Survived Bad Childhood, But Will I Ever Be Free of the Dreams and Memories?

Reader’s Question

I grew up in a very abusive, dysfunctional family. My mother is schizophrenic. My father never really lived with us for longer than a few months at a time. At 13, I met a young man 5 years my senior. We were together until I was 21. At that time, he was a good man, protecting me when I could not do so myself. He was everything to me. Then one day, I realized that, in spite of how much I loved him, I did not want to wake up when I was 50 and regret being with someone I could not trust. In spite of how sweet he could be, he was also very manipulative and somewhat psychologically abusive. He was a liar, a cheat, he smoked marijuana (I never have), was completely amoral, put me second to others, and always thought the grass was greener on the other side.

Leaving him cost me dearly. I felt I was ripping my own heart out, but eventually managed to extricate myself (hurting others in the process, unfortunately). I am now 37, have been happily married for 7 years and, yet, have on several occasions dreamt of my childhood love. I do not consciously think of him, yet I have dreamt of him on three occasions; once his mother was with me.

Why can I not just walk away from this?

–Very disturbed

Psychologist’s Reply

“Why can I not just walk away from this?” You have walked away from this…but your memories remain. That relationship, as well as your childhhood, created thousands of emotional memories. Emotional Memories are those that contain both the details of an experience and the mood you experienced at that time. When we have a collection of these Emotional Memories, it’s very common for them to surface during the day — often changing our mood suddenly. Imagine having lunch with a group of friends who suddenly begin talking about their mothers. While their memories may bring smiles and laughter, your mood may change to a very dark place. For more information, read my article on Emotional Memory on this website.

Events during the day may cause these previous Emotional Memories to surface. When they surface during the say, they will likely be part of a dream that night. These dreams mean nothing other than that something triggers the brain to remember them. Everyone who has survived an emotional trauma (bad relationship/childhood, assault, rape, combat experience, etc.) will have memory flashbacks and dreams for the rest of their life. The problem is that these memories are brought to the surface in a random order, based on how they are triggered. If an early memory of the relationship surfaces, he’s that “childhood love” and the memories are warm and fuzzy. If a later memory surfaces, it’s from the “ripping my heart out” period which may be very nasty in mood. The brain pulls them randomly…without concern for how it bothers you.

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In summary, you have survived your childhood and the relationship with his individual. You are now happy. I have a good friend who is often tormented by intrusive memories of fight-to-the-death military combat. When the memories surface, he says to himself “I survived that…so every day after that is a free day”.

By using the techniques I describe in my Emotional Memory article, you should be able to understand and cope with those memories and dreams. Keep in mind that when we are depressed, the brain finds those types of memories to torture us. If they have only recently returned, you may be experiencing a moderate depression or high stress in your life. Depressed folks are always tormented by their worse memories, so keep that in mind for the future.

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