It is not uncommon for people who have been abused as children to forget the abuse. Many studies have been conducted in this area resulting in numerous psychologists believing that forgetting abuse is an unconscious mechanism to block out the painful and traumatic incidents in order to protect the individual.
This could happen in a variety of ways – the most common is through the mechanism of dissociation, which is a defense mechanism used to dissociate from the traumatic event. There have also been studies that indicate that forgetting is simply that – forgetting. That many people try not to remember their abuse, believe it wasn’t that bad or are simply afraid to talk about it and, over time, they simply forget. Either way, many people who have suffered abuse as children, have also forgotten that abuse until those memories are triggered and they suddenly begin remembering later in life.
Remembering the abuse can happen in a variety of ways. Some people have sudden flashbacks of the event and can remember everything in detail. Other people get specific feelings, thoughts, or smells that come back to them and leave them feeling anxious and uncomfortable. Other people have nightmares of an event coupled with the sensation that this has happened to them.
Memories can be triggered by what seems like ordinary life events. This is due to the fact that the mind would have made associations at the time of the abuse – particular smells, sights, sounds, thoughts and feelings, which can then be triggered in later life by similar sounds, sights, smells, thoughts or feelings. As a result, there is no specific time at which a memory may begin to surface and you can never be “too old” to start remembering.
There has been some question regarding the reliability of these sorts of memories and whether they are 100% accurate, and many studies have been conducted in the area of “false memories”. The remembering of childhood events is never really accurate as those memories are through the eyes of a child and people often fill gaps in their memories with stories they heard as children or things they imagined or believed that weren’t true. As such, one cannot fully rely on such memories as being absolute truth, but if someone is experiencing anxiety, discomfort and flashbacks or nightmares then it is worth exploring the possibility of perceived or real abuse.
Starting to remember an abusive past can be a very traumatic experience. It can leave the person feeling confused, scared and uncomfortable. They may even begin doubting themselves and their own memories. In many cases it pulls into question their upbringing and what they have believed about this.