One function of memory is actually to forget certain things!
When we experience an overload of too many stressful items or a single item that is way too stressful, our memory is designed to protect us from overload — by actually forgetting (more like hiding) material! This can unfortunately cause problems, as when we are so overloaded with school work we forget a scheduled paper, quiz or test. But for emotionally traumatic events, this sort of forgetting, or dissociating, can help protect us for awhile from overwhelming material or feelings. Sometimes for a long while.
Eventually, however, the heavy material may find a way to interfere with our lives. It is as if it cannot accept being completely forgotten or left behind.
I believe one example of this happened some years ago when a couple in New Hampshire brought in their newly adopted son, age 7. The son had grown up in a harsh orphanage in Romania. He tended to stay quiet, avoidant and distant from his new parents who were kind to him. As we began sessions I kept the parents in the room. The son continued to maintain distance from his new parents, and I noticed they would often bicker in his presence.
I suggested the parents come in as a couple to see what could be done about their persistent bickering. Long story short, the husband soon volunteered to be seen alone for an old psychological wound which he had not resolved — the suicide many years ago of his older brother.
Meeting with the husband alone, I suggested the quickest way to resolve his old feelings about the suicide might be to try a few sessions of EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprocessing). EMDR is the preferred therapy at VA hospitals for treating vets with PTSD (posttraumatic stress disorder). It is preferred because it is very effective at quickly accessing and resolving past trauma, without a lot of talk time. (I once requested EMDR for myself from a trained colleague. It was when I experienced writer’s block while trying to complete my chapter for the 2005 book Creating Capacity for Attachment. EMDR brought up the material that was blocking my writing, and I was soon able to write freely.)
So the husband and I completed the lists and preparations to begin an actual eye movement session. But about ten seconds after we began the process he reported the sensation of being assaulted…..
We stopped and discussed this unexpected material. Being both curious and brave, he decided to continue the processing to see where it would go. In controlled bits and pieces, with frequent stops to articulate what came up, he slowly described scenes of abuse from a long-dead relative. The details were congruent with that person’s known history in the family.
After two months, the father finished this EMDR work and had come to terms with his feelings. I asked how the child was doing. He was doing fine! Thanks to father’s hard work to integrate material from which his own mind had sheltered him, father could now interact with others in a way which helped his son feel safer, closer. That shift in turn allowed the young son to relax enough to come in and do his own historical work.
Later on, the father asked me if his material were true. This is a common question which I always answer honestly: “Without solid outside corroboration we don’t know. But I think for your purposes it doesn’t matter. Your subconscious served up some disturbing material that was getting in your way. You did the hard work of putting it to bed instead of pushing it back down, and now everyone feels relaxed as a result. For our purposes, whether it ‘really happened’ will probably remain irrelevant.” He accepted that and moved on, and the whole family benefited.