Searching for Your Life and What It Means

After dday I was immobilized in the wreckage of three decades of my life. Suddenly, there were huge gaps in time I tried desperately to close. I would shut my eyes and go inside myself—searching for the missing pieces, like remembering my boys as babies and little children—anything to confirm those thirty years weren’t a total fabrication. Time and time again nothing would come. Even though I was married for 32 years, there was nothing left to remember. It was disorienting and heartbreaking. My life as a mother with children was gone completely and I didn’t know if I would ever get it back.

Occasionally, with no warning or apparent reason, “something” would emerge from the fog and I was so grateful. Two memories I retrieved were about three seconds of me looking down at each baby as I was nursing them. Then, just as I could feel the love well up inside me, the memory would be gone. But too often, the memories that returned revealed with a now pointed clarity, the cruel abuse of my husband and his mother. Another torture was knowing I had wasted precious time in a fake marriage, time that included critical years of health, career establishment, income-generation, and child-rearing—time I would never get back.

  1. Memory Loss. 2. Memory Recovery. 3. Devastating Regret.

These are the three main categories for me in dealing with the “time of lies” (this is what I call the period of our lives we lived while our husbands hid the truth from us). Whether your “time of lies” is a few years or a few decades, the impact can be profoundly destructive.  Have you noticed these three symptom categories at work in your life? So many of our symptoms and struggles are not acknowledged by the treatment industry. In my view it’s professional neglect by those who claim to be “partner sensitive” or using a “trauma approach” for partners. So, as usual, it’s up to us to figure out what’s going on and how to save something of our precious lives.

  • We have to work and experiment using every means possible to recover and hold onto the precious memories that are irreplaceable and belong to us, regardless of who our husband turned out to be.

  • We have to learn by ourselves how to manage the flashback memories that have negative impact.

  • We have to learn to reframe the information that plunges us so deeply into regret, and take control of what our lives will mean.

Much of my work with partners deals with these three things. Here’s a brief look at what’s involved. I’m hoping it might help you to hold onto yourself, find and sort through the memories, and take control of the meaning of your life so that you can begin to move forward.

1. Memory Loss

Losing chunks of memory is one of the effects of trauma. Most of us are familiar with not being able to remember appointments, addresses, names, or why we are at the store. Those memory lapses are standard fare for traumatized women. But losing these larger gaps from our life can be terrifying! Also, recovering and reclaiming the past is rarely simple. Having a support system in place is important if you intend to go back in and get those memories, because the experience of loss triggered by those memories can be devastating. A competent therapist trained in multiples approaches can help you do this safely and efficiently, sometimes creating the structure for you to be able to continue to do this on your own. But don’t make that decision without informed input. Meanwhile living without pieces of your life is destabilizing. I found and still find that thinking about it can send me into a crying episode that is deep and lasting. Also, it’s tough to talk with family or long-time friends who decide to go down memory lane, or invite you to remember something that you can’t remember. So, here’s some thoughts about working with memory stimulus.

Work carefully with mementoes, photos and videos to find the ones that give life

Some might think the simple answer is to look at mementoes, family photos and videos to help stimulate and recover memories. But it’s not that simple. Viewing those things can trigger trauma episodes because the abuser also is in them. Instead, I built memory collections of items and pictures just with me and my sons, and other people. It took a long time because I had to edit the material used. That meant I had glimpses of pictures that included him while in the process of setting them aside. Photos and videos can help, but they can also hurt. It’s a long process. Pace yourself with achievable goals. Have a coping and self-care plan for what you will do when you hit a landmine. Take control by putting any triggering items into one album, box, or bag so that you know where they are in the future.

2. Memory Recovery

Celebrate the good that returns to you

I have learned to stop and be grateful for any good memory that bubbles up out of the fog, out of my advocacy for my life, out of my work with photos, out of the things around me that link to events, etc. I never know if I will be able to hold onto that memory or whether I can build more memories on it. I just have to be grateful. Nearly ten years later, I have increased what I remember that is comforting, affirming, and life-giving. You can, too.

When the memory recovered is oppressive or negative, take charge!

