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I'm A Cutter And Can't Remember Anything

Question:

I’m a cutter and can’t remember anything. My family thinks it’s out of laziness or lack of trying hard enough, but it’s not. I have flashbacks all the time (mostly of bad memories) but forget them almost instantaneously. I juggle 25-30 hours of work, high school, house expenses, and college applications every day. Nothing satisfies my family and memories of my abused past float in and out of my head. Sometimes I’ll be crying or angry and not know why. I cut up my arms to help ease the pain inside. It feels like all the bad stuff inside of me leaves through the vents that I cut. I know it’s wrong, but it always brings me back to reality. I’m not suicidal, I just need release. I can’t seem to let go of the past, though. The things my grandfather put my siblings and me though–amongst other things–haunt me constantly. He’s been dead for years. Even though I’m scared of remembering it all, I feel that I must in order to move on. How can I force out my repressed memories, maintain someting similar to sanity, and make my failing memory stronger?

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Answer:

You don’t go into details, but it is clear enough from your statements that you and your siblings have been abuse victims. When abuse is perpetrated forcefully and/or chronically enough, it leaves a lasting impact on people, in some cases traumatizing them. A trauma is an event that was too horrible to process and which remains “undigested” in your mind for years. Post traumatic stress disorder, which can be debilitating, is one possible negative outcome of trauma exposure. A possible negative outcome of trauma-inducing abuse exposure is borderline personality disorder; the disorder most frequently associated with people who cut themselves. I provide this information as context, so you can see your situation in perspective; you may have really been harmed by your abuse exposure, only the harm appears to be “invisible” because it has impacted your brain and your develoment process, rather than leaving a visible scar.

While people cope with abuse trauma in a variety of creative ways, some hit upon a strategy that psychologists call dissociation. Dissociation is nothing more or less than a person’s ability to not pay attention to things. Everyone dissociates to one extent or another, but some people become very skillful dissociators, and manage to hide large parts of their experience from themselves. Very severe dissociation that occurs at a young age can result in what used to be called multiple personality disorder (today: dissociative identity disorder). More commonly, abused people are able to form a “whole” personality, but somehow repress their abuse memories so as to not deal with them. Of course, repression doesn’t work perfectly, and emotional pain is experienced when memories do resurface (e.g. become attended to).

Cutting is another coping mechanism that a fair number of abused people hit upon to help them manage their emotions and memories. Different people report different benefits from cutting, but the common ones are that it brings them back to a feeling of reality (when they are emotionally dissociated), that it allows them to punish themselves when they are feeling that they are at fault, that it distracts them from the pain they feel.

These things are normal, even creative responses to abnormal situations; they are attempts at coping with the abuse experience. While they serve a protective function while abuse is ongoing, they come with a price in that they make relationships and normal emotional regulation difficult. Ultimately, for most people, the abuse stops but the coping mechanisms have become so second nature that they can’t be easily stopped; they continue to create problems for people long after their immediate usefullness has ended.

In general, the way out of this mess is to learn how to “digest” it better – to learn how to accept it rather than hide from it, and to put it into the past where it belongs so that it does not mess up your present. This is trickly business becuase the memories can be overwhelming. It can be very helpful to work with a trusted professional therapist on matters like this, because such therapists can (if you trust them) help push you forward towards talking about what happened, while also providing ample opportunities for safety. A good way to get professional help for this sort of thing at a relatively inexpensive price is to look for a group therapy situation. The best type of therapy for cutting-related issues is going to be Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT). Amoung other useful things you’ll learn in a DBT group are multiple ways to “self-sooth” which can be substuted for cutting when you are upset.

Good luck in solving this abuse stuff, and learning how to grow past it. You’re obviously a motivated and fairly bright person. With persistance and the right help, you will be able to significantly lessen the impact of the difficult abuse events on your future.

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