It Took Me 30 Years to Remember My Childhood Sexual Abuse
In an exclusive excerpt from her new book Happy Days, best-selling author and speaker Gabrielle Bernstein shares the life-changing experience that taught her how to heal.
Content warning: This story contains details about sexual assault and abuse.
I was lying on the sofa in my therapist’s office staring up at the ceiling. We’d discovered that I was more likely to open up when I wasn’t looking at her. It felt less vulnerable. And for the first time in more than a decade of therapy, I started to talk about feelings I’d never shared. I told her that for my entire life, I’d had a sense that I was being taken advantage of. Then out of nowhere, I said, “Even when I’m intimate.”
Then she said words that would change me forever: “The way you’re describing your feelings sounds like there may be a history of sexual abuse.” I screamed as I leaped off the sofa. At that moment, I remembered. An exiled memory that had impacted every area of my life. The memory that I was running from: childhood sexual abuse.
I froze. My palms were sweaty. It felt like my soul had left my body. The sounds in the room became so loud that I couldn’t focus. I went numb.
We had only a few more minutes left in our session. This was one of those moments when my therapist had to break the physical boundary between patient and provider. She held me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “I will call you as soon as I’m out of session. You are not alone in this. I am here.”
I walked out of the lobby and into the crowded New York City streets. Overwhelmed, I rushed into a clothing store a few doors over and straight into a dressing room. There I began to cry. Then I grabbed my phone to call my friend Elisa, who worked and specialized in trauma and addiction. I knew she could help.
“Elisa, I remembered being sexually abused as a child,” I said. She replied, “Gabby, I always suspected.” For a moment, I felt a sense of relief. This is why I was a drug addict. This is why I’m a workaholic. This is why I’m terrified of true vulnerable connection.
The relief wore off fast though, and the moment I got home, I crawled under the covers and called my therapist. “You have recovered a dissociated memory,” she explained.
Days later, I scheduled another phone session with my therapist. On the call, I lay in my bed paralyzed by fear. I felt like a shell of myself. She asked, “Are there any new memories surfacing for you?” While I had recalled the memory into my consciousness, I hadn’t recovered all the details. I wasn’t aware of exactly what happened or who abused me. And as much as I wanted to believe that it wasn’t true, I’d never had such a strong sense of knowing in my life. I was absolutely sure that I had been abused. And now that the door had been opened, I could no longer hide (even though part of me desperately wanted to). Recovery was the only path I was willing to take.
When I started to share my story with close friends in my sober recovery groups, they responded with, “Me too.” I was blown away by the fact that so many women in sobriety had trauma stories. How was it that we had never shared about what was likely a major contributor to our addictions? Why was it so buried? Why in the most intimate recovery rooms did no one speak about sexual abuse? It was as if we’d tucked away the story in a box labeled “We Don’t Go There.”
She held me by the shoulders, looked me in the eye, and said, “You are not alone in this.”
The brain has a number of ways to deal with traumatic events, including trying to help you forget about them. In the case of someone who cannot fight or flee, they become frozen. The brain disconnects from the present moment. This is known as dissociation and is a common trauma response. In cases of big-T trauma, dissociating during an incident means the memory of it can be “forgotten” for decades only to be revealed through a trigger or when someone becomes safe enough to recall the memory.
It’s also common for people not to remember events that take place right before or right after the trauma occurs. A trauma victim may only have access to fragmented pieces of the experience. These fragmented memories can feel like flashbacks or images on a movie screen that pop into consciousness at random. In my case, I had a visual memory of where I was abused.
While dissociation can initially be a protective mechanism, it can also become a source of harm to one’s emotional and physical well-being. Even though a memory may be “lost,” it is still alive in the subconscious and can elicit emotions and reactions. The smallest things can trigger implicit unconscious memories of an experience, sending one into a state of fight, flight, or freeze.
A traumatized person doesn’t necessarily have a frame of reference for why they feel reactive in that way. I remember saying to my therapist, “Wouldn’t it have just been easier if I hadn’t remembered my trauma?” She responded, “Your body remembers it every day of your life.”
It was helpful for me to understand the physiology behind why and how my body tried to keep me safe from overwhelming and terrifying childhood experiences. My brain’s ability to send me into freeze mode during the abuse allowed me to dissociate in the moment. The emotions would have been far too overwhelming at such a young age. But the memories never left my subconscious, and consequently, I could never really find a place of safety.
In retrospect, I can see how I spent every moment trying to feel safe. Unresolved trauma symptoms haunted my waking moments and my sleep. At night, I’d be on high alert. My jaw would clench, my body would stiffen, and I’d even wake up with pain in my wrists from sleeping with my hands in a fist. The trauma kept me from being able to truly connect with others. It also caused me to suffer from many physical conditions—gastrointestinal issues, insomnia, back pain, TMJ, and so much more.
My therapist helped me understand why it took me 30 years to become safe enough to remember the trauma. All the work we’d done together, my sober recovery, my yoga and meditation training, my devoted spiritual practice, and my commitment to serve helped me get to a place where I could remember what happened in my childhood. I can see clearly now how there was a spiritual force of love behind every step toward remembering and every healing step beyond that day.
If you or someone you know needs help, call the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 800-656-HOPE (4673).