Why does my brain do this? The difficulty of recognizing first-person experiences of abuse and mental illness

I know this isn’t just my brain. I know it is an absurdly common experience. But still, I can’t believe my brain continues to do stuff like this.

Me, at many points in the past: “I have lots of badfeels about this past relationship and there were issues with having my boundaries respected, but it’s not like I was raped or whatever”

Actual facts: this past relationship involved me being repeatedly bullied into doing things sexually that I had set as hard limits. My ‘no’s were next to meaningless. He did sexual things to me when I explicitly told him I didn’t want to.

For the record, I know I was raped. I just still have trouble with saying it.

Me, very recently: “I don’t think I have PTSD

Actual facts: Although it’s been a while now since this last happened (I may have mostly recovered), I have experienced repeated, vivid, uncontrollable flashbacks to the aforementioned relationship. On more than one occasion during these flashbacks, even though it was years later, I have been momentarily genuinely scared that I was still in that situation, and that the intervening years had all been a weird dream. That’s how real they were.

I don’t have a diagnosis of PTSD. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t get one now – though I do still sometimes have the sorts of trauma-related dissociative symptoms I described in my post on being triggered, I think the diagnosis would be different. But yeah, that was a thing my brain was doing for a while. And yet at the time I never made the connection between that and PTSD.

Why is it so much easier to give credence to and put weight on other people’s experiences of these things? I think it especially applies to all forms of abuse and definitely sexual violence. It also seems to apply to mental illness, though – so often people will describe textbook symptoms and follow up with “but I don’t think I’m really…” or something else that suggests they don’t think they deserve to be taken seriously. People will say “I don’t think I was really abused, but…” and then go on to describe clear-cut, textbook, and/or often outright extreme instances of abuse they have experienced.

Why can’t we be kinder to ourselves? Why can’t we believe our own experiences of these things, and trust in our responses to them? Is it just that the idea of being an abuse survivor, or living with mental illness, is just so othered in popular narratives that it seems impossible it could ever apply to us? I suspect the logic often goes something along the lines of “the way I feel isn’t the way I imagine abuse/rape survivors (or PTSD sufferers etc.) feel, therefore that can’t be what my experience is”.

Or is it something else entirely?

4 comments

  1. Oh yes. All of this. Our brain is great at compartmentalizing, shutting out pain, numbing fear. It internalized another person’s manipulations as shame. It takes a long time to undo that.

  2. I think it’s also a defense mechanism to protect us from the pain by minimizing how bad it actually was. You sound like you suffer from PTSD to me, but I’m no expert.

  3. Oh sweets. I’m truly sorry. I am intimately familiar with both these denials, and they suck — and they prolong the trauma and suffering from the initial acts of harm.

    To address your question: For me, at least, there was a strongly warped version of “the grass is always greener.” The night is always blacker, perhaps? On one side, we have “well, this is just what happened to me.” On the other, we have the cultural narrative of ‘Rape,’ the Unimaginable, the Unendurable, the Brutal Without the Context. The “act so very very awful, it cannot happen often — and when it does, it always plays out in the exact same way.” (All things Power says when it wants to protect the sexual access of the few, at the expense of the many.)

    Again, <3.

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