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Repressed Memory: What Substance Abuse is Helping You Hide

When I was in my second year of undergraduate school, I was a frequent substance abuser. I was experiencing increasingly severe insomnia, suffered from low self-esteem and self-worth, and had taken to self-medicating with alcohol and drugs to numb the pain I felt, though I wasn’t sure what was causing that pain.

Then came the trigger: I was sitting with a lady friend of mine, on whom I had a slight crush, in my bedroom; she placed her hand on my thigh—just a friendly gesture, not meant to be sexual at all—and as she lightly squeezed on my leg with her fingers, I recalled a very distinct feeling. Although I was in my own home, in a safe, friendly environment where I felt comfortable, the feelings that overcame me in that moment were ones of helplessness, fear, of extreme self-consciousness and disgust. In the days that followed, pieces of a lost memory returned, and I was able to reconstruct what my younger self so desperately tried to forget.

”I might have recalled the memory sooner without being so frequently under the influence of drugs and alcohol.”
As a child, I was sexually abused by an authority figure, someone in whom my parents had misplaced their trust. Unable to cope with the trauma, I stored the memory deep in the confines of my mind where I was unable to retrieve it for many years. It was almost as if being inaccessible kept the memory fresh because recovering the experience was like reliving something that had just happened. I might have recalled the memory sooner without being so frequently under the influence of drugs and alcohol. However, unable to deal with the implications of the recalled memory, I began to rely even more on drugs and alcohol so I wouldn’t have to confront the pain it caused me or the damage the experience had done.

About Dissociative Amnesia

The phenomenon of memory repression is presently referred to as Dissociative Amnesia, one of a family of dissociative disorders that also includes Dissociative Identity Disorder and Depersonalization Disorder. Dissociative Amnesia is characterized by an individual’s blocking out information, usually related to traumatic or painful past experiences. Although the memories still exist in the mind, they are buried deep within the subconscious where they cannot be readily recalled. This selective amnesia serves to protect the self from the profound negative effect the memory would have on one’s everyday functioning, such as work and social activities, and one’s relationships.

”There could be warning signs that a substance abuser is self-medicating to cope with a trauma. Does he or she also suffer from anxiety? Depression? Insomnia?”
While it’s agreed that recovery of lost or repressed memories does happen, the authenticity of these memories is sometimes disputed. Likewise, the empirical evidence for cases of memory recovery is borderline nonexistent. What is generally accepted, however, is that the repression of certain memories most commonly occurs in childhood, usually when the individual is unable to cope with some painful or traumatic experience – such as sexual abuse – as a way to dissociate from the experience. It can take years or even decades for repressed memories to resurface, if they ever resurface at all.

It’s important to note that memory is malleable and susceptible to the intake of sensory information we experience on a day-to-day basis. One of the difficulties with Dissociative Amnesia is that sometimes we unknowingly incorporate new information into an old memory, which affects the accuracy of our recollections. This makes it difficult to lend much credibility to recovered memories, such as in legal cases, although there have been precedents in which recovered memories led to convictions against abusers in recent years.

Unfortunately, there’s a high rate of substance abuse among abuse victims, who are the most likely to repress painful memories. When dealing with the memory, recovered or existing, of a painful or traumatic experience, frequently one’s daily functioning is impaired, such as work and social activities, and one’s relationships. A history of abuse can present symptoms such as insomnia, anxiety, and depression, as it did for me. Substance abuse can serve to exacerbate existing symptoms and even avert the healing process.

There could be warning signs that a substance abuser is self-medicating to cope with a trauma. Does he or she also suffer from anxiety? Depression? Insomnia? Although these are symptoms of many psychological afflictions, the high rate of substance abuse among abuse victims warrants a better understanding of trauma, recovery, and how drugs and alcohol are frequently used when an individual has deeper problems they cannot reconcile alone.

When I realized I wouldn’t be able to cure myself of the pain by getting drunk or high, I began to reach out to my family and friends. With their encouragement, I sought professional help from a counselor, a psychiatrist, and a rehabilitation program. I’ve since been able to accept that I was a victim of circumstances outside my control, that I did nothing to deserve what was done to me, and as traumatic as the experience was, it can only ruin my life if I allow it to do so. I want to let others dealing with past or present incidents of abuse, sexual or otherwise, know that you can live a life without fear, without pain, and without resentment. Like those who helped me, there are professionals available in your area that can help you to heal.