Tormented by a Memory of Childhood Sexual Abuse

Reader’s Question

I am 20 years old and I’ve noticed that in the recent years I’ve been obsessed with a specific event from my childhood. I was sexually abused by a family member when I was really young. I don’t remember exactly how old I was, but I was under 10. He is a close family member, and we remained close over the years. Our relationship was never awkward, and I never felt uncomfortable living in the same house as him in the years that followed. We are actually pretty close. I believe that he is a good person, but he slipped up that one time possibly because he was going through a phase and not mature at the time (early 20’s), and he was troubled (was involved with addictive drugs). I remember that he’s always been very touchytouchy with me as a kid, and I didn’t feel uncomfortable. Other than that, the abuse happened once and I was occassionally bothered by it with resurfacing memories. I think what makes it confusing for me is that he has turned into a very caring, gentle and understanding person now.

In the past couple of years I’ve been thinking about it more, and now it’s turned into a kind of obsession. It’s the first thing I think about when I wake up and the last thing I think about when I go to bed. I’ve talked to my mom about it, but since we are all very close she believes that he was confused and made a mistake that perhaps I should try to get past. She suggested regular meditation to try to focus my mind on other things, and I’ve been trying it recently. I find that sometimes I think about the event and stress out about it, remembering the details. In combination with other stresses that I might get, sometimes I return to that memory and get uncontrollably emotional. I hate having such an abnormal childhood. Other times, I think about it and I find that I’m okay and can get past it. Regardless, it is constantly in the back of my mind. I even think, occassionaly, that the event itself doesn’t bother me as much as the frequency with which I think about it.

I feel uncomfortable discussing it face to face with a psychologist, and since we are in a town where therapy is uncommon, it is not readily available either. Please help me get past this.

Psychologist’s Reply

As you describe, you have made peace with the incident over the years and have moved on. However, your brain still remembers the event and retains it in the form of an “emotional memory“. An Emotional Memory (EM) contains both details of an event and the feeling or mood experienced at the time of the event. Recalling the EM brings both the details of the event and the feeling to the surface. You then reexperience and refeel the event. As you describe, EM can be triggered by any experience in our daily environment — a song, a person, something on television, a location, etc. We all have an extensive collection of good and bad emotional memories.

Why are you now troubled and obsessed with this event of over a decade ago? The answer — increased stress and perhaps moderate depression. Stress in our lives (family, work, romantic, medical, obligations, etc.) can deplete our brain’s level of Serotonin, a neurotransmitter. Decreased availability of Serotonin creates depression and — here it comes — obsessive thoughts and rituals. When stressed and depressed, the brain torments us with the strongest and most uncomfortable emotional memories in our personal collection. Your brain is obsessed and tormenting you with this memory as a symptom of your high stress level. Patients report being tormented by emotional memories that were made 10, 20, and over 30 years ago. Middle-age adults become obsessed with guilt related to their high school years, combat vets anguish over their bad experiences of 30+ years ago, etc.

If you review your current situation, you’ll likely find a pattern of increasing stress over the past two years. As your stress increases, the EM becomes stronger and more intrusive. Being tormented with such frequency, such intensity, and experiencing crying spells about it tells me you would benefit from several treatment approaches:

  • Reading the Emotional Memory article will help you understand that you’re being tormented by an old memory — a common experience in depression. The presence of that EM is a sign of stress and depression — not a call for action, rethinking your original position on the experience, or a need for some type of confrontation or intervention. The EM article provides strategies to deal with the memories. When rethinking the memory, it may be helpful to recognize that the offender has rehabilitated himself and is now a kind and gentle person.
  • Look for other symptoms of depression, including inability to sleep, changes in appetite, emotional outbursts, poor concentration, fatigue, etc. If these are also present, you would benefit from the use of an antidepressant medication. These safe medications gradually increase Serotonin availability and when that happens, your EM of the event will return to your memory storage where it belongs.
  • Research methods of improving depression and reducing stress in your life. As you noticed, you’ve been “thinking too much” which is an indicator of neurochemistry changes. Reducing stress naturally through diet, exercise, and other techniques makes your recovery quicker.
  • Now that you’ve had this experience, the EM of that childhood event will forever serve as your “stress indicator”. Years in the future, if you suddenly begin thinking about this childhood memory — it’s an indicator that your stress level is too high. It sounds weird, but that’s the way the brain works. Depressed individuals will tell you that the same tormenting memories surface each time they become depressed.
  • You’ll know this is depression if you keep asking yourself “I thought I got over this?” In truth, you did survive, get over it, recover, reorganize, and continue to be healthy. Your brain has simply found this in your memories and selected this EM to torment you.

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