Tell Me About It: I was abused by my brother as a child
How can I recall blocked memories? Or are memories we block better left that way?
Illustration: Luca Olivotto via Getty Images
Q I’ve recently realised that I was abused as a child by a brother. I had little or no memory of this, but in an argument with another brother he said the way I had behaved as a child was so disgusting sometimes – I can’t remember his exact words – and I understood what he meant.
My response to him was “but I was a small child”, or “how can you blame a small boy?” He wasn’t having any of my excuses. Our conversation was interrupted, and, when I tried to ask him about it again, he said he didn’t remember.
How can I recall blocked memories? I’m interested for healing purposes not for any other reason. As an adult I don’t have stable, healthy relationships, which is what I would like.
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I find trust to be a huge issue. I don’t trust anybody. I suppose I should admit sex addiction. How do I get help? Are memories we block better left that way?
A You seem very clear in your letter that you were abused by one brother in your family but that you have no clear memories about this. Then another brother claims he does not remember a conversation he had with you. It would seem that blocking memories is a method of coping with difficulties in your family, but perhaps it is also a way of not taking responsibility in your brother’s case.
Secrecy is a prerequisite for abuse to happen, and this is often linked to care. You might not have told your parents of the abuse as a child as you knew how hurt and devastated they would be, so you protect them and keep the secret in order to safeguard the family.
People have many ways of dealing with trauma, and blocking the experience is one that can work in the shorter term. But this strategy has long-term consequences, because feelings and experiences can be submerged and the need to keep people at a distance becomes a survival tactic.
This becomes a habit, and the difficulties can get diverted into other distractions, such as addiction. Your difficulties in having stable relationships, trusting people and addictive behaviours are consistent with a history of abuse.
It is definitely worth perusing the question of blocked memories. A child is dependent on his family for survival and cannot afford to be cast out of the home, so he has to find a way of coping with the wrong that is happening while also managing to stay in the situation. The child has to construct some way of making sense of what is happening, and often this is found in being oversexualised or inappropriately sexualised. For example a child might act inappropriately with other children or with the family pet, and this might be the first indication that something is very wrong. One of the biggest difficulties is the responsibility the child feels in the continuation of abuse, which can lead to years of guilt, shame and self-disgust.
Your non-abusive brother sounds as if he is adding to this by claiming you were disgusting, that somehow your behaviour was causative. You recognised this feeling of disgust when he spoke, so it is fair to assume you either got messages growing up that this was true, or your brother connected with how you felt about yourself.
Your response shows that you know the injustice of this: how can a small boy be blamed? This indicates that you are beginning to protest at what was done to you, and this might be the motivation you need to stand up for yourself both as an adult and for the child who suffered so much.
It is difficult to uncover memories, and it can feel like reliving the trauma. However, not tackling these memories can mean the distracting behaviours and coping mechanisms continue for life.
There is a lot of help and knowledge available and the important thing is to make a start. Unfortunately, child sex abuse is normal work for counsellors and psychotherapists. Seek a fully accredited person via professional websites: the Irish Council for Psychotherapy (psychotherapy-ireland .com) and Irish Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy (irish-counselling.ie). There is also a Government-funded service for the sexually abused, the National Counselling Service – and you may qualify.
It is difficult to take that first step and often it helps to have the support of another person, such as a friend.
Trish Murphy is a psychotherapist. For advice, email firstname.lastname@example.org. We regret that personal correspondence cannot be entered into