A childhood trauma survivor with all the classic symptoms of posttraumatic stress asks if she should engage in hypnosis or some other technique to uncover the specific memories of her abuse and her abuser.. Dear Belleruth,
I just finished reading Invisible Heroes and I, my symptoms and my reactions were on every single page. I believe I was molested at a very young age, and I think I know who probably did it, but I have no memory of it. I am now 58 years old. Should I engage in hypnosis or some other technique to assist me in unearthing these memories? Do I need to do this in order to heal?
Thank you for your work.
Lucille P.

Dear Lucille,
The traditional, psychodynamic answer would have been: yes, you need to know exactly what happened in order to get better, and you should therefore go about rooting out the memories and bringing them to the light of day in order to do so.

But we now know that this won’t necessarily help you, and could exacerbate your symptoms without necessarily offering relief. (Of course, if the molester were a teacher or a priest who is still around kids, it would be nice to get at the memory in order to get at the predator. But that is a different issue.)

The good news is this: you can heal from posttraumatic stress in an oblique, indirect way, through imagery, body work, and many of the other avenues I suggest in the book. You do not necessarily need to address the literal content of the trauma, unless it has already come into your consciousness anyway, and you have access to the memory. And, in fact, it is often preferable NOT to do so, for all the reasons I mention - starting with this can make you worse instead of better. Regardless of the precipitant (or precipitants) - whether it’s a rape, an earthquake, childhood incest, a stay in the ICU or an auto crash - the symptoms all pretty much look the same - different in degree rather than kind. This is because you are dealing with a biochemically and neurologically induced survival reaction that’s taken on a life of its own. That’s what posttraumatic stress is.

There are certain techniques, such as Trauma Incident Reduction (or TIR, created by Gerald French and Frank Gerbode) that are designed to help you gently, incrementally fill in memories that are only half present. In the context of this method and others like it, assisting with recall is OK, because it’s done in a cushioned, protected structure that doesn’t overwhelm the survivor, nor does it encourage false memories - another problem that traditional therapy can run up against.

It’s possible that, as you work with some of the imagery and methods described in the book, your memories will start to fill themselves in. This is OK, because it means your own unconscious, in its infinite wisdom, has decided that it’s now safe to do so.

I hope this helps. Good luck.