A Guest Post By Deborah Schiefer
BS, Psychology, Focus on Crisis and Trauma Response Counseling
Did you have birthday parties as a kid? They’re fun, right? Where was your 10th party? What time of day was it? What was the weather like? Can you tell me everyone who was invited? I need a list of all the gifts you were given. What was the flavor of cake and what did it look like?
Wait… you can’t tell me all of that? Perhaps you never really had that party after all. How could you not remember every person in attendance, what the weather was like, and all of the gifts you were given? That was a good day! Your memory should have been working perfectly to capture everything!
Have you had a child? What time did you go into labor? What time did you leave for the hospital? What were your nurses names in L&D and then later in the maternal fetal ward? What color hair did each of them have? What was the weather like that day? What was your baby’s initial APGAR score? What color was your hospital gown? Don’t look at pictures to figure this out! Just use your memory. That was the happiest day, how could you forget anything?
You may remember the day, possibly even the time that labor began, but I’m guessing you don’t remember all of those details. But your child is proof it happened. You didn’t steal your baby… But that was such a monumental day!
The truth is, memory isn’t perfect. Not on the best days of our lives. Not on days when our bodies experience physical trauma, like the birth of a baby. Most definitely not during an unwanted, unsolicited, traumatic event.
We look to trauma survivors to remember every fine detail, in perfect sequence with absolute certainty, and without any mistake to corroborate their history, but we don’t hold ourselves accountable by the same standards to remember everyday events in our lives. And the truth is, when trauma occurs, our brain splits functioning. The logic of your left brain is overridden by the need for survival in the amygdala and hippocampus, resulting in fight or flight. Chunks of memories may be entirely lost. When facing immediate or chronic danger, your brain doesn’t need logic and rationality to survive. You need to jump. Run. Fight. Retreat. Freeze. You need immediate action and your brain is designed to allow that to happen by overriding the logic and language of left hemisphere function in favor of the imagery, impulsivity, and emotion of right hemisphere function.
And you lose logic, linear, language, and perfection with it because the hippocampus and amygdala – the right brain and the Central Nervous System response – do not function in logic, linear, language, and perfection.
Much like the memories of your 10th birthday or the day you had your firstborn child, a survivor might remember snapshots. The weeks following may not be perfectly linear. Unfortunately, the weeks prior may not be remembered with perfect accuracy either.
But is that truly unfortunate? I’d argue not.
Because this person lived to become a survivor. He or she is still fighting with whatever they have left after trauma. His or her brain has done precisely what it was designed to do to make it through this event and the aftermath.
I can’t truly call that unfortunate.