Repressed Memory, Trauma Minimization, & Finding Self-Worth
Updated: Feb 3, 2022
Perspectives from an Incest Abuse Survivor
As a sibling incest survivor, I know that a common aftereffect of incest abuse is lack of self-worth. We survivors learned at an early age that we could be used and abused—that we didn’t matter. The rational-thinking frontal cortex of our brains hadn’t fully developed and we were left with these embedded feelings.
Not until I was 42 years old did I remember that my brother molested me when I was ten. I later learned that repressing the memory was a survival strategy. It allowed me to remove from my memory what I couldn't fully process at the time. It allowed me to function in spite of an incomprehensible act. It allowed me to live under the same roof as someone who had violated my body—and my trust. It also allowed me to live under the same roof as my parents. The very people I depended on for survival, but who didn’t come to my rescue.
I had made a cryptic attempt to tell my parents at the time. Without explaining what happened, I asked my mother if I could sleep with her. This was not a common request from ten-year-old me, and since my mother didn’t know what occurred in my brother’s room, she rejected my subtle cry for help. I subsequently developed dissociative amnesia and went through 32 years of my life not remembering the event.
My young mind learned that my parents didn’t protect me. This, however, was in stark contrast to my consciously lived childhood of love and support from wonderful parents. While my charmed life went on, my subconscious held a dark secret.
The mind-blowing recollection of my repressed memory was ultimately corroborated by the perpetrator himself. When I point-blank asked my brother about it, he immediately took full responsibility for what he did to me. I was immensely grateful for this acknowledgement, and yet I spent the next nine years working through my trauma via stints of myofascial release therapy, psychotherapy, Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing (EMDR), Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT) or Tapping, and Somatic Experiencing (SE). I dug into my mind and body to find deeply buried emotions that were holding me hostage: fear, anger, confusion, shame, and unworthiness; to name a few.
When I first remembered the trauma, I tried to minimize what had happened. “It was only one time. He only touched me. It was only one person. He didn’t mean to hurt me. It must have simply been boyhood curiosity. He didn’t rape me. He barely touched me. It’s no big deal. It’s no big deal. It’s no big deal.” I felt like somewhere in my subconscious I’d been saying these things for three decades, even though I had no conscious memory of any of it during that time.
Minimizing what happened was also a survival technique. It allowed me to move forward at a pace I could handle. Slowly, without overwhelming myself, I began to let the reality of my past seep into my awareness.
At age 43, I was led through a therapeutic breathing exercise in which I began screaming and panicking, even when nothing immediately threatening was around me. That’s when I realized that trauma truly lived in my body, and that my unrelenting chronic pain, heart palpitations, strong startle response, panic attacks, fears, cognitive deficit, sobbing in therapy, and collapsing on the shower floor at home were all part of my trauma, too. As I’ve worked through my forgotten memory and lack of self-worth, I’ve learned that trauma is trauma; whether or not someone else—or even yourself—thinks what happened was no big deal.
Over the past sixteen years, I’ve made gigantic strides to the point that my physical pain is significantly less and I can now share my story without falling to pieces. But it was a long process before I could finally do so.
At first I told therapists and a few trusted friends. Speaking the words, “my brother molested me,” was like extracting sticky taffy from its wax-paper wrapper after it sat in the sun all day. Or like scrubbing pinesap off your skin after grabbing a pine tree branch. Or like decoupling flypaper from your fingers after an inadvertent encounter with the tenacious tape. Yet the more I spoke up, the more confident I became. I realized maybe I could help myself—and others—by using my voice.
Five years after remembering my trauma, I joined the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN) Speaker’s Bureau. Another seven years later, I published my memoir, The Invisible Key: Unlocking the Mystery of My Chronic Pain—using my own name. Well, my married name; but not under a pseudonym, which I’d been tempted to do. Instead, I decided not to hide any longer. This wasn’t my fault and the shame I’d saddled myself with was unnecessary and damaging to me. A year later, I joined the Sexual Assault Advocacy Network (SAAN) and Incest AWARE to further the reach of my words. By sharing our stories, not only do we help fellow survivors to heal, but we also help educate the world of the tragic consequences of incest and other forms of abuse and sexual assault.
As time has gone by, I’ve acknowledged that my trauma is worthy of being shared, and that I am worthy of telling my story as a sibling incest survivor. Even if what happened to me wasn’t violent; even if it occurred only once and was short in duration; even if I wasn’t groomed, threatened, or told to keep it a secret; even if my perpetrator wasn’t that much older than me; and even though I had two parents who loved and cared for me; I know to honor myself, my story, and my trauma. In this way I continue to heal.
Regardless of the particular circumstances of incest abuse, we all live with the demons that have come as a consequence. For anyone else who has questioned the severity of their experiences, I encourage you to acknowledge your suffering. It doesn’t matter what others say or think. Be true to yourself and appreciate trauma for what it is. No matter how much others have suffered, you have the right to bravely work to change your narrative to a healing one. Let me leave you with a valuable lesson my fourth grade teacher taught me. After an election between a few of my classmates and me to be the ambassador for our class, my teacher pulled me aside and told me I’d lost by only one vote.
“Did you vote for yourself?” she asked.
Humble me said, “No,” thinking: Why would I do that?
With her kind, but gently persuasive tone, she looked me straight in the eyes and said, “Always vote for yourself.” She taught me that day that I’m worthy—something that got buried for decades to follow after the incident with my brother. I now look at my fellow survivors in the eyes and say: You’re worthy, you matter, and always vote for yourself.
- Maria Socolof
Maria Socolof holds a Master of Science degree in Environmental Health Management from the Harvard School of Public Health. For twenty-two years, she worked as a health scientist, project manager, researcher, and technical writer. Then debilitating chronic pain took over her life after she ruptured a disc in her neck in 2005. This former competitive gymnast continued to pursue her career in spite of great pain, until she finally stopped to listen to her body. She ultimately discovered that past traumas, including sibling incest, were feeding her physical pain. Acknowledging the connection between the mind and the body, and taking steps to face her past traumas, has led her on a path of authentic healing.
She is now an author and speaker on the subjects of mindbody healing and the intersection of trauma and chronic pain. She is also an advocate for chronic pain sufferers and survivors of incest and childhood sexual abuse. She is a member of the RAINN Speakers Bureau, Incest AWARE, and the Sexual Assault Advocacy Network. She has written a memoir, The Invisible Key: Unlocking the Mystery of My Chronic Pain, created a website and blog (healingfromchronicpain.com), and authored guest blog posts on various sites supporting pain sufferers and sexual abuse survivors. She is also a mother of two, a wife, and forever a gymnast-at-heart.