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The Vicious Cycle of Abuse and Memory

A brain-abuse self-assessment might help enable freedom to thrive.

Key points

  • Being of “sound mind” can be critical for one’s freedom, self-advocacy, and health.
  • Finding ways to secure memory retention and thrive is important.
  • Getting out of abusive situations is one of the first steps toward freedom and a thriving life. This includes self-abuse.
Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash
Source: Photo by Sydney Sims on Unsplash

Memory is freedom. Consider the recent movie I Care a Lot, in which a woman creates a successful legal guardian company that cons courts into believing senior citizens are senile and unfit to care for themselves so that she can swindle them out of their life savings. Or the classic play and movie, Gaslight, in which a husband questions his wife’s memory and purposely moves items and dims the gaslight to the point that she questions her sanity and agrees to go to a mental hospital, giving him the opportunity to steal her family jewels. Both movies show how people can be successfully manipulated by having their memory called into question.

There are multiple layers of memory that involve different parts and processes in the brain (and sensory system). Many people are familiar with the broad categorization of memory as long-term and short-term. In long-term memory, there is declarative versus non-declarative memory. In declarative memory, a person can describe their experiences. This is where facts and information can be learned along with the ability to answer “what” questions. It is stored in the medial temporal lobe (MTL) of the neocortex (after going through a few areas of the brain because the brain is a complicated web of processes).

The hippocampus (seahorse-looking part of the brain) involved in this process is often an area that faces the greatest degradation in Alzheimer’s disease (AD), which may explain how getting lost and losing other details is one of the early symptoms of AD.

Interestingly, victims of long-term abuse–like gaslighting manipulation–have also been shown to have deterioration of the hippocampus. This is why getting out of abusive situations is critical and why abusive parenting, abusive partners, abusive workplaces, and abusive coping mechanisms have been shown to decrease lifespan, immunity, and resilience, and increase disease.

Declarative memory can be further categorized into episodic memory, which allows the recall of life events and their time and place, and semantic memory, which accounts for the crystallized knowledge of information, rules, and processes without necessarily remembering where or when it was learned.

Interestingly, significant memory deficits were found in chronic alcoholics who tended to display disordered memories of recent events. Sergei Korsakoff found one of the dangerous effects of deleterious alcohol use resulted in critical thiamine deficiency, which damages nerve cells, parts of the brain, and the spinal cord. Korsakoff syndrome has symptoms that involve amnesia, tremors, coma, disorientation, vision problems, and impacts on short- and long-term memory.

Sadly, there is a vicious cycle between abuse and memory impacts. For instance, many children of active alcoholics experienced higher abuse rates and went on to adopt risky behaviors, like alcohol and drug abuse, that harm memory.

Many who didn’t succumb to maladaptive drinking and drugging have higher anxiety, depression, abusive relationships, and career instability. Some children may have developed personality disorders like borderline personality disorder (BPD), marked by brain alterations and symptoms of increased emotional reactivity and heightened mood shifts, excessive fear of abandonment, identity confusion, dissociation, paranoia, impulsivity, self-injury and self-harm threats, and memory issues.

This does not mean that BPD only arises in children of alcoholics, yet it points to the risks for children who have lived through adverse childhood experiences (ACEs) and childhood maltreatment (CM). It is also important to note that some children of alcoholic parents with higher ACEs and CM were able to find resources and consequently grow up with more resilience and sometimes a greater capacity to experience empathy for others.

Returning to the idea that memory is freedom, while studies have shown that we cannot always trust our memories, as they are biased and colored from various sensory inputs and altered through time, being of “sound mind” can be critical for one’s freedom, self-advocacy, and health. Finding ways to secure memory retention and thrive is important. Getting out of abusive situations is one of the first steps toward freedom and a thriving life. This includes self-abuse.

Brain-Abuse Self-Assessment

If you are reading this and concerned about the impacts of abuse on your brain and life, try identifying and assessing the myriad relational influences around you. These include your partner, family, friends, employer, group affiliations, church, community, media consumption, food and drink consumption, self-talk, and body relationship.

You can make a list and write abuses that have occurred or are occurring next to each area or write a number between 1 and 4 next to each area with 1 representing no abuse or neglect; 2 representing little to some abuse or neglect; 3 representing some abuse or neglect; and 4 representing frequent-to-steady abuse or neglect.

If you discover abuse and neglect, ask what you can do to negotiate a healthier relationship. Sometimes healthy attempts at repairing can be accomplished. Other times, a farewell is in order.

You can process your answers through a combination of journaling, meditating, and/or exercising. I also encourage you to seek a supportive counselor or therapist that you trust to help you through this process.

There are great results from trauma-informed solution-focused therapy practitioners who treat post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and work to help empower you, build self-trust, and discourage dependency (which is an ethical mandate).

To find a therapist near you, visit the Psychology Today Therapy Directory.

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