Repressed memories are memories that get hidden from the conscious memory as a self-defense mechanism. I'm specifically talking about traumatic memories; the idea is, the pain is so intense that the conscious mind can not handle it, and thus rejects it.
Repressed memories are a short-term solution with long-term problems. If you're not consciously aware of a memory, then you can't learn from it, meaning you might find yourself committing the same mistakes or self-defeating actions over and over again, never understanding WHY. Also, while the memory might not reach conscious awareness, it's still there, often consuming a great deal of energy to stay hidden.
But how can you deal with something that, by its very nature, you can't identify? How can you bring it into conscious awareness safely and insure you deal with it better now than then?
Before we get started, I feel obliged to give the disclaimer: please, be careful. I am not a medical professional; this is stuff I had to learn myself, usually in a torturous, head-desking manner. I'm writing this in part because of the dearth of resources out there. Also, for the love of god, DO NOT DO THIS unless you have no better options.
Let's get started.
First of all, get a mental health team. Yes, I realize not everyone has the money or location for this, but I can not emphasize enough that undergoing memory work without a care team is NOT RECOMMENDED. When we do memory work, we sometimes have heavy dissociative episodes that hit at random moments--including in public. Ideally, have a shrink, a meds doctor (if applicable), and have a hospital in mind in case the worst happens. This is work you want trained professionals in on.
Also, if you have ANY OTHER shit going on right now, DON'T DO MEMORY WORK. Are you dealing with addiction, an eating disorder, a divorce? DON'T DO MEMORY WORK. Do you need to finish your education or be stable enough to do your job, which you are completely dependent on? DON'T DO MEMORY WORK. This work takes years, and it should be undergone in as calm and stable an environment as humanly possible.
(You might be going, "Jesus, Rogan, you're being awfully discouraging about this." Yes. Yes I am. Due to the nature of memory work, you have no idea how long or how bad it can get. When you can't plan how long it will take or how bad it will be, it's advisable to presume the worst and that you'll be doing this fucking FOREVER, and be unable to reliably work or go to school for that time.)
Okay, have you done all that? Let's get started with the actual meat of memory work.
Though it took a while to learn, we now can feel when a repressed memory or emotion is coming up. We feel a bizarre mental itching. We are exhausted all the time, sleeping eleven hours a day. There's a sense of deja vu, of something missing, of being haunted. You probably have your own symptoms; be aware and alert, and keep track of them and what sets them off. Do not try digging for memories if you don't have any symptoms!
When you get the itching, it's time to do your research. Try and find out what the itching is attached to: a person? A time period? A place? Try and get a sense of what's missing. If you have another trustworthy person who was around back then, a friend or family member, ask them and see if they have anything to add. We use records: everything from journals to photos to old art, stories, and online activity.
Sometimes you don't have any records, or you just don't get any answers. That's okay. Prior research helps, but it's not necessary. Regardless, when you feel you've gotten all the information you can get, it's time to gear up to go diving.
Memory-diving is what I call the process of actively trying to pull the memory into conscious awareness and discover its content. Sometimes, your brain will do this for you all by itself. Other times, you have to put some elbow grease into it. Regardless, it's usually better for you to try and pick a time and place to do this work, so you don't get a nasty surprise in the middle of work or something.
If at all possible, have someone present while you do this work. It can be a friend, another system member, or a therapist, as long as they are someone you trust and someone who can ground you. It is a lot safer to go diving into madness when you have a safety line and someone to pull you back up. Mac is mine. (Also, RESPECT if the person you ask says no. This is serious business, and not everyone is up for this.)
Make sure you have plenty of recovery time. It usually takes us a couple days to a couple weeks to recover from a memory, and most of it is spent crying. Arrange your environment to be as gentle and stress-free as possible: Disney movies, favorite books and video games, herbal tea, whatever. Have your lists of coping skills ready; trust me, you will need them.
Okay, so your room is bubble-wrapped, your spotter's on standby, and you're ready to show that memory who's boss. Let's go!
We tend to do our memory-diving in bed, in the evening or night, because that's safest and most comfortable for us. Find your own time and place accordingly. If there's a certain trigger that's most likely to set memories off (a smell, a picture) use it now.
Sometimes, that's enough to pull the memory up. If not, it's time for stronger measures.
