Forgetting trauma: doomed to repeat?
Today is the 13 year anniversary of my first rape. Technically, it was on October 25th, but it was on a Saturday—and this Saturday morning, October 22nd 2016 ,is when my body chose to remember it. I’ve written before of “anniversary reactions” in people with PTSD, and I woke up this morning thinking “holy shit, the day I was raped was Eastern’s homecoming.” New memories, still coming 13 years later.
A little background:
I grew up in Charleston, Illinois, home of Eastern Illinois University (Eastern, or EIU). It was a small-medium town (about 10,000 Charleston “townies,” and 10,000 EIU students) and everything, including Charleston High School, was just a couple minute walk away from campus. My senior year of high school, I went to a frat house on campus with some friends and was raped. It was over a year later by the time I realized what happened to me might have been rape, and by that time, I was attending Eastern as a full-time college student. I scoured my brain trying to come up with more information about what happened that night—how did this happen? When did this happen? Why am I just now remembering these things a year-and-a-half later?
Traumatic memories can get stored improperly in the brain in a way that they lack narrative context, so when reminded of those memories, a person may just feel them as a flood of emotions or flashes of visualizations that are completely overwhelming as if the trauma was happening all over again. But they may not remember the details in any coherent “storytelling” manner. Dr. Rebecca Campbell’s post-it note analogy for traumatic memories it the best I’ve seen.
So there I was, a year and half later in summer 2005, trying to remember when I was raped. I knew it was in 2003 because that was my senior year of high school, but I couldn’t even remember the month. I poured over my senior yearbook, looking for any clues as to when I was raped. But I came up with nothing. I looked through old emails for more clues. Nothing. At that time, cell phones could only store about 50 text messages at a time, Facebook didn’t exist, and AOL Instant Messenger didn’t store past messages, so those weren’t options for answers. I gave up, confused, feeling crazy for not being able to remember when the most traumatic moment of my life was. Had I made it all up?
I remembered that on Columbus Day of my senior year, we got out of school early and I had a few friends come over to my house—and that was definitely before I was raped because I was still happy. So I did a Google search for Columbus Day 2003 and found that it was on Monday, October 13th. Okay so I knew I was raped after then. Then I remembered the Black Wednesday party (day before Thanksgiving) I went to that year where I got blackout drunk and broke my nose, and I knew that was after I was raped because I didn’t drink like that before then. That was on Wednesday, November 26th. So I knew I was raped between October 13-November 26, 2003. And it took me almost two years to figure this out. Then I remembered the back of his shirt. Delta Chi. I drove through Greek Court looking for the Delta Chi house. Did this look familiar? Would this help me remember? Nope. And how could I even trust my memory at this point that it was Delta Chi.
Four years ago when I was doing research for my book, I came across this article in the Daily Eastern News:
This article was published in January 2005, the same time I was first starting to remember more details of my rape. Delta Chi was closed due to “hazing and harassment” incidents. 14 delta-chi members were expelled. Is this why I started remembering what happened to me? I don’t know. I’m still not even sure it was at Delta Chi—maybe this article just made me think that at the time? I’ll probably never know. Either way, I don’t doubt the news coverage of these incidents, which was widespread at the time, triggered me to remember things I had not been able to access before.
Or maybe it was because at the same time, in January 2005, I was hired to play the piano for the Delta Delta Delta sorority’s team in the Greek Sing competition. The Tri-Delta house was located in Greek Court where I was raped a year earlier. During the first practice at the house, I had a severe panic attack. I ran out to my car and drove straight to the bowling alley. It was the only place I knew I could get liquor as an 18 year old (I knew the bartender). I ordered a double long island (how is that even a thing??) and took it straight to the harshly lit, dingy bowling alley bathroom where I hid in a stall and downed the drink as quickly as I could before I went home. I had no idea why I felt this way. No idea. Again, it wasn’t until I started writing my book in 2012 that I ever made these connections.
At some point over the next few years, I remembered something about homecoming. I remembered talking to my friends at the frat house that night about going to homecoming the next day. But I also remembered walking in the Charleston High School homecoming parade before I was raped, so it couldn’t have been homecoming we were talking about. Maybe it was just a regular football game we wanted to go to the next day? I remembered being sad that I didn’t get to go to the football game the next day because I had been unconscious for 16 hours and raped. Still, I felt like I was crazy for thinking that we were going to the homecoming game when I now knew that homecoming had already passed.
When I wrote the first draft of my book, I even talked about homecoming:
But by the time the book was published, I’d changed that sentence because I’d remembered that Charleston High School’s homecoming had already passed, so I must have been mistaken:
For the next five years, I compulsively went back through my high school yearbook, did internet searches for “Charleston High School 2003,” and “EIU fraternity houses 2003,” just trying to remember something. Which fraternity house was it? When was it? It just drove me crazy not knowing. But every once in a while, a new memory would pop up.
In 2012, when I started writing my book (seriously y’all, writing is an incredible way to process traumatic memories), I remembered that my friends and I had gone to see the movie Radio before going to the frat house that night. But it didn’t occur to me until 2015 that we saw the movie on opening night, so I looked up the release date: October 24th, 2003. And there I had it. Eleven years later, I finally remembered the date I was raped. It was a bigger relief than I could ever describe.
Back to today:
I woke up this morning thinking “holy shit, the day I was raped was Eastern’s homecoming.” New memories, still coming 13 years later.
I ran to my computer and Googled “Eastern Illinois University Homecoming 2003.” Result: October 25th, 2003. How could I just now remember this? Anybody who knew me during the seven years I attended EIU, knew that Eastern’s homecoming was my favorite holiday of the year. Every year, I got up at 7AM for “kegs and eggs,” marched in the “War on Sobriety” parade, got drunk on bloody mary’s at the Uptowner before noon. By 2PM I was usually passed out in the grass somewhere. Looking back, every year’s homecoming was a complete disaster for me—injuries, vomiting, embarrassment—but for some reason it was my “favorite day of the year.” I wrote about it every year on my Myspace blog and facebook:
Did I make such a big deal out of Eastern’s homecoming in an attempt to replace a traumatic memory with something positive? Or was it just that the pain of that anniversary was too much to bear sober, and I was lucky enough that it fell on a day where public intoxication was socially acceptable? Or was it just a coincidence? My expertise in the biology of how trauma affects the brain tells me that this was no coincidence—forgetting traumatic events is real, emotional and behavioral and physical changes on traumatic anniversaries is real, and all of this can happen subconsciously. Even with all of my research and understanding of why traumatic memories are stored differently in the brain and why they may not be accessed until years later, it still blows me away that I’m remembering things that seem like they should have been so obvious 13 years later. Did I remember this today because I saw my friends posting about Eastern’s homecoming? It’s certainly not the first year homecoming has fallen on my rape anniversary. Maybe this is just the first year I’ve been in a safe enough and healthy enough position to remember that detail.
I looked up Daily Eastern News’ paper from homecoming 2003 and saw that the first black homecoming queen was crowned that year.
There was also an article in this edition about how “the true culprit behind rape and domestic abuse is sexism. We have to stop regarding women as property.”
And the very next day, after the first black homecoming queen was crowned and a brilliant and brave student pointed out the link between sexism and violence against women—a 17-year old girl was raped on that very campus and will spend the rest of her life coping with the aftermath.
Even when we seem to make so much progress, we still have so far to go. Are we doomed to repeat history if we can’t even remember it?
Apryl Pooley is a neuroscientist at Michigan State University, researching the effects of trauma on the brain and author of Fortitude: A PTSD Memoir