My Brain on Trauma


I love to swim. I always have. It was healing for me. When I was in the water, nobody could get to me. Nobody could hurt me. I was in my own world, a world that flowed, a world where all the darkness and pain of my reality was far away. The physical pain stopped too. The aching in my shoulders, hips and knees didn’t weigh me down when I was in the water. The buoyancy was just what my beat-up body needed. And it helped that I was good, very good at swimming. I knew how to flow through that water. I knew how to win.

Fast forward to my own little family and it is predictable that I want to continue that swimming experience vicariously. Unlike many parents who dread long swim meets, I don’t. I breathe in chlorine like some breathe in a field of flowers. It is relaxing and healing. My twins are new to swimming this year. And I would be fibbing if I told you they were rocking their strokes. They usually come in last or disqualify, but I don’t care. And they don’t seem to care much either. I really am blessed with kids that enjoy everything they do.

And so we are making our way through our first swim team season. And I am loving watching my kids swim and participating as a strokes and turns judge. I could not be happier with it. I am focused. And this part of my life is completely unfettered by my past … until last week.

Last week’s swim meet did not go as planned. At first, I was focused on my job as judge and things were normal. But then I moved to the other side of the pool, and I started to lose focus. After losing focus, my behavior started to shift. I became a child again. I was manic and insecure. I was chatty and gossiping with others at the meet. I even used my judge status to change my son’s disqualification (to be fair, it was a bogus call). If I were a pre-teen, it would have been blamed on hormones and immaturity. Of course, I am not. So I am sure I was judged by others. As the night wore on, I went from watching my behavior with frustration to forgetting events entirely. I was completely dissociated.

At first, I had no idea how it happened. I had met a woman who grew up in the same neighborhood. However, she didn’t live there when I did and she was a different age. We only seemed to know one person in common. It just didn’t seem like enough to send me off to the land of nod. But I had this sense, this feeling, that someone else was there, someone from my past, someone very significant.

You see, there was this boy. He was barely an adult when I knew him. And I was still very young. I was living in pure hell. He took me in as a little sister. He was supportive. Sometimes, when home was just too bad to handle, I would run in my nightgown and bare feet to his house. I think he wanted to help me, but didn’t know how. I was absolutely sure he would save me from my hell. I pinned all my hopes on him. But instead, he left. He went off to college and I was not saved. It was that event that dashed my last hopes of escape. My broken heart and dashed hopes were too much for my little brain to understand, so I repressed the abuse … and him. I had no choice. If I had remembered him, I would have been forced to remember the abuse and the abandonment. And that pain was just too much. Besides, I was never going to see him again.

So I thought. That is not what happened. He kept coming back. At first, he was angry that I would blatantly forget him. Then, he was distraught. Then, he because vindictive. He was sure I was trying to avoid and ignore him because I was mad that he left. In reality, my unconscious mind was not strong enough to hold all those repressed memories while facing one of the primary subjects of my repression. It was exhausting and produced tremendous anxiety. I had no choice but to stay away. So, the cycle began. He kept coming around. And I kept running.

This has been the dance of the past thirty years, unbeknownst to my conscious mind. He comes around. I dissociate and leave. And now, at a swim meet, he is there. And my reaction is no different than the previous years. I am torn about this. I am sad that I have not moved further in my recovery. I thought recovering memories of him would have allowed me to be conscious of our next meeting. At the same time, I understand that I figured it out quickly. I knew within twenty-four hours of our meeting. But it wasn’t fast enough to have a conscious interaction with him.

While I know I am making progress, I am continually awed at the hold that dissociation and memory repression continue to have on the functioning of my brain. It is a powerful defense mechanism that can save a life, but at the same time, wreck havoc on that life. After seven years of recovery, I can still become a shell of who I am when placed in a triggering situation. That’s hard to understand. It is scary.

