Trauma recovery begins when denial, repression, and dissociation end

Essy Knopf trauma recovery
Reading time: 4 minutes

The first proof of my trauma recovery was the return of memories once thought lost.

In the years after I started my therapy journey, I would find myself going about my business—walking my dog, showering, or driving to an appointment—only to be suddenly ambushed by recollection. 

Usually, these memories came to me in fragments: an odor, a feeling, a face, or a conversation.

I’d remember my excitement playing Link’s Awakening for the first time on my Gameboy Color. Or maybe I’d recall my late aunt’s tuxedo cat, Sylvester; the mockery of a snub-nosed boy in sixth grade.

Sometimes, I’d hark back to my first glimpse of the technicolor shells of iMac G3 in a school computer lab; the fantasies of collecting one of each “flavor”: Bondi Blue, Strawberry, Lime, and Tangerine. 

Other times, I’d wax nostalgic about the rain rattling the tin roof of the family home or the particular smell of the department stores my mother would like to spend hours wandering in search of sales.

Now and then, I’d think fondly of the moments spent loitering at the local newsagent, thumbing through copies of PC Powerplay and Nintendo Power magazines, dreaming about one day owning all the latest gaming consoles.

With each of these memories came emotions, often in a big jumble: longing and regret, as if for something lost, bittersweet joy, and sadness. 

A past rediscovered: the start of trauma recovery

When I think of time, I think of years, represented as a series of three-dimensional bar charts. Each bar represented a different month, arranged in a stair-like formation.

At the end of the month, I would imagine myself ascending a new bar, continuing until I had arrived in December, before moving on to the next chart behind it.

After my traumatic experiences, when I tried to peer back to the charts that had come before, my recall became hazy and my brain seemed to actively resist the effort.

If memories are like snapshots, all that was left to me were the countless throwaways that were returned to us when my family got our photos developed.

Always there were four or five shots that were to be out of focus. Sometimes a thumb was blocking the lens, or the flash of our disposable camera had blown out the image.

But the snapshots that now came to me, sealed for over 25 years inside some protective, internal vault, had all the vivid clarity of the present moment.

Puzzling as I was by this return, I was equally puzzled by the timing. The fragments were random and unconnected to my current circumstance. Just what was going on?

A sign of healing

For decades, trauma had strip-mined my consciousness of all evidence of my past; of memories both pleasant and painful.

Now, I was starting to amass a sizable collection. But having no idea what to do with them, I consigned them to a mental storehouse for later review.

Then, during one particularly humid summer—a summer that reminded me far too much of those of a childhood spent in the tropics—I was inundated by a wave of these memories, leaving me both bewildered and melancholic. 

“I just don’t understand,” I said during one therapy session. “Why am I remembering all of this?”

“It sounds like you’re healing,” my therapist replied, trying to normalize what to me felt painfully abnormal. 

“But why? What function does this serve?” I asked through my tears. “Why now? I just want to understand.” 

What I wanted was a cut-and-dry explanation for what is, for everyone, a messy and unpredictable recovery process. 

Therapists liked to call this behavior “intellectualizing”. In my case, I was trying to bypass an emotional experience by using my intellect. 

This “ego defense” was one I had depended upon for years to cope with my trauma. It was also one of the key obstacles to my healing. 

Reintegration: the beginning of trauma recovery

So rather than resisting the wave, I rode it, allowing the memories and emotions they conjured to come and go.

Soon after, I embarked upon a single-minded hunt for various articles from my childhood. 

This involved preparing a playlist containing every memorable song of the 90s and the early aughts. Next, I put together a book list containing every title my teen self had read. 

After this task had been completed, I hunted down scans of the magazines I’d once flipped through and the illustrated video game guides and manuals I’d once savored during long car trips.

Often, my searches did not culminate in any action; I didn’t always listen to the music or consume this reading material. 

Instead, I found a strange comfort in the fact I once more had possession of these formerly lost relics from my past.

This obsessive collecting on my part I realized was an outward expression of an internal process: reintegration.

The part of myself I had once cut off was returning piece by piece, and I was searching for props to help facilitate its assembly.

I was working, in my own way, towards a whole, coherent narrative of self and past.

Overcoming denial, repression, and dissociation

In the words of author Judith Huerman’s seminal work, Trauma and Recovery:

“The goal of recounting the trauma story is integration, not exorcism.”1

Herman goes on to explain:

Remembering and telling the truth about terrible events are prerequisites…for the healing of individual victims. The conflict between the will to deny horrible events and the will to proclaim them aloud is the central dialectic of psychological trauma. But far too often secrecy prevails, and the story of the traumatic event surfaces not as a verbal narrative but as a symptom. Denial, repression, and dissociation operate on a social as well as an individual level.

Undertaking therapy allowed me to finally release the taut knot of my trauma survivor psyche. And with that release had come recollection—not just of traumatic events, but everything in between.

Memories in turn triggered “floods of intense, overwhelming feeling”, which proved wholly alien to me after years spent dwelling in the “extremes of amnesia…and arid states of no feeling at all”.

I was not in crisis; I was in a state of trauma recovery. And in order to complete that recovery, I would have to let go of the three skills that had permitted my survival through alienation from my own self—denial, repression, and dissociation.

When one cannot escape a reality in which one feels threatened and powerless, one finds ways of adapting. 

I too had once acted as if nothing had happened, ignoring my emotions, burying memories, and mentally checking out when confronted by a frightening reality.

They had served an adaptive function. But maintained over time, they had caused the margins of my life to contract to a pinprick in which only survival is the only possibility, and never true flourishing.

This is a kind of living death; imprisonment in a psychological internment camp.

And now, finally, after years spent walking through a dim, gray limbo, I could see the possibility of a death revoked, and life renewed.

More to come in a follow-up post.