The Pleasure & Pain of Looking Back
“Whether you define yourself as a brain, a body, or a soul, how you navigate the world and relationships is largely influenced by your past experiences… by your memory.” -Hal Shorey Ph.D.Psychology Today.
I did not want to open it. Fervently. The drawer was practically brimming with what I considered useless sh*t: old pictures from middle school, love letters from adolescent crushes, scraps of paper and movie tickets and broken heart-shaped key chains. The remnants of a childhood left swiftly behind without remorse. Pieces of a life and girl I no longer was, and didn’t particularly want to get to know. Every time I’ve looked back on the social aspects of my childhood, I’ve seen nothing but public heartbreak, humiliating nicknames, bullying of the emotionally-scar-inducing king. Looking back has only served to magnify the hard work it took to redefine myself, and to - by choice - embody any amount of grace and poise. These are not the characteristics peers seemed to want for or see in me growing up. But today, I had no choice. The drawer in front of me and in my head needed cleaning out. For good.
I spent a large period of my life growing up in a small town where athleticism reigned supreme and the local arts and culture were not much exposed to the ‘real’ world. A town of 1,000 people with one solitary stoplight to abate them, there was little by way of experimental or artistic inspiration for a young artist like me. I felt threatened, othered, and rejected, and had had a hard time acclimating to the mountain life of the Pacific Northwest. I hadn’t looked back, or even come back to visit in half a decade; till today. In my childhood bedroom, I sat on my knees as if to pray for restitution to that lost and lonely little girl. That confused inner child. From
the drawer, I pulled out every paper, every picture, every thumb tack and slab of scotch tape in the bedside cabinet and began throwing everything into a large white trash bag. A body bag for my child self’s former identity, that of an outsider who didn’t know why she wasn’t invited in. Because she was so naive and overly- sensitive, it hurt to look back at her and I didn’t particularly want to see her again. I didn’t even want to think about her. I just wanted the drawer clean so that no one would find evidence of the unacceptable little weirdo I’d been.
Her (my) SAT score, pages later, was surprisingly unfavorable on critical reading and literacy. A letter from a middle school boyfriend both threatening her should she break up with him and apologizing for ruining her birthday. A pocket size portrait inscribed with ‘I can’t wait to get married when we’re 30’ from a friend who - one year later - would be little more than a stranger. That little girl who wrote love poems had been a lover all along, it was no wonder she was so confused in the face of such unreliable love.
I scrolled further through the stack of signed school pictures from friendships that had inevitably turned sour or worse. Of diary pages documenting unrequited loves, and of trinkets of a little girl who dreamed of leaving this small town and living in a big city. I nearly drowned in the memories of the day when two popular boys stoned me till I retreated, humiliated in tears. Of the day I’d been berated off a homecoming float by the entire class. Of all the times no one asked me dance or even to a dance. Yet, she’d grown up and followed her dreams of a writer. It is not to say that the bullying and universal pains of adolescence had done her good, nor to argue that being an outsider is beneficial to artistic development. Within those memories that still stung to recall, I saw little by way of bravery. But I may still call that girl brave; showing up to school the next day, again and again, to silently do her best. To believe some day she’d get out and find comrades who understood her. That she’d mustered the courage to show up, again and again, unchanging in her identity either by choice or nature. She hadn’t caved, she hadn’t succumbed, she’d never felt the belonging all children crave. But she’d remained true to her heart’s calling.
Things to keep in mind when revisiting memories:
Try not to be judgmental or critical.
Have sympathy for your former self, who was younger, less experienced and (as is still true) didn’t have all the answers. Acknowledge that you did the best you can and, if it helps, separate from your former self within the memory to be a source of comfort and courage as you revisit.
Seek out the positive
Try not to re-hash only the pain and embarrassment; though if you feel strong enough, dig into those emotions and process any hurt, pain, or disappointment you felt at the time. As you do, look for instances of positive action, thought, or intention in yourself and others. Don’t leave the memory in the story-loop of pain; find and take with you previously unnoticed lessons or positive elements to round out the experience as you move on.
Honor your pain
What hurts and challenges us most is often what teaches us the greatest lessons of resilience, determination, and gives us the power to definitely self-define our strengths as well as our weaknesses. Both strength and weakness have purpose in our lives; as you feel and heal old pain, honor it as unfair and unjust (if it is), and acknowledge the hard work it took to get through those tough times. Often we spend so much time trying to avoid pains we’ve already experienced, without honoring the strength we already had to get through those hardships. You are stronger than your mind tells you.
I reached the bottom of the drawer, feeling emotionally depleted. knees and heart aching alike. I wanted to permanently dispose of a past and the person who lived it, to dissolve all evidence of her pitiful tale. But as I sat crouched before the small set of drawers, I released: this is a funeral, not a reburial. She’d never had one. Here in my hands was the aspirations and pains of a dreamy little girl that no one, not even her adult self understood. A girl who’d become a woman living in the city, self-sufficient emotionally as much as financially. Too sensitive, I’d thought myself; too
strange, too artsy, too out there. From up here, above her burial plot, I could see that I had sacrificed the innocent and inventive parts of my own self that believed all things were possible. She’d been kind, and sweet, and curious. And I’d cursed her much more than a bully ever might have.
I spent the rest of the day hunting through the closets, cupboards and drawers that had been my inner child’s final resting place, bringing her back to life and remembering the colors, smells, textures and ideas that had enlivened her. She had been strange, and she hadn’t fit in, I could not deny that. It was better now to liberate her and myself from that stifling belief that such displacement was wrong, bad, or somehow her fault. It was her strength. Her off-ness was what made her interesting and capable, and had given me - if silently and secretly - the courage to be authentic now as an adult and follow such an unorthodox path of womanhood has to stand on my own two feet, birthing art of the most authentic and honest kind as my heart is able. To write poems declaring love as boldly as my 8-year-old-self had, unafraid of rejection.
“Researchers (Foster and colleagues, 2017) recently found evidence that when we recall memories from the past, it changes our physiological reactions (heartbeat; sweating) in the present... So, the more you think about negative events from the past, the more emotional pain you will feel in the present moment.” Hal Shorey Ph.D.
By dusk, I had filled the trash bag and inevitably threw it away, saving only choice pieces of the collection that reminded me of her strange but delightful character. I unceremoniously threw the bag in the trash, and walked away. I may never return to the past again, and hope to never need to. But that little girl, her pen flowing and her heart open, now lives beyond that burial plot of the past, working in tandem with me now to make the world a more beautiful, and love filled place.