enjoy me and accept me the way I am. I don’t want to always feel that I have to walk the straight line without saying how I feel. It is eating me up.

I wish I could just for once tell my mother about everything and tell my father that he must at least apologize for what he has done to me. But I can’t, because if I do that he would surely kill my mother, and my mother would never forgive me for hurting her. But what about my pain and what about my feelings? How do I live with all this pain and hate in my heart? I feel that my mother knows all about the abuse and still she takes his side. She said she’s too old to get divorced, and I think she loves worldly possessions more than me because she doesn’t want to lose everything she has worked for. So tell me please how do I come to terms with all these ghosts.

Psychologist’s Reply

I sometimes refer to this as the “Coming Home” syndrome. Folks with a childhood of abuse, neglect, violence, alcoholism, and other emotional stress often escape their childhood and homelife by leaving the area. Once in some distant location, they emotionally recover, build their self-esteem and self-confidence, and place memories of their bad childhood in the past. Then for some reason, they are then drawn back to their home, their hometown, or their abusive family. They return with a sense of self-confidence and with good intentions such as helping their parents, being with relatives, etc. When they return, they are in for a shocking experience.

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The problem is Emotional Memory — the strong emotions that are contained in memories of our home, hometown, and parents. Returning home makes all those memories return at full strength — memories of abuse, violence, intimidation, etc. Your memories of abuse have returned, making you feel helpless, defenseless, and hopeless again. You can read more about Emotional Memory on this website. You are now feeling all those childhood memories again…at full strength.

Emotional Memory is also upsetting your parents. Your presence has activated their emotional memories as well — memories of your childhood, your abuse, mom’s abuse, etc. As weird as it seems, your return has actually threatened your parents which is making your stepfather hostile toward you — that’s why you are being accused of everything you do and don’t do. You are a very threatening and powerful person to your stepfather right now.

Your mother’s situation is also complex. Your mother has lived in this abusive marriage with a form of Stockholm Syndrome (see article on this website). She has learned to survive with this abusive individual. She now feels you will pressure her to leave. Keep in mind, her decisions to stay with him are actually for her, not against you. She feels she must stay with him for her survival — financial, social, personal, etc.

As long as you try to keep a close relationship with them — they will verbally attack you. In their eyes, you have returned from the past to awaken all these emotional memories. They were surviving and now they feel they are under attack by their own guilt and memories. There are some things you can do.

  • Read and study both Emotional Memory and Stockholm Syndrome. It’s important to understand how these situations work in your family.
  • Keep your relationship with your parents at a safe distance. They may actually dread each visit from you as you might bring up a memory, a problem, or say something to threaten what they’ve already agreed to live with. Visit them on a schedule and be predictable. No “drop in” visits yet.
  • Avoid discussing the past. Everyone except your husband has too much Emotional Memory. Keep in mind your husband doesn’t understand what in the heck is going on here. Make all conversations with Mom “safe” — talk about the kids, shopping, work, summer stuff, etc. Drop down to “small talk” rather than try to fix the past (which can’t be done by the way).
  • Don’t focus on your mother’s situation. If the relationship calms down, she’ll talk when she’s ready…but not until she’s ready.
  • Remember that your stepfather is attacking you because you are a threat to him. If you move back to a safe distance and keep the conversation at small talk, the attacks and criticisms will decrease.
  • You might consider counseling or even psychiatric support. You may be getting depressed or emotionally exhausted.
  • Work out private signs with your husband when visiting your parents. If he notices you are getting upset — it’s his job to say something like “Honey, we promised to call Karen (example). We’d better get going”. Then leave. All those emotional episodes will not fix the situation at this time.
  • Keep in mind that your husband and children don’t have your emotional memories. The kids may want to visit grandmother more — they don’t know why you get upset. Try to be understanding with them as they adjust to your need to distance yourself from your parents and your ghosts.

Hope this is helpful.

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