Try to focus your entire attention on the memory. Try and visualize it--in our system, they show up as enormous blocks or walls. DON'T TRY DESTROYING IT. Instead, try to calmly, gently nudge it into something more permeable or accessible--a block of tofu, for instance. Try to gently press yourself into it, or talk to it, or whatever might make it "friendlier." Try and treat it as a frightened animal. The idea isn't to beat the block into submission, but have it open up to you.
At this time, you might get some disturbing visions or emotions--I got a vision of flaming eyeballs once. Try to stay grounded and keep things as non-aggressive as possible. You want to cooperate with the memory, not fight it, and just because it looks terrifying doesn't mean it's time to quit.
Try to ask it questions. What it wants or what it's feeling can be a good start. I've heard of writing with the non-dominant hand for this; I was able to do it with my dominant hand, but using a writing medium that the memory-container preferred. Now is the time where all that research comes in handy! It can help you get to the bottom of things faster. (Sometimes.)
This work is EXHAUSTING. Even if the memory doesn't come out, I usually collapse in about half an hour. Don't be discouraged if this happens! Just withdraw, rest, and try again another day. Sometimes, it just isn't that easy. It took me WEEKS to deal with Flaming Eyeballs.
The Memory Itself and Aftermath
If/when the memory comes up, expect it to be completely overwhelming. It may feel as though you are reliving the trauma, or at least the emotions of it. I usually cry uncontrollably in the fetal position the entire time. Don't try to resist, just let it flow through. It'll pass. This event took place a long time ago. It's over now. It's just pain. These abreactions last anywhere up to a couple hours for us.
Now is when your spotter comes in. They're in charge of grounding you after the memory is finished--or, if necessary, pulling you out if it looks like things are going off the rails. Mac usually brings me down by taking my hand, and talking gently to me, reminding me where I am, what year it is, and that I'm safe. He's also done things like ask me questions, sing Disney songs to me... anything that'll force my attention.
Once you surface from the memory, expect to be completely spent. I usually go straight to bed afterward. Even if you don't, now is the time for cuddles, herbal tea, and pictures of kittens. Screw macho pride or stoicism; the more comfort and reassurance you get, the faster and better you'll recover.
Also note that the memory may come up in bits and pieces, and may never be clear. That's fine. The idea that memories are perfectly preserved in amber is bunk; you very well might not be able to get anything except a sense that something has happened. Try to make your peace with this.
Okay, so now you have this horrible memory. (Or at least a chunk of it.) What do you do with it?
Try and stitch it into the rest of the fabric of your memory, so that it returns to its proper place and doesn't get repressed again. Draw connections and inferences. A lot of the time, you'll suddenly understand a lot more than you did, about yourself and others. Write, draw, or make comics about it; you don't have to show it to anybody, but having it on paper often helps get things straight.
Sometimes, a repressed memory will turn out to be the start of a chain of dominoes. Tipping one will start bringing up others. Try and plan for this as much as you can; this can keep going for a while. (We once had three episodes in a week. Not fun.) It may not sound comforting, but you probably wouldn't be having this happen if you weren't emotionally ready for it. Take it as the sign of progress it is, and try to roll with the punches as best you can.
All bad things end, and that includes repressed memories. It may not be now, it may not even be years from now, but one day, you will be okay. It will not last forever.
WHAT NOT TO DO
I would hope that these are self-evident, but JUST IN CASE, let me be a fussy papa bear for a bit.
I've already mentioned slamming into this without prep. Don't do that. And most definitely do NOT do this alone. If you have nobody you trust to be with you on this, then that is a sign that you should NOT be doing memory work. This is something to be undertaken only after you've gotten your act together and things are going well, not before.
Do NOT do this with the idea that it'll help inform a decision over whether to leave a relationship, family, or organization. Deal with that first. If you ARE in a bad situation, remembering trauma on top of it will only incapacitate you and make it harder to leave or endure.
Do NOT do this if you are still new to dealing with your plurality, gender, sexuality, or any other major life thing. If things have not been stable for at LEAST a couple years, DO NOT DO THIS. (For reference, we didn't attempt this work until we'd known we were plural and been in therapy for over six years. A lot of other people do not do this work until mid-life or later, and there's a reason why.) I've known a couple young folks who got a bad case of doing everything at once and tried smashing into the mine field when they had only realized they were multiple in the past year. DO NOT DO THAT.
Do not go digging if you have any other options. The mind is a finicky thing, and sometimes it can confabulate things. If you aren't getting signals, if you are uncertain, then DON'T DO IT.
Okay. Godspeed and good luck, young voyagers! Don't let the nightmares bite.