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Processing Traumatic Memories

A friend sent pictures of a camping trip we had gone to when I was approximately 6 months into brain injury recovery following encephalitis. She sounded really excited in her text. To her, they were fond memories and memories she cherished. To me, those encoded memories were painful, traumatic and a reminder of hard times.


The camping trip

At the time we made the decision to join in on a camping adventure, we thought that the change of scenery could do me some good. Although I was still working out what I could and couldn't do, I had made progress and thought that this undertaking would be ok. In hindsight, I think that I was still very much in denial in terms of what would realistically suit the stage of my recovery. I still didn't accept my new modus operandi and being the overachiever that I am, I thought that I could still do it all...or at least I was trying very hard to.


I wasn't too sure how to approach her text. I didn't want to taint her own memories, but at the same time, I felt it was important to acknowledge how I recalled those memories from the camping trip. Looking at the pictures instantly brought a wave of sadness and I had to take a few deep breathes to avoid seeing tears roll down my cheeks. How could photos bring up such opposite emotions? For one, it is a reminder of a fun time, yet for me, looking at the pictures made me feel sick to my stomach...luckily not as sick as I had felt back then.


It also brought on a wave of guilt. Guilt at the thought of having been so foolish to think that I could have handled such a trip at that particular time of my brain injury recovery. Camping implies prepping a whole lot of stuff ahead of the trip, sleeping on an air mattress, struggling to fall asleep in a tent for afternoon naps, being out and about all day with the kids, having lots of chats with the camping mates, nights games and so much more. In the best of times, this would have been a fun adventure, but I remember feeling completely and utterly exhausted by the time we had finished setting up the tent. It was simply way too much stimulation for my recovering brain.


By then, all my symptoms were on high alert, my brain battery was nearing critical levels and I was feeling so so green.

I attempted to join in on a few activities, only to see Greg having to double track and bring me back to our campsite for a rest. I was sad and frustrated at the thought of seeing everyone else sharing good times and making memories with family and friends, while I, could simply not partake. In lots of ways, I couldn't fathom how camping could have such a huge flow on effect on my health. On the other hand, I wondered whether the others realised and appreciated how much of a toll the camping trip was taking on my health.



Camp site by the sea with people watching the sunset


Coming to term with my new reality

I was physically and emotionally drained. I tried so hard to save face, but inside, there was a range of emotions brewing. I felt like I could have either snapped or burst into tears at any moment. The camping trip made me realise that life was now very different. It made me aware of my limitations and there was no denying or hiding them anymore. While out camping, I couldn't hide in my room or pretend for a short amount of time either. It was there on display for everyone to see and I remember feeling very vulnerable about this.


I didn't want special treatment, but I couldn't carry on or survive the next few days without special treatment either...for someone so fiercely independent, it was heart crushing. I was supposed to be the strong one, and back then, I had not realised that strength came in different shapes and sizes.

The trip eventually came to an end. I had survived, but just! It took weeks for me to recover and the state of my mental health had taken a turn for the worst. There was lots to process and I had no idea where to start. Do I deal with the physical symptoms first, do I try to let go of the sadness, frustrations and anger, do I try to grieve, do I work on acceptance? Truth is, I probably had to do all of the above but I had energy for none of those. Survival mode prevailed.


How do I look at it now?

I think that in a weird wonderful way, the pictures sent by my friend have given me the opportunity to revisit and reprocess such painful and sad memories. I don't think I had realised how painful those stored memories were for me until I got to see them 5 years on. Being in survival mode, I probably subconsciously blocked those memories back then and their associated emotions. Just like there was no hiding during that particular camping trip, I couldn't ignore the emotions that the pictures brought back to the surface.


I've given so much thought about this particular phase of my life this week. I guess the beauty of being further ahead in recovery is that I now know that I can't change what happened on the camping trip, I can't change how I have or haven't handled certain aspects of my recovery back then, but I can try to deal and re-frame those memories and emotions that may have been left in shamble. In good old fashion, writing has been a useful exercise for me to do that.


I know that I have come a long way since that camping trip and I am grateful to be in the position that I am now. Maybe the camping trip will always be associated with a hard phase of my life because it actually was a very hard phase of my life. I am hoping that re-visiting those memories and emotions is a piece of the puzzle that will go towards further healing and grieving from this big life changing event that occurred in August 2017. I am hoping that next time that I retrieve those memories that they aren't as synonymous of pain as what they were this week.


As painful as it was to look at those memories a few days ago, I am now glad to have been put in this position. They say that growth occurs in the most unlikely places and when we least expect it, I like to think that there is some truth to this.

How have you approached the reminders of painful memories? Have you tried to re-process and encode those memories differently?


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4 Comments


Jeanette Boase
Jeanette Boase
Jan 29, 2023

To have revisited those memories past...is to conquer them.

You have climbed all over those emotions,presented them to yourself, won the space to step back, then fast forward to now, take a bow and although it may not feel you came first... gold medal achieved.

For us who have watched the difference...and soaked in the amazing achievements of those that we love.. and have loved.. it is heartwarming to see the strength, but also heart stopping... to remember how life was before the E.... stepped in. Be never afraid to admit some small defeats...because thats how the building blocks of recovery become the norm.

Love your crazy brain... we all have that... we do! 🤗 except that you are unique..…

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Veronique Theberge
Veronique Theberge
Jan 29, 2023
Replying to

Thank you Jeanette. It is a process and one that I have learned to embrace. You are right, what may have felt like defeat are often the building blocks. I love how you framed this.

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John Dyhouse
John Dyhouse
Jan 27, 2023

I am a carer for my son who is 11 years since his encephalitis. We try not to remind him of those first few years when things were very bad for him. He has found many ways of coping with his diabilities which do not adversely affect his mental health. Perhaps after reading this we should get him to talk about theses early days so that he may realise how far he has improved, even tho he still has many problems.

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Veronique Theberge
Veronique Theberge
Jan 29, 2023
Replying to

Maybe check with his therapist first (if he has one). I have done EMDR in the past with my psychologist and have managed to process unresolved trauma from the whole experience which has been very beneficial for me. Being familiar with EMDR, I felt safe re-visiting that particular memory. Maybe start with something not too confronting and see how your son reacts. I have co-written an email on EMDR with a psychologist so maybe have a look at that blog to get an idea of what EMDR is and how it works.

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