Overcame Dissociation and Recovered Memories with EMDR, But Cannot Accept that I Really was Abused

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Reader’s Question

I have been going to a therapist, initially for depression and feelings of self-loathing that came on when my father passed away. My father was a narcissist, a genius, an alcoholic, and was charming and manipulative. He had been sexually abused in an orphanage growing up and was also later called out as a pedophile when he was fondling my daughter as well as the neighborhood children in his old age. I took the right steps and cut contact with him at that time.

Growing up, while he was outwardly emotionally and verbally abusive with my older sister and mother, he favored me over all his children. In turn my mother often left me to calm him, cheer him up and to bring the family relief from his tyranny. I willingly accepted this role, feeling somehow that I was special.

In therapy when talking about the dysfunctional relationship I had with my father, I would dissociate, sometimes to the point of passing out. I wanted to heal from the hold he had on me, but I was unable due to this physical reaction. To make matters worse, I began having intrusive nightmares, flashbacks and vague memories of sexual abuse.

In order to get around the dissociation, I started working with a therapist doing EMDR. I have worked hard at learning to trust this therapist, and for a year now I have been able to do work without dissociation being too intrusive. Now using situations from my day to day life as a catalyst, and working through them in EMDR I am being brought back to full-blown “memories” of violent and confusing sexual abuse. I say “memories” because they are not visual but physical memories. I do not have a picture but have all the physical memory, the overwhelming terror and shame, and the inability to articulate anything to the therapist. Often she just sees me shaking and unable to say anything. I write about my experiences after the session instead and send it to her. When I divulged this to my childhood best friend, who incidentally is a therapist, she shared with me that she also had been sexually abused by my father.

My problem now is this. Although I have all this evidence, I cannot accept that I was in fact sexually abused. I have intrusive thoughts that I am making it all up. That for some reason, I am doing all this for attention or that I am being manipulated by therapy. These thoughts are more frustrating to me than the fact that my abuse is most likely a reality. My therapist is great. Although she is not a specialist in CSA, she is caring, non-directive, and is just trying to help me work through my disbelief. But I think it is baffling to her, too.

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What is this disbelief? How do I get through this impasse? Can you tell me a bit about the facts behind CSA and denial?

Psychologist’s Reply

It sounds like you have used techniques to recover memories faster than you are able to process them.

Something about your relationship with your father caused great anxiety, hence the dissociation. Given time, everything would be revealed to you as you are ready to acknowledge and process them. I understand you wanted to get past the anxiety and used these techniques to accelerate your therapy. Well, it worked. Now you have these ‘memories’, but you’re not ready to accept them as accurate. Therefore, you find yourself in a new quandary, unable to accept this new information, and unable to verify that the information is true.

You have some justification for your doubts. Historically, techniques like hypnosis have been used to accelerate therapy as you have used EMDR. The results are the same: too much knowledge too soon, sometimes inaccurate memories that reflect your feelings but not the forensic truth, sometimes fabricated memories that we create to gift to our therapist (whether she has asked for them or not).

It sounds like you need time to process what has come up for you. I recommend that you continue therapy, but without these advanced techniques. Trust that you will come to terms with this information in your own time. If that time is filled with anxiety, dissociation, and doubt, then work with your therapist to be able to tolerate these feelings rather than to rush past them.

Respect your feelings. Respect yourself, that you are learning to cope with your past in your own time. Respect that painful memories are hard to bear, and you will need time before your can hold them. When that time comes, you may experience waves of depression, sadness, or outrage. You may feel like confronting your father. Until you are clear about what happened and what it means to you, I encourage you to keep your feelings in therapy. Any action you take will affect your other relationships. Therefore, give yourself time to be sure of what you remember before taking any action. That way, you can keep yourself and your family safe from a ‘falsely recovered’ memory while continuing to pursue clarity about them.

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