But it is my reality. And while I took a ribbing from my well-meaning friends at the meet who found my behavior somewhat amusing, I know that it was a trauma response, a very complicated and hard to explain response to the pain that my child could not handle. And that is why I tell this story,

not because it is interesting and dramatic, the stuff that movies are made of,

but because it is happening everywhere,

because I am not the only brain on trauma,

because most people don’t understand how trauma response works,

because it is happening to people unbeknownst to them,

because how can we remember, what we already forgot.


Note to the subject of this article … you know who you are: While I have worked hard on my own dissociative response, it has become clear to me that I will not remain conscious during an unplanned face-to-face meeting. If you happen to see me around town (because I know you do), maybe you could give your contact information to whomever I happen to be there with. You might also want to explain to them about my forgetful state so they know to repeat themselves if necessary. It is a plan that just might work.


33 thoughts on “My Brain on Trauma

  1. Dear Elisabeth,
    I can not relate to your brain trauma. Your trauma was repetitive and continuous for years, as we know from your story. I experienced trauma on November 10, 2013 when our daughter’s estranged ex-con husband shot and killed one of our long-time friends in our garage and paralyzed her daughter. I was subsequently diagnosed with PTSD and began counseling and treatment. PTSD is considered a mental illness caused by a traumatic event. But there is hope and there is recovery. I was just wondering if you have ever wondered about or pursued treatment to see if you might have that diagnosis. Just wondering. As I said my trauma was a one-time horrific event and yours was chronic, but on some levels I can relate to some of your responses and thoughts in my own PTSD. Great story. I love to read about how you are recovering and your courage to do so. God bless.


    • Thank you Steve. I am so sorry to hear about your experiences. That is certainly traumatic. I have the symptoms associated with complex PTSD which comes from long term trauma. While C-PTSD is not officially recognized in the DSM, it is very real and often misdiagnosed. I want to help get the word out about it.


      • If there’s anything I can do to help you, please let me know. I have been through the NAMI family-to-family course and now teach it. The class helps families who live with mental illness to understand the disease (of which PTSD is one) and to learn healthy ways to manage their lives and, at the same time, help their loved one with the disease. My whole experience with NAMI and mental illness has given me a new respect and appreciation for mental illness and those who suffer from it as well as their families. It has also softened my heart and given me a new and healthy appreciation for you and your recovery story as you deal with the long-term effects of C-PTSD. I will support you any way I can. One way I can think of is to re-post one of your stories on my blog. Would that be something you’d be interested in doing to further enlighten and educate people? Let me know.


      • That would be great. I would certainly be interested. There are also some great blogs that are educational about C-PTSD too. And have you heard of Dr. Judith Herman? She coined the phrase.


      • Okay, why don’t you pick a story you’d like others to read and email it to me, or direct me to the story on your site and I can cut and paste. I’ll publish it on my blog. My posts are usually about 250 words, but I know yours are usually longer and that’s okay. No, I haven’t heard about that doctor. I’m sure she’s done some great work with the condition. I’d be interested to know more.


      • FanTASic! I can’t wait to get it. Thank you. When I publish a guest post, I include a brief bio of the author. You can send me something, or I can write a brief one from what I know of your story. You will probably like what I write if that’s okay with you. I’ll let you see it of course and approve it before I include it with your story. I also include a link back to your blog and encourage my readers to read you.


  2. I just want to thank you for writing this and showing me that my “forgetting” is a real trauma response and that I’m not alone in living with it.


  3. Those repressed memories are boogers. I was 40 before they finally came in a rush and knocked me down. But you know at the same time as I stumbled and fell into the pain of what was my truth I rejoiced in finally understanding. I let myself finally feel the pain. And soon it calmed allowing me to get back up.
    My life, my actions, my responses, finally made sense.
    It took a year to work through it all but the day came that my brain moved past the trauma.
    It’s all in the releasing of the information you receive. I pray you do get the chance to confront. It will be painful but freeing.


