Why We Forget Our Traumas

– "Hidden Memories"

In an effort to understand how I could immediately “forget” being raped, only to recover the memories four years later, I started reading a book by Amanda Ripley called The Unthinkable which discusses people’s seemingly irrational responses when threatened by impending danger. What’s interesting is that people are not as rational as we assume they are. Even when the twin towers were hit with planes, people in the floors below (those who survived) hesitated for an average of six minutes before heading for an exit stairwell. One person reported waiting forty-nine minutes before deciding they needed to leave! The first chapter of this book deals with one survivor’s recollection – or lack thereof – of her experience on 9/11. The first impact rocked the building and she says she remembers the sound when it hit eleven floors above her. Her recollection of the events takes her through the stages of disbelief, frantic deliberation, and finally action, but throughout there is a thick fog of denial, along every step of the way.

She reported that when the first plane hit, instead of running for the door, she wanted nothing more than to stay. The theory is that people want so badly to believe that everything is going to be ok, that they simply stay put. Apparently this is especially common in structure fires – we assume everything is going to be okay because it always has been before. This “normalcy bias” occurs because the brain works by identifying patters, and we understand the present and anticipate the future according to past experience. It’s also mentioned that if everything turns out to be okay then we save ourselves the social embarrassment of overreacting as well.

It’s a herd mentality, and after delaying awhile, another painfully long stage of deliberation sets in where people feel the need to check in with each other and see how others are feeling about the situation. Lucky for this woman, a person in her office quickly began to scream at everyone to leave immediately. She still delayed a bit longer, looking for items to take with her. She was circling in her cubicle and said “it was like I was in a trance.” She chose to bring a mystery novel she had been reading.

Once decending down the stairwell, disbelief and deliberation continued to rack her brain. She said she never felt she was in a hurry. She said “it’s weird because the sound, the way the building shook, should have kept me going fast. But is was almost as if I put the sound away in my mind.” Apparently everyone in the stairwell was very, very calm and moving in an orderly fashion. “Crowds generally become very quiet and docile in a true disaster,” Ripley, the book’s author states.

During her descent she began to make up stories to explain the events, first that a pilot must have had a heart attack or stroke, then after being told that a second plane had hit, that two stupid pilots must have been racing. She could not wrap her head around the magnitude of the situation. Her brain was searching its database for a reasonable explanation. Even when a man told that the hits had been intentional during their descent, she simply ignored this new information and put it out of her mind as if he had never said it. More denial.

When the second plane hit, she says she did not even hear the sound. Her senses were switched on and off at certain key points as happens with many people in traumatizing situations. She recalls someone screaming to get away from the windows and running for the center of the building. She was then overcome by intense anger at herself for being in this situation again (she had been in one of the twin towers during a potentially fatal incident in 1993 as well) and she had a moment of clarity and panic saying to herself, “I’m on the forty-fourth floor of a building. Where am I going? I’m still way up high. I can’t go anywhere!”

Then just as quickly everyone stopped running and continued back down the stairwell again in an orderly fashion like mute robots as if nothing had happened. When asked to describe the sound of the second collision she says “ As far as I’m concerned, I’m telling you, it was as if it didn’t happen. It’s not even that I forgot it. It’s just that it was as if it never happened. Never.” Classic dissociation normally used to describe the experiences of children suffering from physical or sexual abuse. Dissociation, the book states, is an “extreme form of denial,” and as the 9/11 survivor put it, “I could not afford to dwell on it. My job was to just take it one step at a time.”

She further explained, “When you’re in trauma, the mind says, this is a very local problem. This is your little world and everything outside is fine. It can’t afford to say that everything outside is horrible. The sound that I heard on the seventy-third floor should have told me, this is bad. The feeling of the building shaking should have told me, this is bad. The explosion when I was on the fourty-fourth floor: bad. The smell of debris is the lower stairways: bad. Yet in every single moment, I made it my little world here. And nothing else exists.”

When she finally made it to the main floor to exit the building, there were dead bodies all around, this is how her brain processed it: “I’m slowing down because I’m starting to realize that I’m not just looking at debris. My mind says ‘It’s the wrong color.’ That was the first thing. Then I start saying, ‘ It’s the wrong shape.’ Over and over in my mind: ‘It’s the wrong shape.’ It was like I was trying to keep the information out. My eyes were not allowing me to understand. It couldn’t afford it. So I was like, ‘No it can’t be.” Then when I finally realized what it meant to see the wrong color, the wrong shape, that’s when I realized, I’m seeing bodies. That’s when I froze.”

Freezing is apparently also a common response during disasters, but luckily for this women a stranger linked arms with her and said “We’re getting out of here.” She remembers the woman’s dark skin tone, her red sleeve, but then simply stopped seeing altogether. “There was no smoke there. I didn’t see anything at all.” She was not even frightened by this temporary blindness since she was no numb at that point. She was now relying on hearing, but although these two women talked and talked as they walked away, she can’t remember a word she said except when they finally got outside she heard her say, “Look, we made it.” She remembers replying, “Yeah, we’re outside.” But she could still not see anything, and she never even saw the woman in red’s face.

This story really hit home for me. It is a testament to the lengths our brains will go to to protect us from sensory input when a trauma is occurring. Only that which helps us get out alive appears to be consciously processed. It seemed very strange to me at first that something so awful happen to me and that I could completely block it out of my conscious memory. In terms of survival, it doesn’t seem strange at all. It was my own mind protecting me and giving me a chance to overcome my circumstances.

“There are wounds that never show on the body that are deeper and more hurtful than anything that bleeds.” – Laurell K. Hamilton, Mistral’s Kiss

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