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When will I remember what happened to me?

Recently on CBS Sunday Morning Pete Townshend, from British rock band The Who, discussed his new broadway show adaptation from the album "Tommy." Pete primarily wrote the lyrics for this album. The story is heavy, intense, and full of traumatic material.

The synopsis of the album is about a boy who witnessed his father kill his mother's lover. His parent's convince him that he didn't see the murder. Tommy becomes deaf, dumb, and blind to the external world. He lives mostly in a dissociated stated and turns to the safety of his imagination. In search for help, his parents take him to a doctor for "a quick cure" whose wife "the Acid Queen" offers Tommy LSD. Tommy parents leave him with extended family members who sexually abuse him. Later in life, he sees another doctor that tells him his ails are psychosomatic and is told to "look in the mirror." Tommy obsessively stares at himself in the mirror until his mother breaks it in frustration. This "breaking of the mirror" removes Tommy's mental block and revives his senses. The story continues through narratives exploring spiritual enlightenment, leadership, utopia, community and betrayal.

In his mid-sixties, Pete Townshend performed the complete "Tommy" album with The Who at Royal Albert Hall. While singing "Acid Queen" on stage, a flood of memories emerged from his unconscious, causing a panic attack. He remembered for the first time that he was abused by his mentally ill grandmother between ages 4 & 6 years old.

You can watch the interview here:

I have had many people reach out to me seeking to uncover traumatic memories. This is a normal desire for survivors of child abuse. Some people remember will recall new memory detail, while others may not. However, it's important to remember that memory changes and is easily suggestible (see Memory Suggestibility). This often comes up in court cases where a lawyer's prying questions may change how the witnesses are recalling information. Memory changes and many people who experienced the same event will recall the memory differently (as we've seen in veteran research). Remembering the details of an abusive event is not necessary in order to heal.

In many ways, dissociation is a gift. It protects one so that they can continue to live full, meaningful lives. Dissociation provides containment, it is a kind of resilience, and there is no reason to be scared if you are not harming yourself or others. It can be unsettling to "not know" but the work is to then be with the part of you that "has to know" in order to move on. It is a kind of grieving process. Life must go on and it can be lived even with this uncertainty about your past. Most of my clients grow to accept the dissociation and rebuild trust with the body. We can heal PTSD symptoms through EMDR and somatic experiencing by following the fear in the body, and supporting your body in metabolizing and releasing this fear.

Structural Dissociation Theory

a book with disintegrated face
The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization

Dissociation can come at a cost. Many people report repeated procrastination, unhealthy relationship dynamics, or feelings of being small. Life is happening "to" me instead of "for" me. This can leave people feeling in a constant reactive state where they feel like a child rather than a mature adult. These can all be symptoms of dissociative states reemerging in one's present life. I work really hard to support client's in re-integrating dissociative parts so they no longer feel like they are reliving the past and that they have more agency in their lives.

The Haunted Self (2006), written by Onno van der Hart, Ellert R.S. Nijenjuis, and Kathy Steele, provides a framework to explore levels of dissociation and their impact on the personality. It asserts that we are born without cohesion of a personality and trauma interrupts the processes of growing an integrated personality. In the personality structure there is a primary personality (the apparently normal personality, aka ANP) that completes daily physical and social functions and tasks. Then, there are the emotional parts holding traumatic material (behavior, affect, sensation, knowledge). My work supports clients in getting to know the multiple parts of their personality. I like to use internal family systems language, like managers and firefighters that keep the "exiled" or emotional parts away from the ANP or Self. This helps the ANP/Self to complete daily functions and tasks. In psychotherapy, we create bridges to connect the different parts of the personality so clients have more self understanding, a greater sense of control over their big emotions, and feel more agency in their life.

There are three levels of severity: primary, secondary, and tertiary. Primary dissociation happens when one experiences a traumatic event and represses what happened. Secondary is when one experiences traumatization chronically over a period of time. This often results in Complex PTSD. People experience competing and conflicting beliefs, perceptions, cognitions, and affects about their life experiences, causing a lack of integration. Finally tertiary occurs "when inescapable aspects of daily life have become associated with past trauma; that is, triggers tend to reactivate traumatic memories through the process of generalization learning. Alternately when the functioning of ANP is so poor that normal life itself is overwhelm, new ANPs may develop (alters)" (van der Hart, Nijenjuis, & Steele, 2006). In more severe cases, these alters are unknown to one another.

My thoughts...

I believe that your mind will open up memories when you have a wider window of tolerance. Likely, Pete Townshend had achieved a level of stability in his sixties. I would imagine that "sex, drugs, and rock n' roll" were well in the past and he was now living a more financially stable, secure, and peaceful life; therefore, having a wider window of tolerance. This unlocked the traumatic memory while performing his deeply intense music on stage. But why then at that moment? Hadn't he practiced for months before being on stage? I honestly do not know. The mind still is mysterious.

Trust you are not remembering for a reason. Trust you are also remembering for a reason.

I remember years ago, working with a client with severe dissociation. When we returned to the memory of childhood abuse in an EMDR session, instead of recalling the details, they saw their soul taken up by angels to protect them from what was happening in the body. This was a very comforting belief and brought immense healing to their nervous system (we were both in tears...). They experienced self - compassion, acceptance, and a profound connection to Spirit. It was powerful enough to provide the healing they needed to move on with their life.

I believe every word.

van der Hart, O., Nijenjuis, E., & Steele, K. (2006). The Haunted Self: Structural Dissociation and the Treatment of Chronic Traumatization. W. W. Norton & Company.

Mary McGregor, LCSW, 401 Court Street, Brooklyn NY

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