    • Thank you Shannon. There does seem to be this age threshold between 35 and 45 where memories start to come back. And I agree with you. It is such a blessing to finally understand my life and my responses to it. I have received my memories in a series over the past five years. I did not receive a flood like you. I am not sure how I would have handled that. Although there are times when the lack of clarity makes me wish for it. Your strength is inspiring.


  4. Thank you. I had the confrontation with my abuser yesterday and as you will understand, cannot even begin to describe what it’s like. In the UK, there is so much coming out in the press at the moment, there is an unprecedented rise in the number of people coming forward with cases of incest, provoked by a deluge of celebrity abusers being uncovered following the Jimmi Saville case and a prolific and widespread pedophile ring within the political circle having been uncovered. Finally the media is reporting that we have so much learning to do about the subject and it is trail-blazers like you who are helping this watershed to occur with everything that you share. Thank you again.


    • Confronting your abuser is HUGE. When I took that step, I went through a tremendous amount of anxiety. How are you doing? When you are ready, we would love to support you on the forum.

      I have been following the UK news a bit since I used to live there. I am so proud of all of you who are coming forward. Things have to be stirred up to get any better. And thank you for your kind words.


  5. Thanks so much for your support, these are certainly revealing times…the truth has to come out one way or another.
    I am okay, it has been very difficult and I would really welcome your support on the forum. I don’t mind if you broach the subject any time. Thanks for your kindness.


    • I will bring it up on the forum. I think it is a great topic to discuss. And I know it can be nerve-racking, but you are also welcome to start a thread anytime you want.


  6. To follow on from earlier comments, I too forgot my abuse and began to remember aged forty. I have had a flood of memories, but all in fragments, sensory, maybe more to come. I have begun to get second-long visual flashes only recently. It just goes to show that there are commonalities as well as differences between survivors and this is something that so many find hard to grasp. It is complex. The confrontation was a mixture of relief and sadness…and now numbness as I process it all, but ultimately freeing I’m sure. The sadness will get easier to cope with given time.


    • Thank you for sharing that perspective. I think the more we talk about our repressed memory experiences, the more we educate others, including others who recover memories.


  7. Yes, so true. That little girl that you were was so very strong. How kind of that boy who helped you and it was nobody’s fault that you forgot, no one to blame, just a little girl trying to cope. As we speak about brain trauma, the people we’ve met in our lives will be able to read about it and maybe re connections will be made.


  8. Thank you for sharing that, Elisabeth. Although I know I am not alone in dealing with trauma and dissociation, it feels like it sometimes and so it is encouraging to hear others share their stories, struggles and triumphs.


  9. I get like that too if I think I’ve seen my ex who abused me or his grandfather who frightened me. My first instinct is panic and flight, the next is repression and memory loss. I feel a little better, knowing I’m not alone. It doesn’t happen too much now but sometimes memories come back and I’m paralyzed. I hope this doesn’t happen this badly again and I hope you have a plan for if you see him again. x


  10. Pingback: No Place Like Home | Beating Trauma

  11. My dissociation started a couple of years ago – I pop outside my body and have no control over the ‘shell’ I leave behind. I’m a bystander no-one else can see and my physical form is no better than a ‘mannequin’ (quite dangerous when it walks off in front of cars).

    That said … I have come to terms that over 25 years ago and over a period of ten or so years this mental state probably helped me survive what the hospitals here in the UK said was severe mental, physical and emotional abuse. So in a strange way I’m grateful to it.

    Now all the grown up me has to do is figure out a way to control (or live better with) the defence that saved me as a child…

    Easier said that done o.O

    I enjoyed reading your blog – really nice to know I’m not alone in this strange ‘otherworld’ that sometimes descends 🙂


    • I completely understand those experiences. I am so sorry that you went through that abuse and suffered the consequences. But you are right. This dissociation probably saved our lives. There are ways to live with it, work with it and even cooperate with it, but it takes some time and patience. Hang in there with it and keep remembering you are not alone. I know that helps me.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s