Body memories are some of the oddest and, sometimes, scariest phenomena experienced by people who’ve been abused. They’re unexpected, catching us off guard with strange sensations and, occasionally showing up as marks on our bodies. One thing’s for sure, they can’t be ignored.
I was fortunate to be in the hospital when I experienced my first. I had just begun to remember bits of what had happened to me. I had been reading Courage to Heal or as some call it, Carriage to Hell. Something I read struck a chord, and I suddenly had a “vision” of the wallpaper in my parents’ bedroom when I was small. We had moved from there when I was seven, and the house had burned, so I hadn’t seen the room since. I couldn’t even remember what the wallpaper in my own room looked like, but suddenly I could see what my parents’ looked like. Just then, I started experiencing strong feelings of arousal. With everything that was happening and the realization of what this might mean, it scared me – a lot. Fortunately, my therapist was between appointments, so, holding on to the wall for support and bent over at the waist to try to stop the feelings, I hurried to get her. She took my arm and walked me back to my room and sat me down on my bed. She sat in the chair across from me, looked me in the eyes to ground me and reassure me, and then told me I was okay. She explained that what was happening was not unusual and that it was called a body memory. She kept reminding me to keep my eyes on her and breathe. She understood that I could easily get “lost” in it and lose touch with where I was, where I was in time and what was really happening.
Body memories can, as in my experience described above, create physical sensations that mimic those experienced during the abuse. Others can remind you of events when marks appear on the body for no apparent reason. Once when I was about to meet up again with a family member who had recently confronted me violently, marks appeared on my arm where she had grabbed me weeks before. I believe my body was reminding and cautioning me about the upcoming meeting.
Body memories present challenges in dealing with them. Because they are so unexpected, we are usually vulnerable and afraid, making the struggle to deal with them particularly difficult. First, remind yourself that this is a memory. Though it feels as if it’s happening now, it’s not; the event is over, in the past. Second, try to ground yourself to your surroundings by touching things around you; rub your hands on the carpet, hold ice cubes. Third, ground yourself to the present by saying your name out loud, looking at the date on a magazine or newspaper, looking in a mirror. Fourth, connect with someone. If a trusted friend or family member is close by, explain what is going on and ask them to hold your hands and talk to you. Ask them to remind you to keep your eyes open, because closing your eyes makes it easier to be pulled into the past and into panic. If you have to call someone who can be helpful and supportive, do it. Your therapist may not be a good idea, because he or she may be in session or unavailable, and you need help now.
When you’ve made it through the body memory, take a deep breath and allow yourself to calm down. Get something to drink, but avoid alcohol and drugs, except possibly a prescription anti-anxiety medication, and then take only what is prescribed. After you’re sufficiently calm, journal about the experience: what it was about if you can figure that out; how you felt while it was happening, describing the physical sensations; and record what helped you stay grounded and get through it. You’ll want to remember that in case you experience another body memory.
Though body memories are unsettling, they can serve to validate the past that can often feel surreal. Don’t let them throw you off course, but instead use them as tools to grow and progress.