How I learned to trust myself and heal a horrendous memory | Mental Health Perspectives

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral…

How I learned to trust myself and heal a horrendous memory | Mental Health Perspectives
How I learned to trust myself and heal a horrendous memory | Mental Health Perspectives

The Mental Health Project is a Seattle Times initiative focused on covering mental and behavioral health issues. It is funded by Ballmer Group, a national organization focused on economic mobility for children and families. The Seattle Times maintains editorial control over work produced by this team.

There has always been a discrepancy between how I appeared on the outside and how I felt on the inside.

Outwardly, I’ve enjoyed activities like hiking, mosaic art, traveling and working as a psychologist and educator. But internally I’ve struggled with feelings of despair, alienation, confusion, and suicidality. 

An experience in my late 20s triggered the re-emergence of difficult childhood memories that I later understood, through continuing education, meditation, religious practices and therapy, were the basis of my difficulties.

I was experiencing a form of dissociative disorder — an extraordinary mechanism of protection and survival that unfortunately might also have painful and disruptive repercussions.

The Seattle Times Mental Health Project features contributed essays from members of our community as part of our Mental Health Perspectives guest column. We invite individuals with personal stories related to mental health to share their experiences that reflect broader issues and concerns in the field. If you would like to inquire about submitting a column, please email [email protected]

Here’s what I remember: In the early 1970s, as a child, I sat in the woods of upstate New York, with another little girl who had died. This moment was confusing, terrifying, and intimate and being so close to another girl’s death has affected the rest of my life. My mind avoids memories and details of other moments surrounding that event because they are too disruptive and painful. 

I don’t remember if I told anyone in the days immediately after. Maybe I couldn’t find words to describe the trauma I had witnessed. Maybe I was afraid to cause a commotion with my parents or lure danger to my home. Maybe I tried to tell but was dismissed or misunderstood. 

Miraculously, after my family moved from that area, the memory of what happened got lost for many years. It got buried under activities and other concerns — under the mundane. But, I’ve learned, the memory of something that horrendous doesn’t just go away.

Having a safe and supportive person to confide in can mitigate the psychological effects of trauma for children as well as adults, research has shown. In absence, the human mind must find other creative ways to cope.

The way dissociation worked for me as a child was that it allowed me to separate parts of myself to cope with different aspects of life. I held experiences of pain and terror away from other parts that were then able to continue functioning in everyday life. The problem with this is that the traumatic memories were never resolved. I never received the comfort and help that people need to process and resolve such experiences. While I earned a doctoral degree and later moved to Washington, where I raised my family, the buried trauma sometimes intruded into my happiness, behaviors and stability.

When the memories started breaking into conscious awareness, they came as emotional and sensory flashbacks which were extremely confusing and disruptive. Imagine you’re walking around in regular life and suddenly you have all these physical and emotional sensations as if you were in a horror movie. From a period of relative stability, I was thrust into chaos and confusion in my psyche and my life. I was in and out of a daze, confounding sensations from the past and the present. 

As time went on, I still felt an overwhelming desperation to help identify the girl who died and give her proper respect and burial, so I called the police from my childhood town where she died. The officer I spoke with said he didn’t recall any discoveries of child remains. He suggested that maybe I had seen a dead deer. Feeling flustered and shaky, I quickly hung up the phone.

I understand that some may be skeptical of old memories that emerge like this, but I now have abundant internal and external verification of the events I recalled.

Soon after the conversation with police, a friend from New York sent me a newspaper clipping about a girl who had been molested, murdered and found in the woods, on the 25th anniversary of her discovery, solidifying some of my fragmented memories. Through more research, working with police and talking with the mother of the girl in the newspaper article, I determined this was likely not the girl I had seen in the woods. Still, seeing this story did help confirm that events like this were happening in my area at the time.

As my memories expanded, with years of therapy, I learned to recognize and trust my own internal validity of consistent images, emotional reactions and body memories. I didn’t want to believe it was true, either. I didn’t want to believe I had a dissociative disorder, and I didn’t want to believe this memory was real. So I pursued the truth with every resource available.

In the end, I found enough corroborating evidence to accept what happened. When I doubted myself, I felt more confusion and pain. And when I believed myself, I felt stronger and more able to fully live.

As more of my history unfolded and after several deaths in my family, I went to a residential treatment facility out of state for a few weeks. Psychological testing there indicated a diagnosis of a dissociative disorder. For the next 20 years, I ignored this diagnosis. It seemed strange and unrelated to what was important to me.

My professional background as a clinical psychologist didn’t spare me the influence of our culture’s portrayals of dissociative disorders as dangerous and bizarre. I focused on being a good mother to my twins, worked at various jobs, and cared for my ailing parents. But my connection to the girl who died was always with me.

Over those years, I tried many forms of treatment and therapy. Unfortunately some were quite harmful. Even a therapist can have difficulty navigating our mental health system. I also found professionals who were supportive, comforting me through difficulties and guiding me toward insight, skills and resources to help me cope. I learned to take what worked from each approach and move on from what did not.

I’ve gotten to know and accept the various parts of myself and use the structure of my mind to function more cohesively. This allows me to move through the world with less distress, turmoil and isolation, and more freedom, calmness and stability.

I now understand that I may be unique in some ways, but not strange or bizarre. I’ve been grateful for the healing comfort of simple respect from people who realize a mental health diagnosis doesn’t mean I’m dangerous, incompetent or unaware.

We’re all surrounded by people with varying degrees of mental distress all the time. Some are diagnosed, and some not. Some people display behavior that’s hard to understand, and some people hide their pain and confusion very well. Either way, treating others with kindness is appropriate and very helpful to those experiencing mental health concerns.

I’m no longer the only person to know about the girl’s remains. After many years of emotional work, I’ve also come to understand that I’ve done all I can for her in this world. And her soul is being cared for in a realm beyond my capacity.

Elizabeth Braverman is a clinical psychologist, artist, writer and public speaker living on Vashon Island. 

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