How Can I Discover My Own Childhood Abuse?

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February 1999

by William A. Henkin, Ph.D.

Copyright © 1999 by William A. Henkin

<Q> How can I uncover experiences that occurred prior to the age of three that might have been abusive, and then break the cycle of abuse that still exists as an adult?

<A> The second part of your question implies that you find yourself in some sort of abusive situation at present, and also that you already believe the past experiences you're wondering about in the first part of your question were abusive, not that they "might have been."

Consensual adult BDSM apart, the usual tests of abuse rest in six situations: if you are or were being hit physically, molested sexually, and/or degraded emotionally, or if you are or were hitting, molesting, and/or degrading someone else, you probably are or were in an abusive situation. If you are in an abusive situation at present, it is all but certain that you will serve yourself well to get out of it; in addition, it is all but certain that if you do get out of it you will also serve the person who is abusing you or being abused by you.

Easier said than done, I know. Although people who have not been in them often cannot comprehend why, abusive patterns can be remarkably insidious, and getting out of an abusive situation is often very difficult. Abusive patterns often create or play into passionate sorts of bonds between people whose roots may be historical or very subtle; sometimes the person who is being abused – and often the abuser as well – sincerely wants the abuse to stop and believes that it will, if only s/he can find the right approach, or be good enough, or think clearly enough, or quit drinking, or ... or ... or; sometimes the person who is being abused is afraid of the repercussions for leaving – afraid of the abuser's retaliation, or afraid that life without the abuser will be too hard in other ways; and there are other reasons as well: lots of other reasons, some quite legitimate. But, in fact, the one thing people in abusive situations always have in common is that they have reasons for being in those situations instead of being out of them, and so the abuse continues.

If you were abused when you were too young to remember the events or circumstances, and there is no clear evidentiary trail in present time to suggest you were abused, such as recognizable physical or psychological scars, you may or may not be able to "uncover" those experiences to anyone's satisfaction, including your own. Scientists who study these sorts of things don't know much about how memories form, how they are retained, or how we alter them over time, but it appears in any case that children as young as three don't have much way to code many of their experiences as memories with form and content they can verbalize or otherwise express directly. Early memories may be recalled more through metaphor and disjointed or surreal imagery, somatic (body) patterns, and associations – this is like, or somehow connected with, that – than through anything a journalist might recognize as an eyewitness account.

If you cannot uncover historical reality, however, you probably can uncover experiential reality. Experiential reality will not stand up in a court of law, but it can often help pieces of a person's early puzzle fall into place and hang together in a way that brings clarity and relief in her or his life. Discovering, uncovering, or even – as it may be – creating your experiential reality is a little like writing a story or drawing a picture or series of pictures based on feelings, dreams, associations, and other material not usually given space in our daily lives. It is an expressive process some psychotherapists and some hypnotherapists are familiar with, though it may appear under various names. One of the great values in identifying your experiential reality is that it can lead to closure on the kinds of questions that trouble people who cannot ever be certain of historical reality. It leads some people to take further steps in the discovery process to learn more if they can, and it provides a satisfactory conclusion for others. It is precisely in this sort of closure that people often break the emotional connections with abusive patterns and, as you say, break the cycles of abuse, just as taking direct steps to remove yourself from an abusive situation can often help to break the behavioral connections.

Leaving an abusive situation, or wrestling with questions about abuse – whether historical or experiential – is almost never easy, and it is almost always easier with assistance. Apart from therapists, some local groups that may be helpful in these regards include:

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