In many faith traditions, remembrance is a sacred act. A devotion to God. Buddhism in particular offers a definition of remembrance that echoes this stage in trauma recovery. The Pali term sati can be translated as both mindfulness and memory. The Satipatthana Sutta teaches that sati enables us to see the true relationship between all things. We must awaken to reality by perceiving the interdependent nature of things. In Zen Buddhism especially, the past is always here in the present. There is no then and no now as two separate experiences.
There is just this.
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The challenge for the trauma survivor is that there is a difference between remembering and reliving. As discussed in my post on triggers, flashbacks are not memories. They are experiences. The past becomes the present when a trauma survivor is triggered, and it is not possible to integrate the memory in any meaningful way.
“Integrating the memory” is common language in trauma literature. It is the goal of this stage of recovery, and it is so difficult because traumatic memory is different. For one, the texture differs. Most memories are narratives. I saw Joanne on the train that day, but then I decided not to say anything.
We live our lives in chronological order, so it is helpful to remember them that way.
Traumatic memory, however, is chaotic and fragmented. Psychologists and physicians have noted this ever since treating soldiers who survived the Civil War. The mind categorizes traumatic memory by horror rather than by sequence. And what horrifies is usually not what movies have primed us to expect.
During a boy’s beating by his father, what horrifies him in the moment may not be so much the violence but the coolness with which his father delivers it, pausing to rip a Kleenex from the box and blow his nose while expecting the child to simply wait. Which he does.
This could very well be what a survivor remembers first, last, and always: the burst blood vessels on his father’s nose, the tearing of tissue, and the horror and shame of the child who obediently waited for the beating to resume. The details of the violence, the ones that would be more satisfying on a television program, might be absent entirely from his memory. Instead, other details are sprinkled in. The clatter of his mother’s heels on the floorboards overhead as she paces rather than come to his rescue. The smell of bleach in the basement. The trickle of blood that the boy finds on his shirt later as he dresses for bed.
And still there is the tissue and the great bulbous nose, signifying his father’s cold indifference and his absolute power in the family.
And then there is the physiology of traumatic memory. Trauma physically changes the brain, specifically in terms of how it processes traumatic memories. More evidence comes to light each year, and I know of no more accessible resource on these changes than Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s The Body Keeps the Score.
Therefore, integrating traumatic memory means taking it out of the realm of experience and fragmentation and into the realm of normal memory. Of course, let’s be honest: trauma will never be a normal memory. Hard as I try, the story of my trauma is so much easier to tell than the story of my healing. Each trauma was branded into my brain tissue in a way nothing else has been or ever will be. But I do now remember most of my traumas in a linear, chronological fashion. Which makes them easier to contain. Easier to live with. And less intrusive.
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Everyone’s path to healing after trauma looks different. But we all have to find ways to process the memories. For some of us Cognitive Behavior Therapy (CBT) is best. For others, eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) can do more than we ever imagined. Some swear by traditional talk therapy. Some find healing and release in acting or writing or other narrative-based arts. For others still, the body must be the primary vehicle of healing, and yoga or dance become central.
For me, writing was the most accessible way to engage with and restructure traumatic memories. After the divorce and the assaults, I returned to a writing group on Eastlake. They met every Friday afternoon in a bakery, arranged around two long wooden tables, and were led by two lifelong creative writing instructors now in their eighties: Robert J. Ray and Jack Remick.
Bob is an old Texan, grinning from under a cowboy hat that I’ve never seen him without. Fine white whiskers bristle on his chin, and I’ve never seen him without a twinkle of mischief in his blue eyes and a ready wisecrack. He is an anti-racist feminist who has no patience for stupidity or cold coffee. He wrote the Matt Murdock mystery series as well as several books on writing craft, including The Weekend Novelist. A retired tennis coach, he is also a great believer in disciplined practice with verbs, sentence structure, rhetorical devices, and timed writing.
Jack Remick is a widely published poet and fiction writer who has also devoted his life to mentoring writers in the Seattle community. An ex-Mormon and a lifelong biker who was enamored of the Beat poets, he is kind but becomes intense whenever anyone brings up justice, feminism, or line breaks and structured poetry. He keeps his long white hair tied back in a ponytail and was giving craft talks and readings even as his hearing began to fail from all those years on his motorcycle.
I was writing a novel, but when it stalled, Bob and Jack and several other writers there encouraged me to go direct to the source. My past.
So I did.
I showed up every Friday and flipped open a spiral-bound notebook. I jotted down a few notes, listed ideas, and then Jack hit the timer, and everyone around the tables started writing. It had never been so easy to write.
It wasn’t good writing.
Paragraph breaks were tough to come by. Sentences yawned on for lines, only to dribble down to a whimper. People laughed where I had cried and looked distraught when I thought it was funny. My verbs were flimsy as wet noodles. The emotional tone more like paint spatter.
But once the timer beeped, we put our pens down, found two or three other writers, and read everything we had written. Sometimes, when I read, I began to hyperventilate. All this had really happened.
“Slow down,” Bob told me in a voice that calmed. “Breathe.”
One day I had written about how things had ended with the Mormon church. The way I had been shunned. The Singles Branch I had been sent to, where I did not want to be and did not belong beside all the blondes with their pastel handbags. How I sulked and raged week after week in my black dress until finally I simply left. But even then, they did not let me go. I wrote about the outraged letter I mailed to Salt Lake headquarters after one too many missionaries showed up at my new apartment asking for me by name. How finally, at the threat of legal action, my name had been struck from the rolls. I was officially no longer Mormon.
I had never known how much that had taken out of me.
I had never realized how much my entire history had taken out of me until I read it aloud.
And as I finished reading, I broke into a sob, the way I had in that bus depot in Queens. But this time I was not alone. This time, Jack reached over and put his arm around me and stoppered the wail that was coming. I buried my face against his shirt. I felt the warmth of this grandfather and ex-Mormon, my teacher and mentor who had a better idea of what I’d gone through than most men ever would. In part, because his sister had been through worse.
Accepting, even welcoming, the consolation of someone who was bearing witness to what I had survived—this was what Amy O’Neal had prepared me for.
Other bodies were not always dangerous. Sometimes, they were refuges. Sometimes healing is not turning away, but turning towards.
I only raised my face when I could breathe steadily again. And I looked around the table, the faces of the other writers watching me. “I’m sorry,” I said and wiped my nose.
One of the women reached across the table and took my hand. “Don’t be,” she said.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, turning to Jack. “Your shirt.”
And he laughed. He gave my shoulders a squeeze, and we laughed, our eyes wet. It felt something like relief.
I had begun to remember.
And it hadn’t killed me.
Far from it.
Traumas are living things that can catch us and steal us back to the past. We kill these demons the day that we name them. Speaking the truth out loud and seeing other people receive and hold it for us changes the shape of it within ourselves. For once we remember instead of relive, we can arrange each trauma on our shelves the way I once arranged my childhood shell collection, each murex and conch labeled and catalogued with its attendant names and origin.
The sentences that help us remember cast a binding spell over the past, so it cannot rise again. It cannot traumatize us again. Once we truly remember, we are no longer haunted. Scarred, saddened, angered. Of course. But the terror can no longer paralyze us as it once did. There is a distance now, which makes space for other things.