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Early February 2008, I was in the back of a white MSF land cruiser, sitting on one of the fold down bench seats, facing the Deputy Director of MSF-Holland. We had all managed to clad ourselves in our most respectably mournful “field clothes” for the somber occasion. I wonder to myself how many humanitarian aid workers have chipped teeth from the jaw clattering rock rumble jerking road movements in the back of those land cruisers.

I was in Kenya to coordinate the psychological support for all of the staff, friends, family and survivors of a car bombing of our fellow MSF colleagues in Kismao, Somalia. My heart still tenses and shudders, in an emotional throat choke of sadness for the lives lost and the horrific suffering of the survivors.

Two significant things shifted for me on that trip to the funeral of the dedicated Kenyan surgeon, Victor Okumu, who perished in the car bombing:

1. I learned I wasn’t ridiculous to wear my silver recovery pendant around my neck wherever I went. Ever hoping if someone found themselves in need of recovery fellowship and recognized the symbol, I could be an accountable person willing to live and grow-up out-loud in service to them. “When anyone, anywhere, reaches out for help, I want the hand of [the recovery fellowship] always to be there. And for that: I am responsible.”

My raison d’être evolved in a pursuit to embody the precious paragraph at the end of page 102 of what was to become the biggest book of my life…a life restored. As one of the survivors of the car bombed convoy turned to me, looking at the symbol nestled at my throat and affirmed that she too was living a life “one day at a time…” I knew I was doing my “job.”

“Your job now is to be at the place where you may be of maximum helpfulness to others, so never hesitate to go anywhere if you can be helpful. You should not hesitate to visit the most sordid spot on earth on such an errand. Keep on the firing line of life with these motives and God will keep you unharmed.”

2. I was given the gift of never being alone again in my struggle to remember. I’ve lived my life marching a Sisyphean trudge of recollection fog. Pulling myself into my own private interrogation rooms: What really happened in the past? What is the word I’m searching for? Are those people being witty or patronizing? Are they trying to catch me in a trap? Do I have the capacity to pull through the peaky pinhole of the sieve of my mind a nuanced response to prove I am not an idiot?

While on that somber journey the Deputy Director said in response to a discussion about memory lapses and traumatic amnesia, that he “had a selective memory and wished he knew who was doing the selecting.”

I had effervescent warm light flooded giggles burst through my veins, the type of tingling that only happens when root language resonant truth is spoken. Certainly an effluvium of such inappropriate feelings, given the circumstances, against which I tried my mightiest to contain myself about as successfully as one does a bottle of soda once the lid has been turned post a drop to the floor.

Why was this phrase so significant to me? Because it gave me a way out. I now had in my hand a hall pass, sacred permission to take a break, to go to the bathroom without having to complicate the process by performing a urinalysis. What am I talking about? Trauma.

One of the pervasive effects of cumulative, complex and long term trauma on survivors is the diminished capacity to remember not only the trauma itself, but also short term memory recall. I had a client who referred to her memory loss, in the same way someone with chronic pain or arthritis refers to their symptomatic episodes. She’d say, “My PTSD is acting up again!”

I get that notion and it’s perfect pairing with this curious question: Who’s doing the selecting? I use to feel so much less-than, because I was not one of those people who can easily quote books, films or songs instantly. I carry a brain around in my skull, but I swear to you it is constantly attempting to jump ship and the only thing I have in my arsenal to catch it with is a colander. The damn thing shimmies right through the holes every time and Lord knows what I am left with. Therein lies the key.

In the past I existed in a state of embarrassment and shame. I didn’t know how to live my life without the 2nd skin of shame plastic wrapped around me, until I learned a few tools. Tools of which I will unpack in future writing, but for now I want to address the link between memory recall and faith.

As a survivor of incest it was strongly impressed upon me the importance of how and what I remembered. I’ve been called a liar, made to doubt myself, and berated all together for being a product of that abuse. I thought that if I could be made to remember this most crucial of aspects of my life, then I could be whole.

You see, I bought into a lie. This lie told me that memory recall and a library of knowledge could reassemble my life and sanity, which felt like a puzzle with missing pieces. A lie that told me I was not complete, and if I wasn’t complete, and couldn’t prove to you I knew anything you asked, then the inevitable conclusion was that: I was not safe.

If I did not know —> then I was not whole —> thus I could not protect myself —> so I was not safe.

I felt like I was walking around perforated and no matter how quickly I tried to catch things pouring out… I was terrified you would know and judge me as less-than.

Why was I so concerned that you would judge me as unworthy due to my selective memory? Because I bought into yet another lie…that your opinion of me was God.

What if there is a direct connection between a sense of safety and trust? What if, as one of my oldest soul-sister friends says to me, “God is able.” What if I could give myself permission to change the entire chain reaction from:

If I did not know —> then I was not whole —> thus I could not protect myself —> so I was not safe.

To:

God knows —> then I am whole  —> God protects me —> so I am safe.

I am not present in this moment to debate definitions of God or a Higher Power. Or as Kanye West sings, “I ain’t here to argue about his facial features, or here to convert atheists into believers…” I use the word God as a symbol of its significance to me. I respect whatever permutation of words will work for you.

My point is that by giving myself permission to believe that I can have faith in the memory selecting process, over which I am so clearly powerless, I am free from the shame of memory loss and giving others the power to condemn me for symptoms of a disorder I had no part in causing.

I think you are whole irrespective of what you remember. I welcome you to give yourself permission to have faith that you will recall what is right, when it is right, regardless of what it pertains to.

I find my heart remembers the most important things anyway, as my mind is only a madness machine trying to get me to ignore that still quiet voice of grace and relief.

May you have peace in your heart and the deep sigh that the permission of self-nurturance can give.

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© Amanda Lee