It's a poor sort of memory that only works backward
-Lewis Caroll-Alice in Wonderland
Memories are amazing when you think about them. Memories are stored images and videos we play in our mind for years and sometimes decades. While some memories and recollections fade over time or even in a few minutes, some memories stay on with us. These long lasting memories can be pleasant but more often they are visualizations of traumatic events in our life. For anyone who suffers from post -traumatic stress disorder or PTSD, memories can be a kind of mental torture. The individual with PTSD will replay the events of a traumatic event to the extent that they actually feel as though they are re-living the terror. In this way the memory becomes tangible as your mind and body react to your thoughts as though they were real. Although there are many pharmaceutical treatments for anxiety and PTSD, I wanted to approach this topic from my own personal experience. In this post I am going to share my thoughts and ideas about how to minimize the effects of traumatic memories. I am also going to share some ideas on how to build new memories to help sustain a peaceful and positive mood.
My life has been full of traumatic events and the majority of those terrifying events happened in my childhood. It is my belief that these childhood memories can be extremely engrained as they can shape everything from the way we feel about ourselves to how we react to new challenges in our life. In my case, the early death of my father, living with a psychotic mother, sexual and physical abuse, neglect, and poverty shaped my early years. I was a very shy and fearful child and I think for good reason. There were many elements in my life to cause fright and anxiety. In my adult years I have spent much time trying to either make sense of these early memories or trying to tame them.
Each therapist I have seen had a different angle for helping me deal with these traumatic memories. The best therapist I had always tried to tie these memories with the present. He would remind me, “Okay that was then but how is this pertinent to you today?” In creating these psychological bridges I could better understand how the past was affecting my reactions, choices, and growth as an adult. Three subsequent therapists handled the matter in very different ways. One did not wish to discuss my past at all and only wanted to focus on the NOW. Another therapist wanted to delve into my sexual abuse experiences from the get-go although I kept telling him that this was not the reason I came into therapy. A third therapist, who utilized cognitive techniques, wanted me to visualize my life as a bookshelf of memories. His goal was to help me put some memories on a high shelf where they were not so reachable. The bookshelf model sounded good except the therapist never actually showed me how to do this with my memories. Discouraged, I left therapy to try to deal with some of these issues on my own. (Disclaimer: I am not recommending you do this. This was just my personal experience and choice)
I remember a conversation I once had with my husband when we were first starting out. We were both in our twenties and I shared many of my early memories with him. He was a very good listener. But at one point he told me, “Your memories seem to end at age twelve. Where am I in your memories?” He also added, "Do your memories include anything good?" Although my life had drastically changed from when I was a child, I was still stuck in childhood by reviving all the memories. What my husband was pointing out was that we were making new memories but I was ignoring them. My memory vault was too filled with the bad ones. In essence, I had not cleared any room for good memories to blossom. The fun we had together and the new life we were building was overshadowed by my past. And I was allowing it.
I was guarding my crypt of traumatic memories like a pit-bull but why?
It came to me that perhaps I was holding onto these early traumas because in some way I felt like the past was me. In other words, who would I be if not for these memories? I didn’t want to ever lose them but I did want to lose the fear and mental anguish they caused. I didn’t want to become my schizophrenic mother who lost so many of her memories that they became a jumble in her brain. Now and then she would recall an event from the past but it would be coupled with an added delusion until reality was totally obscured. I wanted to keep my reality intact and one way to do that was to hoard my memories and replay them over and over. I felt that my very existence depended upon those memories.
In my visions I see a sad little girl staring from an attic window. The little girl is me. It is summer time and I am not allowed to go out to play because my mother is too mentally unwell. She thinks she is protecting me. Yet in her psychotic state she would often hit me in order to get me to “understand” what she felt was best for me. That little girl is gone now as I have grown to be an adult. Yet my memories keep her alive still waiting at the attic window for help. How can I abandon her? It may sound like psycho-mumbo-jumbo but keeping that child, safe within me, is my way to move beyond the tortured memories. When I experience a trigger for a traumatic memory I stop and tell myself and the girl within, “You are safe now.” I remind myself that I am an adult now with control and power over my world. I provide the nurturance to myself that I did not receive as a child.
Writing is another way I keep my memories alive in a healthy way. Sometimes I do not know where my writing will lead but I usually end up discovering something new, perhaps a new way to cope or even to make sense of what made no sense as a child. Not only is writing cathartic, it is also a way for me to transform my life experience into something meaningful to give to others. Sometimes sharing our traumas and how we got through them can help another person change their life script. We are telling others through our stories that “you are not alone” and “you can get through this too.”
I think I understand now, too, what my one therapist meant by putting certain memories on a different shelf. The memories and events are all still there. You can always dust them off and retrieve them. But the feelings attached can change. You don’t need to re-live a traumatic memory with all the fear and heartache associated with that event. You don’t need to forget either. There is an in-between state where you acknowledge what was but the memory no longer has control over you. I have no specific method or technique to share except that it does take a conscious effort to acknowledge the past but also re-focus your thinking on the present.
One way to re-focus is to make room for new memories, good ones. It has become almost a pop psychology cliché to say “be present” but this is actually what it takes in order to make room for happy memories. Make it a priority to spend time with the people you love. Take photos. Write a log or diary of these times to capture all the sensory feelings such as the way the breeze feels, the way the sun looks as it is glinting off water, or the sound of your child’s laughter. Wherever you are or whatever you are doing, take in the joy of these moments. Don’t lose your ability to enjoy special times because you are in your head re-living the past. There is a song that explains this so well by Natasha Bedingfield called Unwritten. Here are some of the poignant lyrics:
Live your life with arms wide open
Today is where your book begins
The rest is still unwritten.
If you are suffering from PTSD I would encourage you to seek help from a therapist or mental health professional. There are also medications that can help ease your anxiety. Yet it is my humble belief that recovery from PTSD goes beyond therapy and medication. It is ultimately your strength, resilience, and courage that will move you forward into mental wellness.
For more information about post-traumatic stress disorder please refer to the following Health Central articles:
Published On: October 17, 2011