Sometimes when we try to remember, the memories that come first are negative ones. So often, abusive people will try to ruin an event, or control how you will remember it by saying or doing something ugly or painful. It was difficult to see just how terrible some people had acted over the years and their memories shoved their way through. For me this was most often my ex-husband or his mother. She was his covert abuser and I now understand was consumed and driven by jealousy toward me. In remembering these episodes there was pain but also confirmation of the role she was playing in the destruction of our marriage. In a strange way, it strengthened me to see it so clearly and know I could never have stopped her, except by exiting the story completely—which I eventually did! In your story there may be someone like that who pops up in memory recovery. Even if you don’t know the “why” of their negative contribution to your life, knowing you didn’t imagine it can be important in rebuilding your grasp of reality. But I also learned a coping tool that follows.

Pushing away the oppressive memories

Dr. Pat Ogden, a psychologist who has pioneered many approaches and tools within somatic psychology suggested a simple response that I have been using in my life and sharing with clients. When an oppressive memory returns to me, I push the people in that memory away with both arms, and then choose a short sentence to say as I make the motion. One of my favorite sentences to say when the memory involves someone who said terrible things to me is “Do not speak!” Slowly and steadily those memories are diminished in their negative impact. The sense of being powerless in that memory is overtaken by the power I have now to push that person away and say what I wanted to say then, but could not.

Going back to rescue yourself

Another strategy I have used is to imagine entering the memory to rescue myself from the situation. Sometimes I speak directly to myself and give directions on how to get out; sometimes I take my hand and say “follow me”; occasionally I rebuke the person who is ruining the memory with one line and lead “me” out. I am using what I know now about the people and the dynamics at work to take back control of the memory and disempower those with negative and sick purposes.

3. Devastating Regret

Discovering that everything you thought about your life with this man was a lie can create a crisis of our life’s meaning. The outcome is that all of those years with him disappear. Sadly, most sex addiction treatment practitioners don’t care. Women feel like they lost huge pieces of their life to the great black hole of his abusive character and his penis priorities. Many, like me, lost decades, and don’t know how to look back at the time—even when they can remember it.

Clients describe mentally punishing themselves for being so oblivious, so trusting, so naïve, and so committed to their life partnership and family. They see how they just kept working harder and harder to overcome “bad patches”, manage his moods, and absorb his abuse. When they realize these experiences were not episodes in a larger story of positive mutuality (see last blog for more on this), but indicators of the actual abuse relationship system, they feel all those years drop through a trap door into nothingness. But there’s another way.

How to take control of your life’s meaning

The mistake in accepting that all that time and all that living has to go through the trap door is about giving him that power in your life. Imagining all those years are gone forever is yet another loss he manages to create for us. And that’s how it feels at first. But that’s not how it has to remain.

There is a loss. It’s big, but not complete. We do lose the life we thought we were living with him. We lose the assumption of love, commitment, shared values, common goals, a priority for each other, a shared greater priority for our children and what is best for them—those things are gone. The emotional, spiritual, financial, physical, and mental security that came from those things is also gone.

But here’s what is also true:

  • Who you were in that time is true, authentic and real. Your life and how you lived it remains.

  • Who your children were in that time is also true, authentic, and real. Their life and how they lived it remains.

  • What passed between you and your children is also true, authentic, and real. Your life together and how you all lived it remains.

In spite of what we lose because of his con, we don’t lose ourselves, we don’t lose our children, and they don’t lose us.

I suspect these men want us to devote lots of our time and energy to sorting through our family memories and pictures trying to figure out whether or not he liked us then, or was telling the truth then, or if he was planning his next act of betrayal then, or if he was comparing us to his emotional affair partners and their children, etc. These men love being the center of everything and holding the power of how we understand our lives. They would like us to let them control which memories we get to keep and which ones have to go through the trap door they built for us. They want us to be grateful for any time we can conclude he really was glad to be with us and seemed to love us. But we need take back our power to determine what all those years of our lives reveal about who we are, aside from our role in his con.

Don’t let him be the lead actor in the story of your lives. You are. This means that you don’t lose who you were in family life or who your children were. You were honest, hardworking, faithful, funny, supportive, loving, patient, forgiving, creative, and more. You children were trusting, curious, affectionate, funny, helping, and participating honestly in family life, and more. Everything that you and your children were in your family lives does not go through that trap door. The memories of all your family events, celebrations, trips and projects survive. You will never know who he was in those memories, but you will always know who you were and your children will know who they were.

Slow and steady will get you there—to safety, empowerment, and the enduring meaning of your life.  And, if you want a good start to your recovery, take a look at these retreats for wives and partners that make your needs a priority:   https://sweetwaterretreats.com/    

With you,

Diane

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Diane Strickland