The room that haunts me. The room where I spent hours upon hours with my abuser as he used me for his sexual pleasure. The bed where I laid during so many episodes of “Who Wants to be a Millionaire?”
The drawing that you see below is a recreated image of a task I had to complete during the forensic interviews when I was thirteen years old. When my disclosure of sexual abuse was reported to the local authorities by my middle school, the local police department decided not to investigate because of a conflict of interest. The case was passed to the North Carolina State Bureau of Investigation; a move that, in hindsight, I am so grateful occurred. Through the SBI, I met two of my biggest advocates, the agents who were responsible for gathering all the details of what had transpired over the previous six or seven years. In my longest interview with K, one of the agents, she asked me to draw the locations where the abuse had occurred in our house. I meticulously placed every single detail of that room and that trailer on a piece of paper. It was a task I was able to complete with ease. So many nights I had looked around that room just waiting for the episode of Who Wants to Be a Millionaire to end so that I could retreat to the safety of my own bedroom. I struggled to understand how I could remember what seemed to be such unimportant information when I absolutely could not answer how many times I was abused.
What do I remember?
I can remember that there were almost always three blankets on the bed- a sheet, a light blanket, and the comforter. I can remember how the tv sat on top of the tall bureau filled with my abuser’s clothes. I can remember which direction the doors opened to the bathroom, closet, and bedroom. I can remember there was a gun in the desk; though I was told it was just a “scare gun,” I believed it could kill. I can remember the two framed pictures hanging on the wall by the bathroom door. I know there was pepper spray in the top drawer of the dresser. I can map out, not to scale, every room of that trailer even though it has been nearly fifteen years since I stepped foot in it.
I spent hours with K and S as they asked me questions and allowed me to share my story. In each of my interviews with the agents, K and S, I felt safe, heard, validated, and supported. Though I often wondered what they were doing with the pages of notes they wrote, I knew, without a doubt, they were fighting for me. They were advocating for me.
The way our brain encodes experiences of trauma can be extremely frustrating- at least it was for me. As a young teenager, I could not understand why and how I could remember every detail of that trailer, but I had absolutely no idea how many times the abuse occurred. I could remember all the emotions I felt and the words my abuser spoke, but I couldn’t recall what year my abuser confronted me about my first disclosure.
For years, I struggled with feeling like my brain had failed me. I thought something had to be wrong with my brain because I could not recall what I believed were the answers to the simplest of questions. I believed the criminal case against my abuser wasn’t “strong” because my brain was not cooperating. Through counseling and education, I have learned how the brain works and why some memories are easily accessed and crystal clear; whereas, other details of the abuse, I will never know. I discovered that my brain actually worked really hard to protect me as much as it could from the impacts of the abuse. With this knowledge, I was able to stop blaming myself for not remembering. I rest knowing that God designed our brains to work in this manner, it is no mistake.
If you want a quick overview of how trauma impacts the brain, I encourage you to watch this video.
If you want one of the best resources on how trauma impacts the brain and the body, I suggest you read The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk.